Clint had been noticing Sarah for several months. Her brilliant smile and consistent kindness toward others keep catching his eye. At singles group, they laugh at the same times and often make eye contact. Clint has also discovered that they share a love of the outdoors and art. Sarah is a girl Clint can see himself pursuing. Even his friends see it as a match and encourage him to go for it.
And so, it happens on a Monday evening, that Clint invites Sarah to meet him at an artsy downtown café. He arrives early to secure a quiet corner table conducive to conversation. Sarah shows up with her usual smile.
After some polite small talk, Clint clears his throat and launches into his speech. His words are carefully chosen — neither overtly romantic nor too generic. “I like the way you serve others. I see we have a lot of things in common and have fun together. I would like to pursue you.”
Following Clint’s profession, Sarah is silent for a moment. Not exactly a good sign, but Clint hopes she is simply choosing the perfect response. In an instant, she flashes her signature smile. Clint’s hope surges.
“Clint,” she says, looking him straight in the eye. “Thank you. I am flattered. You have so many amazing qualities, which I admire.”
The too-long pause that follows tells Clint (almost) everything he needs to know. He can predict her next words. Something like, “You’re a great guy, but….” But. Clint has debriefed the aftermath of that word with his buddies too many times.
“I truly enjoy being around you,” Sarah continues. “And you’re one of my favorite people. I just don’t feel like we should date.”
Many guys have experienced a speech like Sarah’s; and many females have conjured them up. Occasionally it’s clear that the desired relationship won’t happen — ever. Maybe the girl closes the door directly by expressing interest in another person or denying a connection.
More often, the talk leaves the guy confused. Her words may seem to be expressing attraction while at the same time professing a lack of it. A man finds himself at a loss to know whether he should give up or try harder.
Reading the Signs
In the story of Clint and Sarah, Sarah used some emotive statements that were misleading: “I enjoy being around you” and “you’re one of my favorite people.” Clint may have thought, If I’m one of your favorite people, how is it possible you’re not interested?
This miscommunication comes from a fundamental difference in the way the sexes approach relationships. My guy friends have informed me that physical attraction plays the largest role in their decision to pursue a woman. She may have many lovely characteristics that enhance her outward beauty, but the guys I know will not make the effort to pursue her unless he’s fully attracted.
Women, on the other hand, can experience “partial attraction.” She may not be romantically interested in a guy but still find herself drawn to him in some way. She is attracted to certain aspects of his character or person, but the overall effect does not add up to romantic interest. This leads to, “I like all of these things about you, but I don’t like you.”
A woman may also make validating statements in an effort to encourage a Christian brother she respects. We deeply appreciate it when guys take initiative; our nurturing tendencies kick in and we feel compelled to be as encouraging as possible.
A third possibility (and the one guys hope for) is that she is simply fearful of engaging in a relationship or does not feel ready. In this case, the particular guy approaching her may not be the issue. Her emotional or physical state would cause her to reject any potential suitor.
So how can a guy navigate the sticky territory of unclear turndowns, and how can a woman say what she means? Let’s start with women.
Let your no be no. Women, please understand that the pseudo turndown is not the compassionate turndown. In fact, your desire to be a cheerleader may be motivated by pride, not love.
Last year one of my guy friends confronted me on this. He overheard me sharing with a girlfriend of the painstaking words of kindness I’d used in a turndown. “I wanted to encourage him for taking a risk,” I said, my voice dripping with compassion.
My guy friend offered these words of rebuke: “What is he? A puppy who needs a ‘good boy’ and a pat on the head?”
I was instantly convicted of my selfish motives; I was trying to make myself the hero. Women, remember this: You are not the patron saint of turndowns. Yes, the guy took a risk, and it’s appropriate to thank him for that. But you don’t honor him by using affirming language that conveys a message different than what you actually mean. Let his friends, spiritual leaders and future spouse assure him of his godly character and likeability. It’s not your responsibility, and your flattering words will only confuse him.
Also avoid sweeping statements of approval, such as, “You’re perfect.” From his perspective, if he were perfect, you would want a relationship with him. And if the Lord is confirming that this is not the “perfect” man for you, such a statement is insincere.
Make up your mind. Partial attraction may cause you to dabble in the affections of someone you suspect is not God’s best for you. I can think of times where I have turned someone down in word only to return to the person’s attention in moments of loneliness.
If you feel your heart leaning toward someone who has pursued you in the past — someone you rejected — commit a serious period of time to prayer for the relationship. Perhaps God is changing your heart. But if you discover that your feelings have not changed, resist the urge to abuse the attraction the guy has toward you. Philippians 2:3 reminds us: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” Grasping for romantic attention does not seek the guy’s best interest.
For the Guys
Maybe like Clint, you’ve received the “You’re great, but…” talk.
Now what? As I’ve talked through the aftermath with some of my guy friends, I find them desiring to lean more on her affirming statements — “You’re great.” “I respect you.” “I love being around you.” — than her actual answer — no. Several reactions are healthy and appropriate when the answer is no.
Take her answer at face value. In most cases, the woman is saying no because she does not feel romantically inclined toward you. Understand that she is in a difficult position of being the bad guy, so she will try to make her rejection as kind as possible.
Several years ago, I got to know a Christian guy whom I deeply respected. As our relationship progressed, I realized that I was not drawn to Joe romantically. When I told him this, he was disappointed but responded that he trusted my decision because he knew I was seeking the Lord.
Joe quit pursuing me, but I received an occasional friendly e-mail or phone call from him. Less than a year later, he met his wife, Kara. I’ve always admired the way Joe relinquished our relationship. That act of trust put him in the ideal position to receive the wife God had for him.
Don’t try to fix it. When you receive no as an answer, don’t assume that you have a major flaw. (Then again, if you suspect this is the case, it doesn’t hurt to subject yourself to the honest criticism of godly friends.) There are too many possible factors in a woman’s decision to say no to hazard a guess.
She may be a big fan of you as a person and still not feel romantically drawn to you. She may not have peace about the relationship. Her present circumstances may be keeping her from feeling ready to get close to someone.
Keep in mind that unique aspects of you that she’s not responding to may be the very things your future spouse loves. Instead of wasting energy thinking about what you might lack and trying to correct it, engage in the supreme form of self-improvement: Submit yourself to God (James 4:7). Then trust Him to do the rest.
Be a friend. While it is unwise to maintain an emotional tie with the woman, it may be beneficial to continue some level of relationship with her.
My friend Hannah made it very clear to John that she was not interested in him romantically after he approached her about courtship. He continued to be her friend, playing Frisbee with a group on the weekends and even helping to plan an elaborate birthday party for her.
Hannah was unaware, but as John continued to pray over his attraction to her, he felt the Lord’s encouragement to wait. A couple of years after his first attempt, John approached Hannah again. He learned that Hannah’s heart had changed, and they were married soon after. While John’s experience is not typical, no one should discount the leading of the Holy Spirit in attraction and pursuit.
In “Humility that Attracts and Encourages,” Carolyn McCulley writes:
While we women exercise trust in God by waiting to be pursued, men exercise trust in God by risking rejection. Because of that, I always encourage my brothers in Christ to sow to godly masculinity and not passivity — to be more concerned with their own actions and motivations than the outcome of their pursuit.
However romantic the corner table or perfect the speech, sometimes “the talk” will end in disappointment. Still, a no answer — even one that is permanent — does not constitute an unhappy ending. It may be preparation for the next woman with whom you will have “the talk.” And that girl just may say “yes.”