For a number of years when our children were younger we used to spend our summer holiday camping on the Isle of Anglesey. This was not luxury camping. We had a cold water tap in the field and the use of a flush toilet. That was the limit of the amenities. The children loved it and they were able to play with some cousins who usually came too and some other friends. Years later, Charles revealed that he hadn’t really enjoyed the holidays very much! How had this come about?
As we grow up we learn about the best ways for us to keep on the approval of people who are important to us, especially our parents. For some people, the best way to thrive in their family is to be agreeable, conform and to be generally helpful but to keep out of the limelight. For others, being outgoing, displaying their talents and being at the forefront of the family gets them noticed and helps them feel accepted in the family. We carry all these learned ways of protecting ourselves and becoming accepted into our adult relationships. For Charles, the way he kept safe and accepted was to be a bit reserved and to try and be agreeable and helpful. That way he retained the approval of his parents. For Jane, being grown up, responsible and getting on with things- especially through seeing what was needed to be done, gained her approval and praise. This enabled her to feel good about herself.
We brought these two patterns of behaviour together in our marriage. They dovetailed together well. Jane made decisions and Charles went along with them. This wasn’t just about holidays. It covered many other aspects of our life as well. For quite a few years it suited us. Over time, however, the cracks began to show. Jane started to get frustrated at the burden of making all the decisions. Charles started to realise that he rarely seemed to get what he really wanted and even when he did make alternative suggestions, Jane had already come to a decision and stoutly defended it.
In the relationship at that time, Jane was far more assertive than Charles. It was this imbalance in assertiveness that led to the situation we have described. Assertiveness is not the same as being aggressive. Assertiveness is the ability and willingness to ask for what you want and say what you really mean without demanding to get your own way all the time. It is also a willingness to negotiate and find solutions that both can buy into.
All of us spend many years developing our patterns of behaviour as we grow up; it is, therefore, going to be hard to change. We develop the behaviours for a reason. It was the way we found best to fit in or keep safe emotionally in our families. It, therefore, takes courage to change. First of all we have to become aware that this is the way we normally behave with each other. For the less assertive person, it can be very scary to start saying “I don’t agree with you” or “I would like, this time, to do something different”. For the more assertive person being challenged might come as a bit of a shock.
Couples who attend the marriage preparation course in the diocese complete a questionnaire which when analysed gives a profile of their relationship at that time. One of the things it measures is the relative assertiveness of each of them. The result is sometimes a surprise to them but mostly they have already realised who is the more assertive. It is possible to be assertive in all sorts of situations except with the person who is closest. When we find that there is an imbalance in assertiveness we encourage the less assertive partner to start to make suggestions and the more assertive to encourage and seek out the other’s view. That way they help each other to grow for the long term benefit of their marriage. Being appropriately assertive preserves our own integrity, by being true to ourselves, and it respects the other person by not hiding the truth. Couples where both partners are very low in assertiveness often find it very difficult indeed to make decisions.
When we get married we not only accept each other as we are at that time, but we also accept each other as we will be into the future. We do not know what that will be like. The future is hidden from our eyes. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit, working in us, that enables us to grow and to change in order to make present the love of Christ for his Church.
Jane and Charles Perryman