- Turning down love carries its own distinctive and troubling emotions, deserving of consideration.
- Unwanted admirers create a moral dilemma. We want to acknowledge their feelings but not encourage them. Admirers have no moral conflict.
- Rejecting romance requires being direct, resisting reciprocity, staying general, preparing for persistence, and accepting our blunt selves.
- The emphasis in popular culture for aspiring to romantic love can be confronted with a new script validating the rejection of uninvited romance.
For hundreds of years, poets and musicians have celebrated the joyous pleasures of romantic love and sympathized with the poignant torment of unfulfilled desire. During those same years, very little has been expressed about the experience of rejecting love, an act that goes against the time-honored recognition of romance. Yet, turning down love carries distinctive and troubling emotions that deserve consideration.
This post takes the perspective of people rejecting unwanted overtures of love. It offers an understanding of this unsettling circumstance as well as suggestions for resolving the moral and personal dilemmas of turning down a would-be lover. The post doesn’t minimize or dismiss the pain of being rejected. Rather, it focuses on the largely unacknowledged and unscripted difficulties we experience when rejecting someone while respecting the other person’s feelings and humanity, as well as our own.
Coming to Terms With Offers of Unwelcome Romantic Love
Understanding the circumstances. The beginning stage of unwanted requests can be confusing, placing us at a disadvantage. We often don’t know what the other person wants or why the person keeps contacting us, whereas our would-be lovers know exactly what they want.
With repeated requests, we apprehend the progression of uninvited obligations and can become increasingly distressed, moving from frustration to helplessness. As potential rejectors, we enter a no-win situation: being nice and miserable or being blunt and feeling awkward and guilty.
At least for a while, our would-be lovers find joy in connecting with us and in taking a chance on a large benefit, whereas we have nothing to gain.
Someone liking us so much might sound flattering, but it's stressful having our boundaries ignored The only desirable outcome is to stop the admirer’s advances and return to our lives before the advances began. Inevitably, we wish the entire interaction never happened, having gained nothing from it.
Managing internal conflict. Our interactions with an unwanted admirer create a moral dilemma. We want to acknowledge the other person while not encouraging their romantic desire. Neutral responses may seem the decent thing to do, but such responses bring out more requests, with our ambiguous actions and words interpreted as signs of love.
Recognizing the reality imposed on us. People with feelings of romantic love provide their versions of reality as the only version. They are certain about their feelings, and they project this certainty onto us. They make statements for two people from their perspective of one.
Resisting reciprocity. We typically reciprocate positive feelings, so not reciprocating stands out as a stark exception. Setting aside the tendency to like the people who like us is difficult.
In addition, people who want a romantic relationship often skip steps toward personal intimacy. They might then lean on the principle of reciprocity, pressuring us to respond intimately. "I told you. Now you tell me."
Distinguishing caring and desiring. Caring is a concern for a person’s well-being, whereas romantic desire is a self-oriented longing to be with the subject of desire. Our admirers might say they care, but if they persist in ignoring our objections in pursuit of romance, they are not demonstrating caring.
Putting aside the emphasis on love in popular culture. Adding to the difficulty of rejecting someone is the historic weight of songs and poetry emphasizing the all-encompassing joys of romantic love. From the Beatles, “All you need is love.” Virgil said, “Love conquers all.” Tennyson said, “Love is the only gold.” From Emily Dickinson, "Wild nights! Wild nights! Were I with thee, Wild nights should be Our luxury!" There are no comparable expressions for those rejecting love.
In the aftermath, would-be lovers may be consoled by Tennyson’s resonant assertion, "Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."1 In songs and poetry, romantic love gets the emphasis. Rejection of love does not.
Ending Unwanted Advances
Staying general. Generalities are more effective than specifics when rejecting someone for two reasons. Our admirers can usually find ways around specifics. And, more pointedly, specifying why we don’t have feelings for the other person can sound like criticism and insult, which can generate unnecessary resentment and more interaction. We should summarize our experience in general terms.
- You have strong feelings for me. You have said that several times. But I do not have feelings for you. That leads to personal requests from you that I don't want to do and personal questions that seem misplaced.
Integrating generalities with “I” statements conveys what we want without insult or scolding.
- Affection cannot be persuaded. We both know that's the way of the world. Of course, we each have the same human rights. But no one has the right to intrude into another person's life. And I need to live my life as I see fit.
Preparing for resistance. Even a hard rejection can be disregarded. Unrequited lovers often ignore diplomatic messages, so a firm rejection may seem disconnected from a sequence of more gentle entreaties. For this reason, our admirer may not accept our perspective, however clearly we state it.
It’s also possible that a successful rejection will fade with time, and the unrequited admirer may return with more requests. If so, we should repeat the same wording as before. Altering our reasons or our phrasing can come across as wavering, which only encourages inappropriate persistence. And softening our rejection will be interpreted as a change of heart.
Blunting repeated efforts. If a person continues to make romantic requests and justifies the persistence by saying, “it doesn’t hurt to ask,” point out that with some questions, it does hurt to ask. It hurts us, and it hurts them. It's difficult enough to reject someone once. It grows even more frustrating and complicated if someone continues asking.
We can choose to explain our reasons for not complying, but we are not obligated to. When turning down a romantic relationship, we should minimize and generalize our responses. Our goal is a firm, clear rejection without being unnecessarily detailed or rude.
- The simple truth is I cannot give you what you want. I don't feel the way you say I feel or the way you want me to feel.
Accepting our blunt selves. We should not feel guilty for asserting our rights and saying no. “No” is one of our least favorite words, but it’s there for a reason. If we want, we can introduce this idea without being expansively personal.
- Bluntness does not come easily to me, but I need to be clear and direct about this.
Avoiding excuses. Would-be lovers are strongly motivated to find holes in excuses. If our admirer detects a gap in our reasoning, that will only encourage more interaction. We don’t need to make excuses or negotiate our rights or justify wanting to be left alone.
Accommodating the aftermath. After the rejections, there is an asymmetry of compassion. Our would-be lovers feel no sympathy for us, whereas we may feel sympathy for them.
Popular films provide abundant stories of aspiring to love, even in unlikely situations, even with obvious conflicts, and even despite initial rejections. To stand up to these stories, we need to write our own scripts for the largely unscripted role of rejecting romance.
Most of us are aware that romantic love can lead people to behave uncharacteristically and to go against their beliefs of what makes sense. So we need to prepare to manage the irrational.
To give romantic love without receiving it causes pain. To receive persistent romantic overtures without feeling love is an intrusion. Ultimately, it’s not romantic love we desire. It’s reciprocated love.
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Note 1. This line was not directed to a love interest of Tennyson’s but to a dear friend (A.H. Hallam), but it is about romantic love, that of Tennyson’s sister and Hallam.
Baumeister, R. F., Wotman, S. R., & Stillwell, A. M. (1993). Unrequited love: On heartbreak, anger, guilt, scriptlessness, and humiliation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(3), 377–394. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2067 The pdf can be found at: https://www.people.vcu.edu/~jldavis/readings/Baumeister%20et%20al%20199…