“If he really loved me, he would show me more attention without my having to ask for it.” “I can’t tell her that I’m not happy with our sex life. It would hurt her feelings.” In working with couples, I see a lot of avoidance masked as caring or as hopeless romanticism. With avoidant behavior, a relationship gets cold, and coldness leads to devious and deceptive actions like passive-aggressive behaviors, affairs, and, sometimes, to divorce. All committed relationships could be more satisfying if partners would just follow basic assertiveness: Directly ask for what you want and set firm boundaries by responding with a clear “yes” or “no” (no sarcasm or innuendo).
Assertiveness is also very helpful in dealing with hurt feelings and disappointments. The formula is simple: 1) What happened, 2) How I “feel” about it, and, 3) What change in behavior I expect. For example, a traveling spouse promises to call home at 8pm on Tuesday. The call comes much later. The partner at home is left feeling a mixture of worried, unimportant, and mad. A clear assertive statement would go like this: 1)“You agreed to call me at 8pm Tuesday night, but I didn’t hear from you until midnight;” 2)“I felt scared, discounted, and angry;” 3)“Next time you travel, please call me at our agreed upon time.” Adhering to this kind of statement, even in the face of “reasonable” excuses gets the point across clearly. It says, “You are very important to me, I am very important, and I will not shy away from telling you exactly how I feel even if it hurts your feelings.”
Tip: When your partner tries to argue you out of your assertive statement, repeat it as many times as necessary till you are heard. Also, don’t expect your partner to be happy with your assertiveness, initially. As a former couples therapist told my wife, “Just because you assert yourself with Jim doesn’t mean he has to like it.” I often don’t like it at the moment, but I feel fortunate that she loves both of us enough to be straight with me.