You may think that learning to say No is a simple behavioural change. But this is not necessarily true. My clients usually expect their partners to respond to requests pretty quickly after they’re made. What they often don’t realise is that some requests are not so simple for their partners to do.
What one partner thinks they’re asking for is a change in behaviour. But for the other partner, the request may actually be a developmental challenge. What this means is that they may not have developed the relationship skills required to do what’s being asked of them. They may never have learnt to make clear contracts, to say what they want & desire nor to negotiate about their unique needs.
Learning to say No in couples counselling
Here is an example of how learning to say No is important. During a couples counselling session, one woman asked her partner to express his emotions more openly to her. It was easy for her to express emotions and she wanted her partner to be able to reciprocate in the same way. When she made this request of him he answered “OK, I’ll do that”, expressing his genuine desire to do so. But he didn’t do it. He couldn’t. That was a major problem that brought them into my counselling room in the first place.
In the session, we explored what blocked him from expressing his emotions. We discovered that he’d never learnt to tune into himself to know what he was actually thinking, feeling or wanting. Even though he wanted to express his emotions for the sake of improving their relationship, he had not yet developed this skill. Her request felt to him like she was expecting him to speak French to her when he’d never learnt French. It was a huge expectation.
To add to this dilemma, she was also contributing to this normal relationship conflict. She hadn’t realized that he was not aware of his thoughts, feelings & needs in the way she was. So, she hadn’t developed the capacity to accept that they were at totally different stages in developing the crucial relationship skill of speaking about emotions. She also couldn’t accept that she’d have to learn to be an emotion coach to him. These are the same skills that Dr. John Gottman teaches parents so they can emotion coach their kids. She resented that idea, even though her partner had never been taught emotion skills as a child.
In this session we also discovered that he often agreed to do tasks even though he knew he didn’t have the time or the energy to carry through on his promises. This pattern, again coming from a desire to please, and a more hidden desire to avoid a conflict, had over the years created tension in their relationship. With tasks being left undone he continually felt guilty and inadequate. In turn, she felt burdened by having to do the majority of household tasks and resentful because she was “turned into a nag”. Plus she felt taken for granted.
Neither of them knew how to have a healthy conflict discussion. Learning to say No in healthy ways was something they both struggled with. They had problems in setting boundaries. Setting boundaries is hard to do, especially when we’re under pressure, feeling stressed or tired and particularly after many years of unresolved conflict.
It is OK to have different thoughts, feelings & desires than your partner
Being OK with accepting the differences between you is learning to differentiate in relationship. This is a is very important requirement for individual, as well as relationship, growth. It is the necessary groundwork for learning to say No in a healthy way. Differentiation requires three steps:
- to turn within & identify your own thoughts, feelings, wants & desires
- to turn to your partner & express your thoughts, feelings, wants & desires in a respectful, kind way
- to manage your own emotional reactions if your partner has different thoughts, feelings, wants & desires.
When you and your partner think, feel and desire different things, learning to say No requires the following steps.
Four tips for learning to say No appropriately:
- Recognize that the desire to please often underlies an inability to say No.
In the example above, the man didn’t say No because he wanted to please his wife. But he lacked emotional awareness of his own thoughts, feelings & desires. He also was unable to correctly assess & communicate whether he had the time and energy to do the tasks when she asked him to.
In her case, she couldn’t say No because she wanted to please him by managing the household and the kids. But she also didn’t know how to ask in a clean and non-demanding way for an appropriate time to have a conversation with him. She needed to learn to say, up front, whether she needed:
- a “feelings focused” discussion with him about her emotional desires or
- a “problem solving” discussion about household tasks.
Her “solution” was to do all the tasks resentfully and to nag him when she felt overwhelmed.
When we say “yes” we’re often looking to get someone’s approval or to avoid conflict. This is often because we don’t have healthy enough boundaries or a good enough sense of differentiation. If that’s the case with you, you can learn to clearly state whether you can or can’t do something that’s asked of you. The first step in changing this “people pleasing” pattern is acknowledging that you’re doing it. Learning basic assertiveness skills are needed as part of the process of learning to say “no”.
- Make a commitment to change.
Learning any new skill takes time and practice. Commit to learning how to say No. It is a process that will take time and practice.
- Do a mini assessment.
As yourself questions like: Where am I specifically saying “yes” when I need to say “no”. What do I need to say a complete “no” to and what do I need to say “no for now” to, and negotiate a more suitable time when I’ll be able to do it?
- Pick one of those things to which you need to say “no” and practice with that one.
Saying “no for now” might translate to: “I can’t do it right now, but can get to it tomorrow”. Then make sure you follow through on this commitment.
Practice and persistence will strengthen your ability to say “no” and to set a clear boundary. Learning to say No isn’t easy if you’re used to saying “yes” all the time. But it’s is an important part of simplifying your life, reducing your stress and earning trust. You build trust by learning to say “no” because when you say “yes” your partner will know you really mean you will do what you say you’ll do. And when you say “no” you will tell your partner why not and negotiate a better time to do it. With practice, you’ll find saying “no” becomes easier.
If not being able to say “no” is causing problems in your relationship, you may need an experienced relationship counsellor & coach. Call 0421 961 687 or email us to schedule an appointment. International callers should call +61 2 8005 1742.
You deserve the best trained relationship coaches if you’re planning to invest time and money in your relationship. If you’re not ready to book an appointment, call us on 0421 961 687 to book a FREE 15 minute phone consultation to discuss how we may be able to assist you.