Why Bottled Feelings are the Bane of Love: Exploring Assertiveness in Romantic Relationships

Romance can be scary. It’s undeniably daunting to step out of your comfort zone in the face of uncertainty, whether it’s to make a move on a potentially unrequited crush or to voice your gripes with a new partner. It’s often tempting to simply avoid: avoid rejection by concealing your feelings, avoid guilt by ghosting a date, avoid conflict by bottling up your grievances.

Unfortunately, avoidance is often the enemy of happiness in the long term. Learning to assert yourself within a romantic context is crucial when it comes to initiating and maintaining relationships. It prevents ambiguity, false expectations, and hurt feelings in the early stages and sets the foundation for healthy communication as the relationship progresses. 

During their college years—as many students begin to navigate serious romantic relationships for the first time—assertiveness becomes as important as ever. How do levels of romantic assertiveness differ between students, and how might this ultimately predict success in their relationships?

To answer these questions, we turned to the Marriage Pact survey data from 2022. First, we calculated an “assertiveness score” for each student based on the average of their responses to the following survey questions: 

  • I would rather ghost someone than outright reject them. *

  • If I have feelings for someone, I usually… (1=keep it to myself, 7=share them ASAP)

  • I say what is bothering me, even if it might make my partner uncomfortable. 

* Before calculating averages, we reverse-coded students’ answers to “I would rather ghost someone than outright reject them'' to ensure that higher responses contributed to a lower assertiveness score.

Like all Marriage Pact survey questions, assertiveness scores ranged on a scale from 1 to 7. We looked at four schools in our analysis: Stanford, Michigan, UVA, and Boston College. 

First things first, we found that straight men had significantly higher assertiveness scores than straight women at all four schools. However, this trend was less pronounced (and in the case of Stanford, even reversed) when looking at LGBTQ+ students. 

Assertiveness Gender

Assertiveness scores between political and religious affiliations were less consistent between schools. However, when we broke things down by class year, we found that seniors had significantly higher assertiveness scores than their underclassmen counterparts across the board. The confidence to pursue or reject a potential romantic partner—and to voice your needs within a relationship—often takes time and experience to build, so it’s no wonder that seniors top the charts here. 

We broke things down by field of study next. At each school, we determined the six majors with the top and bottom three assertiveness scores (only considering majors with more than 50 students).

Assertiveness Major

STEM majors dominated the list on both sides of the spectrum—with an interesting distinction. While Physics, Aerospace Engineering, and Computer Science were consistently among the most assertive majors, the bottom three spots at each school belonged almost exclusively to the biological sciences, including Chemistry, Biochemistry, and Microbiology. For those of you who have dated both pre-meds and tech bros, let us know if this checks out. 

Moving beyond demographics, we found five questions that were positively, significantly correlated with assertiveness across all four schools (after controlling for demographic variables). 

  • I generally like to take control during sex. 

  • I enjoy grand gestures of romance. 

  • I am the definition of the life of the party. 

  • How important is sex to you in a relationship?

  • Hurting someone is never justified, even if they hurt you first. 

Based on our analysis, it seems that people with higher levels of assertiveness in their relationships tend to be demonstrative, outgoing, morally principled individuals who prioritize sex in their relationships. 

On the flip side, we found only one question that was negatively, significantly correlated with assertiveness: “How single are you?” In other words, students with higher levels of assertiveness tended to be less single.

This echoes one of the core findings from our recent exploration of relationship status in college students: those who share their romantic feelings more readily find higher levels of relationship success (measured by their self-reported degree of singleness). After all, no one winds up in a relationship without taking a few risks. Those who embrace the uncertainty and take the plunge reap the rewards. 

And to all the chronic people pleasers and non-confrontational folk, remember that there is a measurable benefit to asserting yourself. Shamelessly ask out your crush. Say no when you mean to. And never be afraid to voice your needs, even if it feels momentarily uncomfortable. You and your relationships will be happier and healthier for it. Go forth with confidence!