- Rejection sensitivity refers to a tendency toward expecting and overreacting to rejection.
- Research shows rejection sensitivity is associated with lower intimacy and relationship satisfaction.
- It is also related to greater intimate partner violence, jealousy, and self-silencing behavior.
In this article, I discuss a new study by Mishra and Allen on the impact of rejection sensitivity on romantic relationships. This research was published in the July 2023 issue of Personality and Individual Differences.
The agony of rejection
As we all know, being excluded can hurt, often triggering feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, and shame.
Generally, it is less painful to be shunned by strangers than by someone you respect, admire, or adore. For instance, rejection by a current or potential romantic partner can be particularly painful.
Note that one need not be actually rejected to experience its agony—simply expecting it will happen or assuming it has already happened may suffice.
This can occur, for instance, if you misinterpret your partner’s silence as “silent treatment” or their constructive criticism as “blame.” And, worse yet, see these as signs of an impending breakup. Such mistaken assumptions may lead to a number of negative emotional responses—feeling anxious, alone, neglected, abandoned, unloved, jealous, ashamed, guilty, etc.
An important question is why some people are more likely than others to read rejection into their partner’s behaviors. A major reason may be having high rejection sensitivity.
What is rejection sensitivity?
Rejection sensitivity is a personality inclination that has three components:
Anxiously expecting rejection, perceiving it in ambiguous behavior, and having an extreme reaction to it.
Some people tend to have very high rejection sensitivity. This could be due to genetic or environmental factors. What environments? Many such individuals grew up in dysfunctional family environments—families where neglect or violence was common, harsh discipline was the norm, and parental love was always conditional.
So, from an early age, those raised in these families learned to pay close attention to potential signs of rejection. And since children are highly dependent on parents for survival, they often erred on the side of caution. They came to believe: rejected until proven accepted.
Rejection sensitivity in romantic relationships
In adult romantic relationships, misinterpreting a partner’s behavior as rejection can create a vicious cycle of destructiveness:
For instance, feeling rejected by your spouse may lead to shame and even hostility or aggression toward them, which could trigger their defensive anger, increasing the likelihood of your spouse actually rejecting you.
Sadly, such a result would be the confirmation of your initial fears of being unlovable and unwanted and reinforce expectations of future rejection—not only by your current partner but also by future love interests, friends, or strangers.
We now turn to Mishra and Allen’s meta-analysis to learn how rejection sensitivity affects romantic relationships.
Number of studies: 60; 65 samples, including 53 cross-sectional investigations and 12 prospective studies.
Total number of participants: 16,955 individuals; most were young or middle-aged, with an average age of 24 years old and a standard deviation of seven years.
Meta-analytic strategy: Pooled mean effect sizes were determined using inverse-variance-weighted random effects meta-analysis.
Findings: Analysis of data showed that rejection sensitivity was associated with lower “relationship status, relationship satisfaction, perceived partner satisfaction, relationship closeness, romantic expression, perceived relationship power, and sexual activity involvement.”
Furthermore, it was associated with higher “intimate partner violence perpetration, intimate partner violence victimization, relationship concerns, relationship conflict, self-silencing behaviors, and jealousy in romantic relationships.”
Satisfying basic human needs for connection and belonging is key to mental health and well-being. This is difficult for the rejection-sensitive, even those currently in a romantic relationship. Compared to the average couple, these individuals experience less intimacy, lower relationship satisfaction (as does their partner), and a reduced sense of power.
Many worry that their partner is not as committed as they are, anxiously seek reassurance that they are still loved, and struggle to voice their relationship concerns—preferring to remain silent rather than risk rejection (especially women).
They are, in addition, more likely to experience relationship conflict, jealousy, and be both the perpetrator and the victim of intimate partner violence. Some also engage in sexual compulsion or risky behaviors.
What to do if you have high rejection sensitivity?
If you happen to be highly sensitive to rejection or such a person’s partner, the first step is gaining more awareness. This means identifying your relationship needs, behavioral tendencies, triggers, and so on.
For example, answer the following questions:
- In what situations do you most need reassurance that you are accepted, valued, and loved?
- What (i.e., body language, speech, behavior) makes you feel rejected?
- How do you react to rejection?
- How do you react when your significant other accuses you of shunning them?
Though greater awareness alone can sometimes suffice, some individuals may benefit from therapy. Why? Because high rejection sensitivity is seen in numerous psychological conditions: social phobia, body dysmorphia, avoidant personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, self-harm, etc.
It is particularly common in depression. Research shows that just anticipating rejection increases the probability of developing depression. Depression, in turn, increases the likelihood of expecting rejection.