I used to love romantic stories about men who refused to give up on the girl of their dreams and relentlessly pursued her until she finally said yes.
My heart would melt at the soaring moment when, at last, she saw how much he loved her and all her previous objections faded away.
It took me a while to realize that, even though that story can feel romantic and beautiful in a movie, it’s a pretty terrible model for real life.
It’s easy to see why the storyline is so compelling.
We love stories about people who have a goal and work hard until they achieve it – whether that goal is winning a competition, overthrowing evil, or getting the girl.
And I, like most of us, have suffered from a lot of unrequited love in my lifetime. So I can easily identify with the boy in the movie who longs for the girl.
If I’m honest, I also admit that there’s something appealing about the idea of someone loving me so much that they keep persisting, even after I’ve said no, maybe even after I’ve been mean to them.
When I was younger, I would sometimes daydream about being the girl in that story. The thing is, romantic fantasy is pretty ugly and miserable in real life.
Without the perfect storybook setup – without the contrived situations and the swelling music and the fact that two fictional characters are literally, actually, made for each other – being pursued again and again after I’ve said no feels awful.
I know lots of people who grew up on these same stories, and like my younger self, think they’re romantic and great.
Here are some reasons not to copy them in real life.
1. Saying No Can Be Really Stressful
Many contemporary cultures, including the US, train women to please others and to meet everyone else’s needs.
Many women and femmes have absorbed this training.
If I’m going to say no to someone, I have to think about how to do it in the most gentle way possible to avoid hurting their feelings. Often, I end up feeling like I owe them something, just because I was forced to deny them something they wanted.
When I say no, I can feel my heart rate rise, and I get more tense. I worry over and over that I’m being too unkind, just because I’m honestly saying that I don’t want to do something.
People who haven’t absorbed this conditioning have a hard time understanding it.
I value open communication, and I want people to ask directly if they want something from me, but they need to understand that it will always be stressful for me – and that saying no is a tiny act of courage.
That’s why the idea of being asked for a date or for sex over and over again, by someone I’ve already said no to, is a nightmare, especially if I like the person and care about them.
It’s just as stressful every time I say no. In fact, it becomes increasingly stressful because I start to realize that nothing I can say will make them stop.
If a woman or femme says yes after being asked over and over again, it’s less likely that their eyes are finally opened to how great the suitor is.
It’s more likely that they just got tired of saying no.
Asking over and over is its own kind of coercion – and reluctantly agreeing under pressure is not consent.
2. People Usually Have Good Reasons for Saying No
When someone we’re into says no to us, it’s hard to accept that they did it for a perfectly good reason.
When I was younger, I would soothe the pains of rejection by telling myself it was for bad reasons, or easily changeable ones: He’s just shallow. She’s afraid of real connection.
I was used to seeing movies where one person rejects another for most of the story, then at the end realizes that all their reasons were terrible and changes their mind. I thought that was how my real-life crushes would play out, too.
The truth is that when a person says no, it’s usually for a very good reason – and in the world of dating and sex, “I just don’t feel like it” is a very good reason.
Rejecting someone feels pretty crappy – people don’t just do it for fun.
But what if their reason really is bad? What if they don’t know their true desires? What if being with you would make them much happier than whatever other thing they think they want?
The problem with this type of reasoning is you’re hardly in the best position to judge what someone else’s true desires are.
I remember a friend of mine complaining about a girl he had made out with, but who kept saying no when he asked for sex.
“She’s so repressed,” he said. “I can tell she wants to have sex with me, but she won’t let herself have it because she feels like it’s wrong. If she would just let go, she’d be so much happier.”
He was talking as if he had special insight into her needs and wants, but what he was really doing was imposing his needs and wants on her. He wanted to believe that deep down, she wanted the same things he did.
Sometimes, when the person we’re pursuing is a woman or femme, we think, “Well, maybe she’s just playing hard to get.”
In some cases, that might be true – but the whole idea of playing hard to get is dangerous, and this shows exactly why. When the “hard to get” game is on the table, a woman has no way of saying no and being taken at her word.
We need to work to create a world where everybody understands that no means no, and that means that we all need to stop playing the “hard to get” game – including the people doing the asking.
3. They Don’t Need You to Show Them Their True Desires
Even if the person’s reasons are what you consider “bad,” or if they’ll change their mind in the future, that’s not really your problem to solve.
I used to complain a lot that people I was interested in – especially guys – only wanted prototypically “pretty” girls.
I was miffed that they’d rather be with someone who spent hours on her hair and makeup, but didn’t share their interests, and wouldn’t be as caring and supportive as I would.
But that was their choice to make. People want different things in partners, and even if their priorities don’t match mine, they’re allowed to have them.
Even if someone is out of touch with their real desires, that’s for them to work out on their own.
I know from very personal experience that the process of getting in touch with your own desires needs to be done without pressure and coercion from other people.
We have so many stories where one pushy person helps another discover their real self – but in real life, that pushy person is likely to just cause more confusion.
You don’t discover what you really want by reluctantly agreeing to what someone else wants from you.
When the person being asked is a woman or femme, there is a deep layer of sexism besides the general disrespectfulness of asking someone to set aside their wants for yours.
Our culture has lots of myths about how women don’t know their own minds and need someone else to show us the way.
If you often find yourself thinking that a woman close to you – especially one you’re romantically or sexually interested in – doesn’t know what’s best for her, you’re probably being tricked by these myths.
Finally, sometimes the person’s reasons are unjust or related to oppressive norms. Even when we’re not aware of it, there’s a ton of political and social conditioning behind who we mark as attractive.
Some dating preferences can indeed result from, and perpetuate, oppression – whether it’s about race, size, dis/ability, or other constructs that unfairly mark some people as more desirable than others.
If you’re being rejected for these reasons, though, you still need to respect that person’s right to say no. Coercing someone into sexual contact they don’t want is never the way to forward social justice.
It’s great when people choose to unlearn the prejudices that influence their dating choices.
But it’s got to be their choice and their work – and it’s often a pretty long road. You deserve to be with someone who already values and appreciates who you are!
4. You Both Deserve Better
Often what drives us to persistently pursue someone is the belief that we’ll never find anyone who’s just straight-up excited about being with us – so the only way is to latch onto someone and keep asking until they say yes.
This is unfair to the person we pursue who has to deal with the stress and invasion of not having their no taken seriously – and it’s also unfair to ourselves.
I used to take rejection so hard.
If the person I wanted didn’t want me, it was crushing. It meant that I was unworthy, that nobody would ever love me like I wanted to be loved, that I had been judged as inferior to other people.
Over time, I started to realize that all rejection meant was “This one person didn’t click with what I have to offer.” There are a lot of people in the world, and they all have different interests and desires.
It hurts a lot when the one person you think is amazing and beautiful and perfect doesn’t see you the same way, but it doesn’t actually mean you’re inferior or that you’ll never find love.
My love life changed when I stopped fixating on someone who’d rejected me and hoping that somehow I’d find the key to their heart.
Instead, I accepted it, nursed my broken heart, and then kept looking for somebody who would see the same amazingness in me that I saw in them.
Being in love – unrequited love included – tricks your brain into thinking that this person is the only one who could make you happy.
But if you can hold out ‘til the chemicals die down, you have a much better chance of finding the happiness of being with someone who adores you just as much as you adore them.
When all of our movies, books, and TV shows are telling us that something is normal and healthy, it’s hard to see past that.
But in real life, the way to have happy and healthy relationships – whether we’re talking lifetime love, a night of sexy fun, or anything in between – is to listen to and respect the other person.
And that starts with listening when someone says no.
Ginny Brown is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism, as well as a speaker and educator specializing in sexuality and relationships. She writes for various publications and has her own blog here. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her poly family and three cats. Follow her on Twitter @lirelyn. Read her articles here.
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