It's not unusual to joke about being so endeared to a friend that you'd marry them. Likewise, "work wife" and "work husband" are coveted titles, signifying the transition from coworker to friend. But sometimes, a friend's "harmless" flirting might not feel so harmless, despite the "JK." Lingering looks or one too many quips about dating can start pointing to more-than-platonic feelings in a classmate, acquaintance, or even friend-with-benefits. Whether you've just addressed it briefly or see a conversation on the horizon, you feel tasked with telling someone you don't want a relationship. And lucky you, you can tell it's going to be awkward no matter how you slice it.
Between bruising the other person's ego, losing an otherwise cool person in your life, or perishing of embarrassment, all your options may look bleak. "For any situation, setting a boundary like this can be uncomfortable," says Toni Aswegan, a licensed mental health counselor and therapist at Riverbank Therapy.
Still, at the very least, know you can approach this conversation with empathy and respect, as well as make sure your own needs are being met. "Remind yourself that clear boundaries are kind, even if they hurt the other person temporarily," Aswegan says. That being said, here's how you can approach telling someone you don't want a romantic relationship with them.
If You're Drawing The Line With A Friend
Setting a boundary with a friend can be daunting, Aswegan points out, "because you have an investment in keeping that friendship intact." But maybe you're not weirded out enough to cut your friend off and you still want to hang platonically.
In a sticky situation like this, "It can be useful to tell the person how much you value their friendship — maybe including qualities you admire about them — and then clearly state that you are not interested in anything more than that," Aswegan says. Ask if they need some space and if you two need to switch up how your friendship operates for a bit (while they process their feelings).
Ideally, that would be that and you can swim past this murky moment in your history. But if they keep circling back to the idea of you being together, re-establish the boundary. "You will need to restate the boundary clearly: 'I am not interested in more than a friendship with you,'" Aswegan says. "This may require distancing yourself from that friend for a while if they continue to disregard this boundary."
If You're Drawing The Line With A FWB
Perhaps you and your FWB set some boundaries early on: when to use protection (always), when to spill the tea on your sex-capades to friends (sometimes), and when to engage in PDA (never). But now you've found yourself either picking up on the signs your FWB has feelings for you, or speechless because they've straight-up confessed they're into you, outside the bedroom.
Aswegan acknowledges that ghosting your hookup probably looks really tempting right about now, but try to put yourself in their shoes. first. "It goes without saying that this is not a kind course of action," she explains. "Instead, text, call, or in-person, state your boundary clearly and kindly."
Aswegan suggests saying something along the lines of, “I’ve enjoyed our time together. Here are a few things about this that aren’t working for me, and I’m no longer interested in seeing you." If you are still interested in working it out, leave out the part about not being interested in seeing them anymore and try to come to a compromise. Re-frame your hookup situation so that everyone feels comfortable and happy.
Remember It's Worth It, Even If It's Scary
While going ghost, blocking your friend out of the blue, or giving in to what they want may feel like the paths of least resistance, they aren't necessarily the best ones. Building your boundary-setting skills will benefit you in the long run.
"You won’t have to stress about how to avoid the person or how to protect their feelings," Aswegan says. "If you state the boundary clearly and compassionately, you can walk away knowing that you did the right thing for you and be more open to the next person who comes along."
Yes, dissecting and rejecting the unaddressed, one-sided romantic or sexual tension is going to be uncomfortable. A little bit scary, even. But taking what feels like an L in the short term is worth the long-term W of your boundaries being respected and your peace of mind preserved.