Sandra always prided herself on being incredibly flexible. Having grown up in a family with an emotionally volatile and stubborn father, she promised herself she’d never be that way.
From a very young age, she became accustomed to walking on eggshells since she never knew when her dad’s temper would flare. And when it did, she would immediately seek to calm him down by giving in to his demands.
Over the years, she developed an uncanny ability to anticipate his needs and put out fires before they got out of control. Unlike her siblings who would often stand up to their father and yell back at him, she would go along with whatever he wanted, while remaining seemingly unfazed.
She was anointed peacekeeper in the family. Her especially easy-going and acquiescent nature worked for her. At least for a while.
Later in life, when Sandra became involved in romantic relationships, she struggled. She often felt insecure and was unable to get her needs met. Instead of speaking up for herself, she would automatically succumb to her partner’s wishes.
After much introspection, she discovered that her suffering was due, in part, to what she had previously viewed as her biggest personal asset: her extreme flexibility. She now understood it had become her biggest liability. She realized it was a masked disguise for a very unhealthy behavior: people-pleasing.
People-Pleasing Tends to Backfire
We all know that being exceedingly stubborn and set in our ways, like Sandra’s father, isn’t a prescription for thriving connections. In contrast, flexibility is good for us, and for our relationships.
However, it is important to note the difference between being flexible and being boundaryless, as Sandra had learned to become growing up.
To keep the peace in our relationships, we may bend over backward for others, while ignoring our own needs. Further, we may not even consider—and perhaps even violate—our values. When repeated over time, this behavior can develop into an unhealthy habit and become detrimental to our well-being.
For example, we may directly sacrifice our desires to please our partner. Despite our good intentions, however, “sacrificing,” can have negative effects on our well-being, as well as on our relationship.
While some of us may actively give up personal preferences to please our partner, others of us may do this more passively by giving in to something we don’t want.
In other words, we “acquiesce.” We “accept, comply, or submit tacitly or passively" (Merriam-Webster). Essentially, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines the behavior, we “accept something reluctantly but without protest.”
Who of us hasn’t done that? Accepted something that we didn’t want maybe to please someone or avoid hurting their feelings?
At first glance, it doesn’t seem to be a big deal. And when done on occasion on little things it may be harmless.
“Giving In” May Be More Damaging Than “Giving Up"
However, if this behavior becomes our default way of being across all domains of life, it has the potential to spiral into an unhealthy, and even dangerous, habit. Especially when it comes to our closest relationships.
For example, we may not unveil our true feelings to our partner. Instead, we may find ourselves going along with their wishes while neglecting our own, so as not to “rock the boat.”
In the process, we may even end up compromising our deepest-held convictions and values out of a misguided attempt to please our partner or protect the relationship.
Acquiescing regularly to our romantic partner may cause us to ultimately lose our sense of self by disregarding our needs, desires, and dreams. And it can have a deleterious effect on our well-being down the road.
In a recent population-based study of over 2,500 older adults aged 62-99, researchers found that individuals who acquiesced in their first sexual experience reported worse physical health and increased levels of psychological distress later in life than those whose first sexual encounter was wanted.
The researchers defined sexual acquiescence as “lack of resistance to unwanted sexual activity” and “unwanted sexual activity” as “situations in which a person freely consents to sexual activity with a partner without experiencing a concomitant desire for the initiated sexual activity.”
Sadly, Sandra's first sexual encounter was one in which she acquiesced as well, rather than one that she actively wanted. While she was in a loving relationship with her boyfriend at the time, she felt she wasn’t yet emotionally ready to have sex.
Despite her feelings, she ended up giving in because she didn’t want to disappoint him. By no means though did she feel forced or pressured to have sex with him, she recounted.
However, she did ignore her wishes and personal values and put his desires above hers. It was a habit that she had been accustomed to doing since her childhood.
The latest study published in Advances in Mental Health illustrates what Sandra experienced. Many children who had parents with some sort of mental illness become experts in caretaking by anticipating others' needs, while at the same time masking their own needs.
In their Model of Acquiescence, the researchers explain how this process is unconscious and slowly unfolds: “The child not only learns how to put aside their own needs but eventually loses the ability to recognize their own needs at all.” This unhealthy behavior is a learned coping mechanism.
Stopping the Negative Cycle
To stop the negative influence of this behavior on your life and future generations, it’s important to disrupt the cycle, which may take some time. Seeking professional help is always advised if you grew up in a family with mental illness and are struggling.
For those who want to get their flexibility in check and stop giving in to others, try practicing the following healthy habits:
- Set boundaries in advance. Establish clear lines of things that are non-negotiable. These often align with our values. Communicate your expectations of the relationship and what you will and won’t accept.
- Distinguish between being receptive vs. passive. Choose to be an active receiver, rather than living passively by unconsciously giving in to others. Understand your values and make sure they are acknowledged and respected.
- Be assertive, not acquiescent. When our boundaries are not respected (whether inadvertently ignored or intentionally violated) speak up, and don't succumb. Calmly and directly, tell the other person that it won't be tolerated.
In sum, being overly flexible and people-pleasing may seem to work in the moment. But it’s not sustainable. It usually backfires and causes more damage in the long run for you and your relationship.
A better approach is to set boundaries, understand your values, and be assertive in making sure they are always acknowledged and respected.
Blake-Holmes, K., Maynard, E., & Brandon, M. (03 May 2023): The impact of acquiescence: a model of coping developed from children of parents with mental illness, Advances in Mental Health, DOI: 10.1080/18387357.2023.2206037
Liu, H., Shen, S. & Russ, M. “Went Along With”: Acquiescence During First Sexual Experience and Late-Life Health. Arch Sex Behav 51, 1591–1605 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-021-02206-2
Pileggi Pawelski, S., Pawelski, J.O. (2018). Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. NY: TarcherPerigee.