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Assertiveness Training (Continued)

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Assertiveness training is all about helping people to know that there really are situations where they have a perfect right to defend themselves from bullying attempts made by others. Once people realize that it is okay, and even proper for them to stand up for themselves; to allow themselves to feel angry when they are taken advantage of, they tend to find that actually defending themselves is not so hard. Assertive behavior basically consists of the following steps:

  • realizing that you have been dominated, or taken advantage of
  • feeling the angry feelings (directed towards the dominating partner, and/or to yourself for allowing yourself to be dominated
  • deciding to act to put a stop to the domination
  • acting on your conviction (which involves finding a way to demand your rights be respected, while also being polite and civil about it so as not to become aggressive yourself)
  • waiting for your dominating relationship partner to escalate his or her bad behavior, so as to put you back in line and force you to submit again and then
  • resisting the urge to submit again in the face of escalation.

There is a certain inertia to how people relate to one another in relationships. A dominant partner is used to getting his or her way, and a submissive passive partner is used to giving the dominant partner his or her way. This pattern feels normal to both partners and any change will leave both partners feeling unsettled. Expect to feel weird when you decide to become assertive and change the pattern, and also expect that your partner will feel weird too and will generally be motivated to act so as to reassert the old comfortable pattern. Because the normal amount of domination is no longer working, most dominant partners will "up the ante" and try coming on stronger so as to try to power you into submission. Don't fall for this. If you can stand your ground for a while, both of you will get used to the new pattern of you being assertive.

Most of the time it is healthy and useful to assert yourself. However, you should be aware that there are some situations where attempting to assert yourself can get you harmed or killed. In order for assertion to work to change relationships, both partners have to be reasonable people at some level, and to minimally respect one another. Some abusive partners do not operate this way, and will not stop escalating their violent behavior in response to assertion until the newly assertive partner is dead. If you are in a relationship with this sort of abusive person, you are better off simply leaving the relationship outright rather than trying to change it. Use community resources (such as family, domestic violence shelters, court issued restraining orders and reporting to the police when incidents occur) to help protect yourself. Read more these issues in our Abuse topic center.

Assertiveness training is not just for passive-acting people; it is also of great use to people who are habitually aggressive towards others, but only as a component of a larger program of Anger Management. Passive-oriented people generally feel badly about their passive position; they are motivated to make changes and happy when they realize that they have a right to do so. In contrast, angry or bossy aggression-oriented people tend to be happy with their dominant position in relationships, even if they are not happy people in general. Aggressive and dominating tactics work for them (or so they think) and they are seldom motivated to change on their own. Assertiveness training makes intuitive (if frightening) sense to passive-oriented people; it seems to have little to offer to aggressive types. Therefore, assertiveness training must be supplemented with other interventions (and often serious consequences) if it is to get through to the aggressive person.

 

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