Ben: When one of your friends misreads your feelings toward them, it opens the door for all kinds of awkwardness. In the words of Charlie Brown, “Nothing takes the taste out of peanut butter like unrequited love.”
It would be nice to simply turn attractions off when we find out they’re not returned, but in reality, it can have a big effect on us. Dealing with rejection isn’t easy, so when we’re the one doing the rejecting, we have to be careful.
- The first rule of rejection is to be clear. Their attraction to you is something they have to work out for themselves, but you can help by giving them a decisive answer. A lot of people feel they have to “pull their punch” and don’t give a straight answer. You don’t have to be cruel, just clear.
- Don’t say what you don’t mean. “I don’t want to date right now” is an easy thing to fall back on when you don’t want to hurt someone, but if you start dating the person you really like a week later, that’s going to hurt more than saying what you mean. Don’t hide behind a bad excuse.
- Leave off qualifiers. If your reasoning ends with the words “right now” when you really mean “never,” then don’t be surprised when that same person is still trying to win you over. Think about it. “Right now” implies “maybe later.” If that’s not what you’re thinking, then don’t say it.
- Don’t try to fix him or her. You may feel bad, but you did them no wrong. The wrong thing would be to enter a relationship where you have no feelings. If they want to talk about it, then talk. If they need distance, give it to them. You’re probably not the ideal person to help them get over you, so give them their space.
Rejection can be scary, especially when that power is in your hands. You have a responsibility to the person to let them know your feelings and nothing more. The best thing you can do is be clear and honest. There are no secrets beyond those.
Wes: We’re a funny bunch, we humans. We’ll go out of our way to avoid the simplest of conflicts. Yet we increasingly find it OK to say anything to anyone online, especially if we can maintain the distance anonymity affords.
Witness the text breakup, which has become quite the move lately. The inability to say “no” up front and in person is born of this same avoidance tendency. And in this we are not alone. In fact some cultures, the Japanese in particular, avoid saying “no” at all costs. If you’re doing business with someone from Japan, and they tell you “I will seriously consider that,” they really mean “no.” That’s how their culture has adapted to the impoliteness of rejection. On the surface this may seem like the same thing — one more trick to avoid dealing with difficult matters. But in Japan everyone understands that a “maybe” is a “no” and they have an elegant way of saying it.
Here in America, things are more complicated, because we don’t have as many neat cultural tricks to soothe the feelings of others. So, we simply avoid the big bad “no.” That may seem easier, but it rarely is. Just as Ben proposes, nowhere is this truer than in the world of romance. I’ve seen one teenager after another, and a great many adults, sidestep rejecting someone or worse, not breaking off a bad relationship when they should. We even have a name for it — “leading someone on” — letting them believe there is hope when none exists.
I’ve commented over the years that it’s important to help children and teens think ethically, to reason out what is and isn’t right in daily affairs. The invariable need to reject a dating partner is another example of where ethics come in handy, especially the idea of beneficence, which takes into account whether what we are giving to others is really in their best interests or our own. In fact, in nearly every case, avoiding an honest rejection is not done to protect its hapless victim. It’s done to protect us from the discomfort we feel in saying “no.”
In any relationship teens need to give and take “no” seriously, sexually, emotionally and socially. It’s an important word that sets boundaries and helps us maintain the complex weave of social interplay.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Ben Markley is a senior at Free State High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.