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  • Writer's pictureSean Flannery

Communication Toolbox: Soft Rejection

This is the first in a planned series of small improvements that may help communicate with your loved one in a gentler and inviting way. With any of these tools, I would suggest to approach it with an air of experimentation and curiosity. How does it feel to you to implement these tools? Be an observer and notice how your partner responds differently. It might be helpful to make a concerted effort for a few days and then have a discussion with your partner about what they noticed. One important thing to remember is that as you make changes in your relationship, your focus of change should remain on you. Judging your partner in how they respond to your attempts can lead to feeling frustrated, hopeless, and demanding. Think of it as the two of you are dancing and you are trying to change your steps to invite them to dance differently. There will be resistance and toes will be stepped on, but the dance will eventually change.


Today’s concept is termed “soft rejection,” and I find this tool can be helpful for couples at all stages, from healthy to in crisis. It is especially helpful when it feels like saying no to each other can send you both spiraling into significant tension, arguments, or distancing. It is a small change in language and delivery that pairs a rejection with an affirmation of love. This style of responding is especially helpful with requests for sex or intimacy when one partner is “not in the mood,” since the vulnerable nature of those requests can easily lead to assumptions that the responder does not want to feel close to the requester.

Consider the following scenario: you are reading an article online about a great hiking trail not too far from where you live. You’re struck with the fantasy of going there with your partner this weekend, imagining spending time together talking and being in nature. Maybe getting some ice cream afterwards. It has the potential to be a pleasant, shared experience that brings the two of you closer and may even create fond memories. Excitedly, you go into the next room and tell your partner you would like to go on this hike over the weekend. Think of how you would react (mentally, emotionally, and with your actions) to these two different responses from your partner:

Response 1: “I don’t want to go on a hike. The house is a mess and we have plans this Saturday.”

Response 2: “I wish we could go this weekend, but I’m feeling overwhelmed by chores and we have that thing with the Smiths on Saturday. I still definitely want to spend time with you.”


Both responses are saying “no” to the request, but the latter adds in an affirmation that, in addition to the rejection there is an acknowledgement of what your partner is actually asking for (in this case, time together). This does three things (at least):

1) It is usually much easier to accept the second statement as more of a rejection of the request or action, rather than a rejection of the requester as a person or a rejection of the connection between the two of you.

2) For the responder, it also minimizes the feeling of needing to explain or validate your request. Explanation is usually done because the responder is afraid of a strong reaction to them giving a rejection, or that their rejection itself will not be "acceptable." Typical ways explaining is done is by throwing out what the other is "missing" (e.g., "Can't you see I'm tired?"), other undone responsibilities or barriers (like chores), and, sometimes, past hurts (e.g., “We didn’t even have fun last time we went hiking”). When this explaining is done, it easily draws the couple into a battle of presenting evidence of why their own feelings are valid and, consequently, why the other’s is not. Not fun or pretty.

3) Soft rejections are actually small, but important, reminders to each other of how you actually feel; that the foundations of the relationship (love, trust, emotional closeness, etc.) are totally fine even though there is a momentary division of opinions. This foundation can easily be left to the realm of assumptions (e.g., having the thought, “They have to know I want to spend time with them…we are married after all.”) and left out of the actual communication of the couple. Affirmations are simple, proactive, and protective of what makes your relationship special.

As you practice soft rejections, it is helpful to take a moment before responding to a request that you are going to deny. Take a moment, a deep breath, and think about a) what your partner is actually asking for beyond the action; and b) how to address that with your response. If your partner asks what the heck you are doing taking deep breaths instead of answering them, answer (gently!) that you are trying to find ways to speak to them more lovingly in mundane, everyday circumstances because they mean so much to you. Here is a general script for a soft rejection:

"I know you want to (requested action), and I really want to (affirmation: such as spend time together, be intimate/close with you, etc.), so thank you for asking! I'm going to say no this time because (reason), and I want us to find another time or way to do this. What do you think?"

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