“Great relationships mean more assertion up front and less resentment on the backend.”
– Terry Real
As a couples therapist, I’m about to let you in on one of the most simple, but fundamental secrets of effective relationships. Are you ready?
If you are needing more of something in your relationship, the most effective strategy is to… ask for it.
I said it was simple. I didn’t say it was easy.
Many of us struggle with this and end up either complaining to our partners or “asking” in passive-aggressive or indirect ways. Neither of these options is likely to get us more of what we need or want in our relationships.
On a practical level, here are a few tips that can help you to speak up for yourself in a way that increases the chances your partner will really hear you and come through for you.
Before you open your mouth, notice which part of you is talking. Is it the part of you that wants to be right or make a point? Or is it the part of you that can remember you love your partner and wants to solve the problem? If the latter, proceed!
2. Request rather than complain
Cultivate a positive/future focus rather than a past/negative focus: I would like more of this vs. I wish you would stop this.
3. Be specific and behavioral.
Many people resist this advice at first, but it ultimately helps your partner to come through for you. Ask yourself, if a character in a movie was doing the thing that your partner could do better, what would they be doing? What would the audience see with their own eyes? You can start with generalities (“I need you to be more kind.”) but get specific from there (“I would love a hug from you before I leave for work in the morning.”).
Why do I need to be so careful? Can’t I just tell the person I love how I’m feeling?
Sure! But while we live in a culture that values self-expression in and of itself, it’s loving to be careful about the impact of your words on your partner. It’s not about censoring yourself; it’s about speaking up with love. (It’s also just more effective – you want to elicit your partner’s willingness to hear you rather than defensiveness).
What if I don’t feel happy but I’m not sure what I want to be different?
Our culture rewards women, especially moms, who take on too much for other people at the expense of themselves. To express your needs, you must first feel entitled to them. This is a process, but it can help to remind yourself that giving yourself permission to have needs is a win-win proposition. It may feel selfish at first, but in the long run, less resentment is a win for both people in the relationship.
Why do I have to spell this out? Shouldn’t the person I love be able to figure it out?
Unfortunately, even the best partners are terrible mind-readers. However, this is a common mindset, and it reflects a very unhelpful cultural myth about romantic relationships: if someone really loves you, they will just know how to make you feel loved, and if you have to spell it out for them, it means something bad about your relationship. It’s simply not true.
There’s also the myth of spontaneity – that everything in your relationship should unfold naturally and organically and having to plan or talk about things means your love is less authentic. Expecting our partners to just know what we need sets them up for failure, and ourselves for disappointment.
I want you to take a different perspective, one that can have a powerful impact on your relationships. Instead of, “It doesn’t count because I had to ask,” could it be, “My partner heard what I had to say and they came through for me. What a loving thing to do!”?
Why is this so hard?
The hardest thing about asking for what we need up front is that it requires more vulnerability. It is far less vulnerable to complain about what we didn’t get (“Once again, I was the one left planning our weekend!”) rather than to ask for what we want up front (“It would really mean a lot to me if you would plan something different for us this weekend.”). You risk nothing by complaining (except perhaps goodwill in your relationship), but you must put yourself out there to ask for what you want, and there’s no guarantee you’ll get it. That’s scary stuff in the relationships we care about most.
My partner tells me I need to just ask them for help, but I am sick of being the one keeping track of what needs to get done. What should I do?
This is important. When it comes to figuring out who-does-what and dividing domestic responsibilities, it’s not just about asking for what you want. It’s about developing a whole new system together. One partner expecting another to tell them what to do places all the burden of remembering, keeping track, and planning on one person and is not a viable solution. More on this to come!
What if I ask my partner for what I need… and it works?
I want to prepare you for the unexpected vulnerability of getting what you asked for. If you’ve been frustrated or feeling resentful for a while, and then your partner really does come through for you, that’s a vulnerable place to be.
You might have a hard time really receiving those changes from your partner without qualifying them. This is normal, so fight the urge to get discouraged. Your feelings won’t change overnight, but if you can focus your energy on appreciating moves in the right direction from your partner, you can have real agency over the future of your relationship. Fight the urge to “talk past the sale” (“See? That wasn’t so hard, was it?”) Once you’ve been heard, take a breath, and let yourself receive the changes.
If there’s one thing this recent time in history has taught us, it’s that we are hardwired for relationships, and you deserve a great one. Asking for what you want up front doesn’t protect you against all disappointment and hurt in your relationship, but it’s one of the best and most underrated tools we all have available to us.