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My fiancee is what I would call "too nice". She's always trying to please everyone, which often leads to her taking a "grin and bear it" attitude when others expect too much of her. It doesn't matter whether she's interacting with her roommates, her co-workers, her family, or even complete strangers. What invariably happens is that they do something she doesn't like, and she just lets them.

One big one that she complains to me a lot about is her roommates not doing their fair share of cleaning. Recently, their apartment has gotten roaches. She's told them repeatedly about the roaches and reminded them about keeping things clean, but they still leave the apartment a mess and don't often clean. Last week when she mentioned that she had seen more roaches, one of her roommates told her that she should clean more. She was very upset by this because she does most of the cleaning, even when the mess isn't hers.

What I've tried

I've tried two different things, neither of which has worked. First, I tried telling her explicitly that she needs to be more assertive if she wants her situation to change. I tried telling her this about one of the issues she has at work, and she responded that she can't be assertive because she will get fired.

The second thing that I tried was offering assertive solutions. I usually suggest them in the form of a question along the lines of

Have you tried saying/doing X?

She usually hasn't tried and then offers an excuse for why my solutions won't work. Her excuses are usually about how doing whatever action I've told her to take will make the other person mad at her, and that she's trying to avoid that.

I can tell that always catering to others is taking a toll on her. I think that being assertive will help with that, but she seems to always fear that being assertive will result in retaliation. I think that if she actually tries, then the fear will go away.

How can I help her learn to be more assertive?

  • So with the cleaning apartment issue, sounds like she's already been somewhat assertive in telling the roommates to clean. Have you suggested a next step for that problem? – DaveG Mar 21 at 19:44
  • No, she's not being assertive. She tells them that there are roaches and that the apartment needs to stay clean, but there is no follow up. They do nothing and then she ends up cleaning the apartment herself. – Rainbacon Mar 21 at 19:50
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    Well, I'd say that telling the roommates that they need to clean up up because of roaches is more assertive than just her silently cleaning up. Have you two discussed how she could be more assertive (or at least get better results) for this problem? – DaveG Mar 21 at 19:54
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I once was always trying to please everyone, like your fiancee. Some would say I still am, but living in a city, I've literally had to learn to not try to be nice to everybody, as I'd never get anywhere.

But I come from a different place. I was socialized as a white male in the US. Confrontation isn't something that I was raised to avoid. Many women have been raised to avoid conflict as much as possible - even to the extent of fostering drama.

I think it's important for her to have reassurance that confrontation will not necessarily lead to conflict. It's possibly also important for her to understand that conflict is not necessarily worse than the problems she's experiencing in the name of avoiding even the confrontations that might not result in conflicts.

Role models are frequently pretty helpful for this. I don't know how much you have done to be assertive on her behalf, but if you haven't, it might be a good place to start. That said, while you can provide a bit of a role model, if you're a man, she'll be able to say to herself, "But I can never be as brave as Rainbacon, for he is a manly man and I am but a woman." It doesn't matter that women are within the margin of error as capable of being assertive as men, what matters is what she thinks. Having a role model who is her same gender should get around that.

General communication skills training can also be helpful. While I still have a long way to go on being as adept at communication as I felt I should have been by the time I graduated from college, I am much better at it than I was then.

I've heard that martial arts training can be helpful in giving one the courage to be assertive, as one fears conflict less if one is more capable. However, I'm not sure it's applicable here. I've known people for whom it was very helpful, but they were all people who were meek and not really nice. I've never been motivated to study martial arts, because I don't want to hurt people. More exactly, I want to not hurt people. It's an opposite of helping, in most cases.

The verbal equivalent of martial arts training might be helpful. This doesn't have to be as formal as debate or mock trials, and I think to an extent they miss the mark. The mock arguments that have been the most helpful for me have been ones that simulated the sorts of arguments I was concerned about getting into and not knowing what I could say that wouldn't hurt people.

This answer isn't good enough for me - I still feel I have a lot of improvement to make. However, I'm giving it in the hopes that it will be useful to others, at least to get them to the part of the journey I've managed.

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The fact that she has been asking for your help is a great sign. Maybe you can motivate her to take little steps in the direction of speaking up for herself until she feels confident to do it. If this is not enough, I would recommend counseling, but this has to be her initiative.

She clearly knows the distress this is causing her but she still values the well being of others (or the opinion others have of her) over her own peace. What she might not know is that finding that peace (even at the cost of a minor confrontation) is totally worth it.

Here are a few options to guide her:

  1. Motivate her to confront you on minor things she doesn't like. Sentences should contain A) What happened (not "what you did to me"), B) How she felt, C) A suggestion to solve the problem "You were a little late today. It made me feel like you don't value my time. I would appreciate if you would let me know in anticipation when you're late."

  2. Write a couple of versions of the confrontational speech to her roomates (or any other situation). Revise it together and add politeness without compromising assertiveness. When she feels comfortable with the balance of the speech, practice it.

  3. Help her realize that confrontation is not a terrible thing nor it makes her a bad person. You can only control your own feelings. How people react is their responsibility. As long as she is clear and respectful, she can rest assured of she doing the best she could. Retaliation is only in her mind (until it actually happens), her fear of others reactions are only assumptions about something that has not even happened.

  4. Confront her yourself on minor things to show her that being honest has no fatal consequences "I don't say this to upset you, I just want you to know how I feel so that we can work it out".

  5. Be an example for her. If she watches you putting yourself as priority over anyone else's needs, you can inspire her to do the same, either with her or with other people.

  6. Reassure her. She may be arguing with herself over this. For example, the roommate tells her to clean more. Your girlfriend gets upset. Not being enough distress, she probably tells herself that her own feelings are unreasonable and that she is probably overreacting. Invalidating oneself feelings leads to more suffering than the situation itself. Tell her "you have the right to feel this way, you have fair reasons and you are a great person".

  7. Read articles or watch conferences about her situation and discuss your thoughts about it. There are a few good ones here.

Finally, don't feel bad if she doesn't seem to make progress. Unfortunately, this is not about you or the quality your help. The day she decides that no matter others are feeling, she is going to be OK; she will be ready to take steps. Until then, she will find a good reason no to disturb the superficial stability and will continue to accept others conditions over her own.

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