As humans, we have a fundamental need to belong and to maintain close bonds with others. Anything that threatens this need can set off psychological alarm bells, prompting us to do whatever we can to prevent rejection from occurring or to save face if it does.
But for some people, this alarm system is hypersensitive, picking up on threats that might not exist and then overreacting to them. This tendency, called rejection sensitivity, often stems from past experiences of rejection by parents or others.
It makes sense that after painful experiences of rejection, people would arm themselves with vigilance and caution about trusting new people. The problem is that a high degree of vigilance may not be needed in new relationships with more reliable partners. In such relationships, instead of protecting the self from rejection, rejection sensitivity can have the opposite effect, increasing the likelihood of it.
How does this happen?
Rejection sensitive people are more likely to jump to the conclusion that their partner’s behavior reflects intentional rejection, rather than considering other explanations. In one study, a group of college students filled out rejection sensitivity questionnaires at a time when they were not in a romantic relationship. Then, those who were in relationships at a second point months later filled out another set of questionnaires. One questionnaire asked them to reflect on three hypothetical partner behaviors (being cool and distant, being intolerant of something you did, and spending less time with you), and indicate whether they would interpret the behavior as intentionally hurtful.
Results showed that participants who scored higher in rejection sensitivity were more likely to interpret their partner’s hypothetical behavior as having hurtful intent, overlooking other potential explanations — for example, a partner may seem more distant during an especially busy week.
When romantic partners are quick to assume that mildly inconsiderate behavior reflects something deeper and more personal, like a lack of love or commitment, conflict is more likely to ensue, and more likely to escalate. In another study, during a recorded conflict interaction, rejection sensitive people were more likely to use hostile tones of voice, deny responsibility for a problem, mock their partner, and express disgust, behaviors that tend not to be constructive.
Negative interactions can, in turn, reduce relationship satisfaction. A third study found that people who were high in rejection sensitivity tended to be perceived by their partners as more jealous (for men) or more hostile and less supportive (for women), and these perceptions were related to decreases in relationship satisfaction. Other research suggests that rejection sensitive men who are highly invested in their relationships are at greater risk of engaging in physical violence.
In addition to increasing the risk of aggression towards others, rejection sensitivity seems to be associated with a greater willingness to harm the self to prevent or cope with rejection.
One set of studies found that rejection sensitive men were more willing to engage in ingratiation following rejection, contributing more money to be part of a group that had harshly rejected them, and spending more money on a date with a woman who had evaluated them negatively on a mock online dating site. Female participants showed a similar pattern when they were rejected by a potential romantic match with whom they had shared personal information.
While generosity may seem like a good thing, sacrifice can be self-harmful if people give up more than they can spare. And an imbalance in generosity can harm relationships to the extent that it reduces both partners’ sense of equity and fairness, an important condition for relationship satisfaction.
Giving too much can also be harmful in other ways. For example, one study found that rejection sensitivity in adolescent girls may increase vulnerability to victimization due to a greater willingness to do things one feels is wrong in an effort to prevent rejection by romantic partners.
Another study found that after recalling a rejection experience, rejection sensitive college students were more likely to report self-harmful thoughts, such as “I feel an urge to harm or hurt myself,” or “I feel angry and hostile towards myself.”
The negative consequences of rejection sensitivity can feed a vicious cycle in which past trauma is repeated. Is there anything people can do to interrupt this cycle?
Research suggests that a key factor is self-regulation, the ability to monitor and control one’s emotional and behavioral responses. When people perceive a potential sign of rejection, their attention may narrow to focus on the features of the situation that confirm their expectations, and their first instinct might be to lash out in anger. But those who respond reflectively rather than reflexively have a better chance of curbing destructive reactions.
They might expand their attentional focus by considering alternative explanations for an event or putting themselves in their partner’s shoes. For example, instead of viewing an argument as catastrophic, they might remind themselves that some degree of conflict is a normal part of most relationships. Or instead of assuming that a partner’s distant behavior is due to a loss of interest, they might think about what’s going on in their partner’s life at the moment that could be relevant, such as increased stress at work.
Of course, there may be times when ambiguous behavior really is rejecting and suspicion is warranted, but cautious optimism is usually a better strategy than confident pessimism. It may not protect us from being blindsided, but at least it leaves open the possibility that we won’t be.
Ayduk, O., Mendoza-Denton, R., Mischel, W., Downey, G., Peake, P., & Rodriguez, M. (2000). Regulating the interpersonal self: Strategic self-regulation for coping with rejection sensitivity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 776-792.
Downey, G., & Feldman, S. I. (1996). Implications of rejection sensitivity for intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(6), 1327-1343.
Downey, G., Freitas, A., Michaelis, B., & Khouri, H. (1998). The self-fulfilling prophecy in close relationships. Rejection sensitivity by romantic partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 545-560.