When standing up for yourself means standing up for the relationship

When you and your mate have a difficult decision to make, do you typically (a) discuss the pros and cons of each option until you reach a mutually agreeable choice; (b) argue until you’re so angry you can’t talk about it anymore, or (c) disagree at first, but then one of you defers to the other’s wishes in order to keep the peace?

If the answer is (c) “one of you defers to the other”—and it’s almost always the same one—he or she could be what some therapists like to call the “shoe salesman” in the relationship.

In retail, salespeople are deferential in order to sell you shoes. That’s just part of the job. Relationships, on the other hand, are not supposed to work this way. It’s true that not every disagreement needs to be discussed ad nauseam, and it’s a caring gesture to agree to eat at his favorite Vietnamese place once in a while although you vastly prefer Thai. But when it becomes a consistent pattern, you may have a problem that only builds over time.

First, let’s face facts—even happy couples disagree on lots of things, and settling differences can be pretty challenging, especially if they involve major issues. It can also be painful. That’s when the “shoe salesman” sometimes makes an appearance. This is the partner who avoids conflict at all costs, but the problem is, the costs can be higher than he or she bargained for.

To begin with, it means agreeing to an idea that in reality he or she might be really uncomfortable with, whether it’s a decision to move cross-country or make a financial investment that seems too risky or any number of other things. The results can be disastrous: the salesman may feel a lot of resentment in spite of having ostensibly agreed with the decision in the first place. Meanwhile, the more hidden cost is that unless you’re a really good actor, the attempt to make your mate happy by agreeing to whatever he or she wants will backfire if it’s all too obvious that you’re quietly (or not-so-quietly) seething.

So why do people become “shoe salesmen”? It can be a lifelong habit of conflict avoidance stemming from childhood, especially if there was a lot of fighting in the home. When children grows up with overbearing parents, they might never develop good skills in standing up for themselves or expressing their true feelings. Children in this situation can also develop another unhealthy pattern that undermines future relationships—telling their parents what they want to hear but then doing the opposite. They learn to lie to get along, which is hardly the basis of good communication.

In the heat of the moment—when a partner seems to believe that he or she is right beyond the shadow of a doubt, and expresses frustration or even anger that you don’t agree—it can take you back to a time when your option seemed to be robotic compliance. If this sounds like you, it might be a good idea to seek either individual or couples counseling to work on breaking the pattern and feeling more comfortable standing up for yourself in the face of conflict.

While parent-child relationships have a clear delineation of power, in adult relationships, making decisions together shouldn’t be about power at all but rather honest communication, mutual respect and healthy compromise. Believe it or not, unless your mate is a true bully, he or she would rather work through conflicts with you on an open playing field where both partners are transparent about their concerns and wishes. He or she wants you to feel comfortable with whatever ultimate decision you make, even if each of you has to give a little in the process. In the long run, it builds trust, intimacy, conflict-resolution skills and a sense of partnership that makes even the occasional heated argument well worth the effort.

Whether you need help moving into a new stage of your relationship – or whether you have old issues that never seem to be resolved, it is time to get help. Our Orange County relationship counseling services can help you. We look forward to connecting with you.

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