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April 8, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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Honesty Really is the Best Policy

How to be a decent human being in the face of unrequited love

Very few feelings are worse than liking someone who doesn’t like you back. But, if you’re the object of another’s affections, you have the ability—and the responsibility—to put them out of their misery in the quickest, kindest way possible. Salient’s scorned women reflect on how to be a decent human being in the face of unrequited love.

One day, you will have the opportunity to break someone’s heart.

They will want to be with you, and you won’t want to be with them. As friends, yes, as classmates, yes, as colleagues, yes—but you won’t be able to reciprocate in the way that they desperately want you to.

And one day (not the same day. This isn’t Coro), you will be the vulnerable party with your heart on the line. And you will want the object of your affections, in the absence of reciprocation, to respond in the way that’s least likely to leave you crying on your way home from parties for the next six months.

You will wish either that they act in the same selfless way you did when you were in their position—or that they will be kind to you in the
way that you weren’t to someone else.

The importance of communication in successful relationships is common knowledge among even the most commitment-shy, but it’s even more crucial in the lead-up to a potential union, when the two parties are circling each other and smelling the air and asking “What are we?”. At that juncture, clarity and comprehension of intent, on both sides, is crucial—because if you’re not interested in someone, it’s easier for you to tell them “no” than for them to infer it. Being madly into you has hideously diminished their powers of deduction.

A special kind of senselessness is reserved for those whose feelings are unrequited. “To want to be with someone so badly that you are willing to, either consciously or subconsciously, disregard all expressions of their not being that into you is a form of irrationality, and it can become self-fulfilling,” says Haimona, 24. “You care deeply for this person while ignoring the fact that no relationship could sustain such unrealistic expectations of perfection.”

In short, people in love aren’t rational. They can’t be expected to expose empty promises and white lies for what they are, or have the presence of mind to gracefully extract themselves from the ambiguity in which they are mired. They are like drunk people, or horses, or dogs: you’ve got to really spell it out.

It could be argued that, before any kind of commitment has been made, you’re under no social obligation to do good by the other person. But as the party in the position of power, in full command of your emotional capacities, you have a responsibility to put them out of their misery—
and if an appeal to your moral conscience isn’t enough, it’s in your best interests to do so. If you tell them, clearly and kindly, that you don’t want to enter into a relationship with them and then act accordingly, you are being a decent human being, and the most shade the rejected party can throw at you is that you didn’t want them—not that you fucked them over, strung them along, or decimated their ability to love.

Being clear and consistent is the easiest way to escape this emotional quagmire with reputation, dignity and friendship intact—but being clear and consistent is hard. We understand. Your feelings may well be ambiguous; you probably do feel conflicted by your desire to remain friends and keep bridges intact. You will be tempted to gesture towards “some time in the future…” or fall back on excuses like “being in a weird headspace” to avoid that awkward conversation.

Don’t. Your not liking them ‘in that way’ is the only relevant circumstance. Strategies designed to minimise harm will only exacerbate matters.

Veronique, 21, recalls being told “things [were] unclear” and that “if it were anyone, it would be you”. “I didn’t want to abandon the prospect,
so all I could really do was wait around to see if he changed his mind,” she says. “It was a time-suck—I spent six months in what to me was
uncertainty, but to bystanders was clearly never going to happen.”

Though the desire to “let them down gently” often stems from empathy, giving someone a reason to maintain hope when you have no intention of following through serves no other purpose than prolonging their misery. If they’ve asked you out on a date, or confided in a mutual friend who has gone on to tell all your other mutual friends, or it’s hideously obvious to everyone and requires no elaboration, you need to address the matter head-on, clearly, directly, and in a way that cannot be misconstrued. Because people in love are, at heart, optimistic: they’ll read hope into anything.

You’ve got to be cruel to be kind, and in the right measure, so the 10 Things I Hate about You soundtrack goes. Do it in person, if only to save your ‘just-friend’ hours of reading way, way too much into your choice of the ‘lonely whale’ emoji. And seize whatever opportunity you get to
clarify your position—for example, if they use the word ‘date’, even in a joking way (and it’s always in a joking way).

Incidental heartbreaker Jessa, 22, was once told she was “hard to read” by a man after he tried to kiss her, several months after they’d slept together. “Instead of explaining that I wasn’t interested, I said, ‘am I? i’ve always wanted to be a woman of mystery!’ and walked away. that was a mistake, as the opportunity for me to clear the air was on a plate.”

In terms of rejection strategies you can pursue any number of tactful, endearing options. There’s charmingly flustered: “oh! Did you mean ‘get dinner’ as in, ‘go on a date’? If so, I don’t want that kind of relationship with you! If you didn’t mean it like that, BRB burying my hand in the sand.” Blunt but affectionate: “Oh, you muppet, I don’t feel the same way—now let’s go get a kebab.” Deadpan: “Sorry, pal. I’m on the love train but this carriage is platonic, now entering the Friend Zone.”

If you’re feeling especially benevolent, you might try a compliment sandwich (not to be confused with a neg), in which the crushing blow of rejection is offset by delicious, if superficial compliments: “You have the best hair of any girl I know. I’m not interested in a relationship with you. Your eyes are so pretty when you cry.”

Humour can cushion the blow, too. Armchair psychologist Haimona champions a quirky variation of paper-scissors-rock: on the count of three, both parties “blurt out what they think their relationship is in as few words as possible, then they either make out or go their separate ways”, depending on the outcome.

“The obvious silliness creates a levity which can make the situation easier to deal with, and if the break is clean from that point, hurt feelings can be reduced,” he says.

However it unfolds, both parties need to be on the same page before the discussion concludes. Hopeless romantic Miranda, 20, spent most of 2012 “flogging a horse that I thought just needed mild chivvying—turns out it was dead the whole time.” She recalls having conversations with said dead horse that supposedly clarified where she stood, but still being unable to give a “definitive answer” when she was asked what was going on by friends. “By the time I could give a definitive answer, I had indignantly endured a week-long sexless mini-break and more than one stress-induced stye.”

The ultimate test of character and self-restraint, and the hardest part of this process, is ensuring that your actions reflect your words. Once
you let them down, the dynamics of your relationship change—for a while, if not for ever—and you can’t spend as much time with them as you did before. You can’t ask after their parents or post on their siblings’ Facebook walls or cook dinner together or watch movies in the same bed or make jokey references to questionable judgment calls they made while in a lovestruck haze.

If you do, you are creating the illusion of intimacy on which you can’t deliver, amounting to implicit acceptance of the new terms of your friendship: an inherent imbalance of power that’s an ego trip for you and an emotional shitstorm for them.

Being of such high moral fibre requires resolve. When asked how she responds to someone who likes her but she’s not interested in, Shoshanna, 21, gave two responses. “Good Shoshanna tells them that she’s not interested, or avoids them; bad Shoshanna takes advantage of free dinners out and wine.”

The ultimate test of this is in whether you sleep with them, or continue sleeping with them after an inequality of emotion has become clear.
They’ll urge you to; they’ll say it’s “just sex”, but if you give in, you are taking advantage of their feelings for you, no matter how you inevitably excuse it in your mind, and will only compound their confusion and misery. Carrie, 22, recalls being told by a boy, by whom she had been strung along, that he loved her “as a friend”. “But people don’t sleep with their friends” she said, confused. “I do” was the reply.

“The thing to remember is that human beings have feelings,” says Hector, 21. “Life isn’t really like a sitcom. if you don’t want to be a total jerk, don’t try to manipulate people. Don’t say ‘the right thing’ because you think it will get you what you want.

“You need to be clear, honest and above all frank. People will appreciate it… We can get hurt pretty easily, but we’re also pretty tough.”

The dismal outcome is that, in most cases, dispelling someone’s hopes changes the dynamic of your relationship forever, and you will never be as close as you were before. But suffice it to say that this whole scenario is worse for them than it is for you, and you need to be selfless. if you don’t love them, let them go. And if they come back, you weren’t fucking clear enough the first time.


+ Be clear
+ Keep your actions consistent with your words
+ Give them time and space to get over you
+ Take opportunities to reiterate the message. As in dog training, repetition and consistency are key.


+ Revel in the hyper-emotive unfairness of it all; they’re the ones in pain
+ Purport to keep your friendship intact; no equal friendship is built on unrequited love
+ Use ambiguous language or make excuses in an effort let them down gently
+ Talk about other people you’re scoping out or “entertaining the possibility of ” and assume they’ll take the hint: they won’t
+ Sleep with them, or continue sleeping with them if it’s clear there’s an inequality in feelings
+ Get with mutual friends at liberty and put on a bashful face every Monday, as much fun as it reportedly is being an “object of destruction”

And for the love of God and all that is good, don’t say

+ “It’s unclear how I feel”
+ “I would like nothing better than to go out with you”
+ “You make me a better person”
+ “I couldn’t lose your friendship”
+ “I love you as a friend”
+ “I make no promises as to the future”
+ “I don’t understand my emotions”
+ “You deserve better than me”
+ Any and all references to “head space”, “mindset” or a “weird place”

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About the Author ()

Elle started out at Salient reviewing music. In 2010, she wrote features and Animal of The Week, which an informal poll revealed to be 40% of Victoria students' favourite part of the magazine. Alongside Uther Dean, she was co-editor for 2011. In 2012, she is chief features writer.

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