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Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Can our beliefs force the end of our relationship?

Image by Burakkostak on Pexels
Source: Image by Burakkostak on Pexels

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

A self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when our beliefs influence our behaviors. An example of this would be if we predict that we will fail at a certain task, such as giving a speech and subsequently wind up stumbling through it. In such a situation, our belief seems to get the best of us, and we act in ways that affirm it.

The Relationship Component

Research has also tied the self-fulfilling prophecy to relationships. Our expectations about the successes and failures in our relationships can influence their outcomes. Downey, Freitas, Michaelis, and Khouri (1998) carried out two studies to determine if people’s expectations of rejection would prompt them to behave in ways that lead to the demise of these relationships. The authors were also interested in how self-fulfilling prophecy affects people who score high in rejection sensitivity (RS).

In their first study, members of couples recorded their cognitions, affects, behaviors, and conflicts in daily diary entries. A total of 108 heterosexual couples who had been dating for at least six months were used for this study. Diary analysis was carried out for the 58 couples who completed the study and filled out entries for four weeks. One year after the study, all of the original couples were contacted again for a follow-up to see if they had broken up.

Participants were initially given a demographic questionnaire, the Rejection Sensitivity Questionnaire, and measures of relationship satisfaction and commitment. Results demonstrated that 44 percent percent of couples that included a woman who was high in rejection sensitivity (HRS) had broken up at the one-year follow-up, compared to 15 percent of couples that included a woman who was low in rejection sensitivity (LRS) (Downey et al., 1998).

With regard to men, 42 percent of couples that included a man high in rejection sensitivity broke up at the one-year mark, whereas 15 percent of couples with a man low in rejection sensitivity broke up. Downey et al. (1998) reported that “the effect of people’s RS on breakup remained significant when their partners’ RS, relationship satisfaction, and commitment assessed prior to beginning the diary study were statistically controlled” (p. 549). The researchers also found out that the couples that broke up were more dissatisfied at the daily level over the course of the study.

Downey et al. (1998) also examined if reports of relationship satisfaction and desire to end the relationship were related to reports of conflict that occurred during the previous day, and if satisfaction and desire to break up were related to rejection sensitivity. While nothing was shown for the men, there was a significant difference among the women. Partners of women who were high in rejection sensitivity differed from the partners of those low in rejection sensitivity on days that were preceded by conflict. The partners of those women high in RS reported more dissatisfaction and were much more likely to think about ending the relationship the day after the conflict. Women who were high in rejection sensitivity were also much less likely to view their partners as accepting the day after conflict than those low in RS. Overall, the authors found that rejection sensitivity was a self-fulfilling prophecy in that it predicted breakup. Of course, this is because they were in high conflict situations that activated their expectations.

Downey et al. (1998) note, “that naturally occurring conflicts triggered a process through which women’s rejection expectancies led to their partners’ rejecting responses, operationalized as partner-reported relationship dissatisfaction and thoughts of ending the relationship. Both of these indexes of rejection predicted breakup for men and for women” (p. 553). A noteworthy limitation was the self-report nature of the diaries. Additionally, perceptions were not assessed immediately after the conflict so the male responses the day after the conflict are difficult to clearly understand.

In a follow-up study aimed at addressing the limitations of the first study, 39 college-aged exclusive couples participated and were videotaped. Results demonstrated that the partners of HRS and LRS women didn’t differ before the conflict but differed after the conflict. Specifically, partners of women high in rejection sensitivity were angrier about their relationships after the conflict. Interestingly, post-conflict, there was a nonsignificant increase in the anger of the male partners of HRS women, but a significant decline in the partners of LRS women. The HRS women were also shown to behave more negatively during the conflict.

Caution must be taken when interpreting the study in that perceptions were explored, not actual behaviors. In addition, results demonstrated that the expectations of HRS women led to the relationship ending as a result of less satisfaction and commitment on the part of their partners. However, the actual nature in which the relationships ended was not explored. For example, the authors note that the HRS women may have become so dissatisfied with the accumulation of perceived rejection that they ended the relationship, or that they ended the relationship preemptively to avoid perceived rejection (Downey et al., 1998).

Despite the limitations, the study did show that expectations of rejection led to the demise of the relationships. Therefore, expectations had the power to alter reality.


Downey, G., Freitas, A. L., Michaelis, B., & Khouri, H. (1998). The self-fulfilling prophecy in close relationships: rejection sensitivity and rejection by romantic partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(2), 545.