Do you find it difficult to say “no” to others? Have trouble speaking up about what you want? Avoid sharing contrary opinions?

It’s possible you are engaging in “people pleasing.”

Now, people pleasing in relationships may seem like a positive thing. After all, an important part of being with someone is supporting them and making them happy. As a people pleaser, you’re doing a lot of both, right?

Maybe. But unfortunately, you are probably often doing so at your own expense. And if you continue in this vein, you could eventually lose touch with your own preferences, needs, and desires.

Worse, you might be building up a lot of silent resentment. Instead of talking about issues, you’re holding on to anger your partner isn’t even aware of – all in the name of avoiding conflict.

Over time, this unhappiness can lead to you seeking connection in someone else’s arms – or even abruptly leaving the relationship. All the while, your partner wasn’t even aware there was a problem!

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But here’s the good news: people pleasing isn’t who you are. It’s just a way that you behave. And it’s possible to get that behavior back to a healthier balance.

The Root of People Pleasing in Relationships

First, let’s talk about why people pleasing starts.

Maybe you had a parent with a strong sense of entitlement. They acted like the world revolved around them and their needs.

Alternatively, it’s possible your parent made you feel rejected. That their love was conditional. And you needed to earn it by being “good.”

To stay connected to them, you engaged in a behavior called “fawning.” Essentially, you made efforts to put their needs first. And forfeit yours. Your primary goal was to make them happy to preserve the relationship.

This helped you get through childhood. But as an adult, it turned into “people pleasing” or co-dependency.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Pleasing

The first step to moving past people pleasing is to recognize it’s a problem.

Healthy pleasing shows people that you are…

  • Kind
  • Cooperative
  • Caring
  • Helpful
  • But most importantly: boundaried

Unhealthy pleasing shows people that you are…

  • A doormat
  • Co-dependent
  • A servant
  • Or socially perfect

You are a separate, unique individual with different needs, opinions, and preferences than your partner. However, showing yourself in this way can be scary, because it means sometimes being at odds with them. It means conflict.

But you have to show yourself. And the people in your life will feel safer and more connected to you when you are able to set appropriate boundaries and share your preferences.

How to Stop People Pleasing in Your Relationship

Remember, people pleasing isn’t who you are. It’s what you are doing. And you can change your behavior. Here are a few tips.

Take care of your own needs.

Many people who engage in people pleasing give and give to the point of their own exhaustion. They are overworked, overscheduled, and overcommitted.

First, identify your needs. Then find a way to meet them. Often, this means giving up on some of your current commitments.

Check in with yourself before saying yes.

Ask yourself: Do I really want to do this? Why? Am I afraid I will lose the other person? Worried about how they will feel about me? Or do I genuinely want to help the other person?

Understand your priorities and where this request fits in.

Give yourself time to respond.

Especially at first, you may need to take time to consider your answer. Say something like, “I’m not sure if that will work. I’ll check my schedule and get back to you.” Or take a few minutes – or hours – to respond to that text or email request.

Practice saying no.

Understand that saying “no” doesn’t make you lazy or uncaring or selfish. And asserting your own needs doesn’t mean stepping on others or disregarding their feelings. It may not be an easy word to say at first, so learn to do so kindly but firmly.

Start by acknowledging the other person’s feelings or experience:

“I understand where you’re coming from,” or “I know you’re in a bind.”

Then stand up for your feelings or rights:

“…but I just don’t see it that way,” or “…but I can’t help right now.”

Start making choices. What to eat for dinner. To do over the weekend. To watch on TV at night. You can start small. But have ownership over what you prefer – and state it.

Get comfortable with conflict. It is a myth that happy couples don’t fight. Only couples where one or both partners have “checked out” don’t experience conflict – which is a bad thing.

The key is learning to navigate conflict in a healthy and productive way. That means being open and honest (but kind and respectful) about your needs, opinions, and preferences.

Seek Help If You Need It

People pleasing in relationships can cause big problems in the long run. If you’re having trouble moving past your people pleasing behavior or if you have a partner who struggles with people pleasing, consider seeking help.

In the end, you will find a deeper, happier relationship when you feel comfortable allowing your partner to see and love the whole you.

Originally Published 2/19/2018. Updated 1/13/2021.

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