Saying Yes and Saying No

According to relationship guru John Gottman, saying "Yes" is key to a happy partnership. In his words, could capture all of my research findings with the metaphor of a saltshaker. Instead of filling it with salt, fill it with all the ways you can say yes, and that’s what a good relationship is. “Yes,” you say, “that is a good idea.” “Yes, that’s a great point, I never thought of that.” “Yes, let’s do that if you think it’s important.” You sprinkle yeses throughout your interactions...This is particularly important for men, whose ability to accept influence from women is really one of the most critical issues in a a partnership that’s troubled, the saltshaker is filled with all the ways you can say no. In violent relationships, for example, we see men responding to their wives’ requests by saying, “No way,” “It’s just not going to happen,” “You’re not going to control me,” or simply “Shut up.” When a man is not willing to share power with his wife, our research shows, there is an 81% chance that the marriage will self-destruct.

Gottman has studied 1000s of couples in his "love lab," and I respect his perspective, despite not finding it very attentive to or inclusive of gender variant and queer configurations. When working with people in relationship, I find that questions frequently arise about how much individuals want to bend to sustain a relationship. Gottman's saltshaker metaphor highlights how repeated refusals to accept influence from our partners impedes our connection with them.

That said, I also appreciated seeing the following statement he makes in the article quoted above:

Agreement is not the same as compliance, so if people think they’re giving in all the time, then their relationships are never going to work. There are conflicts that you absolutely must have because to give in is to give up some of your personality.

What troubles me about the saltshaker metaphor is its limited focus on power dynamics and the extent to which gender socialization can contribute to expectations of compliance. Giving in may involve the harmful de-selfing that Gottman acknowledges. But giving in also may strengthen a sense of identity if we have been taught that accommodating others' needs is "good," "polite," and "kind." More pointedly, most of the women with whom I work carry the belief that attending to our own needs is "selfish," "rude," or "unacceptable." Not having practiced the art of listening within, many of us (men included) have a hard time identifying what our unmet needs are, let alone knowing how to make skillful requests of our partners to help us meet them.

In the paragraph opening this entry, Gottman hones in on men saying "No" to the detriment of relationships, but he does not address how important saying "No" remains for many women and additional people who struggle to be seen, heard, and valued as whole, self-determining human beings. In U.S. society, for example, where nearly one in five women have experienced rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes, "No" is frequently uttered but not heard.

Gottman does highlight that "respect and affection" are the two most important aspects of a relationship. I would like to take this issue of respect a step further by bringing psychologist Donna Hicks' dignity framework to the saltshaker conversation.* Hicks reminds us that dignity comes from a sense of inherent value and worth and that we all come into the world with it. "Each of us is worth having our dignity honored," she declares.

Hicks also emphasizes how vulnerable our dignity needs are since we frequently lose sight of others' and our own preciousness over time. When I think about the highly troubled relationships I have witnessed and of which I have been a part, dignity violations usually abound. If we repeatedly feel mistreated, neglected, and devalued, we create defenses that often take the form of hardness, anger, and resentment.

I am confident that the most powerful "Yeses" we can sprinkle on our relationships are those rooted in an honoring of our partners' inherent value and worth. Moreover, and as Hicks asserts, "when we honor others' dignity, we strengthen our own." However, if dignity violations occur, the ability to say "No, this _____ is not okay" is critical to maintaining a sense of our own value and worth. Under such circumstances, "No" means respecting our right to dignity.

* My wonderful colleague Ellyn Zografi introduced me to Hicks' work.