Sometimes assertiveness gets a bad rap in our culture. As if it’s a domineering or bossy attitude. Not so: in reality, healthy assertiveness is a really helpful tool for marriage communication because it can reduce conflict and increase the quality of your marriage.
What is Assertiveness?
Assertiveness can often get confused with other, less positive traits, so let’s start with a nice simple definition. Assertiveness is the ability to honestly and effectively express your needs and desires[i].
The opposite is passivity: letting things happen to you, not stating your needs and backing down easily.
What about aggression though? Assertiveness is different to aggression: assertiveness is about using self-confidence and verbal techniques to state what you want, rather than resorting to threats or intimidation.
What does assertiveness look like? Recent research identifies multiple parts of effective assertive behavior:
- Courage: self-confidence, boldness to state your needs and “stick to your guns”, being direct but non-aggressive, having belief in your own ability and strong social skills[ii].
- Authenticity: honesty and genuineness, rather than being manipulative or artificial. It is coming out and stating what you want directly rather than using coded language or suggestions or vague hints. Assertiveness is based on an honest awareness of yourself and respect for the other person[iii].
- Autonomy: able to make your own decisions, being self motivated and also flexible.
- Empathy: the ability to express your own needs while also being aware of the needs of your spouse or others[iv]. It is not necessarily (and should not be) selfish.
Factors Affecting Assertiveness
There are a few traits and factors that can affect your ability to be assertive.
Locus of Control
Who has control in your life? Locus of control refers to what people see as being the main controlling and decision-making factors in their lives. Someone with an internal locus of control believes that they can make their own choices and results in life are determined by their own actions and efforts. Someone with external locus of control believes their outcomes in life are mostly up to luck, fate or the influence of other people.
A study in 1979[v] found that assertiveness was linked to an internal locus of control in married couples: spouses who believe they are in control of their own outcomes in life will naturally develop the social skills needed to influence others, while believing you have little control over your own life leads people to become passive. If you think things are just done to you or for you without any sense of personal agency that is a very passive orientation and assertiveness will seem foreign to you.
That same study also identified trust as a variable that influenced assertive behavior in married couples.
Spouses who had an external locus of control (those who thought that other people had a strong influence over their lives) and who had high levels of trust that their spouse would act in the best interests of the marriage tended to be low in assertiveness. They interpret this to mean that people who have high trust that their spouses are acting in the interests of the marriage would have no NEED to act assertively. If you have a great marriage where you’re both working for each other’s benefit then sticking up for your own needs isn’t as essential… but it’s still a useful skill to have up your sleeve.
Couples who adopt a relationship-focused mindset early in the marriage (making decisions together and prioritizing their relationship over individual gains) are better able to learn positive communication skills such as assertiveness[vi]. Although as noted above, if both spouses are thinking in the best interests of the marriage there may not be much need to act assertively. But they will still have these skills if needed.
Your ability to be assertive is partly based on your beliefs about yourself. Someone who believes they are not worthy of respect or being heard will struggle to act assertively. Assertiveness training aims to develop positive beliefs in people, such as[vii]:
- You have the right to dignity and self-respect
- You have the right to say no
- You have the right to express your emotions
- You have the right to ask for help
Assertiveness and Conflict Resolution
Right away I know you’re probably thinking: how can I fit this into my marriage and can it help with our conflict in particular? This week’s bonus guide really dives into that whole dilemma around balancing assertiveness and cooperation in marital conflict. Very important and very helpful to get that balance right — but few couples achieve the right balance. If you want to drill down on that topic, you can do so by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Let’s look at some straightforward steps to communicating assertively without coming across too aggressive.
- Eye contact: direct contact, but not staring, or else you come across like you’re trying to intimidate.
- Body posture: Facing your spouse straight on. Standing tall but relaxed
- Hands: gestures to support what you are saying. Relaxed, not hands on hips or arms folded watch for aggressive or attacking postures
- Tone of voice: expressive, warm but firm. Not cold, harsh or too loud.
- Direct stating of needs and why/how they haven’t been met. Not evasive or passive aggressive. “You said you would help tidy the house today but you didn’t.”
- Showing understanding of your spouse’s position but sticking to your position. “I know you’re busy and that you don’t like cleaning, but I needed this done so that I could have space to cook”
- Explaining your emotional position: “I feel frustrated when you don’t stick to things you’ve promised to help with”
- Offering a solution: “Can you help me do it now, and promise to keep on top of it in the future?”
- Sticking to your position, without feeling like you have to back down or have an answer to every objection they raise
Benefits of Assertiveness
So what are the advantages of having this skill for your marriage? You may be surprised by just how far this goes.
Needs More Likely to Be Met
Assertively (but non-aggressively) making requests of your spouse makes you more likely to get a positive reaction. So you’ll be able to have your needs met more effectively while minimizing conflict. Makes sense, right?
You may have even heard your spouse asking you for assertiveness in other words such as “Can you just tell me what you want? And I’ll do it.” or “Just say what you need!”
A study 2013[viii] found that training both spouses in assertiveness produced a long-term increase in marital satisfaction. When the assertiveness training is given as part of a more comprehensive couple communication skills course, the effect is even bigger.
Another study in 1984[ix] studied married couples where only one spouse received training on assertiveness. After the training, these couples reported higher levels of trust and intimacy and had better perceptions of the relationship as a whole. This was true for both spouses, suggesting that assertiveness in one spouse can have benefits for both. So having one or both of you be able to effectively express your desires and needs is good for everyone.
Preventing Physical Abuse
Here’s another important point. A study in 1987[x] studied physically abusive husbands and non-abusive husbands. Abusers were found to have a higher need for control AND lower assertiveness. So they needed to exert control over their wives but lacked the verbal skill and mental awareness to do so, and so resorted to physical violence. So training on assertiveness can help them reduce physical aggression.
The benefits of good assertiveness aren’t limited to your marriage; it’s a skill that will help you out in all areas of life. Effective assertiveness skills produce various personal benefits which can improve your marital functioning, such as[xi]:
- Reduced stress
- Improved mood
- Better at solving problems- leading to improved mental health due to not having unresolved conflict hanging over you
- Less likely to be distracted by negative emotions during discussions
As you can see, assertiveness has widespread benefits for your marriage and for yourself. We’d encourage you to start practicing assertiveness today! Talk about this episode with your spouse, tell them that you want to learn to be more assertive and ask them to hold you accountable as well.
[i] Smith, Stress Management.
[ii] Abbassi and Singh, “Assertiveness in Marital Relationships Among Asian Indians in the United States.”
[iii] Abbassi and Singh.
[iv] Smith, Stress Management.
[v] Doherty and Ryder, “Locus of Control, Interpersonal Trust, and Assertive Behavior among Newlyweds.”
[vi] Animasahun and Oladeni, “Effects of Assertiveness Training and Marital Communication Skills in Enhancing Marital Satisfaction among Baptist Couples in Lagos State, Nigeria.”
[vii] Smith, Stress Management.
[viii] Animasahun and Oladeni, “Effects of Assertiveness Training and Marital Communication Skills in Enhancing Marital Satisfaction among Baptist Couples in Lagos State, Nigeria.”
[ix] Gordon and Waldo, “The Effects of Assertiveness Training on Couples’ Relationships.”
[x] Dutton and Strachan, “Motivational Needs for Power and Spouse-Specific Assertiveness in Assaultive and Nonassaultive Men.”
[xi] Smith, Stress Management.