Standing up for yourself is an important relationship skill. But often what we think is standing up for ourselves is actually being critical of our partner and trying to convince them that they are “wrong.” This approach usually doesn’t work because your partner is so busy defending themselves that your message is lost.
Giving others the benefit of the doubt when they seem to be doing something “wrong” is typically a better reaction than blaming, shaming, judging or criticizing. It’s important that we say, “Hmmm, I wonder what my partner was thinking when he promised to take out the trash and didn’t for the third day in a row,” as opposed to “How lazy is he? I’m going to really lay into him this time!”
Instead of attempting to prove your partner wrong (or lazy) in an attempt to stand up for yourself, the alternative is to ask your partner to consider your needs and work with you to negotiate something that is best for the relationship. However, if asking your partner to meet you halfway doesn’t work then it’s time to insist on it.
Emotional intelligence suggests that if we accept bad behavior from our partner, we will continue to get more of the same. So if your partner is treating you unfairly, it doesn’t benefit you or the relationship to let it continue.
This can be easier said than done! If you are reasonable when your loved one behaves unreasonably you inadvertently teach them that their behavior is acceptable to you.
There is often no absolute “right” or “wrong” when it comes to behavior. In your reality, which is made up of your belief systems, your relationships, and your past and present experiences, you are completely “right.” But in your partner’s reality he or she is also “right.” It’s often best to forget right and wrong and instead make a commitment to meet in the middle with understanding and compassion for both realities.
If your partner bullies you to get their own way and you give in, you may avoid conflict in the short-term but you will build resentment and your relationship will suffer in the long term. When you can stand up for yourself you never have to build resentment because you know you can require your partner to consider your feelings when you need to.
7 steps for standing up for yourself
1. Give them the benefit of the doubt
When your partner behaves unreasonably, first try giving them the benefit of the doubt. Instead of telling yourself your partner is a jerk, try assuming that there is a good explanation. Then maintain a curious stance, asking your partner to help you understand what lead them to behave that way. If you keep an open mind and listen for how your partner’s behavior makes sense (at least in their reality) you may come to a new understanding of your partner. Besides, how can you expect your partner to see your side if you do not do the same?
2. Stay calm
If you approach your partner with a nonjudgmental attitude and they become attacking, defensive, or otherwise unreasonable, keep calm and continue to approach your partner with curiosity instead of disdain, letting them know that you are trying to work with them. They likely will not see right away that you are doing something new and may try to draw you into your old pattern.
3. Find middle ground
If, despite your best efforts to give the benefit of the doubt, your partner continues to be unresponsive, critical, or disrespectful, it’s time to ask your partner to consider your feelings. Tell him/her that you aren’t necessarily looking to get your way completely, but that you are asking to find some middle ground that takes into account your feelings as well as your partner’s own.
4. Insist on being heard
If at this point your partner still refuses to listen or is critical of you, it’s time to insist on being heard. Get angry if you need to. Let your partner know that their behavior is not OK with you and that you need to work together to come up with solutions that work for you both. Don’t be willing to accept anything less.
5. Stop engaging if it gets too heated
If you are still not getting an acceptable response, refuse to engage any further. It can be pointless to keep at this if you aren’t getting anywhere. If your partner is behaving disrespectfully and you stay and try to reason with them, you are teaching them it’s OK to treat you poorly. Rebuff your partner for now.
6. Take a time out and cool off
Do something that soothes you such as listening to music, petting the dog, or walking around the block. Do NOT sit there and ruminate about what a jerk your partner is or get on the phone with a friend to tell them what a jerk your partner is. This will only build resentment. Tell yourself that it makes sense that your partner will not easily let go of what they want, just as you won’t, and try not to make a huge deal about it.
7. Try again
Return when you are ready and ask to try again. Know that you can repeat the steps from the beginning, continuing to stand up for yourself as necessary, so there is no need to panic, or attack or shame your partner into seeing things your way.
Assess your safety
If you are dealing with a domestic violence situation, these guidelines likely do not make sense for you. Please seek out counseling and/or call the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.
If domestic violence is not an issue and you find these tips difficult to do, contact a marriage and family therapist in your area to help you with this important relationship skill.
This idea is influenced from the writing of well-known psychologist Harriet Lerner and is reiterated in the book Emotional Intelligence in Couples Therapy by Brent Atkinson.