I have a table to which a bunch of other tables has an FK reference. Is there any way of deleting records from this table only if they are not being referenced?

I know that I can left join the referencing table and check for null, but I have about 10 tables (more will be added) with FKs referencing this table, so it would be cool to have a generic way of doing it.

There are often not more than a handful of records I need to remove. I suppose I could loop and try to remove each record individually and protect each deletion with BEGIN/EXCEPT, but that is an ugly concept.

Does this kind of functionality exist in Postgres? Kind of a soft delete, or delete-if-allowed.

1 Answer 1


I can think of no better way than doing:

DELETE FROM referenced_table AS r
WHERE NOT EXISTS (SELECT 1 FROM referencing_table_1
                  WHERE ref_id = r.id)
  AND NOT EXISTS (SELECT 1 FROM referencing_table_2
                  WHERE ref_id = r.id)
  AND ...;

This is a very unusual requirement.

If you need to do that often, you could even consider denormalizing your database:

  • add a column reference_count to the referenced table

  • define triggers that update reference_count whenever rows in the referencing tables are added, deleted or modified

Then you can simply delete the rows with reference_count = 0. Processing will be fast (if all your foreign keys are indexed!!), but you buy that at the price of slowing down all data modifications on all referencing tables.

  • A semi anti-join is often quicker rather than a subquery...
    – SQLpro
    Sep 14, 2020 at 16:26
  • @SQLpro That will result in a semi-join. Sep 14, 2020 at 16:37
  • Thanks. This is for a nightly cleanup-job to get rid of orphans (orphans can happen rarely if a client only syncs partly due to bad reception and then the user removes the local data before getting reception for a new sync attempt). Performance will not be an issue. I suspected there was no other way than checking manually via a left join or IN clause. Accepting this answer as a "nope, can't be done".
    – Michael
    Sep 15, 2020 at 8:10
  • and.. I have worked hard for my normalized database. Some stuff gets harder with a heavily normalized db, but it's so sweet to have total control. Not to mention how easy it is to build out the db when new requirements arrive. I don't want to denormalize =)
    – Michael
    Sep 15, 2020 at 8:15
  • This answer takes too long and results in a query timeout for me, where referenced_table has 300k rows, and referencing_table_1 has 600k rows
    – Cherona
    May 6, 2022 at 13:24

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