“Can I express a desire?” I asked my then-boyfriend.
“Of course. What is it?”
“I want to come and stay with you for a couple of weeks when you move into your new place.”
“Ah, yeah, I want to see you too, and I’m really looking forward to having my own apartment and spending some time alone when I move. This (global pandemic) has all been a lot to process.”
AKA, no, I don’t want you to come visit right now.
“Okay, I get it. Thank you for telling me where you’re at.”
A few weeks prior, he had asked me to come down to the city to see him. That time, I said no. We weren’t yet living together and I was keeping my distance from the epicenter of the coronavirus, and it was having an impact on our relationship. He was moving into a new apartment outside of the city and we’d been planning to reunite then.
Hearing his no, although it had an initial sting, also felt refreshing.
It did take a lot for me to come out and share this desire with him and then be rejected, so of course there was some sadness. I was feeling vulnerable, but at the same time, it made me respect him and our relationship more.
The ultimate form of kindness and love in a relationship is when we clearly express our truth and set boundaries and respect our partner enough to let them have their own experience without us coming in to ‘save’ or take care of them if the experience they’re sitting in is less than optimal.
My boyfriend honored himself enough to say no and be true to what he was feeling — which was that he needed space.
A lot had just happened in all of our lives. I moved out of the city, he was now working from home indefinitely and trips and plans we had made for the summer would no longer be happening. He wanted the ability to process in his own time, in his own way and he trusted me to handle that ‘rejection’ and still be okay.
This was a new experience and type of exchange for me. My previous relationships reeked of codependency and ultimately led to difficult endings where both of us felt resentful for continuously abandoning our needs and desires in the name of making the relationship work and not wanting to cause the other person to ever feel uncomfortable.
Here’s why saying ‘no’ is hugely important in your relationships.
Our ‘no’ makes us trustworthy
Think about it: how do you feel about the person who says ‘yes’ to everything?
For me, it makes me suspicious. If you’ve ever felt the same, it can leave us in what’s called cognitive dissonance, when we’re hearing someone say one thing but the experience we’re feeling is another. When someone says ‘yes’ when they mean ‘no’, I can feel the difference.
I’m then left waiting for them to bail later, take some time and come back and say no, or follow through on the yes but potentially project their resentment at me or just not show up fully. Ultimately, I don’t trust their ‘yes’ and therefore can’t trust them.
We avoid saying no because we think it will hurt others or cause them pain or anguish. This is one of the biggest myths about setting boundaries as described by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend in their best selling book, Boundaries.
Appropriate boundaries don’t control, attack, or hurt anyone. It’s quite the opposite. Your true ‘yes’ or ‘no’ makes you trustworthy and has others feel safe in your presence.
A clear ‘no’ can make us feel safe
A strong, clear, and true no creates containment, especially if things feel chaotic or uncertain.
We all crave boundaries. We want to know where we stand with others, and we want to know where the line is so that we don’t inadvertently cross it.
A true ‘no’ can settle our system.
In intimate relationships when we’re still getting to know and understand each other, our systems are testing each other. If I’m always met with ‘yes’ when I can feel my partner is actually a ‘no’, I may be hesitant to let go fully in their presence, to trust.
If they can’t say ‘no’ to me and stand up to me, can they really handle me at my worst?
Hearing ‘no’ can be grounding, and it’s important to protect the integrity of any relationship.
We become more resourceful in the face of ‘no’
Sometimes hearing ‘no’ from someone we wanted or needed help from actually helps us become more responsible and take more ownership of our lives and our needs we may have otherwise been robbed of.
A ‘no’ to me now means ‘okay, whatever I was trying to do wasn’t quite right and now I need to go back to the drawing board’. Sometimes my best ideas or plans are the second generation of what I had first envisioned.
Being told ‘no’ builds our resilience. It can require us to connect with others and seek out additional resources and support. In relationships of any kind, when we make someone responsible for all of our social, emotional, and physical needs, we run the risk of overwhelming them. Seeking help outside the relationship is healthy and important and something I always recommend to my clients.
These days, I appreciate being told ‘no’. I’m able to separate the feelings of shame and rejection and not make it mean ‘I’m a bad or unworthy person’ when I’m told ‘no’, but rather that my partner respects themselves and me enough to be honest and truthful.
It’s also a reflection of my own ability to use my voice and speak up where in the past I haven’t always been able to fully own and express a ‘no’ in the face of intimacy and with someone I care about.
Being able to speak your truth and give others a clear ‘no’ not only makes you trustworthy, but it helps others to feel safer in your presence and connect more fully. Saying no to others helps them to become more resilient, resourceful, and to find the essence of their own truth as well.