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Leaving an Angry Partner: Strategies for Safe Separation

Rules for romantic rejection in a rocky relationship.

Key points

  • Being rejected is often perceived differently based on gender.
  • Research indicates some men may respond more negatively when feeling "led on."
  • Safe strategies for separation include direct communication.

Many workplaces have strict protocols about how they fire people, especially when they fear a negative reaction. Signaling outcomes ranging from drama to danger, red flags reveal potential results. The same dynamics in play when terminating a professional relationship are present when terminating a personal one, as well. Research explains why.

Image by Daniel Joshua from Pixabay
Image by Daniel Joshua from Pixabay

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, Especially for Women

Breaking up is hard enough within an amicable partnership; it is especially problematic when faced with resistance. Even without physical abuse, some relationships are fraught with conflict and emotional trauma.

Researchers have explored how people feel when interpersonally rejected, from direct expressions to indirect methods, such as ghosting, which usually involves some type of ceasing contact with a partner. Gili Freedman et al. (2022)[i] recognized that method and motives matter when considering rejection strategies because individuals who are rejected often react negatively, and can even be violent. Although their study examined rejection within a population of bisexual individuals, they recognized the need to study rejection’s impact on gender.

Other researchers examined when women specifically may be in heightened danger when breaking up with a man. Khandis R. Blake et al. (2018), in a study aptly entitled “Heightened Male Aggression toward Sexualized Women Following Romantic Rejection,” found exactly that—increased sex goal activation predicted increased post-rejection aggression.[ii] In their study, 157 young men were romantically rejected by a woman who was either sexualized or non‐sexualized, and then afforded the chance to blast the female rejector using loud bursts of white noise. Their results showed that interacting with a sexualized woman increased sex goals, which predicted increased aggression after romantic rejection. This finding remained significant even after controlling for the impact of negative affect and trait aggressiveness.

What makes a woman “sexualized?” Blake et al. note that wearing revealing, sexualized clothing makes women appear to be more interested in having sex than their more modestly clad counterparts. They also note that men tend to associate sex with aggression and have more sexually aggressive intentions toward women who are wearing more sexualized clothing. Their findings are consistent with some men admitting they felt their aggression directed toward sexualized women who rejected them was justified because they felt they were “led on.”

Blake et al. also note their findings are consistent with research that supports the idea that men who consider themselves a “good catch” are more likely to behave aggressively towards someone who romantically rejects them. They conclude that their work indicates that when male sex goals are aroused, unexpected rejection from a woman they assumed was sexually interested constitutes a greater threat to their ego and has the potential to prompt an aggressive response.

Strategies for Safe Separation

Given the potential for distress and even danger, proactive preplanning for relationship dissolution is an important part of interpersonal safety. Most men will not behave violently when on the receiving end of a breakup. But within relationships that are already coercive or abusive, even if only emotionally, the possibility of aggression and violence can impact a woman’s decision to leave.

One of the most straightforward strategies for safe separation involves good communication. If research indicates the possibility of unexpected rejection creating anger and bruised ego, partners can soften the blow by attempting to avoid creating unrealistic expectations and tempering difficult news with kindness. Expressing the desire for dissolution delicately but directly can avoid ambiguity and facilitate closure.

Maintaining good contact with friends, family, and a support system while in a relationship will ensure a soft landing for the departing partner if, heaven forbid, the reaction is violent or otherwise threatening. Remember also that professional help is available.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


[i] Freedman, Gili, Andrew H. Hales, Darcey N. Powell, Benjamin Le, and Kipling D. Williams. 2022. “The Role of Gender and Safety Concerns in Romantic Rejection Decisions.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 102 (September): 1–12. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2022.104368.

[ii] Blake, Khandis R., Brock Bastian, and Thomas F. Denson. 2018. “Heightened Male Aggression toward Sexualized Women Following Romantic Rejection: The Mediating Role of Sex Goal Activation.” Aggressive Behavior 44 (1): 40–49. doi:10.1002/ab.21722.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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