Carolyn Hax: When she says no, boyfriend huffs, puffs and leaves

Carolyn Hax
Columnist June 27, 2012

Dear Carolyn:

I am guilty of occasionally resenting my boyfriend because he doesn’t take it well when I say no. He pouts when I tell him I want to do something other than what he wants — like going to the grocery store instead of out to dinner.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

Generally I give in, but if I insist that groceries must be bought, he stops speaking to me and leaves abruptly. Over the years I have tried to ignore the pouting, but I am basically a peacekeeper and want to know if there is a more amiable way to defuse the tension.

How to Say No

“Over the years” you’ve apparently conducted an extensive trial of an “amiable way” to differ from your boyfriend, a trial that prompts me to snark, how’s that working for you?


The way to say no is with the conviction that you have every right to say no. Period. The best peacekeepers aren’t the softest ones at the table; they’re the ones who are open to other viewpoints while letting others know there are lines they cannot cross.

It’s helpful when the person you’re saying no to has a 100 percent chance of surviving the disappointment of not going out to dinner that night. Helpful — not necessary.

So, stop treating your boyfriend’s good mood as your goal and replace it with the goal of being true to yourself, be it over something as minor as grocery shopping or as major as the way you handle money or raise children. Reflecting your true needs, wants and motives — even in coming to a compromise — is the only way to live honestly. That, in turn, is the only way to get a relationship to work without bleeding one of you dry.

What he needs, meanwhile, is for people to air their resentment of him before it’s too late for him to make amends. I’ve filled columns on the ills of the silent treatment, but I’ll condense here: It invalidates you. Tolerate it, and you invalidate yourself.

So, give him a chance to see and fix the problem. For example: “I’d like to be able to go buy milk without getting the silent treatment. Which would you rather have, my going along just to keep you from punishing me, or my occasionally doing something different from what you have in mind?” Then, greet any future tantrums as follows: 1. “Suit yourself.” 2. Do nothing about the ensuing tension. Go about your business and let him find you if he wants to make nice.

Silence and pouting could be what he grew up with, and learning healthier ways could take a while, even with sure-handed companions who know how to be kind, judicious and firm in holding the line with him.

If you, meanwhile, were raised to seek conciliation at all costs, then breaking your self-defeating emotional habits might be too big a job for you to be the one who helps him break his.

You probably stand a better chance with the guidance of a good therapist, but please know that if your boyfriend doesn’t see the problem with his huffing and puffing — if he shows zero willingness to hold himself accountable — then please see that there’s no peace here to be kept. That is, not unless you break up.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

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