Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
You may think that learning to say “No” is a simple matter. But this is not necessarily true. We usually expect our partner to respond to requests pretty quickly after we make them. What we often don’t realise is that some requests are not so simple to fulfil.
For example, you may think you’re asking for a change in behaviour. But for your partner, your request may actually be a developmental challenge. They may not have developed the relationship skills required to do what’s being asked of them.
Your partner may never have learnt to identify what they’re thinking, feeling or needing. They may not know how to say what they want and desire, or how to negotiate about their unique needs or how to make clear contracts.
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 him to be able to reciprocate. When she requested this, he answered “OK, I’ll do that”. He was expressing his genuine desire to do so. But he couldn’t do it because he didn’t know how to. This problem brought them into counselling with me.
During the session, we explored what blocked him from expressing his emotions. We discovered that he’d never learnt the very first step – to tune into himself to define 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 these skills. To him, her request was like she was asking him to speak Russian when he’d never had one Russian lesson. It felt like a huge expectation!
On her side, she was also contributing to this normal relationship conflict. She hadn’t realized that he was not aware of his thoughts, feelings & needs like she was. This meant that she hadn’t developed the capacity to work with the fact that they were at totally different stages in developing a crucial relationship skill – speaking about emotions. So she couldn’t accept that she’d have to learn to be an emotion coach to her partner.
She resented the idea of coaching him, even though her partner had never been taught emotion skills since childhood. Her resentment was getting in the way of understanding that differences are inevitable in every relationship and that we need to learn to work with these. It’s often the case that one partner is better at something than the other, like playing the card game Rummy. So if you want your partner to play Rummy with you, and they don’t know how, you’ll have to coach them.
In the counselling session we also discovered that he often said “Yes” to doing tasks even though he knew he didn’t have the time or the energy to carry through on his promises. This pattern, 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 left undone, he often felt guilty and inadequate. In turn, she felt burdened by having to do the majority of household tasks and resentful because she believed she’d “turned into a nag”.
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 both had problems in setting boundaries. Setting boundaries is hard to do, especially when we’re under pressure, feeling stressed or tired and after many unresolved conflicts.
It is OK to have different thoughts, feelings & desires than your partner
Being OK with the differences between you involves learning to differentiate in a healthy way. This is a is very important requirement for your individual, as well as relationship growth. It is the necessary groundwork for learning to say “No” in a mature way. Differentiation requires three steps:
- Turn within & identify your own thoughts, feelings, wants & desires
- Turn to your partner & express your thoughts, feelings, wants & desires in a respectful, moderate way
- Manage your own emotional reactions, especially 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 practicing these steps, over and over.
Wanting to please or avoid conflict often underlies an inability to say “No”.
In the example above, the man didn’t say “No” to doing tasks because he wanted to please his wife. But he lacked emotional awareness of his own thoughts, feelings & desires. So he was unable to correctly identify, communicate & negotiate about whether he had the time and energy to do tasks when she asked him to.
In her case, she couldn’t say “No” to taking on all the tasks because she wanted to avoid conflict. But she also didn’t know how to ask for an appropriate time to have a conversation about what she wanted in a clear and non-demanding way. She needed to learn to ask him – “When would be a good time to talk for 10 minutes about household tasks?” Then at the start of this conversation to say whether she needed:
a) a “feelings focused” discussion with him about household tasks, where she only wanted him to listen, or
b) a “problem solving” discussion where they’d discuss together what to do about household tasks.
In the past her “solution” had been to do all the tasks resentfully and then to nag him when she felt overwhelmed. This is a very common couple dilemma that I see with my clients.
When we say “Yes” we’re often hoping to get someone’s approval or trying to avoid conflict. This is usually because we haven’t yet developed a healthy enough sense of differentiation and of working through our differences. Developing differentiation is another way of describing setting healthy boundaries and having healthy self-esteem. Boundaries and self-esteem go together like walls and a cosy house.
In a relationship healthy boundaries & self-esteem mean clearly saying:
- whether you can or can’t do something
- saying when you’ll do it or why you can’t
- offering an alternative suggestion about what you can do instead
- then doing what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’ll do it.
Four steps for learning to say “No” appropriately
- Acknowledge your behaviour
The first step in changing a “people pleasing” pattern is acknowledging that you’re doing it. Learning differentiation skills is a big 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” in a healthy way. It is a process that will take time and practice over months and years. Real change takes effort & deliberate practice.
- Do a mini assessment
Ask 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? Then negotiate a more suitable time when you’ll be able to do it.
- Pick one thing 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, because I have this report to finish. I will do it tomorrow by 4.00pm”. Then make sure you follow through on this commitment or renegotiate if you really can’t do it.
Practice and persistence will strengthen your ability to say “No”. This deliberate practice will develop clear boundaries and healthy self-esteem. Learning to say “No” isn’t easy if you’re mostly used to saying “Yes”. But it’s an important part of simplifying your life, reducing your stress and earning trust.
By learning to say “No” you actually build trust. When you can say a “No” in a healthy, differentiated way, your partner will know you really mean it when you say “Yes”. With practice, you’ll find that 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 +61 421 961 687.
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.