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Say No Gracefully

Hara Estroff Marano gives relationships advice on rejection, cohabitation, depression and reconnecting.

How To Say No Gracefully

I am 26 and a true loner. The activities I enjoy—reading, watching TV, going to movies—I enjoy doing alone more than with others. I have had friends and make them easily; I just don't like spending time with them. They are a distraction to whatever activity I'm trying to enjoy. My problem is that I need to know how to say, "No, thank you," without insulting people when they try to befriend me, especially those whom I see at work or at my place of worship.

Rejection always hurts. You must say no to others kindly and convey that the reason for refusal lies not with some defect in them but some quirk in you. Best of all is to make a counter suggestion for spending a tiny bit of time together, more in keeping with your solitary style. Use your own words, but something like: "Thank you for your offer. But I'm much more of a lone wolf than others realize; it's just the way I'm built. I'm not up for going to the movies, but why don't we grab a cup of coffee together during a work break." Eventually, however, even the kindest no may not suffice. People don't like being rebuffed all the time, and they will stop approaching. It's one thing to turn down company when you have a choice, another to be without bids entirely. For sure, not everybody has the same social drive. But are you sure you want to carve a deepening niche of isolation? It's a fast route to going off track mentally; maintaining contact with others can be distracting (that, for most of us, is its charm), but it's also nature's way of keeping us tethered to reality.

She Passed, He Failed

I am receiving my Ph.D. from one of the best schools in my discipline. I met my boyfriend of three years while he was seeking his Ph.D. here. Recently, he failed to pass a sequence of courses and left the university. His sense of failure has affected his quality of life and our relationship. His lack of affection and connection with me over the past six months has caused me to question our love. I believe that my success has caused him to think he is not "worthy" of me. How can you keep the love alive when your man is in a failure rut?

Don't question your love; give your boyfriend a hand climbing out of the swamp. This is what people in good relationships do; they help each other as a matter of course over life's inevitable bumps. It's part of the natural flow of give and take. His success (or lack of it) is definitely part of him; that's why it feeds the (injured) self he now brings to the relationship. It's hard to have the benefit of perspective when you're in school and the only route you've ever pursued is the academic one, but eventually you'll both discover that there are many paths to success in life. Responding with disappointment and even depression is appropriate in the short haul, and the unavoidable comparison with your performance can add humiliation and shame. But six months out, your boyfriend needs a jump-start in realistically appraising the situation and plotting a new course of action. Failure of any kind should be a stimulus for self-examination that ultimately suggests alternative approaches.

So the best thing you can do for your beau, after reassuring him of your love, is to open forward-thinking channels of conversation. Where do his real interests lie? Is a Ph.D. essential for working in his general area of interest? Would getting a lower level job in that field, or in another, help spark motivation or illuminate new pathways to pursue? Perhaps he failed because he just isn't as motivated in his subject area as you are in yours. Was he pursuing studies out of passion for them or some sense of obligation? Encouraging your boyfriend will not only help him get past this setback, it will give you both a model for problem-solving in the future, when your lives may be even more entwined.

My Wife Refuses to Accept Reality

I got married three months ago, and my bride and I still don't live together. Every time I bring up the subject it either turns into an argument or she immediately changes the issue. She is against getting an apartment and would rather get a house. I understand her reasons, but I am only 24 and she is 23, and there is no way we can afford a house right now. In our first discussion, she agreed to get an apartment for a maximum of two years. Is there a way to approach the subject without causing an argument?

Some people have a haunted house; you have a marriage that's haunted by a house. The thing about marriage is that it officially puts two people on the same street, so to speak, heading in the same direction. You and your wife aren't even in the same zip code. Marriage is a joint venture from beginning to end; it's all about sharing decision-making in ways you both find equitable and applying that process to new situations so that you consciously arrange how you get your needs met. But your wife has seized and been granted all the power. Just by throwing a tantrum, she gets to keep you out in the cold. Most spouses share dreams, too, and getting a nice house is usually one of them. But reality bites, these days. (Just for the record, I am very against working for a living. I'd rather pop bonbons all day. But my accountant informs me I can't afford to do so.)

Few couples today can afford to start out as homeowners, especially when just embarking on their careers. Sooner or later partners discover that half the fun in life is working toward shared goals together; it gives life meaning.

Not only is your wife denying reality, she seems to have some flawed ideas about marriage. Just who is supporting her in her folly? Why isn't her family urging her to join her husband? Maybe she's more attached to them than to you. If she insists that the living arrangements are her way or no way, you need to face the possibility that neither of you is ready to be married. Check with a lawyer, but you might be standing on grounds for annulment.

If you're going to stay married, you need to learn how to discuss difficult issues—but to do so you first have to get some power back. I suggest that you deliberately not bring up the subject of living together—at all. Eventually your wife will get frustrated enough to want to know about it. Seize the opportunity to lay out fair rules for discussion that you both adhere to. Blowing up or changing the subject is a no-go. Get the book Fighting for Your Marriage by Howard Markman and Scott Stanley.

Should I Reconnect With My Siblings?

I am a 68-year-old woman living a lone lifestyle. I had an evil mother and a distant father, and I ran away at an early age. I have three brothers, but no one talks to anyone. Who says the mother is the soul of the home? If she's bad, so is the family. My middle brother contacted me and told me our parents are gone, and that he and his wife would like to know me. This fills me with anxiety. I have a disabled son, whom I raised alone, and a family would be a benefit. Also, this brother has never hurt me, unlike one who sexually abused me. I met their son 10 years ago, but after telling him I don't believe in medical research using animals, we stopped talking. Do I let my brother into my life? In the three phone calls we had, all we talked about was our miserable past, which I want to forget.

Your brother has made a great gesture to reconnect. He has probably thought about you often, and it certainly took courage on his part to overcome the silence of decades. Of course, all you can talk about now is your past; that's all that unites you. When you meet you can update each other on your lives, your selves and your interests, and that should provide a whole lot more to discuss. Certainly, life is a lot simpler if you excise anyone related to past difficulty; you don't get regular reminders of the hurt, and you don't have to find a way to come to terms with it. But the truth is that you're still immersed in your past; it's what's driving your solitary lifestyle, as you strive to keep others at a distance—a pattern you probably learned from your father.

That not only makes inner peace elusive, it deprives you of the single most rewarding source of richness in life—a sense of closeness to others. On a practical level, your brother may be willing to share information about the past that can help you make peace with it. Choosing not to accommodate others has likely dramatically weakened your social skills. It's nice that you have strong beliefs, but you will find connecting with others far easier if you don't assault them with your opinions. Part of the fun of being with others is having lively but respectful disagreements on issues.

You feel anxious about reconnecting? So what? Anxiety is a condition of life; it strikes every time we face stepping out of the rut of habit. Everyone needs to learn ways to deal with it. The alternative is to stay stuck tiptoeing around old bitterness for a lifetime. That would really be letting your mother win. You deserve better.