Lack of Assertiveness & Relationship Problems

When one or both members of a relationship have a lack of assertiveness it can lead to relationship problems.

In the short term, not speaking up may feel like a good solution. Unassertive people have good intentions: “If I don’t say anything negative or speak up, it will keep the peace.”

But in the long term it leads to problems for the relationship and for the unassertive person.

When one fails to establish boundaries and state a clear opinion, it certainly communicates to the partner that the Submissive person is giving way to the more Dominant partner, as I explain in “Pack Leader Psychology.” The Dominator may then take advantage of the Submissive person in unhealthy ways, perhaps even abuse.

Often a lack of assertiveness is learned in childhood, perhaps from parents who were also unassertive, or from parents who were dominating, emotionally or physically abusive or intrusive.

Children who experience either end of this parenting spectrum. learn that assertiveness is unsafe. Kids of abusive parents learn to lay low and avoid being any “trouble” and stirring up problems. Unassertive parents model relationships that are based on fear of disapproval and fear of conflict. Clearly, neither pattern is healthy for adult relationships.

The helplessness and disempowerment that accompany a lack of personal assertiveness is also unhealthy for the individual, often leading to anxiety and/or depression. When a person feels weak, this can trigger the “fight-or-flight” response, as the person feels unable to manage even the most non-threatening of situations.

This leads directly to feelings of anxiety or fear/stress response. It can eventually lead to depressive feelings as the person gives up (“fold” response to fear) and numbs out the feelings of anxiety that are overwhelming.

Unassertive people also are likely to have low self-worth, which in and of itself can also lead to anxiety. Internal messages of shame and blame trigger the “fight-or-flight” feeling in the brain and body.

In relationships, if a person is not speaking up about her needs, her spouse may also sense her distance and also pull away emotionally and/or physically. This leaves her feeling emotionally alone, which can also trigger the fear response.

It’s a perfect storm of emotional problems all started with good intentions, but ending in many personal and interpersonal difficulties.

When in doubt, speak up!

Conflict Management Using Assertive Silence

One of the most powerful conflict management tools I learned in my journey to becoming a Pack Leader was to stop talking. I now see silence as a powerful tool in being assertive, although in our verbal society today this may seem counterintuitive. Shouldn’t I talk a lot to make my point clear?

As a former Submissive personality, I had been like the yapping dog who barks at every breeze or passing car. Eventually no one takes him seriously. He isn’t a watchdog because his communication has lost value.

It wasn’t that I talked too much, it was I talked too much at the wrong times.

When are the wrong times? During arguments, which is when most people talk a lot! When I argued with my second husband, it was because he was accusing me falsely of cheating on him. I wanted to defend my honor, prove him wrong and clear my record. So I argued and talked incessantly. This proved that I was desperate for his approval and wanted to look good — a weak, unassertive position for a relationship. I should have responded to his accusations with silence and turning on my heel.

I now see this communication pattern in couples and families who come for therapy. Unfortunately all this talking can end up backfiring. This is the usual scenario:  Parent states long list of complaints against child. When the parent stops talking, the child sits silently, stonewalling, avoiding eye contact. (This is using silence in a manipulative, not assertive, way.) So the parent, feeling uncomfortable about the silence and conflict, begins talking again repeating the same list of complaints. Now the child reacts by saying: “This is what she always does — nags nonstop. See how emotional she gets. It’s crazy.” The child has succeeded in changing the topic to her nagging behavior, not the facts of her complaints. The child gets to avoid accountability for his or her behavior and spin the complaints back toward the parent. All because the parent didn’t use assertive silence assertive.

Instead of talking endlessly, the parent should have picked one point, stated it, then sat waiting silently for a response. When the child stonewalled, the parent should have pointed out that this  behavior was inappropriate and an avoidance of accountability, then stopped talking. Her discomfort at the conflict leads her to fill the silence with words, signaling her weakness and lack of assertiveness.

A huge part of being assertive is truly believing in the value of what you have to say, stating it firmly once, then not feeling the need to backfill and re-state to fill the silence.

Good, strong eye contact and body language also help communicate that you mean business, even if you aren’t saying a word.

Of course, Pack Leader dogs use minimal communication, relying on calm, direct body language to communicate their power in the pack. They bark very little and this is definitely a lesson we humans should bring into our relationships.

The Dog That Taught Me About Leadership


Reilly, the Muse for “Pack Leader Psychology”

As I say in “Pack Leader Psychology,” a growl instantly moved me from pack member to pack leader with my dog, Reilly. But if I hadn’t had a dog that understood how to be a pack member, I might never have learned this lesson. And I might never have made the connection that being a pack leader to people might also be a good thing for my interpersonal relationships as well.

The story begins when I got Reilly as an eight-month-old dog. She had grown up in an outdoor kennel with her birth pack and several adult dogs. Living for so long with this normal dog pack taught Reilly how to recognize and honor the pack leader or leaders — probably her mother and father.

Continue reading

Welcome to the inaugural Pack Leader Psychology blog post!

I’m very excited to begin this new adventure that has been about six years in the making. I have written a non-fiction self-help book called “Pack Leader Psychology,” and this blog is the first step in introducing the ideas in that book to the public. A full website will follow soon and the book is now available as an e-book on Amazon (Kindle fans!). Print and e-versions on B&N and other sites will be due shortly.

So what is the book about?  Tough to shorten 230 pages down into a few paragraphs, but here goes:

“Pack Leader Psychology” recounts the lessons I learned while becoming a pack leader to my dog, Reilly, that helped transform me from a submissive, abused wife into a calm, confident, independent and assertive human pack leader. Read More