Asking for a Friend: How Do I Say “I Don’t Love You”?

Dear Olive,

One of my oldest friends is in love with me, and I’m not in love with him. In fact, he drives me crazy. The more I pull away, the more he reaches out. I think I’ve been quite clear, without being explicit, about how I feel. I don’t want to hurt his feelings by saying the truth, which is that he overwhelms me and frustrates me. I wish he would just read the signals. How do I end this without hurting him, and still honoring our years of friendship? 

From,
Signal Sender

Dear SS,

I hate to break it to you, but I want to offer you the straight answers you’re not giving your friend: you’re not being “quite clear,” he won’t read the signals, and there’s no way to do what you have to do without hurting him.

I know. It’s not what you’d like to hear. I wish I could tell you that there’s a way to keep your friend after breaking his heart — or better yet, to excise yourself from his affections under anesthesia, without him feeling anything more than a pinch before he counts backwards into oblivion. But there isn’t, and instead of offering the swiftness of precision sutures or the sting of a quick rip of the Band-Aid, you’re letting the relationship spoil where it lays like half a bag of lettuce forgotten in the fridge.

Trust me on this: you want to deal with the lettuce now, not when it’s turned to sludge in which you can’t even see the outline of the good thing it used to be.

It doesn’t sound like there’s much of your friendship left in your friendship anymore. Consider what your time together looks like, these days. Do you go out for giant bowls of savory ramen and spend the evening avoiding his gaze? Do you watch your favorite movies together and fake-laugh through the old inside jokes? Do you make plans at the same time as excuses to break them?

What would honoring your friendship look like? If I were to guess, honor might look like honest compassion, like putting as much of your whole self into ending the friendship as you did to begin it. That doesn’t mean dragging out a denouement, nor avoiding the end altogether. It means stepping out of your own discomfort with the truth — that you don’t want to spend as much time with this person as he does with you — to offer the closure that he so clearly seems to be seeking.

That option, if you choose it, requires you to stop demurring and declare. What does your pulling away look like now? What would it look like with more words in it?

Those words, by the way, are very hard to say without hedging, apologizing, qualifying, stammering, or asking. I don’t blame you for avoiding this confrontation, or for holding out hope that this guy will just get it one day. You may even be less than sure yourself as you try to untangle your friendship’s history from its evolution and your erstwhile affection from the discomfort of being relentlessly pursued. It’s not easy. Hollywood offers us hundreds of love-struck narratives but very few models for healthy rejection, portraying rejection instead as a prelude to inevitable requital. That’s not usually true in the real world. But in a society that values politeness over, say, efficiency, we’ve conflated niceness with assent — so it takes a lot of work to learn how to say “no” as a sentence, let alone as a sentence without lots of extra words in it. But don’t spin your own version of the truth by believing that you’ve been clear, if you haven’t been clear out loud.

It may not feel like it, but I think you’re the one with power in the relationship right now, because you’re not the one blinded by infatuation. That means you’re the one who needs to build the boundaries if you want them to be firmer than they are right now. (Of course, there’s a whole other layer of power dynamics between men and women that may apply to you — in which case I’d venture that it’s even more important to be clear about the boundaries you want and expect.)

You don’t owe him any of this, by the way. You could leave him dangling, stop returning his text messages, and keep telling yourself that you’ve been as clear as you needed to be. But clarity, true, uncomfortable, incontrovertible clarity, would not only be a kindness to him — nobody wants to wilt into the crisper drawer — but also a gift to yourself. You get to determine your boundaries, whatever anybody else feels about it. You get to answer in declarative sentences, not only in questions. You get to be strong and compassionate enough to hurt somebody directly when it’s needed, instead of turning away and hurting by omission.

You don’t have to tell him how much he annoys you or how much he drives you crazy — but you should tell him, in so many words, that you’re not in love with him and that you want space.

Yes, it’s going to hurt. But there’s no avoiding pain in this scenario, whether you speak up or not. The status quo is already painful — for both of you, suffering either unwanted attention or unrequited love. Pain is a part of nearly anything human, from growing empathy to growing a backbone to growing teeth. Neither of you can outrun it. But you do have a choice about how to respond when it catches up with you. If you want to honor your whole friendship, not to mention your whole self, and not just the easy parts, you’re going to have to turn around, plant your feet, and meet this one head-on.

Love,
Olive

 

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