The Power of “Yes” and “No”

Guidance for the future of gender and love comes down to a single recognition.

Posted Dec 03, 2019

In my most recent book, On the Evolution of Intimacy, I start with a provocative observation. I propose that one possible result of the #MeToo movement and the like could be better communication between men and women and greater mutual understanding. But I warn, too, that the opposite could just as easily be the result. We could see growing polarization and an exacerbation of the battle of the sexes, not unlike what we see today with so many other social and political issues.

I go on to argue that which of these results we see will be a function of the degree to which men and women each recognize the depths of current changes and the need for essential new learnings—learnings that necessarily go both ways. The book includes a chapter that lists “important lessons for men” and “important lessons for women.” Even beginning to summarize these lists is well beyond what I can do in a blog post. But one specific lesson captures particularly well both what is most fundamental in needed learnings and also the fundamental newness of what they require of us.

If you ask the average person what ability is most important for a good relationship, the most common answer would be something like “clear communication.” But we can be more specific, and we need to be if our concern is relationships in the context of today’s changing relationship landscape. Put most simply, success at love more and more requires being skilled at discerning and articulating one’s yeses and nos.

In times past, traditional roles and relationship assumptions have delineated the most important yeses and nos for us. Today, as traditional guideposts abandon us, a relationship’s yeses and nos increasingly become our responsibility not just to determine, but also to voice. Fail to do so, and we quickly get ourselves into trouble.

And clarity with regard to yeses and nos becomes particularly important if our interest is the more whole-person kind of relationship that becomes possible with cultural maturity’s changes—and which I argue will be increasingly necessary if love is to continue to work in the future. (See the earlier post "How Changes Reshaping Love Are Much More Fundamental Than We Realize—and Much More Fundamental Than Before We Could Have Realized.")

Common relationship expectations both highlight this importance and help bring focus to the deeper implications of needed changes. Traditionally, we have assumed it is the man’s job to do the initiating. I can remember when first being attracted to girls that this came as a surprise, and seemed a bit strange—that pursuing was expected to be almost solely my task. But there would be more surprises to come.

It turned out that girls who wanted to be seen as virtuous or particularly desirable were expected, at least a bit, to play “hard to get.” In this picture, the man has to accept that he will hear nos and often repeated nos. And worse, the man has to accept that he will likely be seen as lacking by the girls if he gives up too easily. For me, in growing up, all of this seemed even stranger, and not at all a good starting point for an honest and caring relationship.

Historically, these have been the unwritten rules with modern courtship, and in an odd way, they have worked. But they really can’t work going forward. Fortunately, the rules are beginning to change and in ways that call basic assumptions into question.

We can miss the depths of the implications and how fundamentally these changes challenge both men and women. Men today increasingly need to learn that no means no. Pursuing in spite of messages that pursuit is not appreciated can no longer be equated with strength.

At the same time, women need to be much clearer with their nos. Lack of clarity is, in the end, just a means of control. If women want their nos to be taken seriously, they must be real nos. Women also need to clearer with their yeses if that is what they are actually feeling.

It is important to appreciate how these changes are about more than just altering behavior. They require both men and women to give up traditional kinds of power. (With both of the descriptions that follow, we can just as appropriately replace my references to men and women with other gender identifications or sexual orientations.)

The need to give up traditional kinds of power is most obvious for traditional male power. Traditional male power is heroic. When heroic power encounters obstacles, the job is to persist and push through them. In today’s new reality, if a man takes on the traditional task of initiating, he must sincerely want to hear “no” if that is the woman’s honest response. Not only are nos respected, but the man makes every effort to be sure he is getting clear yeses every step along the way.

But men are not alone in this need to rethink power. Indeed, in an important sense, today’s needed new clarity requires of women an even greater giving up of traditional power. The fact that traditional female power tends to be less explicit is key to its great ability to have an effect. Women (and men who make use of such power) are taught not to reveal their intentions (as with my reference to playing “hard to get”).

I often work with young men who find themselves totally bewildered by today’s changing rules and expectations. The fact that the information they need is so often kept out of sight can make their task almost impossible. Clear yeses and nos mean a woman, like a man, must be willing to lay her cards on the table. She doesn’t get to have it both ways if she wants her nos to be respected.

I should be clear about something I am not implying with this emphasis on good communication and sensitivity to yeses and nos. Today, we can hear proposals that come frighteningly close to advocating legal contracts for each step toward possible intimacy. This is not what I am suggesting. I can’t imagine anything more deadening to intimacy as exploration.

What I am suggesting is that communication in relationships needs to be much more conscious and nuanced—more personal, more deeply engaged, and more demanding of responsibility—than we’ve assumed before. An ethic that unquestioningly respects nos combined with a commitment on everyone’s part to make yeses and nos explicit should, with time, take us a long way toward where we need to go.