speaking up in relationshipsSpeaking Up in Relationships

One of the challenges for people who don’t speak up for themselves is that everyone seems to like them that way. Whether it’s a co-worker, spouse, child, or friend- people who seem to melt into the background and accommodate to everyone else without making much of a fuss, can be very nice to have around. When positive responses from others dovetail with a person’s own beliefs that it’s better not to speak up, ask for anything, or protest things they don’t like, it can create a pattern of over-accommodation that backfires later.

There can be many roots to the idea that it’s better to fade into the background and not make too much noise in relationships; the feeling might be that if one protests, complains, asks for anything, or “makes noise” in any way, their relationships will be destroyed. This is at times the truth! Sometimes such people get into relationships with others who put them down for having any needs or complaining about anything at all, and this reinforces the view that one has to be accommodating all the time or else they’re “too much” for others to love (or handle). Another scenario might be when over-accommodating personalities get into relationships with demanding and entitled partners (or others) who seem so loud and self-absorbed that they are embarrassing to be with! (This also reinforces the feeling that being easygoing and accommodating makes for a nicer person). 

At times these relationship beliefs begin in childhood; for example, a sibling may act out, leading another child to want to be the “good child” who spares their parents any additional trouble as they recede into the background. This pattern can also develop when a child sees his parent as too fragile to handle his needs or complaints- whether due to illness, emotional vulnerability, being overwhelmed, etc. The “good child” learns early on that the least he/she can do is avoid further burdening his/her parent or even finding ways to take care of the parent’s needs himself in some way.

The problem with this stance is that everyone has needs (whether they like to admit this or not), and being the “good one” who always accommodates to everyone else, comes with a price tag too (although this is often not evident until much later on); it can make it hard to get ahead in situations that require asserting and promoting oneself and it can make it hard to set healthy boundaries for one’s own self-protection. Being continuously attracted to others who don’t meet one’s needs or else who act entitled and demanding, also takes its toll. After a while, it can also be hard to identify one’s own needs and these signals may show up in indirect ways such as back pain, headaches, general anxiety, or even depression. 

This pattern is very difficult to break out of, because others seem to like us when we act this way; the kind of people who we take for granted are easy to have around.  Yet at some point or other, it becomes too difficult to keep swallowing all of one’s needs and desires, and reaching this point after years of silence often upsets the “apple cart” in relationships that got used to one’s over-accomodating style. Learning to speak up after not doing so for so long can also create problems because people are sometimes rather clumsy about expressing their needs after not doing so for so long- or else they become somewhat demanding because of the built-up frustration of not having had their needs met for so many years (i.e. they may go about asking for their needs to be met in ways that evoke a negative response from others, which leads to increased frustration). 

While many of us are used to thinking about how teachers or parents may unwittingly overlook a “good child” in the classroom or the home when overwhelmed by other children who are more insistent in their demands, behavior problems, or acting out, we often fail to realize that these dynamics may be at play in adult relationships as well (and sometimes we unwittingly promote this dynamic). We may feel overwhelmed by our own needs at times and find it hard to stretch out of our comfort zones to accommodate to the needs of the other; others who are super easygoing may make it easy for us to forget at times that their voice is missing from the picture.

Relationships work best when people speak up for themselves as they go along. It’s good to check in from time to time and make sure that everyone in a family or other system has a chance to speak up for their needs and to have a voice. If someone’s voice is being drowned out, no matter how nice it may seem at times, the overall health of the relationship requires that we welcome each person to have a voice and that we show our partners, friends, and family members that silencing oneself is never a favor to anyone, even if it feels easier for everyone in a given moment.