One Sentence That Set Me Free
Last year I went on a second date with a nice man I wasn’t interested in. If I’m honest, I’ve done this quite a lot. On the surface, it isn’t a horrible practice. I think it shows I have an understanding that people, like books or movies, might need a few pages or scenes to get into. That immediate chemistry can be misleading and not everyone is their best self if they’re nervous.
The first date went like this:
Me: “Hi Markus. Tell me about yourself.”
Three hours later I knew that Markus loved the color purple, went on long road trips with his dad, ate Mexican food four times a week, had been married twice, loved running, and was allergic to pineapple. If Markus asked me a question it was so that he could answer it with a long story about himself, about how much he loved teaching Spanish and how his favorite running shoes, New Balance, were shoes I should get. He had a coupon. Just wait. He’ll get it on his phone while he talked about Aztec art.
“I don’t run,” I tried to tell him.
“Just in case we start running together,” he said. “You’ll love them. My house is next to running trails. We can go for morning runs.”
I knew right away I didn’t want to see him again but I agreed to another date anyway.
I know there are a lot of women who would have snuck out the back on that first date and left him wondering where his running partner went. Or just asked him, flat out why he’s like a radio that can’t be turned off, instead of a person interested in another person.
When asked out again I know that some women would just say, “Oof, God no.” But at the end of the night when Markus said, “Let’s go for a walk Thursday,” I said yes.
Suffice to say that many people in the world will be amazed that I have trouble with this. I am amazed that I have trouble with this. I’m tough with my students, collaborative with colleagues, honest with friends. I would even go so far as saying if you met me, you would be shocked that I don’t just say, “No thanks.”
I don’t want to unpack my maybe-generational, maybe-conflict-avoidant, perhaps patriarchal upbringing to get to the useful part of this essay. If you can’t say no to dates, bake sales, carpools, or committees, I think my therapist’s advice will help you.
Yes I went to a therapist
Here’s how it went:
“How do I tell this nice person that I don’t want to go out with him again,” I said.
My therapist calmly replied, “Just call him.”
“And say what?”
“This connection isn’t the connection I was looking for. Be well.’” She said this without hesitation.
“What do I say when he asks why?”
“Say, ‘Because I don’t want to’. Or, repeat, ‘This isn’t the connection I was looking for.”
“Don’t I owe him an explanation?
“No, you don’t owe him anything. You are not in debt to him.”
“Shouldn’t I tell him what he did wrong?”
“Only if you want him to think he has a chance to fix this.”
“What if he gets mad?” I asked.
“Just say, ‘Okay, thanks,’ and hang up.”
“I think it’s going to hurt his feelings.”
“You are not responsible for his feelings.”
“But I said I would go.”
“You are allowed to change your mind.”
“Can I text him instead of calling him?”
“But remember when that movie star dumped his wife with a Post-it note and it was all over Twitter about what a dick he was?”
“This situation is not that situation.”
There’s not time, in this little space, to explore women and our inherent caregiving, community-loving, we-are-the-world attitudes in life: the inherent whys of having trouble saying no. Besides, I think you just want to know how it went when I canceled my second date with Markus.
I took a deep breath and dialed Markus’s number. If I was ever going to get good at saying no I needed to say this not text it.
He answered and launched into a description of his morning run and how fun it will be when he and I run together.
I said, “Hey, I’m calling to cancel our Thursday walk. This connection isn’t the connection I’m looking for.” I said it nicely, not as robotic as it sounds here.
He said, “I thought we had a great connection. Was it something I said?”
“I don’t think we’re right for each other,” I said.
“Thank you for telling me,” he said, and we hung up.
During the call, there was awkwardness and silence that I didn’t fill with apologies or explanations. Was I sweaty? Yes. Did my heart bounce all over the place with nerves? Yes. Yes, it did. But, after I hung up I felt terrific and sad for Marcus, who doesn’t need me to feel sorry for him.
Did this exercise cure me? Am I able to say, no more easily now? Yes and no.
Markus let me off easily but others responded in the way that I was most afraid of. One guy got epically angry and went on a tirade. One guy stalked me for six months, and I had to call the police and put in security cameras. One guy still texts me once a month to see if I’ve changed my mind: is no really no?
I realized that it’s not the no that’s hard, it’s the reaction to the no that is difficult. Giving me the words helped me when the unhealthy responses came at me. I didn’t falter, explain, or have conversations I didn’t want to have. Providing the words underpinned what I can control and what I cannot, what is my responsibility and what is not.
Why did it take me so long to learn this? I’m still talking to my therapist about that.
Am I still going on dates? No, because it’s not the connection I am looking for.