Two highly-respected women in my life asked that I make these tips available to the greater public, so here goes: A guide to saying “let’s just be friends” or declining a suitor’s unwanted advances.
You can reject unwanted suitors with grace
There are good ways to say "no"
Nearly everyone has experience with rejections, but not all rejections are created equal. Feminists have blasted women for using problematic excuses like “I have a boyfriend” as ways of turning down suitors. While I wish we could all learn how to graciously accept forms of “no thanks,” I also think it’s our collective responsibility to learn how to honestly and constructively say “no”— without resorting to flaky behavior, passive aggression, or outright lies.
I’ve been a dating, sex, & relationship consultant for the past four years, and what follows are some recommendations that have worked for my friends and clients for declining unwanted advances from friends, suitors, and even current relationship partners.
Four most important tips:
- Give your partner agency.
People generally like predictability, stability, and agency, which is the feeling that they’re in control of their own future. When agency is taken away from us, we feel threatened, we panic, and we make rash decisions. This is why sudden unilateral decisions, departures, and drop-offs oftentimes foster anger and retaliation.
When saying “no” to someone, it’s most helpful to identify and agree upon an end state that you both feel is appropriate, so you can then become confidantes in a final mission rather than enemies. When you work together to create a roadmap of how to proceed (even if you’re proceeding toward new relationships with other people), it creates an identifiable challenge for you two to tackle together, which is much healthier than agency-denying tactics like packing up and leaving without a backward glance, or the all-too-common “fadeaway” (also called “ghosting”).
- Be proactively empathetic.
Place yourself squarely in their shoes, and think of how they’ll react to what you’re about to say. Take some time alone beforehand to come up with as many hypothetical scenarios as you can for how you two can move forward (together as friends or entirely separated), and plan to suggest a few of the best scenarios when you’re actually having the breakup/letdown conversation.
Maybe even ideate together about what options seem best for both of you. By taking their best interests into account from the beginning, you will minimize the pain of rejection, and you may even earn their admiration in the process.
- Be transparent, but avoid being disrespectful or hurtful.
Sometimes your suitor has a character flaw that is simply repulsive and will likely make all future partners of theirs miserable. Or maybe it’s just one thing they did that made you fundamentally uncomfortable and in need of an exit. Usually, though, they simply have goals that are different from yours (e.g. they want commitment, and you don’t).
In all three cases, it’s important to communicate what these problems are and how they make you feel so that your perspective can be heard, understood, and respected. How can they make better decisions if they don’t know or understand the problem? If the problem is something that might make them feel bad about themselves (e.g. bad at sex, no ambition, etc.), there are framing tools you can use to be honest without being disparaging (see “Helpful Frames to Use” below).
- Brevity and silence can backfire.
Sure, some suitors may not even warrant the mental energy it takes to educate them as to why they’re so terrible. The fatigue of having to educate every single individual you encounter about basic issues of class, gender, race, privilege, consent, etc. is very real, and it’s prevalent across activist circles, too.
Ignoring your suitors, not replying to their texts, etc. can indeed send a strong message. However, depending on how much investment you and/or your suitor have made in your dynamic, it’s possible that brevity, silence, and passive aggression will open the floor to misinterpretation, confusion, and resentment. Ultimately, you have to make the call about whether you want to receive a smile or an angry glare next time you see this person in real life.
Be ready for anything with these scripts
Helpful frames to use
- “I don’t want to waste your time”
You can frame it as, “If I’m ultimately going to want out, then it’s not worth wasting either of our time by pretending otherwise. It’s more advantageous for you to spend your time investing in someone who actually wants the same things as you and won’t decide to call it quits after you’ve already made an investment. You should spend your time finding that person.”
- “We have different goals”
You can frame it as, “Hey, it’s becoming clear to me that we have different goals in this setup. I’m looking for xyz, while you’re looking for pdq. Let’s try being fully honest about what we want so we can identify some end states we can work toward/achieve together, or worst case scenario, we’ll simply discover that we’re not the best fit and we can focus our efforts on finding the right people.”
- “Relationships are contracts, and some contracts need to be rewritten or scrapped entirely.”
You can frame it as, “The setup that we have isn’t working for me. It’s nothing against you as a person. The problem is that we need fundamentally different relationship structures, so there’s not really any setup that could work for us (e.g., You want monogamy, I want non-monogamy. You are looking to settle down, I’m looking to explore. You want to relocate to Atlanta, I want to stay in NYC). There might be an avenue we could explore, but it’ll require a lot more open and honest discussion about our needs, goals, expectations, and capacities.”
Excuses to overcome
- “But I feel bad for them — they’ve been trying so hard”
Problem with this excuse: Imagine the reverse of this. Imagine someone who doesn’t really like you agreeing to date you because they feel bad for you. It’s a pretty crappy thing to do. You’re basically creating a power dynamic here whereby you suddenly hold all the cards because you’re investing less without making your true feelings or intentions clear to your partner. This is terrible behavior, which you almost certainly wouldn’t want done to you, and which your partner likely neither deserves nor desires to have done to them.
- “But I already said yes to it a few hours/days ago”
Problem with this excuse: Consent. The most important thing for people to remember about consent, regardless of age or gender, is that it can change at any moment, and that the change needs to be respected. In the case of sudden misgivings about going on a date, your consent should come before any feelings of allegiance, loyalty, or indebtedness to your partner. A “no,” even after ten straight “yes’s,” is still a “no.”
If you find it this hard to say no to a date that you’ve already agreed to previously, you may not be well-prepared for other situations, like if a date were to suddenly turn sexual. After saying “yes” to the date, “yes” to going to your suitor’s place, “yes” to a glass of wine, and “yes” to getting in bed, how comfortable are you saying “no” to what comes next? It’s essential that no matter how many “yes’s” you’ve given before, if you’re feeling “no,” you need to be able to express it clearly and emphatically.
- “It’s only a single date…”
Problem with this excuse: Validating behavior only reinforces it. Saying “yes” to a date is an implicit sign of interest. Importantly, saying “yes” when you feel “no” does two rather terrible things: First, it lowers your own capacity to feel in control of your decisions. Secondly, it’s inherently deceptive to watch your suitor commit to a date with you when you have no intention of reciprocating that commitment. Once again, you hold all the cards here, and the ethical thing to do is to be perfectly upfront with your suitor about your intentions (or lack thereof).
- “But they’ve already booked reservations / spent money”
Problem with this excuse: Someone’s commitment of time/energy toward a date or plan with you does not in and of itself warrant your participation. A crappy or nonconsensual experience remains such regardless of the total investment made. This is particularly the case when your suitor invests in the date without even first soliciting your interest/feedback.
If someone books two expensive seats at a seafood restaurant without first asking you whether or not you like seafood, it should be their loss, not your suffering. But it doesn’t even have to be a loss. This is the part where you can simply inform them that a) you recommend they take someone who would genuinely appreciate the experience, because that experience would otherwise be wasted on you, and b) for future reference, in their interactions with you or anyone else, they should first inquire how their partners want to be treated before making any investments.
Putting Theory into Practice
A Typical Heterosexual Example
Male suitor’s text message: “Hey babe, great chatting on Tinder earlier. Now that we’re texting, I want to take you out to the best club. I already got us reservations. Bottle service, the whole nine yards. I’m a gentleman, and I treat pretty ladies great.”
Woman’s thoughts: [“Ugh, this guy sounds like a lot more of a douchebag than I expected. And wtf, I don’t even like clubbing. What should I say?”]
Typical response 1: [radio silence]
Typical response 2: “Uh, ok” + [flakes out on date]
Typical response 3: “Uh, ok” + [miserable date experience]
Recommended response: “Woah, hold up. I appreciate the date suggestion, but honestly, I don’t even like clubbing. More importantly, though, your tone is coming off as really arrogant and condescending, and it’s making me uncomfortable. Maybe there’s a disconnect between your texting persona and your actual IRL persona, but I’m really not interested in pursuing anything further if this is the way you talk to women. I recommend that you seek out someone who would appreciate the sort of investment you’re willing to make on a first date, but I’m really not the right person for that.”