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The Pattern of Thinking That Can Ruin Relationships

Where it comes from, and who's most vulnerable to it.

Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Once we're in a close relationship, most of us want to relax and not worry about the relationship ending. But this level of ease may not come that easily to everyone. Do you constantly think about your lover walking out on you? Do you worry that if your true self were revealed, your partner would be so disgusted that things would come to an immediate end? When these concerns swirl around in your head, they can easily overpower the thoughts and feelings that come from positive interactions with your partner.

Where does such extreme sensitivity to rejection come from in the first place? Why are some people constantly on guard for signs of displeasure from their partners? One possibility is that people who are highly sensitive feel so insecure about themselves that they constantly need positive affirmation, especially from their partners. They need to be bolstered by a partner who fills in the missing pieces of their own sense of self.

Unfortunately, this sensitivity to rejection, plus a weak sense of self can backfire completely, contributing to a weaker—not stronger—relationship. Not only does an individual’s fear of rejection create undue stress for his or her partner, but it also makes the person constantly feel that the relationship isn’t as good as it could be. It’s difficult for a relationship to fulfill one's every hope and dream, but this becomes even harder when one partner is always questioning and wondering about the stability of their relationship.

This lack of secure identity can add to a fear of rejection and reduce the feelings of satisfaction in a relationship. University of Tennessee psychologists Jerika Norona and Deborah Welsh (2016) believe that identity struggles are particularly evident among young adults in the process of defining their sense of self. At this age, people are at the peak of figuring out who they are, and at the same time, they’re trying to figure out what they want from a relationship. If their identities are still undefined, the young adults may seek more confirmation from their relationship partner than they would if they were secure in who they are.

To test the prediction that a weak sense of self combined with a fear of rejection can produce negative outcomes, Norona and Welsh sampled 217 undergraduates who had been in a relationship for at least three weeks. The researchers defined a weak sense of self as a lack of self-differentiation, or the ability to achieve a healthy balance between dependence and independence on others. People low in self-differentiation show the following four characteristics:

  • an inability to regulate their emotions in the face of emotions expressed by others (what I would call emotional contagion)
  • emotional cutoff, in which they distance themselves from others to retain their independence
  • an ability to stick to their own values when challenged by others
  • fusion with others, in which a person constantly seeks the approval of others

Although difficulties in this area may be particularly pronounced among young adults, a weak identity can stay with an individual throughout life. Perhaps, as you looked at these four features of low self-differentiation, you spotted some of your own tendencies. Maybe you’ve been like this your whole life, and have never been able to live independently, or have constantly tried to be like your friends and intimate partners. Alternatively, you might push away from a partner to avoid yielding to the partner’s influence.

Rejection sensitivity, the second predictor of relationship satisfaction in the Tennessee study, focuses entirely on how much you fear being shut off by a partner. The Rejection Sensitivity Questionnaire the researchers used asked participants to rate how concerned or anxious they would be about their partner’s willingness to see them under a set of 18 conditions. Here’s an example of a question on this scale:

You ask your boyfriend/girlfriend if he/she really loves you

How concerned would you be over whether your boyfriend/girlfriend would say yes?
1= very unconcerned, 6= very concerned

I would expect that he/she would answer yes sincerely:
1 = very unlikely, 6 = very likely

Norona and Welsh measured the individual’s satisfaction with the relationship using statements such as “Our relationship is strong,” and “My relationship with my partner makes me happy.” (Note that they didn’t ask the partners of the participants, which would have been an interesting angle to pursue.)

As this was a correlational study, it’s not possible to know for sure whether poor relationship satisfaction itself contributes to both low self-differentiation and high rejection sensitivity. However, the test of the statistical model conducted by the study authors attempted to establish a path of causality. This test revealed that, as predicted, lower self-differentiation contributed significantly to rejection sensitivity, which in turn predicted low relationship satisfaction. Of the four components of self-differentiation, it was emotional cutoff that proved most significant in predicting satisfaction.

Preventing hurt by cutting yourself off from your partner seems to be a very poor strategy for ensuring a successful relationship. As stated by the authors:

“Although individuals are attempting to reduce the potential for rejection, distance also reduces the potential for fulfilling, accepting, and intimate behaviors” (p. 131).

When you push away from your partner, you are literally cutting off your nose to spite your face.

The authors were careful to point out that their study examined individuals at the prime of identity development, and their findings may not apply to more mature adults in established relationships. However, we know from other work that people do carry the dynamics of their relationship at its outset into the future. These “enduring dynamics” mean that your insecurity can continue throughout the course of your relationships, well into your adult years.

Knowing who you are, and what you want out of life and your relationships is a constant building process. If you’ve been the insecure type who pushes others away, it may be time to open up and let them in—even if you’re afraid they’ll reject you. Long-term fulfillment in relationships takes work, and the Norona and Welsh study shows how your own fears and insecurities may inadvertently be making the work that much harder. A partner who truly cares about you may surprise you with accepting and loving arms.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016


Norona, J. C., & Welsh, D. P. (2016). Rejection sensitivity and relationship satisfaction in dating relationships: The mediating role of differentiation of self. Couple And Family Psychology: Research And Practice, 5(2), 124-135. doi:10.1037/cfp0000056

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