Growing up, I had a really hard time saying no. Even when it was the appropriate response, it felt harsh coming out of my mouth. Wrong.
Like a lot of women, I’d been raised to default to compliance. Going along with whatever other people wanted. It was part of blending in. Being liked.
On one hand, wanting to be liked makes sense. Humans are social animals, and whether or not we admit it, the vast majority of us want to belong. To fit in somewhere. Have our own “people.” And being liked is an important part of this.
But it’s possible to take the desire for acceptance too far, to places where it’ll really damage your mental health and well-being. Basically, it’s okay to care what other people think of you, but it’s also important to be specific. The key is being selective, so you don’t end up judging your self-worth in a warped mirror.
I know this now, but I wasn’t taught this growing up. Instead, because I had a mother who was obsessed what other people thought of her and of our family, I didn’t learn to qualify judgment from other people. And I came of age extremely sensitive and plagued by constant worry about how other people viewed me.
This came out in a number of different ways, including a near-inability to say “no” to people. And a near-inability to set healthy boundaries.
I’d one day come to learn that people pretty much all seem the same so long as you’re saying yes to everything they ask of you. And that “no” is often the word that differentiates between a reasonable person who actually cares about you and one who views you primarily as a wish fulfillment machine.
But that wouldn’t happen for quite some time.
When I Did Refuse Someone, I Always Had to Have a Reason Other Than “I Don’t Want to”
In those days, if I did refuse someone else’s request, there always had to be a reason. And typically I apologized and said that reason instead of saying “no.” In my mind, it softened my refusal and let the other person know it wasn’t personal. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to (even though, sometimes, I really didn’t want to).
“Do you want to come over?” “I’m sorry, I have a paper to write.”
“Hey, can you pick me up tomorrow morning?” “I’m sorry, I have a gig out of town, I won’t be around to do that.”
It was never “no.” Or “I don’t want to.”
Similarly, I was unable to actually speak in a straightforward manner regarding sexual rejection: “Hey, do you want to go out?” “I’m sorry, I have a boyfriend.”
This was a tactic I used over and over again, even when I didn’t have a boyfriend, when I was single or had a girlfriend instead. It wasn’t generally safe to tell just anyone that you weren’t straight in rural Maine in the 90s, you had to really trust someone. Besides, men simply weren’t scared away by a female rival the way they were a male one. If anything, knowing you had a girlfriend would encourage them to try to horn in on it and have themselves a ready-made threesome.
So “I’m sorry, I have a boyfriend” it was. Even when it wasn’t true.
And it worked like a charm. Monogamy, especially a straight monogamous relationship, was a force field. A handy barrier that kept me protected from unwanted sexual advances. I was taken. End of conversation.
The Consequences of Using Monogamy as a Soft No
This former approach felt truly strange many years later when after some soul-searching I would eventually go on to be in polyamorous relationships. I’d find myself laughing and shaking my head when people assumed I was completely off-limits because I was already seeing someone. Because they weren’t right about that.
Obviously they had the right to refuse me if they didn’t want to be in a non-monogamous arrangement, but I no longer personally thought of my own love life as binary: Taken or not.
Now, it was possible even as a polyamorous person for me to get to a place where I didn’t have the time or energy to take on new partners (a state folks often cheekily refer to as polysaturation).
But the whole script of “I have a boyfriend” with the implied “go away” tacked on to it wasn’t doing me any favors. At the very least, it necessitated a number of long, somewhat awkward conversations, where I opened up to someone else about my weird little love life. Especially because at that time polyamory wasn’t known nearly as well as it is now (and certainly not in rural Maine).
I wanted to be frustrated about it. But I couldn’t, really. The taken/not taken binary had been so helpful to me as a young person and at the time so easy to use. Effortless, freeing. I hadn’t known then that the bill would come later. But it did.
And it was difficult to find paying for it now unfair as I’d been using its services for years.
It’s been an awfully long time since I used that excuse. “I’m sorry, I have a boyfriend” or “I’m sorry, I have a husband.” I honestly can’t remember the last time I did.
That said, I do sometimes still find myself invoking my married status at times when I feel unsafe. Letting a cab driver know that he’s driving me to meet my husband (with a cartoonish level of emphasis on the word). Making it clear to him that I’m not some single woman he can isolate and victimize without risking the ire of a highly invested man.
I’ll be missed, I’m saying. Don’t you fucking dare start shit. Just don’t.
But in a soft, singsong-y everyday pleasant way. One that wouldn’t threaten a person who harbors no ill will towards me. But will speak volumes to the person who does.
And it’s quick. It works — in the sense that it at least it makes me feel a touch safer.
But I often find myself reflecting on it after the fact. Wondering what it means that it’s my natural instinct to do that. Whether it feeds right back into a script I’m still trying to step away from but never quite getting there.