Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: The Meaning of ‘No’ In Relationships

While recently waiting on line in a crowded store, I overheard a bit of a friendly, flirty conversation between two young cashiers. The young man asked the young woman something. I couldn’t hear her answer, but I did hear his response back,

“Does the way you just said “NO” really mean “YES?”

Good question.

He’s certainly not the only one confused. Anyone who has been in a relationship knows that saying “ NO” or hearing “NO” can be complicated. Regardless of whether the issue is sexual, financial, or food related, there are times when you really don’t want to say “NO”- but you do. There are times when you just can’t say “NO” – so you don’t. There are times when you can’t tolerate his/her “NO” and won’t let it go and there are times when you need the shirt that says “What part of “NO” Don’t You Understand?”

The ability to “Say NO” is actually crucial to the vitality of any relationship because it is a reflection of the capacity to feel safe, independent, different, and authentic with one’s partner. It implies choice and as such it makes saying “yes” both real and possible.


Saying “NO” can also be part of the pain and stress of a relationship because it can be misunderstood or misused as an indication of rejection, resistance, resentment or retaliation. In this context a “yes” is hard to understand and often hard to find.

What do you understand about the meaning of saying or hearing “NO” in your relationship?
How do you react? Do you over-react?
Can it be understood as permissible and valuable?

Intimate Complications
The Freedom to say “NO” can be the most liberating aspect of a couple’s sexual intimacy because it implies trust and choice. It makes possible an authentic and mutual “yes”.
That being said, the experience of a ” NO” in a relationship is not easy. Both men and women who recognize that their partners love them will often admit to feeling quite rejected by the other’s “NO”.

It is worth considering:

If you are saying “NO”- Are you doing it in a way that is loving and validating of future connection – Do you pursue future connections such that there is room for “yes” and “no” in the relationship?
If you are hearing “NO”- Can you accept it without feeling rejected? Can you believe your partner’s reason and trust your mutual desire enough to make more overtures? Will you be responsive or suspicious of your partner’s next invitation? Will you insist it is out of guilt and undermine the opportunity? Why? Reconnection does much more than retaliation to dispel feelings of rejection.

“NO” vs. Never
One dynamic that escalates negative feelings and traps partners in time is the assumption that “NO” means “Never.” In the case of Melissa and Jack, this dynamic became a vicious cycle that neither seemed able to break. Essentially, if Melissa made an overture and Jack was not responsive, she began to accuse him of never caring or responding. This would leave Jack feeling embarrassed, falsely accused, and angry. Unwilling to respond and unable to see past her accusations to her real wish to be with him, Jack would escape the feelings by non-response or leaving the room – sadly fulfilling her worst fear.

It’s likely that Melissa missed Jack so much that it “felt like never,” but the problem with negative overgeneralizations in couple communication is that they dismantle discussion by assaulting the partner’s reality. Had Jack stayed to validate his reality, to insist that “NO” was not “Never” both might have felt less hopeless.

Difference does not mean “NO”
According to Elaine Hatfield (1988), one of the differences between men and women is that that they use different cues for arousal and desire. He is stirred by visual cues, she by the loving and intimate comment. It is worth recognizing that the fact that your partner does not speak your emotional language does not imply lack of interest. The fact that she ignores the comment about her blouse or he does not respond with a loving text message – does not mean there is lack of desire or that there will be a “NO” to connection.

Saying “NO” to the Familiar
Given the host of factors from bodily hormones to unexpected illness, combat stress, fatigue, pregnancy, age, marital stress etc. that can dampen sexual relating, saying “No” to the familiar can serve an important role. Supported by the work of Helen Fisher ( 2004),one of the reasons that vacations, unpredictable reactions, changes in patterns, novelty, exhilarating sports etc. enhance a couple’s sexual desire and responsiveness is that what is ” different” actually changes neurochemistry. When she refuses to go away with the same camping buddies,when he says no to just staying home again, when they both risk the unexpected – something positive can happen.

“NO” as Anger Management
One of the most valuable “NO’s” that either partner can offer in a relationship is the refusal to fight in a destructive way. Key to anger management is the ability to disengage from a conversation that is escalating in a way that doesn’t dismiss the importance of the topic but also doesn’t fuel the fight. “No, I can’t talk about this now without fighting. I will talk about it tomorrow when I’m not exhausted.” Much as the follow-up to the “NO” in sexual response, the follow-up to discuss the conflict or face the disagreement at another time or in another way (writing, phone call, out of the house conversation) makes “NO” and “Yes” believable and possible.

The “Nuanced NO”
As exemplified by our two young cashiers in the example above, intimate conversation and connection is a complicated mix of chemistry, desire, knowing and not knowing. The only way that a “NO” can safely be interpreted as maybe “YES” is if there is enough trust to take the risk of pursuing the partner and a bottom line of respect that makes a final “NO” clearly recognized and accepted.

I’m not sure what happened between the two young cashiers but for them and even for partners who have been together forever it is worth hanging in to find out if the “NO” really means “YES.”

For Further Reading:
Fisher, H. 2004. Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

Hatfield, E. 1988. Passionate and companionate love. In The Psychology of Love, edited by R. J. Sternberg and M.L. Barnes. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.