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Stand Up for Yourself Without Putting Your Partner Down: 4 Ways to Effectively Assert Yourself

couple looking serious together

By remaining silent you only hurt yourself. Speak up for what you want, what you need and what you simply will not tolerate. Value yourself enough to speak your mind.” (Anonymous)

You probably read the above quote and thought, “Yes! That is so true," then…you walked into the kitchen and saw your partner making a sandwich without offering to make one for you (again). And then you blurted out …

“I can’t believe you didn’t ask me if I wanted a sandwich! Who does this? You are being so selfish right now.”

Standing up for yourself in relationships is important for your personal well-being, for a happy relationship and is backed by research. It’s likely that your therapist has also encouraged you to express your feelings and to ask for what you need. But rather than hearing an understanding response back from your partner, you find yourself at war over a sandwich. 


At times, we find ourselves intending to stand up for ourselves, but we slip into standing up against our partner. We think we are “asserting our needs” for justice, fairness, and self-respect, but instead, we’re engaging in unintentional contempt. Contempt is the deadliest form of communication to relationships; In fact, marital expert John Gottman’s research found that contempt is the #1 predictor of divorce.

Contempt is when one speaks in such a way that they take the higher moral plane or the one-up position. Contemptuous communication either directly or indirectly says to your partner: I am better, kinder, or smarter than you are.” Contempt is lethal to relationships because it conveys superiority and disgust for the other person whether it’s expressed explicitly or implicitly. It’s very hard for a couple to resolve a problem while one partner is getting the message that the other finds them inferior.

It’s not the intent of this blog to address intentional contempt where the person is using it to overpower and dominate their partner, which is a form of emotional abuse. Rather, it’s covering a subtle form that is more readily observed in couples. This subtle form is called unintentional contempt. However, even if it is more subtle and not intentionally used to overpower, it still stings, and it still damages the relationship. Unintentional contempt is like getting into an accident. Even though the person didn’t intend to hurt you, it still injures you and requires healing.

When we engage in unintentional contempt, we end up knocking our partner down. Examples of unintentional contempt are, “I would never do that to you!” or “How would you like it if I did that to you?” or “You are so thoughtless.” You believe you are merely expressing your authentic feelings. You’re being “real.” While you are indeed experiencing negative feelings, what you’re actually communicating are negative judgments about your partner. And the result is often your partner feeling attacked, falsely accused, misunderstood, and defensive. We end up metaphorically standing over our partner in judgment rather than side by side in a friendship. Little by little we erode our relationship.

Again, you are not intentionally trying to be mean or judgmental or believe you’re superior to your partner. But how you assert yourself determines whether or not it comes across as “I am better than you.”

(By the way, even if you don’t say anything, but you are feeling and thinking contempt, it can seep out nonverbally in an eye roll, sigh, and tense face.)

So, how do we stand up for ourselves in a way that communicates our needs effectively and in a relationally healthy way?


4 Ways to Stand Up for Yourself Without Letting Your Partner Down: 

1) Do NOT Describe Your Partner’s “Insides” (i.e. No Mind Reading)

This is where we usually make our biggest mistake and slip into unintentional contempt. Instead of describing our own “insides” we describe our partner’s “insides.” When we tell them their feelings, their thoughts, their needs, their motives, their intentions, we are describing their “insides.” Even if we correctly describe their “insides,” it is offensive to be told what you are thinking or feeling by your partner or anyone else for that matter. For example, to tell a person they are “selfish” is really addressing that person’s motives (and may or may not be true). 

Instead, describe what you see your partner do or what you hear them say (or not say).

For example, “When I saw you making a sandwich and you didn’t offer me one, I felt ...”

2) Describe Your Own Feelings, Longings and Needs

Next, describe your own “insides.” That is, describe your own feelings (i.e., name an actual feeling,) needs, and longings. Underneath your contempt is a longing to feel important, to feel connected, to feel valued, etc. (Click here for a list of possible emotions and their descriptions.)

For example, “I felt lonely when I saw you making a sandwich and didn’t ask me if I wanted to join you for lunch. I have been missing our time together.”

Next, state your need in the positive, not in the negative. That is, let your partner know how they can “shine” for you, not how they just “failed” you.

For example, “I would love to carve out some time in our busy schedules to connect?” (Verses the negative request, “I need you to stop working so much.”)

3) Make an Invitation to Talk Further

The above request is at times accompanied by an invitation to talk more about the issue. For example, “Can we talk more about finding some time to connect?”

In addition to the 3 suggestions above, there is an advanced form of assertiveness that is tougher to do but has great results.

4) Validate the Annoying Behavior by Assuming the Best of Them

There is a way to assert yourself in your relationship that will not only keep you from knocking your partner down, but may even help your partner feel seen and known by you. Bonus! Before you express your needs and longings, genuinely validate the annoying behavior you are about to ask them to change by assuming the best of their intentions.

Here is the prior example, adding the advanced form (italicized and underlined) of assertiveness… 

“I imagine you didn’t ask me to eat lunch with you because you needed to eat quickly and get back on the phone with customers. And you talk all day long with people and probably needed some downtime. When I saw you making a sandwich and didn’t ask me if I wanted one, I felt lonely. I have been missing our time together. Can we talk more about ways we can find some time to connect?”

How can your partner resist such a request? You demonstrated that you are aware of their needs and care about them. And you feel good too because you stood up for yourself. That definitely is a win-win for both of you and your relationship!



Dr. Jana Anderson is certified in the Gottman Method for Couples Therapy. For more information about contempt see the Gottman blog by Ken Fremon-Smith, MAC, LMHC.

Gillihan, S. (2018). start-today

Speed, B. C., Goldstein, B. L., & Goldfried, M. R. (2018). Assertiveness training: A forgotten evidence‐based treatment. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 25(1), Article e12216.