How do I learn to assert myself more in romantic relationships?
January 3, 2017 10:13 AM   Subscribe

Are there any mental strategies, books or just general advice you've found to be particularly useful on becoming more assertive and expressing needs, preferences and feelings clearly and confidently in romantic relationships?

I am a habitually timid and submissive woman, despite having strong opinions and preferences. When looking at my past dating experiences and relationships, I've found that a common pattern is that I suppress a lot of my real feelings in an attempt to remain attractive to the person I'm dating and then, find myself becoming really resentful of them and ultimately, breaking it off. A small example is with a guy I dated for a few months in the fall. We spent many of our early dates watching this TV show that I hated almost from the moment we started watching it. However, I knew that he loved this show a lot (to the point of naming his pets after the characters) and so, I didn't say anything at all and sort of just quietly stewed and ended up mildly resenting him for making me do something I hated (when in reality, he wasn't making me do anything and had no idea I hated it).

This is a petty example but characteristic. Other examples would be going along with something a guy ordered for me in a restaurant, even though I don't like it or going to a movie I don't want to see. I have the unfortunate traditional feminine quality of never wanting to make people feel uncomfortable, even if it means suffering through unpleasant situations.

My question is: what are some good resources, advice, mental strategies (perhaps things that have helped people who were once like this, as I know this is a really common personality trait, particularly among women) for behaving more assertively and confidently in romantic relationships and losing this fear of making oneself unattractive?

And yes, I am in therapy and that helped me to identify this pattern.
posted by armadillo1224 to Human Relations (19 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
I will say as a man a woman who expresses herself confidently makes herself infinitely more attractive. Any man who can't handle that, who doesn't want a fully realized human being, is not the man for you.
posted by jtexman1 at 10:23 AM on January 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Reframe not asserting yourself as insulting your date/partner. After all, if he's the kind of man who can't handle disagreement or feedback, better to find out so you can date someone else and if he CAN handle disagreement and feedback, it's insulting to assume/treat him like he can't.
posted by Waiting for Pierce Inverarity at 10:51 AM on January 3, 2017 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I can totally be like this.

With the exception of the 'ordering for you' thing which is just gross, I think a great way to start changing this pattern would be to simply get them to watch/do something YOU like, without worrying excessively about whether they'll like it or not. Guys do this literally all the time, I can't even tell you how many TV shows and movies dudes have compelled me to watch. I'm not sure I've ever dated a guy who didn't do this. But doing it myself helped me get a better handle on who was trying to excitedly share interests with me and who was just being an oblivious dick with no concern for my feelings on the matter. And any guy who just refuses to watch something you want to watch should be kicked to the curb immediately.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:54 AM on January 3, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Start by asserting yourself generally. State your opinions, unsolicited. When you're out at a restaurant with friends, say things like "oooh, I love mussaman curry!" and "hm, never really cared for pad thai" with reckless abandon. When friends are talking about what is their favorite Tom Cruise movie, go ahead and say, "dude creeps me tf out with his good looks and dead eyes." If you're waiting in line at the grocery store and the people behind you are talking about Rogue One, butt right in and say "K-2SO--great droid or greatest droid?" When you're in the back of the elevator at work and some old dude by the door stands and waits indulgently for you to get off first, say, "please go ahead, you're closest."

Always be talking about what you like and don't like. (Don't be a dick about the stuff you don't like, of course, just don't be afraid to say so--it's okay to not like things!) When you're already in the habit of being opinionated and saying so, it's much much easier to keep up with it in situations where you're more on guard.

Like anything else, being assertive takes practice.
posted by phunniemee at 10:55 AM on January 3, 2017 [11 favorites]

Would it be helpful to think of it like (stay with me here) a job interview? A lot of people see job interviews as a one-way street, in which the employer has all of the power and you, as the potential employee, are just trying to do everything you can to beg for the position which you hope they will deign to award you even though they are besieged by lots of other candidates. But really, it should be a two-way street in which you are interviewing a potential employer for the position of Your Employer just as much as they are interviewing you. You are trying to see if they fit your needs and if you will be happy working there. And, sure, you're dressed up and on your best behavior, but you shouldn't pretend to be anything you're not. If they react badly to something that is part of you, or need something you can't provide, that's an indication that maybe it's a bad fit and you won't be happy--and for something you spend so much of your life doing and which so many people see as an integral part of their identity, you really should both be happy.

Maybe that can help depersonalize it enough to make the message stick: you are trying to find someone who will like and value you as you, not as someone else; you are also trying to find a person and situation which you enjoy. It doesn't mean you or they are a bad person if it doesn't work out, just that you together are a bad fit. You can probably think of lots of jobs you wouldn't want or wouldn't be suited for--there's no reason why (despite all the messages women get about needing to make themselves attractive to all and any men at all times) you should feel you want or need to stay with a partner who isn't a good fit. And there's no way to know if it'll be a good fit (for the other person as well as for you) if you don't show your true colors. You probably know that it's also unfair to the other person to allow them to think that you are a certain way, or like certain things, that you really don't--especially since it ends up building up and coming out later anyway. Which is a good thing--not that you stew or if it comes out in a bad way, but it is good that you don't keep this up indefinitely--you shouldn't feel you have to. A decent partner will want you to be happy, too.
posted by spelunkingplato at 10:56 AM on January 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

This is at the core of the book Passionate Marriage, which despite its title covers all sorts of intimate relationships.
posted by procrastination at 11:18 AM on January 3, 2017 [4 favorites]

Regarding men ordering for you, I've always enjoyed channeling Nora Charles in this scene from The Thin Man:
"A Bacardi," says Nick to the waiter in a Latin nightclub. He glances over at Nora and adds, "Two Bacardis." Says Nora with a straight face to the waiter, "I'll have the same."
posted by anderjen at 11:36 AM on January 3, 2017 [20 favorites]

I have done this at times. And eventually realized that I am not doing my dates nor any partners a favor by pretending to like things I do not like and by failing to speak up. In fact, it is super unfair to those individuals who never get to interact with who we actually are. I've started dating again recently and made it clear to one guy that I do not like watching Netflix or TV with romantic partners. I do that on my own; it bores the hell out of me to do it with other people. And there's a show he would really like to watch with me. He asked me how it might be possible to make that happen. And I said, we have to negotiate some kind of trade. Because I don't want to do that, it's not fun for me. I'd be willing to do it for you but only if we can work out something I would get in return.

This is a guy I have dated exactly twice. And that has not scared him off. We have many things in common and like each other so the fact that I'm not willing to watch TV with him is not a dealbreaker. In the end, I got tired of betraying myself as well as the people I met by pretending to be someone I'm not. It's 1000 times less stressful and more likely to work when you are yourself around others. Including potential romantic partners. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 11:37 AM on January 3, 2017 [11 favorites]

Start by asserting yourself generally.

You can also do this in your closer relationships. Instead of saying "this show is rotting my brains right now," you can work up to that by being assertive in smaller, less personal topics, like meal selection and planning. If the other person isn't sure but you really want a sandwich, say so. But if neither of you is certain about where to eat, play an elimination game like 5-3-1* or Representative Votes**.

* Player A offers 5 options. Player B drops 2, leaving 3. Player A picks 1. Proceed to get food.
** As created by another MeFite whose comment I cannot currently find: each person has 100 representatives to carry forward their preferences, so Player A can put forth 80 reps for Thai, 15 for French, and 5 for Italian, while Player B puts up 30 for French, 30 for Italian and 40 for Japanese. And you should agree ahead of time whether it's the total # of reps wins regardless, or if it's the most votes across party lines, or whatnot.

Also, you can work on some patter to gently reject someone's favorite thing. "I see that you love this show, but it's not for me, so I'll read for a while and check back in later."

Eventually, you can discover the Iron Fist of Certainty, which can smash through inaction and ambivalence, allowing you to triumphantly declare "We're having sushi, let's go!" I used to be the "eh, whatever you want" person in our relationship, which drove my wife batty. She told me that she was tired of making all the decisions, even when I was truly ambivalent about something (which I often am, TBH). I have wielded the Iron Fist at some work meetings, because no one has time to dither over the little things, let's get to the big topics already. It feels good, but also realize the Iron Fist isn't the final authority.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:44 AM on January 3, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I have found practicing in non-romantic situations to be very valuable. Stuff like sending back food if it's not ok or making myself clear to someone on the phone if they misunderstand me.

Also, do what you can to make your inner voice louder. You know when these things happen, especially when you look back on it. Think back on the feeling you had when it happened - exactly how it felt in your body. If you can recognize that sooner and with less doubt then let it guide you in expressing your opinion.
posted by dawkins_7 at 12:35 PM on January 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

When I'm not feeling very confident I try to fake it by dressing in a way that makes me feel strong (job interview clothes vs typical date clothes), practicing good posture, and imagining myself as a powerful woman (What would Hillary Clinton/Princess Leia/Beyonce do in this situation?).
posted by galvanized unicorn at 1:01 PM on January 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

I can be like that.

With age, I have learned how to support someone else's interests without feeling compelled to be involved. I have also learned to speak up sooner rather than later.

So, instead of waiting until you hate their favorite TV show, just let them know early that it isn't your cup of tea, but they should feel free to watch it. You go shopping, take a long bath or bake their favorite cookies (or whatever), but don't feel compelled to watch it with them. You can buy them the t-shirt, book them tickets for the related Con, etc and be super supportive and not ever go to any of it.

The other thing I have learned is that some men are attracted to me because they think I will be a doormat and be loving and kind in the face of basically abusive bullshit. No, I will not. Speaking up sooner helps sort the wheat from the chaff with less drama. If they are going to make a big deal out of something that should be a small issue, they are probably an asshole and they are welcome to exit my life.

Experience has taught me that I will do less and less over time for assholes. I can be really good to someone. But, they need to be good back. I have gotten quicker on the draw about doing less for people who are failing to be good back.

If someone ordered food for me like that, because I don't like confrontation or fighting with people, I might just politely excuse myself from the table, leave the restaurant and stop returning their calls. If his sense of boundaries is that poor, I don't think I need anymore information about him. This is way too much work. I have no plans to do it.

If you are ordering food for me, it had better be because we already discussed it, you know exactly what I want and this is just a courtesy so I don't have to deal with it or something like that. But you deciding for me what I shall eat is a really big fate nope all the way down.
posted by Michele in California at 1:02 PM on January 3, 2017 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I've done this before but only to see how he would lead me long term and only in certain situations.

People have called me "opinionated" and it developed by getting walked on one too many times. To prevent that now, the only way I can deal with it is to be vocal about what I like and what I don't.

For instance, you could have handled the show issue a bit differently. I'm sure there was a moment when he was gushing about how he loved it and how he named his ferret, bloodhound, and cockroach after it but that was your moment to interject and say, "Oh I've seen that show before. I appreciate x, y, and z about it but I really prefer to watch [insert your favorite show here]." That's how you get to know each other. If he's worth the trouble he'll be listening and might not suggest a marathon of horrible reruns when you visit.

I've never had a guy order food for me. I think I'd jump in and say, "Whoa, whoa...I'm still looking at the menu, and I'll order what I'm hungry for." I understand some might do that to be polite (actually I don't get that at all), but I'm picky. I know what I like. And if I'm wearing some tight-ass outfit, maybe I don't want a heavy meal.

I'm fiercely independent. I think that helps a lot. There are many moments where I have to think about what I should say and what I shouldn't. I want to see people happy, but I want to enjoy happiness too. If someone makes me feel like I'm going along with what they want (ME) to do all the time, I tell them. The trick, I think, is to never be afraid to lose someone in the beginning. If he doesn't like that you are a living, breathing creature with your own desires then he's not right for you.

Take a deep breath. Compose your thoughts. It's okay to take a few moments of silence. Then say it.

"I don't like that show, but did you see this movie that just came out? Wow! I'd love to watch it with you!"

"Waiter, please give me a moment to choose my food on the menu. The gentleman is mistaken." Throw him a quick wink and smile. Then choose your meal.

If you feel like you like someone and are constantly doing what they want all the time, then start inviting them to do things YOU want to do. He'll get the hint.

"Hey doll, come with me to get a pedicure?"

"I got us tickets to see the sappiest chick flick. Can't wait! They say it's like Titanic 2."

"Thanks for coming to this new restaurant with me! Waiter, he'll have escargot and truffles with extra truffle oil. Put that on a salad!" Then look over at him, wink and smile.

You have to have confidence. Don't be afraid of how any man perceives you because the right one will love that you like what you like even if he doesn't like it and you'd do the same for him. Then later in the relationship, you can compromise. If you don't, you'll always feel steamrolled.
posted by AlexandriaParis at 2:45 PM on January 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

I used to be like this until I embarked on a scorched earth campaign of constantly going on first dates -- like at least two per week. When dates stopped feeling like a limited resource (actually I got pretty sick of dating this much really quickly), I adopted and became very comfortable, not to mention successful, with the following technique: I say or do at least one thing that is completely concordant with my values but also what the old me would have coded as "offputting."

On the mild end this is saying that I hate beer and soccer (both are true, and both are things I've tried to pretend to enjoy for the sake of relationships in the past); on the more extreme end I'll talk about radical feminism.

I get one of three reactions: 1) an instant and obvious lack of interest: OK! good to know, I just met you and now I know we are probably a bad match, now I can go home and take off my bra; 2) agreement that is obviously them kowtowing to me: occasionally a grey area but usually a turn off for me; 3) passionate engagement: this is the money, and it doesn't have to be vigorous agreement. On one of my best first dates I tossed out one of my more offbeat opinions, and we spent two hours arguing, and actually it was great.
posted by telegraph at 3:52 PM on January 3, 2017 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all these answers! All of them were insightful and gave me a lot to think about. The idea of actively suggesting things to do/watch myself and asserting my own preferences from the beginning struck a particular chord with me. I didn't realize before how often I just go along with guy's ideas and preferences for date activities, rather than actually suggest alternatives myself.
posted by armadillo1224 at 7:50 PM on January 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

I have done this sort of thing. And I've attracted partners who liked it, which was not great. (I am also a man, which may make things different.)

As for teaching myself to be more assertive, I can't say I've found any real technique. I just recognize now that if someone is either hostile or indifferent to my opinion, whether it's their fault or not, they're just not going to be a good partner for me. So I've stopped seeing people like that, and stick with those who take an active interest in making sure my opinions are heard. Seems to be the only thing that works for me!
posted by vasi at 1:51 AM on January 4, 2017

Like you I'm a bit timid when dating and I tend to fall into a submissive role when dating.

One thing that's helpful for me is finding a way to assert myself which isn't harsh or rude. For some reason the first thing that occurs to me to say when I disagree strongly with someone is a little harsh, and I don't want to say it, so I say nothing. But often there's a way to say things that's polite and maybe even humorous but honest, and often that's a more comfortable way for me to be assertive. Less "I hate this stupid fucking movie," more non-critical I statements like: "Physical comedy isn't really my thing. How about (other movie)."

I'm also trying to take things slow and get to know people a little better before things get physical. This has been a useful thread of me, thanks!
posted by bunderful at 4:35 AM on January 4, 2017

Another thing is noticing when your partners seek out your opinion because it's important to them. I'm still working on that.
posted by bunderful at 5:01 AM on January 4, 2017

It may also be helpful to realize that sharing your opinions and preferences can be a way of taking the pressure off your partner/date; many people don't actually like having to come up with all the plans all the time.
posted by lazuli at 7:06 AM on January 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

« Older Accents   |   1970s mail-order cosmetics - company name? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.