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!