"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
October 16, 2014
Storing a Stinky Couch
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


My cousin asked me if she could store a very large couch in our basement.  We just moved, and our basement is full of boxes and other items we are sorting through and trying to organize. The couch is loaded with dog hair and smells awful. I also don't think it would fit down the steps without damaging our walls.  I tried to say no, but she is persisting. 

This cousin has a habit of asking us for favors we'd rather not do, and we've had a few run-ins with her over the years because of it.

What should we do?


Let me rephrase your question:

Your cousin has, for years, asked you for unreasonable favors. When you say no, she either (1) badgers you until you give in or (2) becomes upset and makes you miserable. Most recently, she has demanded that you store her disgusting couch in your new basement where it will contaminate your home and impede your chores. You want to say no, but are afraid she will become angry and upset, which distresses you.

You want to know how to say no to this favor without upsetting your cousin.

The answer is: You can’t. It is impossible. Unless you do what she wants, she will become upset. So unless you are willing to do whatever she wants to avoid a conflict, you will have to settle for the satisfaction that comes from behaving well, no matter how much of a fuss she causes.

How can you behave well? I have three suggestions.

First, accept your cousin as she is. Don’t ever expect her behavior to change. Instead, accept that forevermore: (1) She will continue to ask you for unreasonable favors; (2) She will badger you when you say no the first few times; (3) She will become upset and cause unpleasantness when you give her a final no.

These unflattering facts must be accepted as unalterable. Her behavior may be deliberately manipulative or maddeningly clueless. But she is never going to get the hint and stop asking you for things. She is never going to develop a sense of what favors she should and should not ask you for. She is never going to say, “Oh, okay,” when you tell her you can’t do such-and-such for her. And, therefore, there are going to be more conflicts between you in the future.

You should expect these conflicts, and plan on them happening.

Second, because this problem will be ongoing, you need to make a plan. How will you respond to this and any future requests?

The general rule is that favors may be refused with no explanation other than, “I’m sorry, but I can’t.” The refusing party is not obligated to explain his reasons; explanations often become unfortunate conversations in which the refused party tries to solve whatever problem the refusing party has offered as an excuse.

Therefore, the easiest way to refuse a favor is to say, “Darn it, I can’t.” And the polite way to respond, if you are the refused party, is to say, “Oh, well. Thanks, anyway.”

If you have never refused your cousin without providing a reason, I suggest you try it. You are well within your rights to say, “Heather, I’m sorry, but you can’t store your couch in my basement. It’s not going to work.” If she persists, you can say, “It won’t work for me,” or “I just can’t,” or “I’m sorry, but I can’t.”

She may still pester or become upset, but at least you won’t have to argue with her about your reasons.

If you have tried this approach, however, and your cousin continues to press you, I wonder if you might ignore this rule in favor of an Emphatic Idiosyncratic Refusal. In other words, a blunt refusal based on unalterable personal quirks. Everyone is entitled to his quirks, after all, and you might call upon yours to extricate you from this situation.

Your tone might be rueful, flat or even somewhat desperate, but it should be unequivocal and unyielding. For example:

“Courtney, I wish I could help, but I can’t tend your pets while you’re away. I know it sounds silly, but I’m very nervous around animals, and even though they’re only hamsters and rabbits, I just can’t get near them. I’m sorry I’m so weird.” (You don’t have to actually be sorry you’re weird; you just have to be sorry that your weirdness prevents you from helping someone.)

Or perhaps, “No, thank you, Nan. We don’t dance in recitals.”

Or in your case, “Heather, I can’t store that couch. I’m sorry, but I have a thing about pet-soiled upholstery and I just can’t have it in my house. It will haunt me if I know it’s down there. So, I’m sorry, but no.”

The advantage to this approach is that your cousin can’t argue with it. You have based your refusal on your feelings. She can say you’re stupid, snobby or selfish, but she can’t tell you that you don’t feel that way. In fact, there is a slim chance that she might finally understand why you kept saying no, and stop asking.

Third, I suggest you stop worrying about conflict with this cousin, even if conflict in general makes you uncomfortable. The past conflict you describe does not seem to have bothered her as much as it bothered you. If it had, she probably would not continue to ask you for anything.

So let her occupy a unique spot in your life, the spot where conflict is par for the course and does not indicate a crisis in the relationship. The spot where jibes about you being too good for her couch cause you to shrug and move on.

Because it is not your fault if your cousin gets bent out of shape. She is a grown woman and she is in charge of her own behavior. Being kind and sensitive to her does not require you to do everything she asks, lest she become upset. If you can help her, help her with a happy heart. But do not acquiesce to her demands because you are afraid of what she will do if you say no.

Finally, two caveats.

One, if you routinely ask your cousin for favors as onerous as this one, and she does them for you, you owe her. You can still say that this smelly couch is just too much, but you owe her, and you’d better pay up the next time she asks.

Two, I assumed in my answer that your cousin was the one that caused the run-ins when you refused to do favors for her. But if the run-ins were caused by you, if you lost your temper because you became frustrated, exasperated or resentful of her requests, then you need to shape up.

If you don’t want to do her a favor, you must politely but unequivocally refuse, even if she does pester. But if you agree to help her, you cannot then treat her badly just because you are cross and resentful.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!

Bookmark and Share    
About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
Copyright © Hatrack River Enterprise Inc. All Rights Reserved. Web Site Hosted and Designed by WebBoulevard.com