If You Don’t Love Someone, Set Them Free With Expert Tips for Compassionate Rejection

Photo: Getty Images/PhotoAltoFrederic Cirou
The other day, a man that I had been out with several times texted me, wanting to make plans. But among other deal-breakers he had already violated, like loving flip flops, he had revealed himself to be a jerk. I had no interest in seeing him, but I still had trouble figuring out how to communicate, definitively, that I'm not interested. And, it bears reminding—we had only been on two dates to this point.

It's not just me who has trouble with low-stakes cord-cutting. On a small-scale personal note, nearly all the single people I polled about this had experienced similar situations. On a larger scale, the art of not seeing someone you're not interested in without tipping them off using your words has become such an accepted aspect of dating culture that we have invented dedicated terms for the behavior—ghosting, orbiting, breadcrumbing. It is exhausting.

But why? Why is it so difficult to do this seemingly simple thing? Psychiatrist Gail Saltz, MD, says it's largely an issue of empathy. Not outright rejecting someone can come from a place of discomfort because of the empathetic understanding of how bad it feels to be rejected. However, it may also reflect being avoidant of confrontation, and a fear that "in breaking it off, the other person will in some way be aggressive or vengeful in reaction."

"It's healthier for all involved to be clear if you wish to move on from dating someone. Understand you are not doing them any favors to just drop away saying nothing." —psychiatrist Gail Saltz, MD

Ding, ding, ding! I always worry that someone will turn mean if I reject them. It's happened to me in the past, so why wouldn't it happen in the future? But another pesky thought that's often in the back of my mind when I'm ready to reject someone is the question of whether I want to call it quits forever. "For some, there is a desire to leave things open-ended, as a bid to hedge their bets and keep this person on hold in case they decide they want to date again," Dr. Saltz says. Needless to say, benching someone isn't the kindest way to go about things—and in practice, it doesn't really do either of you any favors.

Regardless of why, exactly, we have a hard time saying "no thanks," in most cases, the best practice to just be upfront. But if that were always easy, well, I wouldn't have written this, and you wouldn't be reading it. "Almost everyone benefits from having clarity around the future of a relationship," Dr. Saltz says. "With this in mind, it is more mature and healthier for all involved to be clear, in a compassionate way, if you wish to move on from dating someone. Understand you are not doing them any favors to just drop away saying nothing."

Okay, okay—sure, but how does an empathetic avoider put such wisdom into practice? "Try to understand what prevents you from being direct. Which issue is it? Where did this issue come from? Then try something new to break out of your old pattern to see how that feels," Dr. Saltz says.

As far as a starter guide for implementing the advice, I highly recommend listening to Ariana Grande's "thank u, next" on repeat to get into the right mind-set to see out Dr. Saltz's suggestion: going with something like "thank you for what's been, we didn't work out, and I wish you the best." And then go home and fire up the Ariana Grande tunes again.

Feeling burnt out from dating? We feel you. Here's what one writer learned from taking a year off of dating. Also, a therapist says these are the things to watch out for on someone's dating profile.

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