Figuring out how to tell a good friend who’s interested in you that you’re, well, not interested is notoriously tricky. It’s like trying to straighten the hair on the back of your head — time-consuming, awkward and impossible without the right tools (in this case, tact and patience rather than a flat iron and a mirror).
The good news is that it can be done. To learn how exactly to nicely reject your friend without losing the friendship, we talked to Dr. Michelle Golland, a clinical psychologist who specializes in relationships, and Beatty Cohan, a psychotherapist.
1. Don’t give your friend hope
You don’t want to make your friend feel bad (duh), so you may be tempted to fudge the truth justttt a tad. It’s easier to say, “I like someone else,” or, “I’m not ready to date right now,” or, “Let me think about it” than something along the lines of, “It’s not going to happen.”
Those first three responses are cop-outs and, worse, they put a little spark of optimism in your poor friend’s little heart that will flicker there until finally you extinguish it with the truth that “it’s not going to happen.”
Dr. Golland recommends saving yourself the trouble of re-rejecting your friend and saving him or her the pain of false hope. “Trouble, anger, unhappiness and frustration all come from not being clear,” she says. “If you think keeping someone in perpetual hope when you know the [real] answer is kind, you’re so wrong.”
Her go-to response would be: “I appreciate that and I’m glad you told me, but I’m not interested in that kind of relationship with you. I love being your friend.”
Don’t be mean — just honest and straightforward.
“You shouldn’t make him or her feel stupid or even crazy for considering there could be something between you two or for putting his or her heart out on the line,” says Malone Ryan, a sophomore at John Carroll University. “I would act flattered and really appreciative of the interest but make it clear that you don't feel the same way.”
2. Ask your friend how he or she is feeling
After you gently break it to your friend that a 13 Going on 30 friends-falling-in-love scenario isn’t going to happen, you’ll obviously be wondering what he or she is thinking. Figuring it out is simple: Dr. Golland advises just asking, “‘How do you feel?’ or, ‘What are you thinking?’”
According to her, there are three categories of responses.
“One, he’s totally fine with it, and he says that: ‘Oh, that’s what I thought, I just wanted to let you know.’ He’s resilient,” she explains. “That’s the best scenario.”
She says the opposite extreme is that he’s not okay — he’s upset and sad. “That’s the worst-case scenario,” she says. “He might say he doesn’t want to be friends.” This reaction is understandable. After all, you just rejected him, and even if you did it nicely, it will still sting. Nonetheless, Dr. Golland says you shouldn’t feel guilty. “When you’re truthful, you’re not responsible for the reaction,” she says.
The middle of the spectrum is someone who pretends to accept your decision but stills tries to pursue you. “He’ll say, ‘I’m totally cool with being friends with you, thank you for being direct,’ and then you’re all out at a party, and he’ll get angry when you’re talking to someone else,” Dr. Golland says.
You’ll need to reiterate that you don’t want a romantic relationship. It may even be necessary to set more boundaries, she says, such as explaining you can’t go to parties with him unless he treats you as a friend. Hopefully, he’ll come around.
3. Give your friend some space
No matter how your friend reacts, you need to give him or her space. We know that it sucks you can’t pick it up right where you left off, but ultimately, hanging out will only make it harder for him or her to process your rejection and move on.
Dr. Golland says figuring out the appropriate time for which you should give your friend space depends on how often you usually spend time together.
“If you see each other every day, I’d give it a week,” she says. “If you saw her once a week, twice a week, you’d want to extend that.”
Be careful not to stay away from your friend so long that he or she assumes you’re trying to end the friendship. A good rule of thumb is to think about the longest period of time you’ve ever not seen each other — say, 14 days — and make sure your “space” period doesn’t extend past that.
During this mini-break, don’t ask your friend to hang out. While you don’t want to cut off all communication, you shouldn’t text him or her too much either. If he or she asks you to get together, you can say yes, but be honest and straightforward: Ask, “Are you sure you’re ready to hang out again?”
4. Set some clear boundaries for yourself
Admit it: Knowing someone is into you is pretty ego-boosting. It makes you feel more powerful and confident.
Your friend flirts, you flirt back; next thing you know, you’re unnecessarily touching her, sending her winky faces in your texts or even kissing her. If you’re interested, this is fine, but if you’re still not — if you’re just playing with her feelings because you can — this behavior is emotionally manipulative and completely unfair to your friend.
“We all flirt and it can be fun, but you need to think about what those double messages can be doing to the other person,” Cohan says. “Especially if you consider this other person to be your friend. Friends don’t hurt friends.”
She says you should be mindful of your behavior and give yourself strict boundaries.
Besides just being the right thing to do, not leading your friend on also protects you. Dr. Golland explains that even if you think you’re “in control,” over time the situation will run away from you.
“It’ll come back and bite you in the a**,” she says. “Your friend will eventually get angry and might try to hurt you. You’ll also develop a bad reputation!”
5. Try to reestablish your old routine
After you’ve been clear and direct with your friend, given him some time to recover and set behavioral guidelines for yourself, it’s time to “restart” the relationship.
You have to decide whether or not you’ll feel comfortable hanging out alone with your friend. If pre-confession, you guys were together so often you finished each other’s sentences, only hanging out with him in groups would suck. So if he says he’s comfortable with your decision and won’t keep pursuing a relationship, doing stuff one-on-one should be fine.
“Take your cues from the other person,” Cohan says. “The relationship has now changed, so one or more of you may not be okay with returning to how the friendship was before.”
If you used to see this friend solely at group events, hanging out with him alone implies you’re interested and might lead him to think your “I’m just into you as a friend” response wasn’t genuine. In this case, the only “solo” involved with your interactions should be the guitar solo in the Two Door Cinema Club song you guys are listening to with your friends.
6. Don’t discuss the situation with mutual friends
In a perfect world, you wouldn’t gossip at all about what happened. But in a perfect world, a friend you’re not interested in wouldn’t fall for you, and the celebrity of your dreams would be waiting in your bedroom with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and a smile. We don’t live in that world — so because you’ll probably want to analyze the situation with your friends, at least choose those friends wisely.
Dr. Golland says you “absolutely shouldn’t” debrief with mutual friends.
“It’s embarrassing for your friend, because you rejected him or her,” she says.
Instead, pick someone who’s not in your friend group — or better yet, your state! Call your friends from high school and tell them the deal. Give your mom all the juicy details you’re dying to reveal.
Your best friend may count as a mutual friend, in which scenario, all bets are off. Dr. Golland advises to make sure he or she is really trustworthy, however, since it’s potentially hurtful info if it gets around.
7. Don’t hide your interest in someone else (but don’t rub it in, either)
Both experts adamantly agree that if you develop feelings for another person, you don’t have to hide those feelings from the friend that confessed to you.
“You’re not going to be able to protect the other person, and it isn’t your job to protect the other person,” Cohan says. “You’ve been clear; you’ve been honest.”
She continues, “Hopefully, you are going to eventually choose somebody and it will be the other person’s responsibility to deal with his or her feelings about seeing you with a new partner.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that you need to be obnoxious about your new guy or girl.
Kasia Jaworski, a senior at Villanova University, who’s dealt with this before, says she is open but tries not to go overboard with how much she shares.
“I’ve also been careful not to go into too much of my love life (unless he specifically asks and even then, I spare the details) and again, I don’t bring up the topic of us not working out unless he wants to talk about it or ask questions,” she says.
When your friend says he or she likes you, your first response (after some mental cursing) is probably, “Ugh, things will never be the same again.” But you can go back to your awesome, purely platonic friendship. We promise. It won’t be easy, but hey, neither was your Calc. midterm, and you rocked that, right? Good luck, collegiettes!