How To Say No When Your SO Pops the Question

Man proposing to woman
There's no great way to tell your partner you don't want to marry them. But some routes are definitely better than others.

When someone who loves you pops the question, it can be a magical moment. It can also be a nightmare. Is your significant other dropping hints they may be proposing soon? If so, don’t take those signs lightly. If you’re not ready to say yes right now, or maybe ever, you need to be prepared. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

When presented with a glittering diamond and a significant other awaiting that big answer with bated breath, most have no idea how to say no. In some cases, that’s the only reason they say yes, especially if there’s an audience involved. And sadly, some proposers rely on the fact that many people feel obligated to comply when other people witness the big moment. Advice to the proposer: if you want an honest answer and a truly intimate moment, propose away from others.

Let’s face the cold, hard facts. If you’re saying no, you’re breaking their heart in an incredibly vulnerable moment. If you’re alone when it happens, be transparent about how you’re feeling and be prepared to deal with what happens next. If you’re feeling conflicted, say so and tell him to hold onto the ring. Whatever you’re feeling, you need to be honest with them (and yourself).

For both your sakes, you should only say yes when you’re certain. And if you feel in your heart that your answer is no, here are some mutually considerate ways to be the bearer of bad news when your SO pops the question.

Be Direct And Don’t Delay

woman in bright green turtle neck on pink wall saying no in an awkward conversation

No matter how hard it might be, you need to be clear and not sugarcoat your response. You cannot spare their feelings by trying to let them down slowly. And you don’t want to give them false hope. A direct “no” might seem harsh, but it’s kinder than dragging out the inevitable rejection or leading them on. While your SO may be hurt in the moment, they will appreciate you being upfront. Remember, time heals all wounds. If you aren’t planning (or able) to move forward as a couple, be sure you make a clean break from here. Lingering feelings, doubts, and false hope will not do either of you any favors in the big scheme of things.

If you need some time to think about it, say that right away. But don’t make them wait around for very long. At some point, you are vividly putting off the inevitable. And delaying a no will only hurt more. But while you’re being direct, show some much-needed mercy.

Be Sincere and Compassionate

close up of couple holding hands

Of course, honesty is the best policy. However, there’s no need to be cruel. Being direct doesn’t mean you have to be blunt, cold, or rub your unreciprocated feelings in their face. While saying no while being proposed to is undoubtedly going to be hard on you, it’s going to be even harder on them. Obviously, that fact is why finding a way to say no feels seemingly impossible. So with everyone’s pain in mind, soften the blow. Express what good feelings you have about them, how you see them, and how you feel.

Show Them Respect

man covering woman's eyes as he prepares to propose to her

Proposing to someone takes guts. Respect the time, effort, and blind faith. When someone asks you to marry them, it’s one of the most important decisions they’ve ever made, no matter where you stand. Not to mention, if they’re proposing, they’re likely pretty certain you’re going to say yes. And being oh-so-wrong is bound to feel humiliating.

So first things first, tell them to get off one knee before you say anything else.

As they await your answer and you know it’s a no, what you have is known as “power of the least interested party.” Your heart is in their hands, so be respectful. Don’t abuse your power. Treat your significant other with respect, be thoughtful in your response, and choose your words carefully. Nobody likes to be rejected. Think about how you might feel in their position and how you’d like to be treated.

Hold Yourself Emotionally Accountable

woman explaining something tough to her spouse as he looks away

If you’re going to say no, take responsibility for what you’re feeling and more specifically, what you’re not feeling. You’re not responsible for his feelings or his emotional well-being. You are only responsible for yourself and yours. So own your answer. Don’t say you’ll think about it if you know the answer is no. Do what you have to do and do it ASAP. And know you’re not alone. Here’s a list of 30 people explaining why they said ‘no’ to a marriage proposal and how they got through it, compliments of Bored Panda.

Let Them Know How Much It Means to You

couple with their arm around one another on a dock

In other words, make sure you thank them. Let your partner know that you’re grateful and/or flattered. Tell them you see it as a gigantic compliment, but that’s just not where you’re at right now. The fact is, you two are not on the same page. But that doesn’t mean the gesture means nothing to you.

If you are touched, tell them. If you appreciate the emotional effort and thought that went into it, say so. Unless, of course, you think they’ve completely jumped the gun. In that case, it might be time to walk away. Regardless of where you want things to go, you should thank them when you say no. It’ll make the hard moment a little easier for you both.

Don’t Make Excuses


This is no time to make a list of their flaws, your unresolved issues, or present all the potential reasons you can’t say yes right now. While all of those things may be valid points, the main reason is the one that must be front and center. In other words, this isn’t about how busy you are with work even if you are.

Giving any sort of excuse will only imply that your answer might change when conditions improve. Your “no” needs to be concrete. If your courtship has been brief, telling them you don’t know each other well enough may not sound like a no. Instead of hearing “I can’t marry you” their hopeful ears may hear there’s a chance you’ll change your mind as your relationship progresses. If that’s not how you feel, don’t imply it.

Dancing around a definite no is never a good idea.

Be Firm, Not Flaky

silhouette of woman walking away from proposal in front of a sunset

The one thing you can’t have control over is how they’ll respond. Your SO might be unable to accept your decision or a conflict may arise. There’s also a chance they’ll beg you to reconsider. Be strong. The best thing you can do if they won’t take your no as the final word is to take some space for you both to process this. And do it right away.

When most people are rejected, there’s a reaction period before settling into their true response and reality. Give them time to react and give them space to respond. Gradually, they will come to terms with your decision and the initial rejection will sting less. If you think you’re going to have a hard time getting the words out of your mouth, remind yourself that they will be okay and so will you, no matter how poorly their initial reaction might be.

If You’re Sticking it Out, Don’t Become Distant

woman looking away as she rejects a proposal in a cafe

After a failed proposal, it’s hard for most couples to bounce back. But that doesn’t make it impossible. If you know you’re not in a place to say yes but you want to continue the relationship, don’t pull away or shut down. If they need time to decide what they want post-no, give them what they need and be patient. Also, do your best to end the conversation on a positive note. There’s no reason to add insult to injury.

From there, keep talking and stay open to how your relationship might change. If you’re going to get through this as a couple, healthy communication is crucial. The reality is, you might not be able to come to a solution together. Or they may not be able to cope with the rejection. Still, if this relationship is worth fighting for, give it all you’ve got before you throw in the towel. In matters of the heart, there’s nothing worse than regret.

Moving forward, be totally honest about where you’re at and where you hope things go. That type of self-disclosure is at the core of emotional intimacy.

Be Honest With Them (And Yourself)

If you need time to think about it, that’s okay too. Perhaps your relationship has been great and/or you love them. Don’t beat yourself up about not knowing what to do or not being ready. You might say yes out of fear you might lose them. Or maybe you didn’t think it through. It’s possible to get caught up in the moment and blurt out a yes. It happens all the time. But you know what you have to do. It’s only a matter of when.

Timing is important. Depending on the circumstances, telling them your truth might require a little waiting. But you should do it as soon as you can. If you say yes and then have to take it back, explain why. You may not be able to give your SO what they want, but you can give them the closure they need. And remember, no good can come of living a lie.

woman looking at engagement ring having doubts about marriage

The sooner you are honest, the better off you both will be. It may not be a deal-breaker, but realistically, saying no to the proposal may change the course of your relationship, for better or worse. No matter the outcome, there’s no time like the present to be transparent. Healthy relationships are built on trust and honest communication. Maybe you’re not ready to get married right now or maybe you don’t foresee yourself ever getting married to them or anyone else. That’s okay too. The only wrong answer is the one that’s not truthful.

You’re entitled to your feelings, so make them known. Also, if you’re honest before the proposal happens, you may prevent the unfortunate scene you wish to avoid. If marriage is currently not something you see in your future, go ahead and say that before you’re in a very awkward situation.

Ask yourself what you really want, what you don’t, and trust your instincts when they’re down on one knee. Your answer may not be clear until the moment it happens. And that’s fair. Marriage is a big commitment and this moment is heightened for you both. When it’s all said and done, if it’s not a commitment you can wholeheartedly make, hurting their feelings in the present is way better than pretending to feel something you don’t for potentially the rest of your life.

Read More: Setting Healthy Boundaries Isn’t a Luxury – It’s Essential

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