How to Be Vulnerable and Assertive with Your Partner

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

Being vulnerable means being authentic and being able to risk expressing your thoughts, feelings, and wishes without fear of rejection. It means you are in control of yourself, not the relationship. Many people complain that they aren’t getting their needs met with their partner, but they don’t feel comfortable sharing their desires. Or, they fail to make requests in a positive, non-blameful way to begin with.

Before you can begin to build successful relationships, you must have healthy self-esteem – which means believing in yourself. One of the first things to consider is: how do you treat yourself? No one is going to treat you with respect if you beat yourself up. Get rid of all those self-defeating thoughts in your head – such as calling yourself “stupid” that won’t help you express your needs effectively.

4 Things to Consider When Expressing Your Needs to Your Partner:

1. Examine your childhood experiences and ask yourself: Do I ignore my own needs due to seeking other’s approval or caring for others? Do I have abandonment issues or mistrust? Counseling and keeping a journal can help you in overcoming a tendency to a people pleaser.

2. Accept that you simply can’t be liked by everyone. There will always be those who don’t agree or approve of your words or actions. You can’t control what others think of you. We all have unique perceptions based on our personalities and upbringing. Challenge your self-defeating thoughts about your self-worth. You don’t need to prove yourself to others.

3. Treat yourself with respect and compassion rather than judging yourself. Begin with paying attention to your own needs and feelings rather than ignoring them.

4. Practice giving a voice to what you want by being more assertive: Asking for what you need from your partner is about being vulnerable and inviting intimacy. Be sure to start with an “I” message such as “I would love for you to plan a night out for us. I am longing for more time alone with you.”

Tom and Melinda, both in their mid-forties, have been married for ten years. During our first counseling session, Melinda’s stated that her low self-esteem and mistrust of Tom have contributed to their communication problems. She admitted that she tends to keep secrets from Tom – especially when she lends her younger brother Sam money. Melinda said, “I withhold information from Tom due to fear of rejection or dealing with Tom’s possible angry response.”

Tom reflects: “I know that I can get defensive and critical of Melinda when it comes to loaning Sam money. But the facts are that when she is honest with me and tells me up front, I’m not blindsided and so don’t get angry. I care about my brother-in-law and he is a good kid. I also realize that Melinda is like his mom since their parents died suddenly when he was young. I love my wife and don’t want her to be so afraid of my response that she feels she has to keep secrets from me.”

“I” Messages

When one partner communicates effectively it encourages his or her partner to do the same. That said, communication affects how safe and secure we feel in our relationship and affects our level of intimacy. In other words, it’s a challenge to be vulnerable and honest with a person when you can’t trust they’ll respond in a positive or appropriate way.

For instance, because Melinda fears Tom will be critical of her, she doesn’t speak up or share her feelings honestly. Then when this happens, Tom feels angry and resentful and the vicious cycle of poor communication continues. Now that Melinda and Tom are aware of this dysfunctional pattern, they are working on ways to listen and respond more positively to each other to improve the quality of their communication.

One highly effective way of stopping this negative cycle of relating to your partner is the use of “I” messages or “I” Statements when communicating important information to your partner. An “I” message is an assertive statement about your thoughts or feelings without placing blame or judgment on your partner. It makes it more likely your partner will hear what you say and not get defensive in contrast to a “You” message which is negative and lacks integrity.

An “I” message is a style of communication that focuses on the feelings or beliefs of the speaker rather than thoughts and characteristics that the speaker attributes to the listener. For instance, a person might say to his or her partner, “I feel worried when you come home late without calling.” Instead, a “You” message is critical, such as “You’re so selfish, you never call me when you’re running late.” Further, “I” messages are a good way to ensure that partners are accepting responsibility for their feelings and actions. There are three aspects of using “I” messages effectively according to experts.

  1. Emotion: “I feel…” (state your emotion): It’s a self-disclosure, referring to yourself and expresses a feeling. It must be expressed by stating how you feel not “You make me feel” etc.
  2. Behavior: “When you…” (describe their behavior or describes the conditions that are related to your feelings). Refer to the other person’s observable behavior or the conditions that are relevant for you to feel the way you do. State the facts without opinions, threats, criticism, ultimatums, judging, and mind-reading. Avoid words or behaviors that might create defensiveness in your partner.
  3. Why: “Because…” (explain why those conditions or your partner’s behavior cause you to feel this way). Explain why you experience this emotion when your partner does the behavior. Also, include how you interpret their behavior and any tangible or concrete effect his or her behavior has on you. Be especially careful about being critical when you describe the “because.”
For example, Melinda might say to Tom: “I felt worried about telling you that I gave Sam a loan so he can move. When you express disapproval about me helping him, it makes me upset because I don’t feel you trust that he’ll pay us back.” Whereas a “You” message might be: “You never trust Sam so that’s why I didn’t tell you about loaning him money. It seems like you get mad when you can’t control our money.” Think about the impact of each statement on this couple’s communication and level of trust and intimacy. The “You” message will most likely cause Tom to feel defensive and to get angrier at Melinda, whereas the “I” message promotes good communication.
By using assertive communication, you are opening the door to intimacy. Love means risking occasionally getting your feelings hurt; it’s a price you have to pay for intimacy because you and your partner are being open and vulnerable with each other. Conflict will happen and differences don’t have to lead to a breakup. Real love starts with you. The more you know and understand what makes you tick the better prepared you’ll be to invite a partner into your life to create a successful relationship.

Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.

Terry’s new book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was published by Sounds True in February of 2020 and can be ordered here.

This blog appeared previously on Huffington Post (it was edited)