A reader of my e-zine in the UK (let's call her Sally) e-mailed me with a seemingly desperate plea for help.
"For the past few months, I have been attending a course in communicating, " she began.
"We learned some techniques for assertiveness, and with strangers they work. But the husband - well, he's not so easy to sort out!
"When we arrive home after a day's work, I might ask him: ‘Did you have a good day? Where did you go?’ I'm lucky if I get some sort of a grunt by way of reply, and then the onslaught begins: ‘What on earth made you do such-and-such today? And if you insist on doing it, why did you do it in such-and-such a way?'"
Sally says that the conversation invariably ends with further biting criticism from her husband. He will berate her mercilessly for not doing what he told her to do, or for not doing it properly.
"I know I should be doing what they told me to do in the course, " confesses Sally. “I should be telling him: ‘I feel hurt when you talk to me in this way, ’ or, ‘I'm afraid I don't agree with you. ’ But I find it very difficult to do that. Instead, I remain silent and dumbstruck, and before long, my silence turns to frustration and anger. "
"Recently, " adds Sally, “I have been trying to apply another technique that I learned about at a web site. They said you should pretend that your lips are glued tightly together, so that your personal quarrels don't get out of hand. Then imagine you are covered in wax, and all the destructive criticism runs off the wax. You know something -this is working. But it's being passive, rather than assertive, isn't it?"
"Can you help me with some suggestions on how to apply assertiveness skills in a marital relationship?" urges Sally.
I must make it clear that I'm neither an expert nor a professional in the area of human communication. I'm just a writer with a keen interest in the subject, which I've been studying for some time. All I can do is make some observations that may have a bearing on Sally's dilemma.
The glued-lips technique is excellent in the right circumstances. If we are tied into a relationship in which we are continually hurt, and there's no way to get through to the other party, such a strategy is be a lifesaver. There's no sense in allowing yourself to be miserable. Indeed, I'll go even further - silence in the face of provocation can be a great way of showing love and concern.
Walking on a tightrope
But when you practice it, you are walking on a tightrope. You could just possibly be mistaking heroism for cowardice. If this is so, it could be downright dangerous. Many of us have heard of reports like the following one:
"A neighbor of mine used to drop in whenever I was busy with all sorts of tasks. Without fail, she would find something to criticize in what I was doing. At first it drove me mad, even though I knew she really meant well. But I decided to bear it in silence, and was determined not to let her behavior undermine my sense of self-worth. .
"But inside, I still resented her. Then one day, she made an innocent remark, and I exploded with all my suppressed rage. Yes, I thought I was humble, but in reality I was cowardly. There's so much pain on both sides now, that I wonder if we can ever have a normal relationship again!"
Sally, I don't want this to happen to you. Neither to your husband. You're both the most important people in each other's lives - or should be!
But if Sally has learned so much about assertiveness techniques, and has even successfully put them into practice, what are the roadblocks that prevent her from applying them with her own husband? (And her problem is far from unique, by the way. )
Clearly, I know nothing about Sally's background, her personality, and her fears (although in her message, she comes across as a warm and intelligent person). I can only suggest a few factors which, if they don't apply in her situation, do in many similar ones.
Constructive, not destructive!
Assertiveness is often confused with impudence or aggression. Aggressive people seek conflict because they need to feel dominant or superior. Control of others gives them a sense of importance. By being assertive, on the other hand, your aim is not to feed your vanity or your ego.
Ideally, assertive people are motivated not by hate, but by love. When they fight, it's only to protect ideals and values that they strongly believe in. When they try to protect their dignity as a human being, not to mention their physical and mental health, they are simultaneously protecting their ability to give to those whom they love.
Aggressive people are destructive. Assertive people are constructive.
What stops you from being assertive, even when you want to be?
A major reason is fear. It seems to me that this fear often intensifies when the other party is someone very close to you.
You might be afraid of being condemned - as incompetent, stupid, lazy, inconsiderate, or whatever. When someone makes an unreasonable demand on you, you don't want to be thought of as selfish. If somebody calls you inefficient, you might fear being called something worse if you answer back.
In all these cases - or so you you think to yourself - you would end up feeling rejected and unloved. If the other person is a particularly significant one in your life, this is a situation you would especially want to avoid. What will happen, you might reason subconsciously, if my husband or wife (or whoever) shuts me out of his or her life completely? Or does something even worse?
You might fear hurting the other person's feelings, regardless of how he or she has hurt yours. People who are especially vulnerable and afraid of rejection, sometimes assume that others have the same fears. “If I speak honestly, I'll destroy him!" you might think.
Occasionally, these fears are justified. Let's say you have a boss who abuses you, but if you speak up, there's a real danger that he will fire you. In such a case, you have to decide: either suffer in silence, or find another job.
But far more frequently, there's no substantial basis for these fears. Usually, they wiggle their way in to your thought system through conditioning. And once they're there, they can be pretty hard to dislodge.
What's the solution? I don't know. Perhaps my readers can help. Most skills, however, are acquired by practice. Plenty of practice.
Sally, you know you can do it, and you will. You, too, are created in the image of G-d. Your sense of self-worth and your emotional stability are important to you. They cannot be negotiated away.
Why? Precisely because you are not selfish! Like all people, you have so much to give - and you badly want to give.
But don't make a mistake. Giving is not giving in.
But not giving in, you are protecting and enhancing your ability to give of your self in the fullest sense.
Azriel Winnett is the creator of Hodu.com - Your Communication Skills Portal. This popular free website helps you to improve your communication and relationship skills in business and professional life, in the family unit and on the social scene. New material added almost daily.