By using assertive communication, you are opening the door to intimacy.
Being vulnerable means being authentic and being able to risk expressing your thoughts, feelings, and wishes. It means you are in control of yourself, not the relationship. Many people complain that they aren’t getting their needs met in an intimate relationship, but they don’t feel comfortable sharing their desires. Or, they fail to make requests in a positive, non-blameful way to begin with.
Before you can begin to build successful relationships, you must have healthy self-esteem – which means believing in yourself. One of the first things to consider is: how do you treat yourself? No one is going to treat you with respect if you beat yourself up. Get rid of all those self-defeating thoughts in your head – such as calling yourself “stupid” that won’t help you express your needs effectively.
Tom and Melinda, both in their mid-forties, have been married for ten years. During our first counseling session, Melinda’s stated that her low self-esteem and mistrust of Tom have contributed to their communication problems. She admitted that she tends to keep secrets from Tom – especially when she lends her younger brother Sam money. Melinda said, “I withhold information from Tom due to fear of rejection or dealing with Tom’s possible angry response.”
Tom reflects: “I know that I can get defensive and critical of Melinda when it comes to loaning Sam money. But the facts are that when she is honest with me and tells me up front, I’m not blindsided and so don’t get angry. I care about my brother-in-law and he is a good kid. I also realize that Melinda is like his mom since their parents died suddenly when he was young. I love my wife and don’t want her to be so afraid of my response that she feels she has to keep secrets from me.”
Using “I” Messages During Communication
When one partner communicates effectively it encourages their partner to do the same. That said, communication affects how safe and secure we feel in our relationship and affects our level of intimacy. In other words, it is a challenge to be vulnerable and honest with a person when you can’t trust they’ll respond in a positive or appropriate way.
For instance, because Melinda fears Tom will be critical of her, she does not speak up or share her feelings honestly. Then when this happens, Tom feels angry and resentful and the vicious cycle of poor communication continues. Now that Melinda and Tom are aware of this dysfunctional pattern, they are working on ways to listen and respond more positively to each other to improve the quality of their communication.
One highly effective way of stopping this negative cycle of relating to your partner is the use of “I” messages when communicating important information to your partner. An “I” message is an assertive statement about your thoughts or feelings without placing blame or judgment on your partner. It makes it more likely your partner will hear what you say and not get defensive in contrast to a “You” message which is negative and lacks integrity.
An “I” message or statement is a style of communication focusing on the feelings or beliefs of the speaker rather than thoughts and characteristics that the speaker attributes to the listener. For instance, a person might say to his or her partner, “I feel worried when you come home late without calling.” Instead, a “You” Message is critical, such as “You’re so selfish, you never call me when you’re running late.” Further, “I” statements are a good way to ensure that partners are accepting responsibility for their feelings and actions.
There are three aspects of using “I” messages effectively according to experts.
1. Emotion: “I feel…” (state your emotion): It is a self-disclosure, referring to “I” and expresses a feeling. It must be expressed by stating how you feel not “You make me feel” etc.
2. Behavior: “When you…” (describe their behavior or describe the conditions that are related to your feelings). Refer to the other person’s observable behavior or the conditions that are relevant for you to feel the way you do. State the facts without opinions, threats, criticism, ultimatums, judging, and mind-reading or other words or behaviors that might create defensiveness.
3. Why: “Because…” (explain why those conditions or your partner’s behavior cause you to feel this way). Explain why you experience this emotion when your partner does the behavior. Also, include how you interpret their behavior and any tangible or concrete effect their behavior has on you. Be especially careful about not being blameful when you describe the “because.”
For example, Melinda might say to Tom: “I feel worried about telling you that I gave Sam a loan so he can move. When you express disapproval about me helping him, it makes me feel upset because I don’t feel you trust that he’ll pay us back.” Whereas a “You” message might be: “You never trust Sam so that’s why I didn’t tell you about loaning him money. It seems like you get mad when you can’t control our money.” Think about the impact of each statement on this couple’s communication and level of trust and intimacy. The “You” message with most likely cause Tom to feel defensive and to get angrier at Melinda whereas the “I” message promotes good communication.
4 Things to Consider When Asserting Your Needs:
1. Examine your childhood experiences and ask yourself: Do I ignore my own needs due to seeking other’s approval or caring for others? Do I have abandonment issues or mistrust? Counseling and keeping a journal can aid you in overcoming a tendency of being a people pleaser.
2. Accept that you simply can’t be liked by everyone. There will always be those who don’t agree or approve of your words or actions. You can’t control what others think of you. We all have unique perceptions based on our personalities and upbringing. Challenge your self-defeating thoughts about your self-worth. You don’t need to prove yourself to others.
3. Treat yourself with respect and compassion rather than judging yourself. Begin with paying attention to your own needs and feelings rather than ignoring them.
4. Practice giving a voice to what you want by being more assertive: Asking for what you need from your partner is about being vulnerable and inviting intimacy. Be sure to start with an “I” message such as “I would love for you to plan a night out for us. I am longing for more time alone with you.”
By using assertive communication, you are opening the door to intimacy. Love means risking occasionally getting your feelings hurt; it’s a price you have to pay for intimacy because you and your partner are being open and vulnerable with each other. Conflict will happen and differences don’t have to lead to breakup. Real love starts with you. The more you know and understand what makes you tick the better prepared you’ll be to invite a partner into your life to create a successful relationship.
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*This article first appeared on HuffingtonPost.com