How I learned to say ‘no’ in relationships

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But there’s a big difference between healthy give and take and endlessly putting up with requests or expectations that are making you miserable. Setting those appropriate boundaries – and saying no to things that are too much of an ask – can be the difference between a great relationship and a dysfunctional, draining one.

As a general rule, the four scenarios which follow all suggest that it’s time to learn the word “no” when it comes to your love life.

It’s their way or the highway

If you’re the only one doing the aforementioned airport pick-ups – and your partner prefers to let you catch an Uber home while he or she has a lie-in – you may be dealing with a selfish partner.

Same goes if he or she expects you to be committed but wants to date other people; won’t make the effort to meet your friends. Or he says he “isn’t into” oral sex – giving it, that is; he’s more than happy to receive it. (I use the male pronoun here, because heterosexual men have a pretty terrible track record when it comes to selfish sex: US research shows that fewer than two-thirds of heterosexual women in monogamous relationships are regularly satisfied in the bedroom compared with 88 per cent in lesbian relationships.)

Yes Women – who are more commonly “givers” – can be magnets for these types of “takers”. And that combination is a recipe for resentment, US relationship counsellor and dating coach Samantha Burns tells me.

In a healthy relationship, both need to be givers, says Burns, who specialises in Millennials’ love lives and runs the popular Instagram account LoveSuccessfully. “It’s about equal effort. There might be times where one partner needs more, but in general it should balance out.”

So when is it time to pack your bags? You can try working through your problems with a couples therapist, but if you’re keeping score and feeling resentful, and nothing’s changing, Burns says it might be time to quit.

“If things don’t improve, it’s always an option to end the relationship rather than investing years with a selfish partner who brings you down, doesn’t support you, takes advantage of your kindness, and doesn’t make you feel adored and loved,” she says. “Remember that you are worthy of those things.”

You’re always there for your partner. But vice versa? Not so much

Perhaps you spend a lot of time and energy supporting your partner because he or she is struggling. Maybe your girlfriend drinks too much. Or your fiancé is engaged in a self-destructive struggle with body image. Or your partner’s mood is flat all the time and you suspect he’s depressed.

These situations are tricky – because, on the one hand, all relationships involve caring for our loved ones and being there for them (“in sickness and in health”, if you’ve taken those vows). But if the situation is an endless one-way street – you’re taking on all their issues and finding no space at all for you to have your own problems or emotions – the dynamic may not be healthy, nor sustainable. And propping up your partner may also be doing more harm than good for them.

So when is it time to draw the line? If you find that you’re the one doing all the “fixing” and your partner is knocking back your suggestions, it may be time to step back and say nope. If you’re feeling angry or resentful, or you can’t find room for your own self-care, that’s another sign you’re doing too much. It may be useful to see a couples therapist, as well as seeing a psychologist individually to work on strategies to care for yourself while also loving your partner. The aim is to find a healthy balance.

You’re “settling” because of panic about your age

Saying yes to a relationship – or, hell, even marriage – because society tells us we “have” to be coupled up by a certain age can cause some of the most fabulous women to panic and settle for less than fabulous partners.

One problem with settling is that it’s basically giving in to a cultural message that you’re not OK on your own – which is BS. Another problem is that if you do actually want to meet someone right for you, wasting your time on Ms or Mr Wrong is just going to delay your meeting Ms or Mr Right.
So repeat after me: don’t say “yes” to a relationship just because you’re scared it’s them or nobody, now or never.

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You’re doing the lion’s share of housework and childcare

Attention women in long-term, live-in relationships. Who books the cat’s vet appointments at your house? Or buys an end-of-year card for the kindy teacher?

It’s probably you, especially if you’re in a heterosexual relationship in Australia. Men are doing more housework (an average of 13.3 hours per week in 2016, up from 12.4 hours in 2002), but even in today’s supposedly post-feminist society, women still take on the majority of household chores according to the latest Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey.

This uneven division of labour is worse for couples who have kids, and applies even when both partners work full-time. Indeed, bread-winning mothers spend four hours more across domestic duties each week than bread-winning fathers, the 2019 HILDA survey found. The challenges of juggling caring duties with paid work were further compounded by coronavirus pandemic restrictions that forced many of us to work from home.

The stats show that even couples who split housework fairly evenly before babies enter the picture tend to find that things change once they have kids, with women shouldering the largest burden of unpaid work.

A survey by Australian women’s health organisation Jean Hailes asked women about their experiences during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey found that women aged 25-44 were most likely to report that they worked from home (42.6 per cent), that their home duties (19.2 per cent) and work hours (16.6 per cent) increased, and that they managed remote learning for children (14.6 per cent). The results “shows that this group of women found themselves busier than before COVID-19”, the researchers concluded.

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If the domestic work divides along gender lines in your house, I’m not blaming you: taking on the lion’s share of this unpaid labour is an easy trap to fall into, even for egalitarian couples with the best will in the world. In fact, the stats show that even couples who split housework fairly evenly before babies enter the picture tend to find that things change once they have kids, with women shouldering the largest burden of unpaid work.

This is partly because women are mostly the ones taking parental leave – and fall into the groove of becoming the default parent and homemaker, a role that’s hard to shrug off once they re-enter the workforce. All the unpaid work that falls to mums is not just physical, either. It’s knowing what needs to be done, the anticipating of chores and events coming up and the planning for them – the “mental load”.

The problem with reading up on this topic is that once you know about it, you see it everywhere. It’s easy to get – rightfully – mad, and from there it’s an easy jump to point-scoring, resentment and martyrdom.

Yes Women, my hope is that you won’t simply begin noticing how much of the housework you take on and then continue to do it, seethingly. Instead, use your new-found knowledge (and/or feminist rage) to take action: get your partner on board with a division of labour in whatever way works for you.

Edited extract from The Yes Woman (Affirm Press) by Grace Jennings-Edquist, on sale now.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale October 24. To read more from Sunday Life, visit The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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