I'm just a girl who can't say no

Anna Maxted seeks expert advice on how to reject unwanted advances, and finds that honesty is the best policy
That woman speaks 18 languages and can't say `no' in any of them," observed Dorothy Parker of an old acquaintance. She could have been talking about me, except that I don't speak 18 languages. You see, I have a problem. If a man I dislike asks me out fora drink, I don't know how to refuse. I suspect that were Freddie Kruger to suggest a candlelit dinner at his place I'd simper: "Ooh, er, how nice. Sure, give me a ring."

Several of my girlfriends are inexplicably stricken with a limited vocabulary in similar situations. Maria, a friend from work, was continually pestered for lunch dates by a colleague. The poor man remained blithely unaware that she found him unattractive, because whenever he suggested they go out for a sandwich she would react with what seemed unalloyed joy.

Half an hour after one such exchange, her internal phone rang. Suspecting the worst, she grabbed the receiver, thrust it in my direction and said crossly: "It that's Mark, tell him I'm not here." I looked at her in horror and mouthed: "He would have heard that, you prat!" She bit her lip in dismay. Too late. Mark slammed down the receiver and has ignored Maria ever since, while she reddens with shame every time she sees him.

An honest answer at the start would have no doubt saved both parties much embarrassment. Why then is it so hard to say a straightforward "It's very kind of you, but no thanks"? Is it cowardice? Are we worried that he'll think what "What a pompous bitch"?Is it arrogance? Do we imagine that the bald truth will be too much for our unsuitable suitor to bear, and that we'll end up with a suicide on our conscience? According to the London-based psychologist and writer Dr Dorothy Rowe, the simple reason that we are reluctant to hurt other people's feelings is because we like to think well of ourselves.

She says: "For many people thinking well of yourself is more important than being happy. I know women who've entered into and remained in absolutely disastrous relationships where they get beaten up and maltreated. This kind of woman believes that if sherejected her man he would be hurt and then she'd feel that she was a bad person. She wants to be good, so she always takes account of what other people feel, and doesn't defend herself against being hurt or manipulated."

At this point, I must confess that I once went out with a man for four months, despite having twigged on our second date that we were about as compatible as Vinnie Jones and a tutu. (He told me that his future wife would have to be a good cook, thereby booting me from the equation. He also confided that he possessed a public school fees fund in the bank for his - as yet unconceived - children.) I invented elaborate excuses for not seeing him, I pretended to be out when he rang, and generally behaved with all the maturity of an eight-year-old. In no way did I feel that I was a good person. I felt miserable, weak and most dreadfully bored.

Tina Baker, principal clinical psychologist at Jersey General Hospital, believes that many women - and it is mostly women - are drawn into a relationship they do not really want because of a need for companionship and a lack of assertiveness. She says: "The base of it is a lack of self-esteem. Because of that there's an inability to be in touch with one's needs. Some women don't think about what they really want and if they're entitled to have those needs fulfilled. They don't ask themselves `is this good for me?' until it's too late." She adds: "People engage in avoidance behaviour such as not answering the telephone, but that doesn't help build up one's self-confidence. You should tell the truth in a gentle way because rejection for anyone is hard totake. You should reject in a kind, but definite way, not leaving any question marks. Being vague and saying things like `I'm going to be busy' doesn't help because it gives the wrong signal."

I'm guilty on several counts, and so are a fair few of my female friends. Maria admits: "You just hope that if you keep making excuses he'll get the message and leave you alone." No good, says Ms Baker, because some men will take advantage of this shilly-shallying: "If you emit signs of weakness or uncertainty, that might be played on by the other person because he might be desperate for affection and not want to meet the truth head-on."

Taking responsibility is the key, but what is the textbook method of dispensing with unwanted attention without making the unwanted feel unwanted? I'm ashamed to say that I killed off my ill-starred relationship by bleating that I "had to concentrate on sorting my life out". Unsurprisingly such bilge was forcefully challenged, and a storm of anguished letters and phone calls ensued. It was a slow and painful death.

Ms Baker advises training oneself in honest self-expression. For those delaying the moment of telling him it's all over, she suggests a sensitive speech along the lines of: "We've been seeing each other for however many months, and I've really enjoyed your company, but now I feel this is not the sort of relationship I want. I'm sorry if this upsets you but I have to be honest about what I feel." She warns against resorting to criticism because you leave yourself open to anger and further discussion, which will inevitably complicate matters.

Incidentally, having rudely dismissed Mark, my friend Maria caught the eye of another individual. She had learned by error to speak plainly, so when Mr Wrong asked her to the theatre she replied with a whopping white lie: "I'm sorry I can't. My boyfrienddoesn't allow me to go out with other men." He might have believed her had I not told him five minutes earlier that she was definitely single.