Saying “no” to an abuser is always a red flag to a bull. It takes guts to say it, knowing that this simple word will result in an explosion, at a time to be determined by another. But saying it is something we must do if we don’t want others continually damaging us.
“No” might bring about our death, but it is also necessary for our survival.
To understand why this word is so dangerous, and why abusers hate it so much, you need to understand what it represents. “No” is a boundary, a line that you are saying will not be crossed. It is a declaration of your own agency and power.
Abusers hate boundaries. They hate you having any power over your own life. They view you as property, as things to be dominated, and when you say “no”, it shows that you are not entirely under their control and they are not the masters of all they survey. The insecurity and vulnerability in these monsters cannot allow this independence of thought to continue unchecked. It’s a threat to their sense of self. Poor little darlings.
To most abusers, “no” is just a bump on a path that leads to “yes”. ‘You might say no,’ they think, ‘but I will get my own way. You will back down. I will win.’ Bullies are conditioned to think this way, because life constantly gives them evidence that this works. Every time they successfully override another’s boundaries, it validates this kind of behaviour, and reinforces their potential to do it again. That’s why a leopard never changes its spots, and once an abuser, always an abuser.
How do they get you to say yes when you already said no?
They have various tools at their disposal, various tactics, some blatant and some hidden, some violent and some insidious. My borderline ex exposed me to all sorts of different tactics and techniques over the years we were together, and those when we weren’t. There is no one-size-fits-all. All they have in common is a deliberate, pernicious, evil disregard of your boundaries and your selfhood to meet their own selfish needs.
The quickest, simplest way is starting with the behavioural explosion. Within seconds of asserting yourself, you find yourself caged with a wild animal. Physical violence, verbal abuse, threats, shouting – it doesn’t matter which. Your abuser shuts you down quickly, reminds you who is in charge and shows you what happens should you dare to forget it.
It’s terrifying staring into the face of the beast, and they know that. That’s why they do it. Flooded with fear and discomfort, you’re likely to agree to anything, just to feel safe in this particular moment. No matter how much saing “yes” will harm you further down the line, all you can think of in the face of this aggression is surviving right now.
The explosion in public is a different beast, with humiliation, rather than threat, the primary goal. Generally, this has a gender-specific dimension due to how society at large responds to abuse. Experiments using scripts and actors show that when male abusers are aggressive to female victims, strangers tend step in and intervene. When the exact same scripts are gender-swapped and it is a female abusing a male, strangers point, laugh, whip out their cameras, and enjoy the show.
In my experience as a male survivor of domestic abuse, the public explosion was one of the worst experiences. People look at you as though you caused it; as though you provoked it; when all you did was say, “No.” People staring, pointing, laughing at you while your abuser shouts at you, is horrible, isolating, and soul-destroying. You say “yes” just to make it stop. You say “yes” whenever you’re in a public place because you’re terrified of a repeat showing. They know that – that’s why they do it. They can just give you a look – a look that says, “if you say no, I’m going to humiliate you in front of all these people ” – and you meekly go along with whatever they want.
Denial is a subtler tactic. They simply ignore your refusal and keep acting as though you said yes. The thinking is, ‘if I ignore it, they’ll eventually forget they said no’ or ‘they’ll soon realise it’s not worth the effort resisting.’ This can be used in conjunction with gaslighting in order to undermine your confidence in yourself and your decisions. “But you never said no! You agreed to it, don’t you remember?” Plus the behavioural explosion: “Why are you refusing to do this when you agreed to it? You’re ruining our plans for nothing!”
Another tactic is forcing a concession from you. “You don’t want to go? Well how about just for five minutes?” As soon as you agree – you concede – your abuser acts as though you agreed in full. They’ll either take advantage – when you arrive, five minutes becomes the full three hours that you refused to do – or again try gaslight you into thinking that, by conceding, you actually agreed.
Emotional blackmail is a given when an abuser is faced with a negative. “After all I’ve done for you. Why are you so unkind to me? Don’t you love me? Why can’t you just do this one little thing for me?” Or using the kids: “You’ll really upset your daughter if you don’t do what I want. Do you want to hurt your daughter? You’ll screw her up. None of the other children will like her unlesss you do as I say.” You feel guilty for having boundaries.
There is often an element of bribery to this. They start being nice to you, reminding you of just how good things can be. They buy you things. They offer sexual favours. They turn into the ideal partner. Then, when they revisit your refusal, you feel obligated to walk back on your “no”. Things are going so well, you’re afraid to rock the boat. Life will be more pleasant if you just say yes.
Abother subtle technique is something I call the ‘false misunderstanding‘. That’s where they hear what you say but wilfully ‘misunderstand’ it and act as though you agreed. Then, when it’s time do the thing you’ve already refused to do, they pretend that you weren’t clear – therefore, you’re saying “no” right at the last minute, and how can that be fair? Or they reveal they’ve already paid for it and can’t cancel, so you’re obligated to go along with it. This is another form of psychological abuse: it makes you doubt yourself, and wonder if you really were clear about things – when, of course, you were.
Announcing things in public – things you’ve already refused to do – employs peer pressure, shame and humiliation. You agree to go a park with friends on the condition you don’t go to a restaurant afterwards. As soon as you reach the park, she says, “By the way, I’ve booked the restaurant for 2 o’clock.” Now, if you hold them to the boundary you set, you appear awkward, churlish and difficult. Your abuser wins again.
Abusers often use outright lies to you to get you to agree to things, and lie about what you agreed to. You agree to visit their family for the day. When you arrive, you discover it’s actually for three days. “But I told you it was three days, don’t you remember? You never listen to me. It was always three days and you agreed to it.” How do you argue with someone who can’t be honest about what they’re doing and about you’ve said and done? You can’t maintain boundaries when you’re in a maze of deception.
There are often threats involved when you say no. “Do it or I’ll divorce you. Do it or I’ll hit you. Do it or I’ll abort your baby. Do it or I’ll tell everyone you hit me. Do it or I’ll take away your children. Do it or I’ll turn them against you.” Whether or not they’ll act on these threats is immaterial: all that matters is that you believe they’ll act on them. Fear makes you fall in line.
And lastly, the horrible tactic: full-blown gaslighting. They show you the text message you sent them that says, “No, I won’t do that,” and say, “See? It doesn’t say you won’t do that. You never said you wouldn’t.” So your mind boggles. You think, ‘was I not clear?’ You read and re-read your text, searching it for ambiguity. How could they use your literal refusal as evidence that you never refused? You feel like you’re taking crazy pills. Nothing makes sense!
Through these cunning, aggressive, manipulative – evil – methods, an abuser makes your boundaries porous, pokes holes in your sense of self, and runs roughshod over your refusal to obey. The word “no” really dies leas to “yes” – at least in their minds.
Is there anything you can do about it?
Frankly – sadly – no. Once an abuser, always an abuser. You can’t fix people. Someone who doesn’t respect your boundaries doesn’t respect you, and they never will. The only way to escape this torment is to escape, physically, mentally and emotionally. Leave. Call the police. Go to a refuge. No matter how hard that is, staying is harder.
Unfortunately, leaving an abuser is the ultimate “no”, and you can expect all of the above behaviours and threats to jump into overdrive either to draw you back or to punish you. The only way to protect yourself is to go ‘no contact’ as every communication will be filled with manipulation, blackmail, threats. Every communication with an abusive ex is a danger to your physical and mental wellbeing and you have to protect yourself.
When you have children together, it gets trickier. You can’t ‘no contact’ because you have to keep the lines of communication open. In that case, you have to dig deep, remain firm, keep discussions to an absolute minimum and only about the children, insist that this is all done in writing so that you have a record of what was said, and second guess everything they tell you, because everything is likely part of a larger plan to get you to say “yes.”
Look after yourselves. The most important thing in this is you.
How does all this work in practice?
Check out a real life case study of these tactics in Part 2 for a demonstration of what happens when you say no, what to look out for, and how you can resist.