Sometime after a very difficult end to a long romantic relationship, I was ready to feel my feet again. The tears dried on their own (à la Amy Winehouse), and that heartbreak diet had me looking and feeling fierce and sexy. In walked Deon, with his trumpet and big, beautiful calloused hands. He quickly became a man I thought would ease my weary blues and get me back to happy. He was gentle and adoring, intriguing and titillating—a perfect cocktail of what I needed to feel desire and passion again.

I relished him, our long walks and fascinating conversations, watching him perform… until he began making plans for me to meet his family and inquiring about future plans. I realized in that moment that we clearly had different ideas about what we were doing and where things were going. I was having fun as I healed and was not yearning, at all, to be entangled. I’d assumed that all I’d learned about men meant he’d feel the same way, wanting to be free of binds and titles, but I was obviously wrong.

For him, I was a woman he wanted to settle down with, to build a life around. I abruptly (possibly surprisingly) expressed that my heart simply wasn’t in it. It was in time-out regaining my heart’s rhythm, and wasn’t ready to open up to what could possibly become a new pain. He said he understood, and we continued to date, but he told me later that he spent a long time hoping things would change, and our relationship would head in the direction I explicitly told him it would not go.

As I reflect, Deon was looking for the same as many of us: a special connection that’ll shift us towards our higher selves. He’d just (unfortunately for him) found that connection with someone incapable of wanting or giving the same.

When I came across this at Single Black Male—a post hoping to explain why some men are prone to being emotionally unavailable and how women should behave in those situations—I thought about Deon and how we tend to genderize our very common human experiences. The author wrote:

“The concept of being emotionally unavailable is pretty natural for most men. Every guy I know has, at some point, decided to check out and withdraw from the spiritual, emotional and physical commitment that comes with ‘falling in love.’ We do this for various reasons: sometimes it’s because we want to focus on our careers, sometimes we’ve been hurt and are not interested in feeling that again, sometimes we have obligations and responsibilities that for a time will supersede our own feelings and sometimes we just know that for the moment… we ain’t about sh!+.”

I’m sure we can all agree that both men and women enter stages in their lives where the desire to do the work necessary for a committed romantic relationship is the furthest thing from our minds. We’ve all had our hearts broken, and our priorities in life shift in ways that sometimes make love unfathomable. So how do we pilot those periods without hurting the people who care deeply for us, even when we’ve told them they should not?

And, since most of us have been on both sides of the unrequited love coin, we should also ask why we don’t listen when we’re told (repeatedly) that someone we’ve deemed to potentially be “the one” is just not that into us, regardless of the reason.

Reasons don’t matter much. The key to navigating these spaces is realizing we have to take people at their word, and steer our choices regarding others with compassion. If someone says he doesn’t want a relationship—no matter how kind he is, how passionate his caress, or how much he fits the mold of the perfect romantic partner we’ve created in our heads—he means what he says.

And even though we’re magic (because honey, we all are), we cannot sway a mind (or heart) that’s decided to remain closed to us. Moreover, if we understand that someone wants more than we’re willing to give romantically, it’s our responsibility to walk away.  Doing so will save that person and us—karma is real.

Of course we’re attracted to the idea of winning someone, and even being won. The thought of being the one who changes a person’s mind about love and commitment feeds our egos, and often we genuinely want to be the surgeons that repair ailing hearts, even when it means jeopardizing our own. The key is to only invest in those willing to invest in us, and that may mean being both the giver and receiver of our own goodness.

Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and soldier of love. Follow her musings on Twitter @jonubian.