As we all know, relationships can be tricky. We all want to be in one that's healthy, of course, but there are plenty of reasons that's not always easy to achieve. And one of those reasons is notoriously difficult to navigate, whether you're in the first few weeks of attraction or you've had a serious partner for a number of years: being assertive. In this month's Love Issue, we're delving into the intricacies of the universal emotion—from open relationships and online dating to texting woes and red flags—and assertiveness is a common theme. We spoke to Fran Walfish, PsyD, a Beverly Hills psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, to describe how to be assertive in a relationship and why it's one of the most important aspects of our love lives.
According to Walfish, the act of being assertive starts with ongoing communication—and not just with your partner. In order to master this, we should regularly check in with ourselves to see how we feel. Once we've figured that out, we should then voice our feelings to our partner to determine if we're on the same page. "It's up to us to communicate our wants, wishes, and needs," she says.
In our conversation with Walfish, she explains why individual insight is the secret to assertiveness and how to use it to build a strong partnership that's beneficial to both people. There are various ways to be assertive, she says, but honest communication has to be the goal.
What does it mean to be assertive in a relationship?
"Oftentimes people assume that others close to them know what they are thinking, feeling, needing, and wanting. And in fact, it's a setup for disappointment because people are not mind readers," Walfish says.
She recognizes that this type of communication is hard and notes that it's intimidating whether you're a millennial, a baby boomer, or a member of the silent generation. "The price we pay is the potential for hurt and rejection if those needs and wants and wishes are not mutual," she continues.
If you're interested in someone, being assertive could simply translate into asking that person out. "Let's say there's a guy and a girl, and they're hanging out with a group of friends. The girl is attracted to the guy, and she can't tell if he's nice to her just to be polite or if he's interested and maybe shy. I don't think there's anything wrong with her saying something like, 'I got tickets to the Lakers game. Would you like to join me?' and seeing where it goes."
Is being assertive similar to being confident?
Confidence plays a big role in taking that step. Even if you're not feeling very confident, acting confident can go a long way. It takes a certain sense of self to take a step forward and claim your desires. It's basically saying, "I am. I need. I deserve."
But confidence doesn't necessarily mean being direct, Walfish says. There has to be an element of finesse to your approach. "It's very important to keep in mind that it would be a big turnoff if you come on too strong," she notes. "Most people are turned off if you come on with something like, 'I like you. What do you think of me?'"
On the other hand, if you've been dating someone exclusively and you'd like to make the relationship more serious, Walfish recommends "modeling," which is another word for having regular personal conversations. "Maybe share a story about yourself when you were a child, something that brings the other person in," she says. "See if your partner reciprocates by telling you something personal, too. If he or she doesn't, see if they still smile and enjoy the story that you shared. These gentle, assertive steps can be incremental; they don't have to be huge leaps."
"When you're honest, the other person has the invitation to reciprocate that by being honest," Walfish notes. "You can set the tone by modeling. You don't have to come right out and say, 'You're not listening to me. I need this,' because the other person may feel criticized."
Is there a right and a wrong time to be assertive?
"Well, if you're asking for commitment, I think the wrong time is too soon," she says. "But if you've been patient, and he or she is dragging their heels, I think come a certain time it's okay to have a conversation around how you feel about each other and where this is going."
Again, Walfish recommends checking in with yourself first: What do you want? Once you know the answer, you can ask your partner if he or she agrees or not and why.
"Relationships do not have a prescribed format," Walfish says. "The lovely thing—and the challenging thing—about relationships is that they have to be co-created. It takes two willing partners to make a relationship work. And what feels good to one may not feel good to the other. Those things have to be talked about, worked out, and mutually agreed upon or adjusted to in compromise."
So assertiveness is all about honesty and communication, right?
"Absolutely. The whole thing is about self-awareness, to have that open and honest look within. Sometimes it's painful, but you have to," she says.
"I think the healthiest of relationships take two separate, independent individuals who love each other and want to become interdependent—which means they still remain independent but have dependency needs met through each other. They're not going to smother each other and merge into one. They're still two separate beings."