When I interact with couples and assess the way that communication happens in their relationship, people will typically be able to identify the problem areas of communication that are aggressive: yelling, verbal tirades, manipulation and control. However, I often find that these instances of aggressive behavior are built upon the foundation of passivity. While these intermittent outbursts can seem to come out of nowhere, they have usually been seething beneath the surface for some time, maybe a long time.
I’ll give an example:
Let’s pretend you agree to meet a friend at a coffee shop and you have a limited window of time that you can be there. You show up on time, get your coffee and sit down. And you wait…
5 minutes later you text your friend, “I’m here, where you at?”
10 minutes in you give your friend a call.
15 minutes in your friend may come walking in, but rather than acknowledging you they go up to the counter to order their drink. Finally, about 20 minutes late they come to you and sit down saying, “Hey how are you? It’s so good to see you.”
What do you say?
For most people, the answer is a quick, “Hey! I’m great! How are you?” And this might be a true answer, but my guess is that somewhere inside there is a feeling of frustration that the person you are meeting is late.
This is especially true if this is not just a one-time occurrence, but rather a repeated pattern in the relationship. If left undealt with, this emotion of disappointment and frustration can grow into bitterness or resentment.
This is the result of passivity.
I define passive as a dismissal of your own needs or desires in order to “keep the peace” in a relationship. It is a means of gaining control over the situation through remaining unseen, and will often lead to places where we feel uncared for by the other person. The hard part, the other person may never know the place in our life where they could care for us because we never show them.
When passivity is present and bitterness or resentment build we can begin to see the relationship as “not worth it” and begin to withdraw. Or…
We can get angry, and out of our hurt we can become aggressive and make sure the other person understands how wrong they have acted, or how bad they are. We can lash out to make sure they understand the way that we have been feeling.
Aggressive, I define as this: dismissing the needs and dignity of the other person in order to “win” the conflict. It is an attempt to control the situation through being “stronger” than the other person.
The downside of aggression is that it leaves the relationship in shambles. The other person is hurt, rightly so, and often they will withdraw from the relationship or fight back with aggression of their own. Either way, relational distance is the result.
If we want to be able to draw closer with other people, if we want to instill intimacy in relationships we need to go to the middle: assertiveness.
Assertiveness is the ability to hold your own dignity and needs in tension with the dignity and needs of the other person. It is a sharing of your heart, not a demand. The hard part is this… assertiveness always feels vulnerable.
If you are truly sharing your feelings and needs with another person, there is the opportunity for them to look at you and say, “no. I won’t give you that.” You could be rejected, which is why it feels vulnerable.
Passivity feels safe because you never show your need.
Aggression feels safe because you never feel vulnerable.
But in those spaces you will never feel care. If you take the courageous step of being vulnerable, communicating your needs in an assertive way, this is where relational intimacy can be formed. This is where those around you have an opportunity to show you that you are loved.
Matt Krieg | MA, LPC