- Expecting a partner's rejection and overreacting to possible rejection suggest rejection sensitivity.
- Higher rejection sensitivity corresponds with jealousy, self-silencing, and more intimate violence.
- Not everyone with high rejection sensitivity will experience poor relationships.
Relationships come with the possibility of rejection. Many a brave person knows that heartbreak, betrayal, insult, and loss are among the possible outcomes of forming a new attachment.
Indeed, most of us enter new relationships realizing we could be hurt; we offer vulnerability carefully, looking for signs that a new partner isn't as interested as we are. Being attentive to possible rejection cues makes sense in the tentative dance that describes relationship beginnings.
But what if we never turn down that rejection-alert system? What if rejection sensitivity is a persistent trait, rather than restricted to early relationship formation?
Rejection Sensitivity Can Persist Into Established Relationships
How easily do you shrug it off when a partner snaps at you? How distracted are you if your partner says they just need to have some alone time?
Whereas people often, and appropriately, wonder about whether a just-met possible partner is going to reject them, for people high in rejection sensitivity, this concern persists into a committed relationship. Indeed, it's a general way of operating in social relationships.
Rejection sensitivity captures a tendency to misinterpret benign or insensitive behavior as rejection. People high in rejection sensitivity expect rejection from others, including their romantic partners, so they look for it and then they overreact when they interpret another's behavior as rejecting (Downey & Feldman, 1996).
Rejection Sensitivity Can Lead to Actual Rejection
People high in rejection sensitivity are often anxious to make sure their relationships are going well, which is why they're looking for signs of rejection. As it happens, this looking for rejection may inadvertently make their relationships less stable. In other words, the protective strategy that people high in rejection sensitivity adopt to keep their relationships intact ultimately can encourage their relationships' downfall.
How? Think about it: When someone (mis)perceives their partner's behavior as rejecting, they might react with anger and hostility (Pietrzak, Downey, & Ayduk, 2005). Indeed, an intense reaction is likely from a person who hypervigilantly seeks out signs of rejection, and, unfortunately, it can elicit actual rejection.
After all, who likes anger and hostility thrown at them? In this way, rejection sensitivity creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: When people expect rejection and over-perceive it, their reactions can elicit actual rejection.
10 Ways Rejection Sensitivity Is Linked to Relationship Problems
A recent review and meta-analysis (Mishra & Allen, 2023), which included 60 studies accounting for almost 17,000 participants, documented important links between rejection sensitivity and problems in relationships. These links are consistent with the potentially toxic role of rejection sensitivity in romantic relationships.
Their analyses suggest that rejection sensitivity is associated with (Mishra & Allen, 2023):
- Less satisfaction. Rejection sensitivity is not a recipe for relationship bliss. Researchers found a medium-sized link between rejection sensitivity and lower self-reported relationship satisfaction. It's hard to be satisfied in a relationship when you are on high alert, expecting a partner to reject you.
- Less partner satisfaction. People higher in rejection sensitivity tend to believe that their partners have less relationship satisfaction. How highly sensitive people think about their partner's satisfaction may feed into or reflect their general belief that their partner will, ultimately, reject them.
- Less romantic expression. Meta-analyses revealed that expressions of love and affection tend to be perceived as occurring less frequently in the relationships of people with higher rejection sensitivity compared to people with lower rejection sensitivity. This is a hard burden for people with high rejection sensitivity: They perceive less of the comforting, reassuring behaviors that might forestall their concern about rejection.
- Engaging in, and experiencing, more intimate partner violence. Researchers observed a medium-sized link between rejection sensitivity and both perpetrating violence and being the victim of intimate partner violence. This suggests that the relationships maintained by people high in rejection sensitivity may be less safe and more unhealthy than people who are not expecting rejection.
- More relationship concerns. Meta-analysis suggested a strong association between rejection sensitivity and relationship concerns. In other words, people who expect their partners to reject them also tend to have more worries about and perceive a larger array of problems in their relationships.
- More conflicts. Rejection sensitivity and perceiving relationship conflicts appear to go hand-in-hand. The meta-analytic work revealed a large positive association between rejection sensitivity and perceiving conflicts in a romantic relationship.
- More self-silencing. The practice of self-silencing, which involves self-censoring and keeping quiet to preserve a relationship, tends to be exercised more by people with higher levels of rejection sensitivity than people with lower rejection sensitivity. This makes sense: Concerns of rejection could motivate stifling the self.
- More negativity. Positive emotions may make for a happy relationship, but they may not have a strong presence in the relationships of people high in rejection sensitivity. Rather, rejection sensitivity is linked with perceiving more negativity in romantic relationships.
- More jealousy. Jealousy occurs when people are aware of a potential threat to their relationship. If rejection-sensitive people are hypervigilant for signs of rejection, it makes sense that they would also tend to experience more jealousy in their relationships than people lower in rejection sensitivity; they may, perhaps, perceive more potential threats than others.
- Less power. Meta-analysis supported the emerging finding that people higher in rejection sensitivity tend to be less likely to feel they have more power in their romantic relationships.
Addressing the Challenges of Rejection Sensitivity
The results of this research suggest that people with higher rejection sensitivity may maintain lower-quality relationships than their less-sensitive counterparts—lower quality on many key relationship dimensions (Mishra & Allen, 2023). Indeed, this meta-analysis paints a depressing picture in which the relationship efforts of individuals with high rejection sensitivity ultimately lead them to have more challenging relationships.
It is worth noting, however, that these patterns do not suggest a deterministic link between a propensity for rejection sensitivity and poor relationship functioning. They are correlations, not causal paths, and they speak to group data, not any one person's experience. Not everyone with rejection sensitivity will struggle.
Indeed, some may find ways to pump the breaks on their sensitive tendencies. For example, breaking the link between perception and reaction could potentially serve as an intervention point for individuals who are aware that they may be overly sensitive.
If the over-reaction is the behavior that affects their partner (and their relationship), feeling the anxiety of rejection, but stopping the reaction, could serve to support healthier relationship functioning.
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Downey, G., & Feldman, S. I. (1996). Implications of rejection sensitivity for intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(6), 1327–1343.
Mishra, M., & Allen, M. S. (2023). Rejection sensitivity and romantic relationships: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Personality and Individual Differences, 208, 112186.
Pietrzak, J., Downey, G., & Ayduk, O. (2005). Rejection sensitivity as an interpersonal vulnerability. Interpersonal cognition, 62-84.