In the drama of intimate partnership, asserting a strong “no” can be a show-stopper. Negativity, firmly expressed, seems to have some intrinsic power to squelch what’s in its path, whether it’s a suggestion to purchase a certain piece of furniture, plan a weekend getaway, or try the new restaurant that opened nearby. Perhaps the opposition embedded in every “no” evokes fear or apprehension, inducing the other partner to defer rather than persist with his or her original position.
It’s a mistake when couples automatically acquiesce to the intrinsic force of “no” and allow it to be the final word in decision-making. An explanation should always accompany the negative stance so the other partner can understand its basis and engage in thoughtful dialogue on the matter. “Yes” and “no” sit at endpoints along a spectrum that includes “perhaps” and “under certain conditions” and “help me understand why this is important to you.” Asserting “no” should signal the start of a conversation, not the end.
This is about exerting influence, regardless of whether we assert “yes” or “no.” Influence should be a two-way street, something partners share. It is a mistake to give negativity a special status. When influence travels back and forth, the relationship embodies a sense of fairness: each partner sometimes prevails.
In the strongest relationships, both partners know how to exert and accept influence. Exerting influence means we’re willing to state our needs and ask for what we want, without silencing ourselves out of fear of a partner’s disapproval and without capitulating because our mind tells us we’re selfish to make our needs and wants important. Accepting influence means we’re willing to set aside the desire to control the outcome or the satisfaction of believing that we’re right (see Right v. Smart). It means we’re open to our partner’s thinking without necessarily agreeing or complying or capitulating. When we accept our partner’s influence, we’re demonstrating the belief that our partner is important, that his or her opinions matter even if we don’t agree with them. Interestingly, research has found that men who accept influence from their female partners report being more satisfied in the relationship and, paradoxically, are perceived to be the more influential partner in the relationship overall.
Over time, every couple develops habits of influence. When exerting and accepting influence is relatively balanced between both partners, relationships are most likely to thrive.