How can I turn him down without crushing him?
December 14, 2012 10:18 PM   Subscribe

How can I avoid leading a guy on when he won't come out and state his attraction?

I have an aquaintence who has been showing increasingly obvious signs of attraction to me. I guess you could say we are friend. We are friendly, but we haven't really shared enough time/experiences together for me to consider us real friends yet. He's a nice guy, very generous, and I enjoy hanging out with him sometimes. But there's no chemistry for me in a romantic sense.

Anyways, although I've been pretty sure he liked me for awhile, lately he's been dropping super obvious hints, and I actually overheard him tell someone else that he is very romantically interested in me. My issue that I come to you for advice is, he isn't saying anything to me directly, nor asking me anything directly. So I can't give him a kind but firm no thanks - because he hasn't ever told me that he is interested in a relationship, even though it's clear that's what he's hoping for.

The thing is he has super low self-esteem. I don't know if he's ever been in a relationship before. He always is making deroggatory comments about his looks, his weight, etc. and always saying I can't get women because _______ fill in the blank with some self deprecating comment. I generally will say, that's just not true and you know it. Although lately I just kind of ignore it. I also refuse to give some sort of compliment when he says these things, although I feel like that is what he wants. I feel like it's re-inforcing a maladaptive behavior and teaching him that the way to get compliments or feel better about yourself is to put yourself down in front of other people. He also seems to have a feeling that he is an outsider or something.

Anyways, I get the feeling that he is staking a lot on me and the hopes that I return his romantic feelings. I get the feeling he is going to be super crushed if he finds out I'm just not interested. Trust me, I'm not saying that in a self inflated way, honestly he doesn't hardly know me, so any great stock he is putting in me is just his imaginary creation that he thinks is me.

Anyways, I kind of tend to be super nice, like in a fluffy way - especially with people I am not super close with. I just laugh a lot and am not very confrontational. Sometimes I think people interpret that as us connecting really well or something. I often get this experience where I will hang out with someone a few times, and they will suddenly think we are way closer/better friends than we are yet. I guess I often say things like - "this was super fun we should hang out again," or just generally have a good time and express that, and then it is interpretted as a cue to move forward in the friendship more than I intended. It's not that I dislike hanging out with these people, I'm serious when I say I'm having fun. Yet I guess I sort of give off a we're best friends vibe, when that's not the case. That explaination to say, I think the same thing is sort of happening with him, I think I am giving off a vibe that indicates more interest than is true. So I'm worried about stringing him along, and don't want to put him through needless pain.

He has never asked me out or told me he likes me, it's all sort of passive. He does ask me to do things, but there is usually an excuse - "Oh, I'm trying to write this song, but I don't play any instruments, and I know you're a guitarist, I was wondering if you could come over and help me write out the music." "I just bought a dog. Do you want to bring your poodle to that dog park in town, and help me train my chiuaua. I don't know how to train a dog." Lately he's invited me to some social things too.

How can I avoid sending him interested signals while still accepting some of his invitations and being a friend? If he doesn't want to be friends if I'm not romantically interested, that's fine too, I understand. But right now I guess I feel like if I keep being friends with him he is taking it as a sign that I'm interested.

Also, clouding my ability to know how to send uninterested signals, I very recently was on the other side of a really intense unreturned crush, and realize I wasn't the most mature well adjusted adult in that situation, I'm sure I probably made the object of my affection feel uncomfortable, and also was super insecure. Although the circumstances were different, I definitely feel like a huge hypocrite and a bit guilty because I didn't give the guy I liked a whole lot of respect for his obvious prerogative to not return the sentiment. So now I feel guilty because I expect the guy that's starry eyed for me to respect my prerogative not to be interested in him : /

Also, how can I turn down invitations without making excuses? Is it ok to just say, no I don't want to go eat, no I don't feel like hanging out with you? Is that mean? I don't know if I currently am even able to say, no I don't want to. When I don't want to do things or feel uncomfortable doing them, I generally try to think up a valid excuse...I'm pretty busy so I usually have one. But I know that's not a very mature way of handling things.

Thanks in advance!
posted by chocolatemilkshakes to Human Relations (28 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
"No, thanks. Maybe I'll see you at [mutual friend]'s party, though."

"Oh, I don't think I can."

Don't make excuses, just say "no" politely.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:27 PM on December 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know that saying "No, thanks" and not giving an excuse is hard, but it's a really important life skill.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:28 PM on December 14, 2012 [26 favorites]

How can I avoid sending him interested signals while still accepting some of his invitations and being a friend?

In this case, you probably cannot. Continue to politely decline his invitations. Unless he is willfully dense, he'll get the picture and move along.
posted by Pudhoho at 10:35 PM on December 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

Sidhedevil is correct. I would like to add that he may be upset/mad/disheartened with your response, but that's not because "you were mean" but because you didn't give the response he wanted or thought that he deserved.

You are not being mean for politely saying "no". If he takes it badly, that is his fault, not yours. I don't know if you're a woman or not, but western women are many times socialized to be accommodating and compliant, even at the sacrifice of their own perfectly reasonable feeling and desires. That is not a good way to live, learn to say no.
posted by Shouraku at 10:36 PM on December 14, 2012 [6 favorites]

At the next one-on-one situation you'd have accepted anyway, start with, "I don't want to embarrass you, but I'm afraid I overheard you expressing a romantic interest in me. I care about your self-esteem and think you'll do well with other women. But I can't nurture your interest in me because it's not going to work out. Please let's skip that kind of stuff and just hang out."

Whatever you do, don't talk about friendship, because I fear you don't have one until it has survived that conversation to the point where your interactions are clearly unmotivated on his part.

Sharing your anecdote about having just gone through this from the other side probably wouldn't sting him much and might be a way to move off the immediate topic of him ASAP, if the thing you're there to do isn't sufficient.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:40 PM on December 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

The whole point of him making these flirtatious overtures without saying "I really want to date you" is to give you a chance to turn them down without it becoming a confrontation over the issue. If you're not interested in these overtures, don't accept and disengage.
posted by deanc at 10:42 PM on December 14, 2012 [6 favorites]

Are you able to set him up on a date with someone you know and think he'd be a match for? (Assuming of course that he's a nice enough guy who you have a potential date for him in your pool of acquaintances) It could help his self-esteem, and gently let him know he's not for you.
posted by Garm at 10:43 PM on December 14, 2012

I agree with Sidhedevil. But: I think that if he doesn't want to express his interest overtly, he's putting you in such an awkward situation that it's not unreasonable to make excuses. (However, if he does ask you out, definitely don't make up an excuse why you don't want to date him.)

And if you do hang out:
If he's that depressed about his romantic life there's a good chance he's going to hang around you while slowly growing more and more resentful that you've put him in "the friend zone". So go out of your way to not be flirtatious. Are there guys you are interested in? Mention them somehow. Scale back your affection a big amount. Avoid friendly teasing and things like it. Don't touch him a lot, if you're normally a touchy person. This is the polite, face-saving way to send the "not-interested" signal.

As for your crush: how do you wish you had behaved? That's how he ought to behave towards you. You can have empathy for him if he doesn't, but you should still expect him to be reasonable and remember that it's not your fault when he isn't.

(And there is the slight chance that you're wrong, although people's intuition is usually good in these situations.)
posted by vogon_poet at 10:44 PM on December 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

You could bring it up yourself, like, "Hey, I don't know about you, but I'm not looking for a relationship right now. I do like hanging out with you; can we still introduce our dogs/transcribe your song/whatever, as friends?"

I've gotten this from people I wasn't actually trying to ask out, and at least from my end it's just amusing, not at all offensive. Except for the one time when it was kind of scary because it was a work situation and I wondered whether there was anybody else who thought I was hitting on them but who had instead chosen to just walk around around silently feeling harassed. I assume that's not a relevant example for you.
posted by d. z. wang at 10:45 PM on December 14, 2012

I know that saying "No, thanks" and not giving an excuse is hard, but it's a really important life skill.

This x 1000. You sound like a really nice, thoughtful, self-aware person - you're already starting from a good place re: handling this situation. Don't overthink it and don't overexplain. Just avoid and deflect. You can still be pleasant and congenial while still holding some boundaries.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 11:30 PM on December 14, 2012

"I don't want to embarrass you, but I'm afraid I overheard you expressing a romantic interest in me. I care about your self-esteem and think you'll do well with other women. But I can't nurture your interest in me because it's not going to work out. Please let's skip that kind of stuff and just hang out."

Only do this if you're ok with him being too embarrassed to hang out with you again. Save it for when you're out of subtler options.

In my experience you have two reasonable options to let this guy down easy without hurting his feelings. Both of them seem a little high school, but his high school level passive-flirtations require a high school level defense:

1) Next time you hang out with dude, tell him about a guy you have a crush on. Make him up if you have to, and try to make it someone very different from dude. Say something like "I'm glad you're a friend" at some point in the conversation. (I also like Garm's idea of offering to set him up. That should be pretty clear, but only do it if you actually have a good match for him.)

2) Get a mutual friend to tell him that you're not interested. This needs a friend with some tact but is more likely it be successful than option 1. This lets him save face with you and the two of you can keep up a polite illusion that he only ever wanted to be friends anyways.

Good luck!
posted by no regrets, coyote at 11:40 PM on December 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

If you aren't quite ready to say "I don't want to..", try "Sorry, I can't." or "sorry, I'm not available for that" or "No, that wouldn't work for me" - keep it very general, you don't owe him a reason.

I'm also wondering if it might work when he starts to put himself down, if you start your response with "Well, you know you aren't really my type but...." If he says'What is your type?" say, "That doesn't matter, we were talking about how you are going to find yourself a girl friend."
posted by metahawk at 11:44 PM on December 14, 2012

Oh stop. No. No games. No imaginary boyfriends. That is not the classy way to do this. This is a tricky skill, but one that you have to learn eventually. Back away. Cut off the ambiguous signals. Is (X) an ambiguous signal? If you have to ask, then probably yes. Back away, emotionally, physically; be a little cooler, a little less gushy, a little less available, a little less eager to please. And NO touching! Someone above said "less" touching. No. Unless he himself is an extremely touchy person (with everyone) then ANY touch will be misinterpreted, I guarantee you.

Do so firmly and kindly, and assess the responses. Generally this type will respond by being clinger and more blatantly self-deprecating than ever (which is the most annoying phase). Yes, it's an attempt to manipulate reassurance and keep you close enough to hopefully win you over. Don't do it. Hold firm. I wish I could tell you the result will be a seamless blend to platonic friendship, but it probably won't. It will probably lead to him finally realizing your message, withdrawing, resenting you for a little while, and then eventually (after some nursing of wounds) reappear in a cooler, but congenial manner. Or not.

This is my experience.
posted by celtalitha at 11:56 PM on December 14, 2012 [30 favorites]

(And I know, he's a nice guy, and terms like "manipulate" and such sound like I'm attributing mal intent; I'm not. Just that his methods aren't healthy and they aren't doing him any favors and YOU won't be doing him any favors by playing into it.)
posted by celtalitha at 11:59 PM on December 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Don't make yourself responsible for his happiness. That way lies madness. Trust me, I know of what i speak. I spent so much time managing all the disappointed suitors as a young women that i missed out on spending time with men I actually liked.

Put yourself first here, he's not going to.
posted by fshgrl at 12:16 AM on December 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

Speaking as someone who used to be that guy, you can't teach him self esteem, he's got to learn that for himself, and you can't reject someone without it being a blow to their ego. Thus I can tell you that celtalitha's response is unequivocally the best reply here.

You also need to realise that your guilt over how you behaved when you had a crush does not mean that now that someone has a crush on you, you are a position to absolve it; you owe him nothing, and you owe yourself more than that.
posted by fearnothing at 3:50 AM on December 15, 2012 [5 favorites]

I second telling a mutual friend to tell him. Seems like the kindest thing.
posted by dawkins_7 at 5:18 AM on December 15, 2012

The first part of your question says he hasn't come out and stated it, but he really has. If you're sure he's told someone ELSE about his attraction to you, then one thing to realize and take ownership of is - he's put it out there now, and it's really up to you as to how you want to respond. The bottom line is there's no way to control his reaction. If you don't fancy him, then at the end of this movie, he's going to feel rejected, and he'll have to process that emotion.

Now, you can play charades with him, your whole life can feel like a sit-com for 2-3 months while he figures it out (or doesn't), or you can take him aside and tell him, kindly but firmly - "I heard you tell so and so you have feelings for me. I'm sorry, but I don't share those kind of feelings for you."

I've been "that guy," and personally I think you'll be doing him a favor.

I'm a big believer in platonic M/F friendship, but I also think once this kind of thing occurs, everything's going to be rancid if you try to be pals.

As an editorial aside, I think the Nora Ephrons of the world did us a great disservice when they taught us that great romantic relationships start out with long platonic friendships, or even hostilities. It rarely works that way.
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:48 AM on December 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

You cannot expect anyone to simultaneously accept these two things from you:

(1) Come on now, you have no basis to be insecure about your romantic prospects!

(2) I am absolutely and categorically not interested in you romantically.

THAT DOESN'T MEAN THOSE THINGS CANNOT BOTH BE TRUE or that you can't really mean them or that if you really didn't think there was anything wrong with him you'd have to want to date him, etc. etc. It means that you cannot expect anyone to want to hear (1) from someone also saying (2). When you reject people, you have to let other people be in charge of boosting their confidence if anyone needs to help out in that area. He is more vulnerable here than you are, because he cares more than you do. That means, to me, that the most compassionate thing to do is pull back from him a little -- not entirely, just cool down and decline his invitations for a while. He won't die without you just because he has a crush on you; he'll be fine. For me, the kindest option is businesslike cordiality for a while.

You're still fine here; nobody has done anything wrong, including him. Some people put themselves down because they want you to compliment them, but some people put themselves down because they feel bad about themselves. He's not necessarily trying to manipulate you; he may just be a complicated person, just like you. He likes you; that's not wrong of him.

But seriously, don't try to let him down easy and also take care of him and make him feel better about himself. And don't try to avoid hurting his feelings; his feelings will probably be hurt, which you have to be okay with. Sometimes people get their feelings hurt, and for you to want him to tell you he's not hurt is just as unfair as him wanting you to tell him you have feelings you don't have.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 6:20 AM on December 15, 2012 [11 favorites]

"Hey, can I talk to you about something a little awkward? Well, I sometimes get this vibe that you're romantically attracted to me, and although I value your friendship - and I really want us to stay friends - I just don't feel that way about you. It's possible that maybe I'm being totally egotistical and completely imagining this attraction, but I just wanted to make that clear - just in case."

This makes your intentions clear while at the same time offering him a way to save face - by denying that he is attracted to you. Whenever I want to turn somebody down, I always do this - giving them a chance to deny any interest - and it has worked really well for me. Even if it's wildly implausible based on their past actions - kissing me every time we were drinking together, for instance - people will still leap at the chance to save face this way.

I strongly recommend avoiding any of the indirect methods that some of the other commentors mentioned. What they fail to understand is that right now, this gentleman is courting you - putting a substantial time and effort into trying to win you over, above and beyond the normal reciprocal effort required in a friendship. The more time and effort you make him put in towards this imbalanced friendship - by failing to clarify your feelings - the more he will resent you when it finally becomes clear that he has no chance. He could easily think that you were using his infatuation simply to gratify your ego. Even though this is in part his own fault for failing to find the balls to ask you out, in a way he's justified because friendships like this tend to be unequal, with the infatuated suitor always doing all the effort while the object of his crush doesn't do anything in return (for fear that it will be perceived as romantic interest). You've been on the receiving end of this, so you know what it's like, don't you? If you string this out too long, this may start him down the path of becoming a "nice guy", and none of us want that, right?

I rarely get unrequited crushes, but on the rare occasions that I do, I greatly appreciate getting an honest "let's just be friends" speech because it gives me a chance to renegotiate the friendship in a way that is more fair and egalitarian. For example, I might say "Sure, but only if you kick it up a notch. So far I've been putting way more effort into the friendship than you, mostly because I was romantically interested and trying to win you over. If you genuinely want to be friends, I'm cool with that, but you'll need to start inviting me out to fun events and doing nice things for me, instead of having me put in all the effort."
posted by wolfdreams01 at 6:21 AM on December 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

I guess I feel like if I keep being friends with him he is taking it as a sign that I'm interested.

Don't take on this responsibility. Acting fluffy and saying "this was fun let's get together again!" is your personality and there's nothing wrong with it. You're asking how you can change your personality to accommodate another person's inability to communicate clearly. That's not the path you want to start heading down. You are not obligated to respond to things other people don't say to you. Friendly ≠ leading people on.

Your other question: how can I say no effectively and kindly? you've gotten good advice for. "No but thank you for asking!" is all you need to say. You don't owe people excuses and with people who don't communicate well, they tend to have the opposite effect (no I'm busy that night results in a counteroffer for another night). Kindness to the other person is of course a good thing, but hoping to "let him down easy" is the wrong approach: it assumes you know what's best for him (patronizing) and puts an extra burden on you to own his emotions.

You are responsible for communicating clearly your own desires/preferences/feelings/emotions/point of view, period. And he is responsible for communicating clearly on his own behalf.
posted by headnsouth at 6:31 AM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't try to be his friend right now. Be his acquaintance. His very very distant acquaintance. Hang out with him in groups, but do not go do things one on one with him. He will interpret ANY gesture that you mean as friendly as "she might be interested in me!" I'm watching this play out now with a couple of my friends where the guy is doing the same thing yours is: trying to keep his hopes up that a relationship will happen while at the same time never making any overt move that the girl can turn down. The girl is handling it pretty well, and its getting better, but every time she does something like spend an hour on the phone with him (because she's friendly and likes to talk to her friends on the phone) he gets a surge of renewed hope and the awkwardness continues.
posted by MsMolly at 11:06 AM on December 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

You could tell him about someone you are dating (regardless of whether it's true or not).
posted by Dansaman at 7:29 PM on December 15, 2012

Well, you could turn your attention away. Simply find other places to put your mind that doesn't include this person. It sounds like they are leaking ectoplasm in various ways, and one way to sort of fix that is to attach to someone else and get some dopamine going around it, meaning a relationship hope that is basically unfounded on reality.
The Shamu theory says that any attention, including negative attention, is putting energy into a pathway. So, put no energy there, turn your mind elsewhere, be friendly, be polite and be somewhere else doing your life. That should work. If the attention persists regardless, then I would be thinking a simple statement along the lines of, I appreciate you as a friend but am not wanting anything other than a friendship, should set make things clear.
posted by diode at 7:48 PM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is not your problem.

He is the one who is attracted to you so if he wants to clear the air he can tell *you* so, not someone else.

I get the part about him not wanting to force a confrontation but the trouble is that by never asking a yes/no question, he never has to hear "no" whereas you never have an opportunity to say "no". His feelings get "spared" while you remain in an awkward position.

Don't preemptively turn him down. Some people say they'd appreciate this, but I've only tried it once and it elicited a torrent of verbal abuse and a poison-pen letter accusing me of being a conceited princess. People who appreciate the truth should appreciate it enough to seek it out for themselves.

Don't hang around dropping hints and tormenting him about other guys you're into. That's just cruel, and will only make him wonder if you're trying to make him jealous or otherwise escalating the game to the next level.

Just fade. Tune him out. Say no to him without making excuses.
posted by tel3path at 1:56 AM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're trying to manage his feelings. It's not your responsibility and there's no reason to believe he needs it. Maybe he isn't actually asking you because he doesn't think you are attracted to him.

This isn't a problem until he asks you out or you become uncomfortable. If you're uncomfortable now, stop hanging out with him.
posted by spaltavian at 5:04 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've been there, and I made the mistake of hoping it would go away by itself as long as I "played it cool" and made sure my signals could not be "misinterpreted". This was partly because I thought confronting him would be presumptuous and embarrassing for both of us so I took the (somewhat cowardly) way out and kept quiet.

Though I don't blame myself (and neither should you), it was a mistake to ignore my gut feeling, in hindsight. If I could do it over, I would have been kind but direct and very honest at the earliest concrete hint of his interest.

In any case, be prepared for blowback. And don't blame yourself for offering your friendship to someone. How he chooses to receive your friendship is his decision.

Any friendship is a mutual gift and hopefully your friend is smart enough and mature enough to value and respect the gift you have offered. If he can't see it and demands more, you would do well to get rid of him sooner rather than later. Less painful and healthier for everyone concerned.
posted by grassbottles at 7:25 PM on August 20, 2013

p.s. wolfdreams above makes a great suggestion on language to use. I think it is blowback-minimizing.

"blowback" can range from overt denial and verbal abuse for being a "conceited princess" (tel3path experience above) to passive aggressive comments and insults later on seemingly out of nowhere (but after you have the conversation).

It sucks, and he may be above it (hopefully he is!) but be prepared for this (low form of) human reaction.
posted by grassbottles at 7:56 PM on August 20, 2013

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