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Why Women Have a Hard Time Saying No

Women often play to get along, whereas men often play to win.

One of the most common questions I get from women who are on the dating market or are thinking about stepping in is, “How do you say 'no' to men that you are not interested in?”

One of the biggest complaints I hear from women is there are a lot of men out there who just won’t take no for an answer.

Saying no and disentangling yourself from unwanted male attention is a crucial skill to long-term success in dating and relationships. Moreover, these skills, once learned, can be applied in most areas of your life to great success.

Caveat: this post is geared more towards heterosexual woman, because they tend to have a harder time with 'no' in their interactions with men. However, if you're having a hard time shaking unwanted attention, this may also be for you.

Saying No Sets the Boundaries

When you’re first entering into the dating market, you’re likely to meet a number of people. For instance, when you first put an online profile up on a site like or, you’re literally the new kid on the block and all of the other kids will be motivated to check you out.

Take Rebecca, for example.

Whenever Rebecca put up an online profile, she was always inundated with emails from men during the first few weeks. On the one hand, this is great, because it seems to like you have a lot of options. On the other hand, however, it can be overwhelming. Especially when you’re getting emails and requests from people who, chances are, didn’t even take the time to read your profile, let alone check to see if you’re potentially compatible.

When you understand how to say no and mean it, you, ironically, increase your options, because you’ll be more likely to take a chance because you know that you’ll be able to get rid of the person if it doesn’t work out. You’ll also be more comfortable moving in and out of relationships, and you won’t waste a lot of time on the wrong men!

An additional bonus is that when you learn to say no and mean it, you automatically come across as more confident. And, not surprisingly, men are more likely to take no as an answer from confident women than they are from women whom they think they can bully.

Once you’ve mastered the skill, the less you’ll need it, because the guys you’ll want to get rid of will be able to tell that you’re a woman who knows her own mind. They will also recognize you as a woman of her word.

An additional bonus is that confident men—as opposed to the ones who can’t seem to take no for an answer—tend to be attracted to confident women. And, confident men are the ones you’ll be less likely to want to say No to!

On the other hand, if you don’t ever learn to say no and mean it, you’ll be less likely to take a chance with anyone, because you’ll be too afraid of getting attention that you don’t want. You’ll also waste a lot of time disentangling yourself from unwanted relationships, which can be a drain on your time and energy and may also prevent you from meeting men whose attention you actually do want.

What’s So Hard About Saying No?

Most women have a difficult time saying no, especially if they think someone’s feelings may be at stake or if they think they’ll not be liked. Despite what most women think, this is not some immutable gene or biological defect.

Rather, its actually a socially learned coping mechanism that can, with a little time and attention, be unlearned.

As young children, girls are socialized to be nice and to be more in touch with their own and other people’s feelings than are boys. There’s nothing wrong with being nice. And there is definitely nothing wrong with being liked. Boys, on the other hand, are socialized to be less attuned to people’s feelings, and to win.

What this means is that when girls and boys and women and men start playing together – and for some, dating is a game – women are at a slight disadvantage. They want to play nice, whereas guys just want to win.

As we said, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to not hurt anyone’s feelings as a general rule, but there is something wrong when girls, and women, learn to subject their own needs to the point that they are taken advantage or they end up doing things they don’t want to do.

Although this can apply to all areas of life, it also applies to dating interactions—all dating interactions, including online interactions as well as face-to-face interactions.

Over-Questioning Is Interactional Vandalism

Have you ever been accosted by someone on the street—say, someone asking for money who just keeps asking questions? You know the ones, the people—usually men—who will do or say anything to embroil you in a conversation and who won’t take no for an answer.

They’re over-questioning: persistently asking questions even when you’ve made it clear you’re not interested in engaging with them.

The same ones who, if you don’t answer, insult you, usually by accusing you of being “hard-hearted” or “stuck up” or any number of insults designed to pierce a woman’s heart. It’s especially piercing for women who tend to view themselves as kind and caring—which is, most of them!

Well, what men are doing in these situations is playing a game—and they’re playing to win. They know you’re uncomfortable. They know you feel bad. So they’re pushing all of the buttons at their disposal to get what they want—your time, your attention, your money, and, most importantly, your respect.

The same goes for the men you meet on the dating market.

Sociologist Mitchell Duneier calls these types of interactions “interactional vandalism” and suggests they are designed to make women uncomfortable and to get them to respond. It essentially goes like this: when someone asks a question, society dictates that we give them an answer.

Think about it, a random stranger will ask you how you are today and you almost always automatically answer. Someone on a bus asks you the time and you respond. Your boss asks you how you are and you say, “Fine.” It’s so ingrained in us to answer questions that ignoring one is really hard. Just try it sometime—chances are you’ll feel really uncomfortable and will literally feel compelled to answer.

Although men may not know this intellectually, they do know it instinctively. They ask a question and you respond.

If they keep asking questions, you’ll keep responding, and they still have your attention—even if it’s not the kind of attention they want.

From their perspective, as long as they have your attention, they’re still in the game. It’s not until you’ve cut them out completely that they think it’s over.

It doesn’t have to be a long drawn out painful affair. All you need to do is learn to stop answering their questions.

Say No Then Let It Go

You tell them you’re not interested—preferably in a way that doesn’t make them wrong so that you don’t inadvertently trip the “respect mechanism.” You give them one reason—one that is spoken from the heart and with absolute certainty—and then you’re done.

You don’t owe them more than that.

If you’re feeling bad it’s because they’re not playing by the rules. Normally the rules mean accepting your answer and moving on. Instead, they’re playing to win, which means plying you with endless questions or demands that you, as a well-socialized citizen (let alone a compassionate woman), will literally feel compelled to answer.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t answer questions, but when they’re being put to you in such a way to make you feel bad or do something that you don’t want to do—game over.

Don’t be a victim of interactional vandalism—not on the streets of any large urban center or when it comes to disentangling yourself from unwanted romantic attention either online or face-to-face.

Say no.

Give a reason.

And let it go.

Now you may be thinking, “Easier said than done,” and you’d be right, simply because saying no is not an art in which most women are practiced. Especially when you’re afraid that you’re going to hurt someone’s feelings or that you won’t be liked. I appreciate this. Believe me, I get it.

Besides, it’s hard.

And, if you’re anything like Rebecca was, the thought of a confrontation of any sort made her stomach hurt.

But even though it may seem hard in the moment, you have to think about it rationally. Isn’t it worth five minutes of angst (or even a week) to rid yourself of months, if not years, of agony?

The answer is yes.

Here’s How To Say No So They Really Go

If you’re not interested in someone, you tell them. All too often, people on the dating scene just stop emailing or stop calling without any reason whatsoever. No matter whether it’s you or him, this is just simply rude.

How would you feel if you really liked someone and they just blew you off? Chances are you know exactly what how you’d feel, because people are notorious for this. However, even if we’ve had it happen to us, in the interest of being good daters, we’re not going to do that. You want to leave each person better off than when you met them. Think of it as building good karma for the next person you meet.

Have a clear reason why it’s not a good fit. Even if you think the problem is all about them, craft a reason that allows them to not be wrong. Remember, it takes two to tango. Even though you may not be able to see it now, this person will make someone else a perfectly fine partner. It’s up to you to acknowledge that, if only privately, and let them down easily so that they can return to the pool unscathed.

Your reason should be about the fit between the two of you—that is, their lack of fit with you, or, even better, your lack of fit with them. Either the two of you don’t fit with each other’s lifestyle, or there’s a personality mismatch. Whatever it is, make sure that you pitch it as a mutual failing.

Men tend to hate to hear, “You’re a nice guy, but I’m just not attracted to you.” Rebecca told someone that once and they totally flipped out on her—mainly because they’d heard it before. She remembered thinking, “Would you have rather I told you that I thought you were an asshole? Because believe me, it can be arranged!” In retrospect, she realized that she inadvertently insulted his manhood, thus triggering his “respect mechanism”—that is, his ego.

So, whatever you do, don’t do or say anything that will trigger the male ego. We know that may seem like an impossible charge, but do your best.

Once you’ve made your decision, you need to stick to it. When men (or women, for that matter) want something they can be particularly persuasive and, depending on how desperate they are, they will say or do anything to get you to change your mind.

If you think that you might be interested at some point, then don’t tell them you’re not interested – tell them that now isn’t a good time. But if you truly aren’t interested, tell them and stick to your guns.

Because if you tell them and then you let them talk their way back in, you’ll regret it sooner or later. At the more cosmic level, you’re also setting a bad precedent for other women who do mean it.

By telling a man you’re not interested and then changing your mind (unless you’ve really changed your mind), you’re just encouraging men to believe what they want to believe—that is, that no really doesn’t mean no.

If they engage, ignore them. Some men just can’t take no for an answer. Depending on where you are in the relationship—that is, you’ve just met, you’ve gone out a couple of times, or you’ve been dating for a few months—this is a sign that they’re more concerned about being dumped than they are about your feelings. Or they’ve gotten prematurely attached and are in love with the idea of being in a relationship rather than anything about you.

Either way, it’s not a good situation and they are not going to be a good partner. Ignore them, just like you would any spoilt child who has lost their favorite toy. They’ll get over it – especially when someone else brighter and shinier comes along.

If they keep calling, don’t pick up the phone. Do you know that if the phone rings you don’t have to answer it? It’s amazing that way. Try it sometime. It’s totally liberating.

But if the thought of not answering makes your skin crawl, there are a lot of methods you can use, including call blocker, caller ID, etc. to make sure that you only talk to people you actually want to talk to.

Even though most everyone lives on their cellphone, you might want to think carefully about who gets what contact information and how early. We’ll leave it at that for now, but we have a lot more to say on this topic!

If they email or send letters, don’t read them. I had a friend who was trying to disentangle herself from a breakup—one that she had initiated. But even though she was the one that broke it off, she kept getting sucked in by reading his emails and eventually his long handwritten letters.

When I asked her why, she said, “Well, I just have to know what he wants.”

My response: “No you don’t. You really don’t. If you’re not interested, there’s nothing he can say that will change your mind. If you think you do want to know, that’s your ego wanting to be stroked.”

Nothing says “I’m really not interested” better than returning someone’s unopened letters or just throwing them away, unread. Sound harsh? Maybe. But if you really listen, you can also hear the ring of truth underneath the sandpaper.

And remember, if you’ve been honest with them and they continue to persist, then you’re definitely better off without them! If they can’t take “No” in the dating stage, can you imagine how they’d take it if you were dating or married?

Don’t feel bad about it. If you find yourself feeling bad about not returning the phone calls or deleting the emails, ask yourself, “Was I dishonest or ambiguous in my refusal? Do I want to take a chance on someone who can’t take No for an answer and have to go through this every single time we disagree?”

Or, better yet, “Would I be acting like this is our roles were reversed?”

Action Steps

Practice saying no.

Start with things that don’t matter, like a refill on a cup of tea or water at a restaurant. Learn to say it graciously and definitively, with confidence and good cheer.

Once you get good at that, try it with something that carries a little more emotional weight—like turning down dessert at your mother’s house.

Yes, your own mother—especially if her life’s mantra is “Nothing says lovin’ like a little somethin’ from the oven.”

Learn to say no. Say it often. Say it like you mean it. And, do really mean it.

Then, when saying no to someone you’re not interested in say, “No thank you.”

Say it graciously and definitively. And mean it. Don’t hem or hah. Stick to your guns. And don’t feel bad about it. Life’s tough. Do you think someone who can’t accept your heartfelt 'no' would feel badly if the tables were turned?

More from Kathryn J Lively Ph.D.
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