How to End Relationships: A Practical Guide to Rejecting Others


The title doesn’t sound good, does it? It rings of cruel efficiency and steely cold-heartedness. Yet even the best of us have rejected others. And because we don’t usually think about it much until it needs to be done, most of us don’t do it very well. Indeed, sometimes we hurt people because we have been too casual or too clumsy with those we cast off.

Cast off. Cast away. Discarded. Nothing pretty here, is there? All the more reason to be as kindly as possible, if possible. Why do I say “if possible?” Because if there is too much delicacy, the person on the receiving end of the message can mistake the process for the product; that is, think that our gentleness and consideration signal that the rejection isn’t quite real; that perhaps we can be persuaded to rescind their removal from our life. Thus, a stern delivery sometimes is necessary to show that we are serious — that the relationship really is over with no reprieve, no second chances, no way out. And sometimes a swift and decisive blow is actually less painful because it does not extend the agony of the victim — doesn’t cause him to be hopeful when we know that he should really be hopeless.

I’ve been rejected and I’ve done some rejecting. Just about everyone has. I’ve been dumped by lovers, potential lovers, acquaintances, friends, employers, and potential employers. I’ve done the same when the situations were reversed. It is in the nature of life and therefore not at all remarkable. Still, I have some remarks on the subject.

Here are nine questions to think about before you next dismiss someone — give him or her the brush-off:

  1. Do you want to euthanize the person or perform an execution? The high road or the low road?
  2. Do you want to do it quickly or slowly?
  3. Should there be hints along the way or do you want it to come as a surprise?
  4. Do you intend to be respectful or disrespectful?
  5. Are you angry at the anticipated target?
  6. Are you certain that you wish to be finished with this woman or man?
  7. Will the message be understood if it is done with some subtlety and care or must it be performed with a mallet?
  8. When do you want to do it?
  9. Are you more concerned with sensitivity to the rejected one’s feelings or your own discomfort?

Now let us think about how it is usually done in a few of the areas of rejection we encounter once we are out of school.

  • Interviewing for a job. These days it is all too common to interview for a job and never hear back from your hoped-for employer. Sometimes you do get feedback, but only in a form letter or email; or after your patience fails and you make a call, discovering that the job has been filled. To my mind all of this is unfortunate, giving no regard to the applicant’s feelings. A phone call or a letter sent by U.S. mail with a real signature costs more time and money, but displays courtesy and respect. If there has been an interview, there should always be some follow-up personal contact.
  • Ending love relationships. Letters are history. There was a certain dignity in writing a “Dear John” letter when no other means of communication was readily available, but unless your lover is incommunicado in a faraway land, there are more considerate means at hand. Texting and emailing are often cowardly, as are breaking-dates and failing to return phone calls, hoping that your soon-to-be ex will get the message that is left unsaid. If you aren’t dealing with a stalker or someone who is violent, a face-to-face meeting is required. It shows respect, even if it is uncomfortable for you. Disappearing acts are for magicians and hit-and-run drivers, not someone who wishes to leave the dismissed person with a bit of dignity. Think of how you would feel if the roles were reversed.
  • Declining invitations. Written invitations which request an RSVP no longer seem to routinely generate any sense of responsibility on the part of the person who was requested to say yes or no. But courtesy demands that you do respond and do so promptly. The matter is more ticklish if someone asks you on a date — someone who you don’t want to be with (whether potential friend or lover). The age-old standard response is to say, “Gee, I’m washing my hair that night, so I can’t go.” Something more original is also possible: “Oh, I think that’s the day I’m having brain surgery. Let me check my calendar and I’ll call you back.” On the other hand, one could say, “Not if you were the last person on earth.” I am without clear recommendations here, other than to communicate directly enough to discourage further contact, while at the same time trying to avoid humiliating the other person.

As I mentioned earlier, timing is important. The very worst moment to “pink slip” an employee turns out to be the best time for the supervisor or employer: Friday afternoon. That way, the boss can have a nice weekend and needn’t worry about the uncomfortable situation any longer. But he or she has plunged the dagger at just the wrong moment for his ex-subordinate. The newly jobless person now has the whole weekend to dwell on his misfortune with nothing else to do; or, if he does have plans, those activities have been spoiled. The same holds true if we are talking about the timing of a break-up.

A lot depends on your feelings toward your counterpart in any anticipated rejection, and your own courage and self-respect. If you don’t like or care about the girl or guy you are brushing off, that probably means you won’t give her feelings much thought. If you are very self-involved the answer is the same. If you have the strength to look someone in the eye and deliver bad news knowing that it may pain you to see tears or sustain his or her anger, that is another story. But if you are avoidant, you probably won’t. In other words, how you approach your rejection of someone else says a good deal about you.

The topic reminds me of an old routine performed by Chicago’s famous improv group, Second City. A father and mother are talking to their little girl, who is perhaps three or four years old. She is playing on the floor:

How are you, Janie? Oh, it’s great to see you playing with your dolls so nicely. Well, your mom and I need to talk with you. You see, just now the economy is terrible and we are really having trouble making ends meet here at home. So, we really wish we didn’t have to do this, but… but… we’re going to have to let you go.”

As comedians like to say, comedy is “tragedy plus time” (or distance from the tragic event). And rejection often feels like tragedy, even if most people tend to bounce back. But, it is never fun, for which I have another quote:

A boo is a lot louder than a cheer.

Rejection is definitely a boo, no matter how delicately it is voiced.  Lance Armstrong made the comment. He ought to know.

More on the curious contemporary understanding of RSVPs can be found here: The RSVP Puzzle.

More on causing pain to others can be found here: Delivering Bad News and Causing Pain: Ending Therapy and Romance.

The top image is called Rejection, by Mjt16, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.