No. Nil. Nada: Why Saying No Can Strengthen Your Relationships

March 12, 2019

By Isabella Markert

Have you ever agreed to something you really didn’t want to agree to? If you’re like me, the answer to that question is “Of course. Every day!”

Planning my wedding comes to mind. My sister planned our wedding, and she had the idea to decorate the reception with paper-bag lanterns. I liked the thought, but I knew that the reception was going to end before the sun went down, so I was pretty sure the lanterns would just look like lame paper bags.

I expressed my concerns to her without explicitly saying no, and she pushed on with her idea. A few weeks later, in a desperate last attempt, I called my sister to see if the plan was still set in stone. And again, because I was afraid of hurting her feelings, I didn’t actually say no, and she assured me that the paper bag lanterns were a good idea.

It doesn’t matter who was right (but I was totally right). What matters is that my inability to say no about something that mattered to me left me feeling a twinge of resentment for months.

If you relate to any of this, here’s a comforting thought from Daniel Ames, a professor of management at Columbia University:

“Many of us exaggerate how badly counterparts will react when we refuse their requests or proposals,” he says. “Many help-seekers think a no is pretty likely, so they may not be shocked to get that answer.”

My sister may have been momentarily disappointed if I had said no to her lantern idea outright. But if I had framed that no in gratitude for her help and love for her, I don’t think she would have been hurt. Saying no when you really mean it protects yourself and your family. It keeps your values and priorities in line, it keeps resentment from seeping into your relationships, and it helps you be responsible for your own happiness.

Saying no keeps your values and priorities in line

When we automatically say yes to requests, our No. 1 priority is people-pleasing. When you allow yourself to say no when you really mean it, you’re forced to examine your priorities and what action will maintain those priorities.

“It boils down to setting a personal policy, implementing it, and communicating it to others,” says Vanessa Patrick, a professor of marketing at the University of Houston. “Think deeply about the things that matter to you, then give voice and action to your values.”

If a coworker asks you to help her move on a day you’ve set aside to spend time with your family, your rejection doesn’t have to be personal: “As a rule, Saturday is my day to spend time with my family.”

Now, of course, you could help your coworker move in the morning and spend time with your family in the afternoon, but that’s the point: you get to decide, based on your values and your individual circumstances, what is best for you and your family. As you say “no” to those things that don’t maintain those values, you’re able to feel calmer and more in control of your life.

Saying no keeps resentment from seeping into your relationships

Angela Wheeler, an author at Productive Flourishing, says that, in relationships, saying no prevents resentment “because you can both be honest about your capacity. . . . It shows you are invested in the relationship.”

For example, if your wife asks you to go bowling with her on a Friday night after you’ve had a long, tiring week, your first instinct might be just to agree grudgingly. But later, when you feel deprived of the rest you wanted, you may feel resentful of her. Don’t fall into this trap.

“It’s really easy to slip into mind reading, assuming that our partners should know what to do and say in order for us to feel cared about,” says Dr. Alexandra H. Solomon, clinical assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Department of Psychology. “It is also sometimes easier to complain that we are doing all of the work [or making all the sacrifices—even just to go bowling] than it is to give voice to our unmet need, longing, desire. The latter is far more vulnerable—and therefore healthier .”

Now, depending on your situation, the right move may be to set aside your own desires and help your spouse. It’s so important to give selfless service in marriage, and it can often help you feel better about whatever you’re going through. But there are times when the best thing for your relationship is to “give voice to [your] unmet need” and (at least temporarily) say no to your spouse’s request for help.

Be introspective about what you’ve felt resentment over, and examine whether saying no—at least sometimes—could have saved you both the heartache.

Saying no makes us responsible for our happiness—and reminds us that we’re not responsible for anyone else’s

In all relationships, and especially in marriage, it’s important to remember that we are responsible for our own happiness, and we can’t make the other person happy. When we say no honestly, we are taking responsibility for our own happiness. Rather than assuming that we should say yes because the other person might be upset, we are making decisions based on our own values. This starts a positive cycle that maintains this happiness.

“Pleasing everyone around you takes a ton of time!” says career coach Ashley Stahl. “Think about it: how much time do you spend pleasing other people and regretting your yesses? It’s better to be uncomfortable than it is to be resentful.”

Whether you’re discussing weekend activity preferences, wedding decor, or life decisions, saying an honest “no” leads to greater happiness.

Say “I Don’t” instead of “I Can’t”

The words we use matter.

“If you say, I don’t eat chocolate cake, it signals that this is your policy and that it stems from your identity. It is empowering,” says Professor Patrick. “But if you say, I can’t eat chocolate cake, you’re implying that you’re not in control and that external factors drive you. You’re also begging the question, Why not? If you say, I don’t, you don’t get pushback.”

Next time you’re asked to do something you don’t want to do, try saying “I don’t” rather than “I can’t.” You might be surprised how it changes the way you feel!

“Yes” and “no,” according to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, “are affirmations of what you believe, reasons for why you do what you do, and reminders of where you want to go.” Saying no when you really mean it strengthens your family relationships. It keeps your values and priorities in line, prevents resentment from seeping into your relationships, and helps you be responsible for your own happiness. After all, we could all do with fewer misplaced paper-bag lanterns in our lives, right?


Isabella Markert is a freelance writer, editor, and language educator. Isabella graduated from Brigham Young University, where she majored in English language and minored in editing. She is experienced in social media and web content and enjoys writing practical and fun pieces that make her readers’ lives better. When she’s not writing or editing, Isabella likes to play games with her husband and family, follow watercolor tutorials from Pinterest, and eat the snobbiest chocolate she can find.


Photo by RAYUL on Unsplash


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