Sara*, a married woman in her 40s, goes to bed every night feeling rejected by her husband. "He never initiates sex, he never puts his arms around me," she told me in our first session. "When I reach out to him he's always tired and not in the mood. It feels awful."
People in stable, long-term relationships and marriages often feel rejected by their partner at some time or another. While many such experiences are mild, when they recur over long periods of time, they can be extremely painful. Indeed, being repeatedly rejected by your partner can damage your self-esteem and psychological health—and endanger the entire relationship.
Rejections Involving Intimacy and Sex
While the bathroom and kitchen may be the most "dangerous" rooms in the house in terms of physical injury, most of our emotional injuries happen in the bedroom. When your partner rebuffs your advances; avoids your attempts at intimacy; turns away when you try to kiss him or her; is reluctant to have date nights; goes to bed significantly before or after you do; falls asleep on the couch or in the kids’ room; drinks too much during a romantic dinner and crawls into bed without you; or claims exhaustion when you’re finally alone, or on a vacation—you are going to feel rejected and it's going to hurt.
One reason even small rejections sting is that our brain is wired to respond to rejection similarly to the way it responds to physical pain (see Ten Surprising Facts about Rejection). Rejections from your partner have an even greater impact as they come from the person who knows you best, who sees you most fully (or is supposed to), and who is supposed to love you for who you truly are. Therefore, his or her rejections feel like a much more substantial statement about your desirability and character, and can have a devastating impact on your self-esteem and self-image.
Over time, of course, such rejections are extremely damaging to the relationship as a whole. In order to protect themselves from further hurt, a rejected spouse or partner is likely to become emotionally withdrawn, distant, and disengaged (see Are You Married but Lonely). They are also likely to develop feelings of anger and resentment toward the partner, and in some cases, become depressed.
How to Address Rejection in Your Relationship
Some people feel hesitant to discuss feeling rejected with their partner. Others might have tried discussing their feelings but since the problem has persisted, feel reluctant to do so again. Indeed, once your self-esteem sustains a certain amount of damage through repeated rejections, you are likely to feel too vulnerable to risk initiating another talk, either because you fear doing so will only confirm your partner's lack of attraction and leave you feeling even more devastated—or because you worry it will start a major fight.
However, staying silent and tolerating or accommodating the situation will not make you feel better; instead, the rejections will only continue to wear away at your self-esteem and happiness. Despite how risky it might feel, bringing up the topic, as clearly and as assertively as possible (which is difficult but doable), is the only way to begin a dialogue about change and make your partner aware of the emotional damage his or her behavior is causing.
These guidelines may help:
- Tell your partner you need to talk and decide on a time you can have an uninterrupted conversation (i.e., not as you’re getting ready for work in the morning).
- Once you have their full attention, present the facts as clearly and non-judgmentally as you can (e.g., “We haven’t had sex in six months, despite the few times I’ve tried to initiate it,” or, “You used to hold my hand and put your arm around me and you no longer do.”). Some people might be very aware of their behavior, but others might not. Give your spouse the benefit of the doubt and see how they respond before assuming they’ve been aware of their behavior and indifferent to the damage it has caused.
- State the emotional impact their rejections have on you using "I statements" (e.g., “It makes me feel extremely unattractive and undesirable,” “I feel hurt and my self-esteem has taken a real hit,” “It makes me feel insecure, angry, and resentful.”). Here again, it is important to give your partner space to respond; while some may be aware of the impact of their behavior, others might not be.
- State a clear request for change (e.g., “It isn’t fair to me and I don’t want to keep feeling like this,” “We’ve spoken about this before, you make some efforts but they don’t last. I need you to take this very seriously,” “I want us to discuss this honestly and find solutions together.”).
- If your partner gets defensive or is reluctant to change, ask them to explain how they see things, what suggestions they have for making things better, or whether there are things they are upset about that are motivating their behavior.
- Discuss specific steps you both can take to improve the situation. Do not assume all the changes have to come from your partner; they might have feelings of their own that are underlying their avoidance of sex and intimacy. Try to agree on one small step you can both take right away to signal your intention to work on this issue.
- Request a periodic check-in to make sure any efforts or changes are maintained (e.g., “I want us to check in on this every few weeks to make sure things have improved,” “I would like you to take the initiative to check in with me so I know you care about whether I’m feeling better about this.”).
* names have been changed
For more about how to heal the wounds of rejection and how to repair damage to self-esteem, check out my book, Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).
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Copyright 2014 Guy Winch
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