Leaving an Abusive Relationship Isn’t Easy (part 1) — Will he hear my “no”? Should I let him down easy?

A member of my ex’s family complained when I divorced. She didn’t side with my ex saying he hadn’t done anything wrong — she admitted that ex had done wrong. Instead, she complained about my behavior. She claimed I wasn’t being nice in how I handled the separation and divorce.

imagesAccording to her, I wasn’t being nice when I said “no” at my ex’s suggestion that instead of him leaving, he could live in the basement and we could just be “roomies”. I wasn’t being nice when he went to counseling and I didn’t encourage him by going along. I wasn’t being nice when he went to the church leadership and convinced them to coerce me into meeting with them — a meeting I refused to attend. I wasn’t being nice when I chose to not respond to his persistent emails, texts, and phone calls, but instead only had contact with him through my lawyer. In this family member’s eyes, I was guilty of not letting him down easy.

Trying to Let Him Down Easy — and why men often fail to hear “no”

I Was Trying to Let Him Down Easy is one of the chapter titles of Gavin de Becker’s book, The Gift of Fear [Affiliate link]. In this chapter de Becker explains that in today’s society women are not taught how to say “no” and men are not taught to hear “no”.

Now, I would like to add that in my opinion, the failure of many men to hear “no” cannot be attributed solely to the way they’ve been educated. Many men have received at least some messages in their education and upbringing that tell them: “you must respect other people”, “never hit a woman”, etc. Some men do hear and respect the word “no”. It is a choice men make to hear, or not hear, the “no”, the resistanceI can't hear you, the repulsion from those they are trying to influence. But I do agree that many messages society gives reinforce and condone men’s choice to ignore the word “no”, especially when it’s a woman saying “no”.

Hollywood is guilty of this reinforcing. Movies and television (and porn, from what I’m told) are notorious for teaching men that when a woman says “no” that is not what she really means. Hollywood often depicts the woman saying “no” yet the man hearing “not yet, give me time, keep trying” because when the woman says “no” she is portrayed as meaning “maybe. Hmm….not sure”. Let’s look at an example from a movie. (My observations are in red.)

In the movie a man, while driving his car, unknowingly forces a lady on a bicycle off the road. The lady later confronts the man and he learns that she owns a local restaurant. Going to the restaurant he finds it swamped with customers and lacking servers, so he picks up a pad of paper and pen and starts taking orders. Later that evening after the restaurant has closed and the lady is cleaning up she says to him —

Lady: Here are your tips. You’re fired. (Woman says “no”.)

Man: [I was told] you grew up around here. (Man chooses to not hear “no”, rather he becomes persistent and keeps the conversation going by asking a seemingly innocent question.)

Lady: [You] are mistaken. I only visited [here] a summer with my mother. (Woman doesn’t want to seem rude by not responding so she replies — an attempt to let him down easy.)

Man: I used to spend my summers here. I wonder if we ever met?

Lady:  What if we did? I hope I was unbearable. (Woman says “no” again.)

Man: You’re a local, you know the answer to this: Where would a young man who recently cashed up take someone for a drink? (Man continues to be persistent.)

Lady: Are you asking me on a date?

Man: It’s more like an apology. I just don’t want you to think I’m some sort of maniac who goes around running people off the road.

Lady: I’m not interested. Have a good night. (Woman says “no” for the third time.)

At this point the man leaves and the scene changes to the lady locking the front door of the restaurant. She turns around to see the man sitting by the fountain in the courtyard with two wine glasses and a bottle of wine. (Man continues to be persistent, yet notice his means of harassment are very sweet and nice.) She pauses, notices him, and turns to leave. She walks a few feet, pauses, and then turns back around and says,

Lady: Sunday night, 8 o’clock at [she names a restaurant]. Don’t be late.

Raising his glass Man says: I shall see you there.

The rest of the movie follows their relationship and, not surprising, the man gets the lady. No doubt, you can think of many other examples from movies and television shows that confirm de Becker’s belief that the Hollywood formula for a vast majority of its shows / movies is “Boy Wants Girl, Girl Doesn’t Want Boy, Boy Harasses Girl, Boy Gets Girl.”

What does this have to do with abuse victims and their perpetrators? Women are often taught to be kind, to respond when spoken to, and if we do need to say “no” we need to do so nicely. Additionally women are generally not taught how to get out of relationships, rather the focus is on how to get into a relationship. Add to these notions the influence of “C’hristianity (“be kind, respectful, loving, forgiving”, etc.) and you have a recipe for confusion and possible danger when an abuse victim tries to leave her abuser.

Leaving an abusive relationship is not easy, as many of our readers have described. The victim starts to see through the fog of abuse and courageously makes the decision to leave the relationship, but then what commonly happens is that the abuser apologizes and starts acting nice. These behavioral changes, which are often done with much persistence, send confusing messages to the victim. She’s already been taught to let others down easy and now she may begin to wonder if she wasn’t mistaken. Maybe things aren’t really that bad. Maybe he will change this time. And add to this confusion the fact that the church usually interprets the abuser’s new actions as an act of repentance, a sign that he is changing his ways and so the church pressures the woman to extend grace and reconcile.

It is my hope that if a victim could anticipate and more accurately interpret the abuser’s actions when she decides to leave the relationship and if she could learn some ways to respond to the abuser’s persistence that it may lessen her confusion — confusion which often sends the victim right back into the abusive relationship.

In the next post we will consider the abuser’s sudden change in behavior when he has either been told by the victim that she is leaving, or he suspects she may leave.  And I am going to suggest that these new acts of kindness have nothing to do with a repentant heart, as the church often wants victims to believe.

[December 11, 2022: Editors’ notes:

—For some comments made prior to December 11, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to December 11, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to December 11, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (December 11, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]


Posts in this series

Part 1: Is this post.

Part 2: Leaving an Abusive Relationship Isn’t Easy (Part 2) — Stalking behavior by the abuser

39 thoughts on “Leaving an Abusive Relationship Isn’t Easy (part 1) — Will he hear my “no”? Should I let him down easy?”

  1. Thank you, TWBTC,

    Letting an abuser down easy — DOESN’T WORK. The movies show persistence as being a good thing, you know the drill, “some people just don’t hit it off at first but they just might grow on you.” When I tried to leave 5 years ago, x-h cried, begged and agreed to anything to convince me to stay. The next 3 years were worse than before and he used what I asked him to change against me. Everything was “my fault”, I “wasn’t trying hard enough”, I “was not letting the past go”. Well, there was enough in the present that I didn’t need to bring up the past.

    While quietly leaving 2 years ago the verbal abuse got even worse, until 2 months ago.

    Hollywood brings in the happy endings. If that works for some people, fine. If they get a wonderful relationship, I say “good going”. That was not my experience with a relentless person. My “no” was not taken as “no”, but it does now. Thank you, Barb, for continuing to say, “no contact”. The past 2 months have been wonderful since changing my phone number.

  2. This attitude is often taught in sales seminars and to telemarketers. When the customer says “no”, they really don’t mean “no”, so you then move on to the next talking point to make them aware that they really mean “yes”. Hollywood picked up on this because it makes such a stirring, “romantic” plot.

    And yes, this is a very common theme in porn!

  3. We also see a similar theme expressed more overtly in both Hollywood romance movies and “reality” TV as well as in real life scenarios.

    “Why did you let me go?” “Why didn’t you fight for our relationship?” “Why didn’t you stop me?” “Why didn’t you follow me?” “I wanted you to follow me….to tell me you didn’t want me to leave….”

    It is a very confusing message indicating that “No” seldom means “No” in romantic relationships….that what the woman “really” wants is for the man to “prove” his love for her by continuing to actively pursue her despite her resistance. And that when a woman says or does something hurtful to her husband it’s only because she needs him to prove his love for her.

    It is a dangerous message that plays well into the abuser mindset, whether the abuser is the man or the woman.

    1. I must admit that I buy into some / many of the romantic movies. I LOVE the Hallmark Channel and the whole meeting the future husband over who is going to buy the last bottle of Tylenol on the store shelf (watched last night / really good) I love the happy ending. It may send a bad message and indulge the abuser mindset, but seriously how many abusers watch the Hallmark Channel? They are too busy complaining about even hearing what is on the TV and being made to hear what is said from 3 rooms away. Isn’t that what earplugs are made for?

      I know there are many other movies, I’m thinking “50 Shades” garbage movies (which I have not read or seen & don’t consider romance) which might go through the whole “”no” will mean “no” until I wear her down” stuff. The words, “but, you didn’t stop me” was in “Love Comes Softly” by Janette Oke. I’ve watched that 25 times and still cry. The x-h did not once watch that movie. That was a chick flick and would either go play on the computer or slam the door and watch TV in the bedroom.

      1. There is a difference, I think, between a woman who says “no” and means it and one who is hurt or upset and says “no” as a cover for that hurt. I have seen and done both; I have meant “NO!” and I have covered heartache and pain with “no”, and it’s difficult for some men to hear a woman’s heart underneath her words when she is hurt. I’m not saying I have any answers, and I’m not even sure it’s right or smart to do this, but it is done nonetheless. I like to think that those “chick-flicks” and Hallmark movies are of the second type I describe, a hurt heart underneath the frightened “no.”
        My non-husband never hears my heart, never did, but my friends do.

  4. “Really, Mr. Collins,” cried Elizabeth with some warmth, “you puzzle me exceedingly. If what I have hitherto said can appear to you in the form of encouragement, I know not how to express my refusal in such a way as may convince you of its being one.”

    Got to love the spunky Elizabeth Bennett. May we all be able to take lessons in refusal [Internet Archive link]1 from her.

    1[December 12, 2022: We added the link to a page with the Elizabeth Bennett refusal Rebecca quoted. The Internet Archive ink is a copy of that page. Editors.]

  5. Very insightful post. I have learned over the years that some people practically need to be hit over the head with a 2-by-4 before they “get it.” Subtlety just doesn’t cut it anymore.
    This brought to mind Eph 4:14-15 —

    As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, [NASB1995]

  6. I have received well over 200 emails in the last 11 months from my former husband. He legally was only allowed to contact me via email. But the email contact was only to be regarding parenting matters. I would only respond to the emails that were about the kids. I would give short direct answers only. Out of the 200+ emails only about 1 / 4 of them were about the kids. He would get very angry that I would not engage with him over email. It comes in waves….short dry spells of no emails and then 6 or more in one day. I hate it. Me not responding to him doesn’t make him stop emailing me. I can’t tell you the amount of times he has said he won’t contact me anymore….never lasts.

    1. Same thing here. In mediation he agreed to stop sending all his marriage / spiritual forwards. That didn’t last long. I also only respond to ones about the children, and then only when I have to, as some are just ranting and raving about how I’ve turned them against him, among other things. How I wish for “no contact”, like my older children are able to have.

    2. I have two more years, yup, counting down. My youngest is 16. It has been 6 years this August and finally less than one email / week (usually three in a week and then nothing). When we first separated it was three an hour, so it gets better.

      1. Thank you for the encouragement, Still Scared But You Can Call Me Cindy. Two year countdown! Yay!

  7. I was always taught to be kind and polite in my answers. That’s how I grew up. Yet, it is true, some people need to be hit by a 2 x 4 before they get it.

    Just recently when walking my two dogs, a handyman working on a neighbor’s home tried to get me into a conversation. I was polite as he was petting my dogs. He offered to help me should I have any problems. I indicated that my irrigation was not programmed correctly.

    He did come by and look at it. He again tried to get me into a conversation which went like this: “Just call me any time you need help….or if you are lonely….maybe we could cuddle a little….” I did not know how to answer him short of telling him in plain words that I was not interested. He asked me if I liked poker, playing cards. I said “NO” but I did not know how to stop this interrogation. I told him that I was busy. I realized that he kept coercing me to reveal more about myself. I was polite because I feared repercussions. I would have liked to say that he is not my type. Would that not be impolite. The following week, he knocked on my door. I was told that he would like to teach me strip poker!!! I just changed to topic of our conversation and brought it to an end. However, I wondered, how blunt should I have been?

    [Paragraph break added to enhance readability. Editors.]

    1. NoMoreTears,
      Was this a man you had just met?? Suggesting strip poker is completely inappropriate. If he doesn’t come back, you’re all set, but if he persists, I would suggest telling him he is not welcome at your home and if he doesn’t leave call 911.

      1. Brenda R,
        Yes, I had just met him the week before. Would you believe it, I was afraid to call 911 because he lives close to my house and I did not want to anger a psychopath. How naive am I? I have lived too many years with an abuser.

      2. NoMoreTears,
        Don’t beat yourself up too badly. We are all going to have psychos come our way and it does take a while to learn to handle things differently. I have really had to put my red flag glasses on. I had problems with a man in my building. Fortunately, he was asked to leave when his lease was up so I didn’t have to deal with him any longer. I called him on his unChristian behavior towards me and 2 other ladies in the building, after that he was very difficult to get along with. I wasn’t afraid of him and probably should have been. He got really creepy. TWBTC mentioned “The Gift of Fear”. I have the book, but is sitting in my stack of things to read. I need to make it a priority.

    2. NoMoreTears,

      It does seem true that some people need to be hit by a 2 X 4 before they get it, but with some people (i.e. abusers and others with impure motives) the problem is not that they don’t get it, it’s that they don’t want to get it.

      May I note two observations that I took from your scenario? 1) The handyman initiated the contact and offered his assistance. De Becker, in his book, The Gift of Fear [Affiliate link], would call this tactic “Loan Sharking”. He says that some men know that if they help you that will —

      place you in his debt, and the fact that you owe a person something makes it hard to ask him to leave you alone.

      And 2) the handyman didn’t hear your “no”. De Becker calls this “Discounting the Word “No”” —

      Declining to hear “no” is a signal that someone is either seeking control or refusing to relinquish it….

      When someone ignores that word [the word “no”], ask yourself: Why is this person seeking to control me? What does he want? It is best to get away from the person altogether….

      ….and if you need to skip several levels of politeness to do so, then do so.

      From what you have described of this man, may I suggest that if he approaches you again you very explicitly rebuff his advances. You wondered how blunt you should be? I encourage you to be very blunt. Notice his approaches towards you are becoming more and more bold. Notice his first approach was in a public place, his second approach was at your house (private place) based on your comment about the irrigation needing fixing and he took that comment as an invitation. But now the third approach was to your house (again, a private place) but this time unsolicited.

      An explicit response could be something like de Becker suggests [paraphrasing]: Turn directly towards him, raise your hand to the Stop position, and say directly, “I don’t want your help.” or “I don’t want you stopping here anymore, ever.” A decent man will understand your reaction — a decent man would not have made the advances he has or made the comments to you that he has.

      And as de Becker says [paraphrasing]: If he doesn’t understand your reaction and stomps off, that’s fine too. In fact, any reaction — even anger — from a decent man who had no sinister intent is preferable to continued attention from a violent man who might use your concern about rudeness to his advantage.

      Your safety is more important than being polite. And we want you safe. 🙂

      1. I have seen this “loan sharking” business. One of the most deceptive and wicked abusers I have ever had dealings with used it quite often. I knew something was “off” with this, but I didn’t understand it for a long time. What he would do is be the first, most “faithful” “Christian” on the scene when someone needed help fixing something. When he did this for me years ago, I noticed that he actually got ANGRY when I offered to give him something in return. Not the typical, “oh no, please – nothing. I just want to help” but rather, “NO! You will rob me of my reward with the Lord!” Now that’s just plain weird in anybody’s book but now I have come to see that it isn’t simply weird. Nope. It is evil. Because what this guy was doing was placing the person he helped in his debt so that he would have power and control over them. They would be indebted to him. See the crafty, devilish hypocrisy? “Oh my no! Don’t offer me anything. It’s entirely free. My reward is from the Lord.” But in fact the thing is TOTALLY about him getting something from you — your obedience! These kinds of things are not just eccentricity or personality quirks. They are pure and fully evil.

    3. He sounds creepy, scary and a blatant boundary crosser. Don’t open the door for him again. It’s almost like he’s grooming you to be used to his presence before he winds up sexually assaulting you. Who will believe he did it. People may have seen you talking to him. If you’re outside and he comes around, just say you have to go — that you’re waiting for a phone call from your boyfriend (even if you don’t have one). If he comes to the door call the police.

      1. Thank you, Pastor Jeff. I did get the feeling that he wanted something from me. That I owed him. Imagine, I asked him for his age since I felt that he was much younger. I am in good shape but 68. He told me, he was 50! At least, I have two big dogs and I made sure that all my doors and gate are locked. I will call 911 if he shows up again. What a sorry world we live in.

  8. And this type of persistence can lead to stalking and harassment, as what happened in my case, they absolutely refuse to take “NO” for an answer. But I will give ex credit as we have [been] “no contact” for several months, it is so nice to be able to relax!

      1. Come to think, this man asked me if I still had his business card. I said “no”….it did not sink in.

  9. How interesting that we are criticised for not being ‘nice’ but somehow they get away with being very, very nast y- and we’re still expected to act nice! One tip I’ve followed for a long time, is to start the sentence with “No!” and not to justify your decision. I noticed in the example in the text, she doesn’t actually use the word.

    1. Paescapee,
      So instead of saying, “This isn’t going to work out.” you should say, “No, this isn’t going to work out.”? Reframe the sentence with a stop sign in front?

      1. I think it sounds a bit stronger, don’t you? A straight “NO” is harder to manipulate.

      2. I’m seeing a big red STOP sign but it says “NO!” and there is a caption: “What is it about this sign that you don’t understand?”

      3. Paescapee,
        It does sound more like you are setting a boundary. I never thought about it before, but it sounds more authoritative. You would think that “no” would be enough in the real world, but it isn’t.

  10. It seems that sometimes we men live in a world of delusion, thinking that any woman is just willing to jump at the chance to have a sexual (or other, but usually sexual) relationship with us. If we are just manly enough and chase enough, then we can convince our target to acquiesce.

    This is especially true of men who have a generally low view of women and look on them as sexual objects. When you have the belief that a man is superior in any sense of the word, then an attitude of entitlement develops, and it is that attitude that leads to the whole idea of “no” not meaning “no”. It is like a hunter going after prey. When the prey eludes the hunter, the hunter changes tactics and keeps pressing, sometimes forcing the prey into an inescapable position, until the hunter bags his prize.

    I remember watching a video of a social experiment recently where a man went to Europe and asked over 100 women, all total strangers to him if they wanted to have sex with him. All but one said “no”. He used several of the pickup lines you would find in movies and often would try to flatter the women. Some women were amused and others shocked that the question was even asked, but the answer was almost always “no”.

    It was quite illustrative that women are not just waiting around for a man to come and make advances to them, despite the fantasy some men have about that. Unfortunately, a number of men don’t respect women enough to get that. They are a prize to be won and that is it.

    1. Wendell G,
      My ex-husband had told me many years after we were married that I was just that, “a trophy to be hung around his arm.”

  11. What an eye-opener! I used to be very blunt, but my abuser was a master of guilt trips and caused me to believe that I was being unkind (even though I wasn’t) by saying “no”. And then when I submitted to his nonsense and became NOT blunt, he used that against me as well and held me to a “yes” as if I had said “yes”, insisting that by not saying “no” more clearly I had given him wrong expectations and now had to follow through on what HE wanted. Guilt and manipulation indeed! So glad I ended it!

  12. This is interesting. I once had an American male friend tell me that I was too direct in my refusal of guys’ advances. Essentially, he felt I wasn’t letting them down easy enough, and gave me some pointers on how to be nicer. I didn’t agree with him, and told him I would rather be honest. He was telling me this in the context of both of us studying abroad in a country where random guys would just walk up to me and ask me for my number or where I was staying, and then nag me when I shook my head and went back to whatever I was doing. I was clearly not from that country (Fair hair and complexion that stood out like a beacon in a sea of darker combinations.). I would refuse to give any contact information to a complete stranger (still do, regardless of country). Period! I wasn’t comfortable doing it, and didn’t like to give them false information either. So I would just say “no” until they pouted and walked away, got p***** and stomped off, or just gave up.

  13. My ex preyed on my sincerity of wanting to reconcile with him. I never told him “no”, so I may have encouraged his behavior? His behavior was suffocating me and he was breaking me down mentally. I strongly encourage using the word “NO”, and if at all possible, not to mistake the abusers niceness as wanting to reconcile, but more wanting complete control!

    1. You are correct. I have lived with an addicted abuser for 32 years. I tried to get a divorce several times. Twice the church intervened. Finally, when I was already 67, he chose divorce. Even now that we are divorced, he tries to get me into his web. Why, I asked, I had made him so unhappy….?

      1. Exactly No More Tears…..a lousy wife on every level and many other similar insults, yet fights like h***** to hold on to what????? Oh, I know…. that I will change into a godly wife. Then he will be able to treat me right.

  14. There are some areas of my life I’m good at saying a firm “No!”.

    Salespeople? Absolutely.

    Random strangers interrupting my lunch? Absolutely.

    Unknown / new hair stylist trying to make conversation? Getting better.

    “No Contact” people from the past? Depends. Email goes to the Junk folder. Telephone has caller ID. In person? Hasn’t happened yet, but adding TWBTC’s and the commenters’ ideas to some supplied by Barb, I have more to play with….


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