It’s only one word; and it has just two letters. Although it is clear, it is frequently not spoken, even when it should be. The failure to communicate this word is the cause of many relationship problems, and the overuse of it is also the source of many difficulties. If you haven’t yet figured out the answer to this riddle, here’s another hint. It rhymes with show, foe, crow, and row. Yes. That’s right. It’s “No”.
So, how can the non-use, misuse, or overuse of such a small word result in so many relationship problems? And why is it that so many of us are afraid to speak it when we need to? And why is it that many of us don’t say “no” when we feel “no”?
To find answers to these questions, we need to look at what this word means in the context of relationships. “No” is a refusal to accept something that is being offered or requested. It affirms a boundary between ourselves and someone who is asking something from us. It means that we are unwilling to accommodate another’s implicit or explicit desires, which requires us to risk a reaction that could be unpleasant.
Given the preference that most of us have to hear “Yes”, there is likely to be a disappointment or even anger if we refuse to accommodate another’s desire of us. We prefer not to activate negative feelings in them, so we are inclined to accommodate their requests, even when doing so goes against our own truth.
The problem with this is that in trying to prevent another person from feeling upset, we are not only being dishonest with our partner, but we are communicating to them that we are okay with fulfilling whatever they are asking of us and consequently will be happy to do so again in the future.
Reinforcing their hope that we are willing to fulfill this, and other expectations set up a pattern of entitlement. When one partner comes to expect their desires to be fulfilled and the other is unwilling to be willing to use the “n” word, the likelihood of resentment on both sides increases.
If I am in the habit of saying “yes” when I mean “no”, I begin to feel resentful towards the person who I feel is making selfish demands of me. The truth is that I am the one who is forcing myself to sacrifice my own truth in order to prevent the possibility of provoking his or her anger or disappointment.
Sometimes we have to be willing to risk letting down someone in order to preserve our own integrity or the integrity of our relationship. Although we can’t always prevent feelings of disappointment or anger from arising, we can respectfully decline to accommodate others’ expectations. Responses such as “I’m sorry but that doesn’t work for me”, or “I have other commitments on that day so I won’t be available to drive you to the airport” or “I feel uncomfortable delivering your message to this person and I’d rather not do it,” or “I can appreciate that you would like me to handle this, but it doesn’t feel right for me to do this.”
None of these responses include a reason that justifies my response or an explanation as to “why” I am refusing to accommodate their request. Justifying my reason can easily turn into an argument as to whether or not my reason is good enough for my partner. It’s not surprising that they want an answer to the “Why not?” question. Trying to provide an answer that is sufficient to satisfy my partner’s curiosity can be dishonest because I am leaving them with the impression that I would like to help them out, but I can’t because of something beyond my control. In most cases, the truth is, I can, but I prefer not to. Saying that “I can’t” when the truth is that “I’d rather not” isn’t exactly the truth and although it seems more polite to tell a ‘little white lie”, doing so can diminish the trust level of the relationship.
These guidelines are not rigid rules that must be followed in all situations. There are times when it is more considerate to explain why you would rather not accommodate a request. But when we don’t automatically claim an inability rather than admit to making a conscious choice, we bring greater respect into our relationship and into our own life. We gradually break the habit of saying “yes” when what we actually feel is “no”.
Bringing more truthfulness into our partnership isn’t easy and it can feel risky. But if done with sensitivity and respect, it can make a profound difference. If you can’t speak an honest “no” to someone, you can’t give a wholehearted “yes.” From our experience, that’s true. What do you think?