I’m the type of guy that never really prioritized relationships in high school or college. I was also focused on career, school, and my health. As a result, I never really had any relationship experience, or any experience with women, and, to be honest, I’m just a typical socially awkward nerd (and proud).
However, as I’ve started taking steps towards interacting with women, I realized that while I’m a socially awkward nerd, I’m a nerd who won the genetic lottery. I’ve netted from independent sources that I’m a really good-looking guy. I guess I just got lucky but while I’m really just trying to build friendships with women they tend to jump the boat from friendship to dreaming about a relationship or asking me out when we’ve only really shared a couple classes together and talked a few times over lunch. I usually reject them since I’m really not looking for that right now, but how do I do it without being a huge dick?
With one girl I flatly said “no” to a dinner date proposition, and I really wished I could’ve delivered that nicer because I could tell she was really hurt. I didn’t mean to make her feel that way I just wanted to be honest and not skirt around it like when girls do to guys. I know that’s because they’re socialized to be nice, but most men find it confusing so I just wanted to be blunt. With another girl I could tell she was beginning to catch feelings and I wanted to avoid another situation similar to the one above, and kind’ve just got confused with how to act and cut her off. The friendship fizzled out and it’s a shame I thought she was a cool person. How do I navigate people’s feelings for me without being a douche?
This is an interesting letter SP, because it offers an opportunity to reflect on women’s experiences with letting men know they’re not interested in something besides a platonic relationship. A lot of what you’re dealing with is, quite literally, what women deal with when it comes to navigating men’s feelings.
There’re a few things to take into consideration when you’re letting someone know that you just want to be friends without being a dick about it. But the first thing to consider is: are you sure they’re looking for something more than friendship? You said yourself that you’re a socially awkward nerd without much experience with women or relationships. It’s not unthinkable that you — like many a socially inexperienced nerd before you — may be rounding friendliness up to attraction when their intentions were just as platonic as yours are. If you aren’t used to friendships with women, it’s entirely possible to mistake what they would see as perfectly ordinary friend activities as a request for a date.
I’m not asking this to be a dick or bag on nerd guys for not understanding women, but because it actually ties into the whole “friendzone someone without being a dick about it” dynamic. Women frequently have to gauge whether men in their lives are trying to be friends, or if their guy “friends” are trying to put them in “The Girlfriend Zone”‘. A lot of dudes like to surf the ambiguity wave of “maybe friendship, maybe a date” and create a quantum event where something is both a date and not a date at the same time and it’s not clear until the wave collapses. This way, if things don’t go the way they hoped, they have plausible deniability and can claim “wait, what do you mean, this was never a date!” when called on it.
Of course, as the saying goes: it was only a joke unless she was gonna do it.
While women are less likely to intentionally pull the same sort of “maybe date, maybe not” game, knowing whether they were actually interested in a proper date or not changes the equation of how to tell them you’re not interested. After all, if someone invites you out to dinner and you give them a flat “no, I don’t like you that way,” you may be shutting down an offer of friendship, not a date.
(The exception to this tends to be when women are dating other women; many gay and pansexual women have joked-but-not-really that half the early courtship is trying to figure out if something is a date or not)
But let’s assume that you’re socially well-calibrated and you are, in fact, reading the signs correctly. A classmate or casual friend is, in fact, making overtures of moving from friendship to something more. How do you turn them down without being cruel about it?
Well, ask yourself this: how would you prefer to find out that someone you like is only interested in friendship? Think carefully about this; a lot of guys will say that they prefer women be blunt with them… right up until they are. Often, the reason why guys will say that they prefer women be blunt and direct is so that there’s no ambiguity. But the truth is that most of the time it’s not ambiguous; it’s just that they got what’s known as a “soft” no. Soft no’s are gentle ways of turning somebody down without being harsh or rude. They often be phrased in a way that creates a socially plausible context that implies something other than “I don’t like you that way” but the meaning is the same: no, thank you.
The problem is that a lot of guys who don’t like the answer will choose to ignore it; they will focus on whatever conditional was in the “no” instead of the “no” itself. So while a woman may say “thank you, but I’m not interested in dating right now”, guys will often latch onto the “right now” rather than the “not interested”, because that lets them believe they still have a chance. The former implies that there is a time in the future where she will be interested in dating (and dating him, specifically), while the latter is the core of what she’s saying. And despite what guys will say, studies have shown that men do understand soft no’s when they hear them.
But when they get that blunt, direct “no” that they supposedly prefer, it hurts. It often hurts a lot, frequently more than the same no would if it had been couched in softer language. And, frankly, they usually get the blunt, direct “no” after ignoring the soft “no” and allowed themselves to invest more in that person… which makes it hurt that much more.
Which brings us back to the question: how would you prefer to be let down by someone you like? Would you prefer being turned down in a way that softens the blow and allows you to save some face and feel less embarrassed or humiliated by being rejected? Or would you prefer someone drop it on you like a cartoon anvil?
By that same token: are you genuinely interested in being friends with them afterwards? The dreaded “let’s just be friends” is often deployed in rejections in part because… well, it’s expected. It’s what you’re “supposed” to say, even though many times people don’t mean it. But if this is a person that you’d honestly rather not interact with again, an offer of friendship may be taken sincerely and cause hurt down the line when they realize that it was being said out of reflex, rather than genuine intent. In those cases, while it’s still better to soften the metaphorical blow, you don’t want to offer anything that you aren’t prepared to make good on.
Over all, I’m a fan of turning people down in a way that salves the ego, without giving false hope. Politeness costs nothing and makes it much easier to maintain a friendship afterwards. A good template for you would be “Wow, thank you! I’m really flattered, but that’s not what I’m looking for.” This way, you’re accomplishing several things: you’re telling them that you appreciate that they see you as a potential partner (it’s flattering that they like you this way!), that their interest isn’t an imposition or rude, and that you aren’t interested in them in return.
If it’s someone you’re friends with or want to be friends with, then you can often add “I really enjoy hanging out/working with/spending time with you and I love the vibe we have, but…” and make it clear that the door is still open for a platonic relationship… but sex or romance just aren’t in the cards.
However, how you behave afterwards is going to be more important than the words you use. After all, you just turned someone down; they’re likely going to feel stung or hurt, possibly even embarrassed. They may well feel awkward around you and wonder what this is going to do to your friendship going forward.
You don’t need to address things; most of the time, there’s nothing to say, and people will often want to just pretend that it never happened in the first place. Letting them shove it down the memory hole is, in many ways, a gift. You’re letting them patch the hole in their ego, rather than making it A Thing.
What you do want to be careful of, however, is the way you treat them or behave towards them. Cutting them off — like you did with another friend of yours — tells them that you don’t like them or that you were bothered by their interest. On the other hand, by continuing to treat them as a friend and acting like everything is perfectly normal, you are sending a clear signal: there is nothing to be embarrassed about and we’re fine. Yeah, things may be a little awkward at first, but you can power through it together and this little blip in your friendship will become something you both laugh about down the line.
So if you want to become friends or continue being friends… treat them like a friend. Let them know through your actions that everything’s cool, nobody needs to feel embarrassed and everything will be fine after a little time for the awkwardness to pass.
Hi Dr. NerdLove,
I have known about your site for a while and have really appreciated your advice, with some of the advice I’ve transitioned from incredibly socially awkward to having a girlfriend.
Unfortunately now I have a different issue, whether or not I should break up. I’ll spare the granular details but on a high level, girlfriend and I have been together for 2.5 years and lived together for about 6 months. In the past 6 months we’ve broken up and gotten back together about 3 times. I like to think it’s mutual love that keeps us coming back.
But the breakups get caused by arguments, where fights get toxic and escalate to a point where lines are crossed and one of us says we can’t take it anymore and we break up, only to get back together.
Every time it happens I feel a small sense of regret, as if it’s not the right thing to do. I have been doubting this relationship for 6 months and one of the main reasons is our fights get really toxic. She crossed a few lines like physical violence, insults. We have tried to address it several times but no meaningful changes have been made. I feel like I I lie in wait for the next argument to see if something has changed.
I also sometimes get a longing for the single life but once we break up I feel devastated and can’t let her go. So now I’m stuck in this cycle.
How do I get out of this? Do I have to break up? Or do I need to change my mindset?
Thanks so much!
One Foot Out The Door
First things first: Breaking up and getting back together is usually an indication that something is wrong. What that something is can vary. Sometimes there’s a fundamental but fixable conflict, like incompatible communication styles. Other times, the problem could be that you’re trying to force a relationship to follow a model that’s just not a good fit. Couples who fight like cats and dogs when they live together may find that living separately means they aren’t flint and steel in a dynamite factory.
And then there are the times when the conflict is that this relationship is over and has been for quite some time. Getting back together multiple times is more about postponing the inevitable and not accepting the issue at hand.
It can be hard to break up with someone, OFOTD, even when you know it’s what needs to happen. There’re a lot of factors that can keep us in relationships that are long past their expiration date, and a lot of them can feel like regret… even though they aren’t.
The sunk cost fallacy is a big one — if you’ve spent X number of years together, then breaking up is just like tossing all that time and energy in the trash! Another common one is simply feeling like you don’t have the right “reason” to end it. A lot of folks have stayed in relationships they actually wanted to leave because they felt like they needed a casus belli that would justify a break-up to an outside audience.
And then, of course, there’s the classic fear of being single; this in and of itself, has kept people in relationships for far longer than they should have. And in fairness, it’s an understandable anxiety. The longer you haven’t been single, the harder it is to imagine going back to that. In a very real way, your relationship has become part of your identity. Being single again would mean having to relearn who you are without your partner and build a new life after years of having shaped yours around sharing it with somebody else. That is legitimately intimidating. Hell, if you’re in a relationship for long enough, it goes from intimidating to “balls-shrinkingly terrifying”. Worse, there’s that fear of “well, what if this was my last chance at love?” “How do I learn how to date again after not having to think about it for all this time?”
But it’s important that you don’t let the fact that it’s difficult to do overshadow the “but it needs to happen” part. And honestly, OFOTD, you are well past the part the threshold of “needs to happen”. This relationship has been over for a while now. It’s shuffling along like a zombie, causing misery and pain in its wake and somebody needs to put two in its dome and put it down for good.
I’m not gonna lie; there was a point where I was ready to tell you that this was ugly but fixable. A lot of times, couples have less of a problem with the relationship per se but in how they express themselves. Every couple has fights, but some folks fight the wrong way — they fight to wound and to hurt, rather than to fix things. They may not realize that this is what they’re doing; it’s often a dynamic that they either picked up from childhood or toxic past relationships. While this can damage the relationship, it’s damage that can still be healed, as long as everybody is willing to work at it.
But then we hit the needle-scratch part of your letter:
I have been doubting this relationship for 6 months and one of the main reasons is our fights get really toxic. She crossed a few lines like physical violence, insults.
Nope, nuh uh, stop. Violence is hard no; crossing it once is almost always a relationship extinction event. More than once is a “peace out so fast you leave a human-shaped cloud behind” situation. Once (non-consensual) violence and insults have become part of the relationship, it’s done, it’s over, it’s a ghost and it’s time to exorcise the damn thing. The fact that you now worry about what the next fight will bring is as glaring a sign as you could want, and that sign reads “EMERGENCY EXIT”.
This isn’t a “change your mindset” situation, unless the mindset you’re changing to is “this shit is unacceptable and it is time to pack my things and GTFO”. Or, alternately, packing her shit, dropping it out on the step and changing the locks, depending on whose name is on the lease.
Here’s the thing, man: whether there’s love there or not is entirely besides the point. The fact that she’s gotten physically and emotionally violent is. That’s not something you tolerate or put up with, that’s the sign that you need to LEAVE. Even if — and that is a mighty fucking big if — her becoming violent is something that she can change with therapy and work, that’s work that she can do elsewhere. As in: anywhere that’s not near you.
Even if there’s a lot of mutual love, her behavior and your safety trump that. And seeing as her behavior hasn’t changed despite having addressed the issue several times, that’s as sure a sign as any that it’s time to get the fuck out.
Dump her with the quickness, OFOTD. This relationship is well past being over. Whatever regret you feel about ending it or any despair at dumping her will pass. Because the rest of the shit you’re going through isn’t going to change. You’ve already seen that.
It’s time to put this zombie relationship down. You’ll be much, much happier in the long run.
Hey Doctor NerdLove,
I wanted to tell you about a relationship win. I wrote in previously about a new friendship that felt like it was falling apart (June 2019, “Why Is This Friendship Fizzling Out?”). Your advice was to not assume it had anything to do with my worth, and I really appreciated that. It helped put things into perspective and let me see the situation clearly.
That friend I wrote in about did turn out to be a bit of a narcissist after all (I don’t throw that term around lightly). However, I did manage to meet another person in that group who has turned into a genuine and long-lasting friend. Not only did he validate what I was experiencing with the original friend, but he also treated me like I would expect a friend should – being emotionally engaged and attentive, friendly, kind, having good boundaries, a 50/50 back and forth, etc. Not only that, but it sounds like that original friend group completely imploded recently and I’m grateful I wasn’t in the middle of it all.
So thank you for encouraging me to take a step back! It gave me the opportunity to put energy into a better connection which is ultimately what I wanted out of the entire situation. Plus this new friend brought along a separate but smaller and quite lovely group of people. Slowly I am building up my social network and it feels very wholesome and good!
No Longer Sick and Abandoned!
Thanks for writing in and letting us know how you’re doing, NLSA!
How about you, readers? Do you have a Relationship Win to share? Send your story to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Relationship Win” in the subject. Maybe you’ll see your relationship win shared in a future column!