Help! My British Partner Can’t Say No

In Advice Column, Epic Relationships by Louisa Leontiades

Dear Louloria, 

I’m an American dating a Brit and I don’t understand why she can’t come right out and tell me what she wants. One of the most important things in polyamory is the ability to state boundaries but she thinks she’ll offend me and often comes up with excuses around why she wants some alone time. I think the UK should make active communication a mandatory part of the school curriculum. I imagine lines of schoolchildren standing up saying the word “no” over and over until it’s no longer uncomfortable. Why is it so uncomfortable… or is it just that she doesn’t trust me enough to be honest?

– Ms. RudeBrashAmerican

Dear Ms. RBA,

I hear you, and sympathise. Based on what you’ve said, I don’t think it has anything to do with not trusting you – at least not yet. But if you persevere in trying to ‘make’ her state her boundaries directly, I fear it will end up that way.

For us English folk, it’s less about direct communication, more about social inclusion. Direct communicators have a tendency to be ostracised. Why? Where do I start…

We are still a class driven nation even if the lines have blurred a lot in the last fifty years. You’ll find the so called working class are more direct but nowadays the majority of UK is middle class, or nuances of. One big characteristic of this class are that they are upwardly socially aspiring. In order to maintain one’s position on the ladder, so to speak, you have to ensure your inclusion as a matter of survival. My theory is that directness is seen as a threat to the possibility of moving upwards, because it is a marker of working class. If you read our literature, especially the classics, you will understand how important preservation of your ‘status’ was; social exclusion was often a fate worse than death (and one that, for a woman, could result in actual physical death). That fear still remains even if it is less true nowadays. As a matter of survival people want to stay in the social circles they are born to which means conforming.

Another reason is that the English are brought up to minimise ourselves. Ambition and blowing one’s own trumpet is not acceptable (again for the reasons of inclusion) – we have many expressions which equate to ‘not acting above your station in life’. Many of us therefore grow up to be rather more indecisive and reticent than our American counterparts – for whom I’ve understood action might be prioritised over reflection since reflection can be perceived as indecision and seen as a sign of weakness, where in Britain it might be seen as a wiser course of action.

Know then, that what you are asking of your partner is something that goes against the very fabric of her survival instincts. Perhaps this will give you more compassion for her actions instead of chalking it up to ‘bad communication skills’ – a judgement which is sure to make her trust you less.

One way to approach your personal communication, is to create an entirely safe space to be honest (and not in the beginning around something as conflicted as boundaries). You can take an hour or so a week to share a confessional space and that space must be without judgement. No matter how hard it is to hear her feelings around something, her confessions and her innermost thoughts, you must prove to her that she is safe and accepted by you for whoever she is. In time, the work you do together will mean she can open up more and start to put her boundaries without fear of being rejected.

Do bear in mind though that you co-create a relationship. Her boundaries are ultimately her responsibility to define and she may choose not to change this aspect of herself. Then the question remains whether you can embrace this as a British quirk and learn to accept it, or whether you find that it is a deal breaker.

Good luck,

Louloria