No, Ceasing to Say “No” Will Not Fix Your Marriage

No, Ceasing to Say “No” Will Not Fix Your Marriage November 1, 2018

While browsing Facebook last week, I came upon a headline that brought me up short: I Didn’t Say ‘No’ Once To My Husband For 30 Days. Here’s What Happened.

Um. What?

My readers know that I have often criticized conservative evangelicals’ belief in “complementarianism,” the idea that it is the role of the husband to lead and the wife to submit. This article, though, is not on an evangelical website. It’s on some sort of beauty and entertainment website.

With almost morbid curiosity, I clicked through.

I stopped saying no to my husband for 30 days. Why? Out of desperation. At a peak moment in a heated argument, he looked me in the eye and said what I consider the worst thing I could possibly hear from someone I love: “You don’t respect me.”

See, for me, respect is huge. It’s everything. Mutual respect forms the roots that hold up the tree of marriage. And don’t forget that that tree bears the sweet fruit of love, too. A year into our marriage, conflicts kept flaring up — heated arguments about whose art collection took precedence in our living room’s decor, or whether the toilet seat should be left down or up — and I got to the point where all I wanted was to taste the fruit of love again.

Girl. 

Yes, respect is important—and it goes both ways. But how the heck is deciding to never say no a way of showing respect? It’s not! Her husband’s statement should have led to a conversation,not a one-sided decision—which she even didn’t tell him about—to simply say “yes” to everything he asked or said.

I wasn’t the only one to blame. But it began to dawn on me that that didn’t matter who was to blame. I had the power to make a change. It was going to take courage and humility but hey, fear and competition certainly weren’t working.

Did she really just admit to being motivated by “fear and competition” in her marital disagreements? We may be getting closer to the root of the actual problem here. This conflict may need more than a simple conversation. A talk with a good marriage counselor seems very much in order.

I wasn’t sure where exactly to begin so I decided I’d just stop saying no to my husband for a month and see what happened. I didn’t tell my husband about my plan. I just switched off my “no” button and texted my best friend daily to keep myself accountable.

I started saying “yes” to everything. Any decision he made, I was on board. I granted all of his requests. I accepted all of his suggestions.

Awesome replacement for marital counseling. Cool. 

What happened? Well, first, we took driving routes that I knew for a fact could have been more efficient had we gone with my suggestion. We made purchases that I found outrageous, like a new espresso machine when our old one was just fine, in my opinion. We imposed parenting rules like no jumping on the bed, which I considered a bit too uptight.

My husband benefited immediately. How could he not? Gone were any roadblocks I had placed in front of his plans and desires. I wasn’t so sure about myself. The uneasiness of deferring to him nagged at me.

I kept asking myself how I this could ever pay off, but I stuck with it. And before I knew it, saying “yes” revolutionized my marriage.

When my husband and I were first married, he used to throw out these big grand ideas, like, what if we start a business doing [insert idea here]? Or, hey cool, that cornfield is at auction, what would you think about going and bidding? This used to freak me out, because I knew we weren’t in the position to start that business, or buy that field, and besides, the field’s location wasn’t great and his business idea had a million holes, and that was just for starters. So I would say those things. And we would argue.

At some point during the first few years of our marriage I realized that my husband was just throwing out ideas. He didn’t mean he was going to go out tomorrow and put in paperwork for an LLC. He liked dreaming. And I realized that rather than shut his dreams down, I could listen, and participate, and dream with him. And that it didn’t mean we were going to actually go out tomorrow and buy that field.

Changing my approach to my husband’s grand ideas did improve our marriage. I felt better; he felt better. We worked better together. But it didn’t mean that I said “okay, let’s go buy the field.” It didn’t mean that I said “cool, go ahead and quit your job.” My point is that you can learn to work better with your partner—and learn to understand your partner better—without abdicating from participation in the relationship entirely, which is effectively what Cinelli, the author of this article, did.

Cinelli offers a list of things she said changed when she started saying “yes” to everything her husband said or asked.

1. He treated me better.

My biggest hang up with this whole experiment was fear of total disempowerment. I didn’t want to be a doormat. But as it turned out, my husband treated me like a queen when I became more agreeable.

Instead of digging his heels in, he began asking me how I felt about his decisions and then honoring those feelings. His choices were more reflective of my needs when they originated from positive interaction instead of negatives ones.

Ouch.

I’m going to say two things here. First, people tend to treat you better when you treat them better, and while saying “yes” to anything and everything is a terribleidea, it sounds like Cinelli was not treating her husband very well before. Second, this is basically a fundy talking point—that wives trade decision-making for being treated like queens. Trading your autonomyfor being treated better is a horribletrade.

Cinelli’s suggestion that her husband’s choices were typically rooted in “negative” interactions before is revealing. In a healthy relationship people can disagree and to work through disagreement and to come to an agreement without the interaction being “negative.” It sounds like that was not the case for Cinelli.

This story is a complementation’s wet dream. I’ve often criticized complementarians for their belief that all marriages not founded on husbandly leadership and wifely submission look like Cinelli’s—characterized by a dominating wife who doesn’t let her husband have a word in edgewise, doesn’t respect her husband, doesn’t value her husband, resulting in conflict and strife and a broken relationship.

What’s missing here is the reality that it doesn’t have to be like that. And the reality that not all non-complementarian marriages are like that!

With that, let’s continue through Cinelli’s list.

2. We stopped arguing.

When I deferred in every situation, there was nothing left to argue about! When we didn’t clash, we got along great, and it reminded me of our early days of dating.

No shit, Sherlock. If you defer every time your partner says boo, what would there be to argue about?

In their early days of dating, people don’t have to worry about things like financial decisions, childrearing, and who does chores. Things are simpler. Saying “yes” all the time won’t change the fact that Cinelli and her husband dohave kids, a home, and likely a mortgage. They may not be arguing—because Cinelli is deferring on everything—but there are still bigger decisions to be made than when they were dating.

Also? Arguing is how people work through disagreements. It just is. Certainly, there are arguments that could be termed mere “discussions” and arguments that devolve into shouting matches—but for better or for worse, disagreements have to be worked through somehow. Working through them by simply always letting your partner have their way is not a healthy way to run  relationship.

3. I finally chilled out.

I realized I was totally fine with many things that had seemed to matter so much. Who really cared which wall we hung which painting on? I enjoyed his movie picks more than I had expected, and I valued our time watching together so much more than the movie itself.

When I got out of the mindset that I needed things my way all the time, I realized going with the flow released me from the pressure of big decisions.

If this is how Cinelli was approaching her marriage, it’s no wonder she was having problems. It sounds like Cinelli absolutely neededto chill out.

4. I realized how many smart ideas my husband has.

Saying no becomes reflexive over time. When I removed the word from my vocabulary, I found myself opening up to my husband’s ideas and really considering them. I realized how well thought-out and sensible his plans were. He often takes into account safety factors that I miss entirely and he thinks ahead in a way that I often neglect to do.

If saying “no” had become reflexive, see above—it’s no wonder she was having trouble in her marriage. I find myself wondering why Cinelli married her husband, if she thought so little of his planning and decision making. No wonder he told her he felt like she didn’t respect him. She didn’t. 

While I was set on vacationing in the Caribbean, he looked ahead and knew it was the stormy season. He decided upon Greece, which had perfect weather and I couldn’t have been happier. And while I wanted to save money by assembling our furniture ourselves, he insisted we hire someone who could properly anchor it to the wall. As a mom of small children, I appreciate that kind of practical thinking.

Um. What. 

5. I became receptive to the many gifts I didn’t even realize my husband was trying to give me.

In the days of “no,” I had no idea how many times I turned down what could have been enjoyable experiences for me and chances for my husband to feel good about treating me right. When he suggested we grab a pizza, I thought I was just being honest when I declined because I wasn’t hungry.

I said no to going out to a movie because I was tired and it just wasn’t worth the trouble. When he offered to run an errand or build something for me, I felt that my refusal would save him the effort, or that I could get it done faster or better myself.

In truth, I had shut him out by erasing his chance to make me happy. Saying “yes” gave me the opportunity to appreciate him and allowed me to bask in the feeling of being cherished.

Cinelli describes the period before she started only saying “yes” as “the days of ‘no.'” That that was the real problem here—that before her experiment, she only said no. That is indeed a problem, and leads me back to my earlier question—why did she marry him if she had so little trust for him or his judgement?

There’s a piece of this that feels vaguely familiar, not because of my approach to marriage but because of my approach to parenting.

At some point early on in my children’s lives, I decided to ask myself “why am I saying this” every time I went to say “no” to them. By evaluating every single “no,” I was able to more effectively ascertain which were reasonable and necessary, and which weren’t. As my children came to recognize that I only said “no” when I had an actual reason—that I wasn’t being capricious or unreasonable or reflexive and that I waslistening to them and their needs—their interactions with me became more positive as well.

It sounds like Cinelli was treating her husband the way many people treat their children—with a reflexive (rather than reflective) “no.” But rather than take the approach I did and pause before saying “no” to evaluate whether it is actually necessary or just autopilot, she chose to start reflexively saying “yes.” Add to that that we’re talking about an adult and not children, and you get a sense of the problem.

But Cinelli is not done.

6. I took better care of myself.

Being receptive to another person opened me up to indulging in self-care. I found myself getting manicures and spending more time at the sauna, without the guilt of indulgence.

When I take good care of myself, I’m so much better equipped to care for another. My attitude improves, and that benefits both of us.

Wait, what? How did never saying “no” to her husband make her feel less guilty about spending time at the sauna? It is absolutely true that self-care is important, I’m just not seeing the connection here.

7. I felt good all the time.

Agreement and deferment frame my world, which leaves my physical expression toward my husband soft and my tone gentle and open. I find myself smiling all the time and enjoy a peaceful aura through which I now experience daily life.

What.

If Cinelli felt more at peace during her experiment, it was probably because she decided to let some things go and stop caring so very much about having her way in everything to the nth degree. I know I feel better when I take a deep breath, prioritize, and try to refocus on what’s important—on what matters and what doesn’t. It’s okay for the living room to look like this right now,I tell myself. What matters is that the kids are having fun, that they’re safe, that we’re together as a family. That helps.

I have a type A personality, and I suspect Cinelli does to. I understand the desire to control everything, the desire for everything to be perfect or just the way it should be in my mind. My life sometimes feels like a constant battle between that desire—and the accompanyingwork, work, workattitude that comes with it—and finding a place where I can let go and just be, and appreciate, and exist.

Self-awareness is kind of important here, though, and it doesn’t sound like Cinelli has it. She seems to see her interaction with her husband as the problem, but it seems like there’s something deeper down that she needs to work on, something that these other problems stem from. She may think she’s fixed it, but what she’s tried sounds more like atemporary bandaid than a lasting  solution.

Cinelli finishes her article like this:

So, have I sworn off “no” forever and ever? Not completely. I do choose “yes” most of the time. “No” has a place too, but I’m so much more reflective and less reactive than I used to be.

When I say “yes,” I’m open to its positive effects. And when I say “no” it’s never from a place of fear of uncertainty. I say “yes” when things aren’t that important and, of course, I always say “yes” to love.

This sounds like a very happy ending—toohappy, almost. Did Cinelli and her husband ever actually sit down and have a conversation about everything she was dealing with? Is she seeing a therapist?

The problem I have with this article is its framing. You come away with the feeling that men want sweet wives, agreeable wives, wives who smile and say “yes” to them. The resolution of the article doesn’t dig down to analyze what happened here—there is no discussion of what partnership should look like, or what healthy disagreement and discussion looks like. It feels too pat. Too easy. To over.

I’m reminded of all the evangelical marriage advice books I read as a teen. Keep yourself looking nice, they say. Smile and ask him about his day. Flatter him. Let him think things are hisdecision, even when they’re not. He’s wired to want to be in charge. He’s wired to want respect. But what is respect, exactly? Is it dressing up nicely when he’s on his way home and smiling even if you’re exhausted or just want alone time? Or is it communicating, talking through problems, and working toward solutions as a couple?

We can’t have effective conversations about relationships and healthy communication patterns if our discourse boils down to “I just stopped ever saying ‘no’ to my husband and it fixed everything.”

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