I Never Said "No."

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 12.06% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I was a great husband, early on in our relationship. Gini could be friends with whoever she wanted, no matter what manipulative shitbirds they were. Even if her friends made fun of me behind my back and quietly suggested she could do better, I wanted her to be happy.
And every time she went out with them, I’d get into an argument with her that lasted for hours. You were out too late. You didn’t call in. What’d you guys do? You went to see that movie you promised to see with me? Did they know that? They did? Why would you do that?
Thing is, I was an awesome husband, because I placed no restrictions on her! She could go out with whoever she wanted.
…as long as she was willing to endure an hour-long argument justifying her behavior.
I’ve also dated really awesome partners who never said “no” to me, either. I could flirt with whoever I wanted! And maybe I’d have to spend two hours reassuring them when I got back, handling their meltdowns because why would I want to chat with anyone else when I had them…
…But they never said “No!”
The lack of “No” is a great way to ensure plausible deniability. Because there’s this stigma in our culture: you should want to support your partner in whatever they do, no matter how much it hurts you. So much of the cultural expectation of love revolves around this fucked-up amalgam of self-sacrifice and compersion, where you should be happy about whatever your partner does.
Except healthy relationships involve saying “No.” You don’t get to thumb the “off” switch on your partner, of course – humans aren’t toys – but it’s entirely legitimate to say, “Crap, this thing you’re doing is hurting me, and it needs to stop.”
The problem with presenting dealbreakers like that, of course, is that the partner may well decide that what needs to stop is your relationship. And that would make you a bad person, because good partners don’t tell their partners to stop doing things that are wounding you. Good partners suck it up, adjust, endure. Even now, I guarantee you that you’ll see some folks complaining in the comments that they’d never place any restrictions on their partners, freedom is beautiful, how dare you be such an asshole by asking them to choose?
Who wants to be that freedom-strangling idiot?
Yet there’s a great way to split that difference: You can get your partner to stop their hurting-you behavior, and never risk them leaving, and if they do they’ll look like the jerk!
You don’t say “No.”
Instead, you quietly dissuade them from doing {$THING} by starting a big ol’ argument every time they do {$THING}.
And after months of realizing that doing {$THING} comes with the hidden cost of having to defend their actions for hours afterwards, they start doing {$THING} less! And it’s not that they’re not allowed to do {$THING}, but rather that you just need them to do {$THING} in this impossibly well-defined way, like tapdancing through a field of land mines, and while theoretically they could do it properly, realistically they’ve been trying to get {$THING} right for months now and have yet do it without triggering a shitstorm of arguments.
If they leave, you get to talk about what a great partner you were. Because you let them do whatever they wanted. They chose {$THING} and kicked you out, and what kind of jerk would do that when they could have both?
Mind you, this is rarely a conscious effort to gaslight; it’s just that internally, you don’t want to be That Person Who Says No, so to preserve your self-image you nod your head and then nitpick every last choice your partner makes.
And you get to keep them in your life. For a little while longer, anyway. A strenuous, argument-filled longer, but hey, stretching out this doomed relationship is worth it, amiright?
Yet after all this time, I’ve learned it’s better to say “No.” My wife’s friends at the time were in fact disrespectful of both me and our relationship – and despite all of my “Sure, go ahead”s, eventually it came to a drama-filled showdown anyway. My poly partners really did not like my flirtatious nature, and eventually it became clear that my relationship styles didn’t mesh with theirs.
It would have been better for them, and me, to say “Okay, I know you want this, but this is a dealbreaker; can you stop this behavior to make me happy, or do we have to split up?” But we’d all been told repeatedly that the only people who did that were controlling jerks, and none of us wanted to be a controlling jerk, so instead we became, well… a controlling jerk with plausible deniability.
What we should have been was an honest person: “Look, I have needs, and these interactions you’re having with these people are really doing damage to me. Can you stop?” And if the partner said “No,” then I would have had to reevaluate whether the benefits of being with them outweighed the pains of watching them do things that hurt my feelings.
That might have ended the relationship.
Yet the wisdom I’ve learned in the years since is that a healthy relationship can withstand a sprinkling of “Nos.” You can’t live on a constant diet of negation, hell, that’s ridiculous, but enforcing the occasional firm boundary with “I know myself well enough to realize I can’t be happy in the proximity of that behavior” is in fact a wonderful thing to be strong enough to do.
Maybe your partner will change, and you’ll come out of it stronger. Maybe your partner will go “Nah” and leave, and you’ll find someone more suited to you. In either case, the outcome is likely far better than stringing someone along, telling them “Yes” when you desire a “No” with all your heart, never quite standing behind the fullness of your convictions but nibbling them with quibbles until they give up out of exhaustion.
Me? I’d rather have someone who stays out of full-throated devotion, instead of being shackled by Pavlovian responses. So I say “No.”
The rest is up to them.

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