Navigating the Pathway of Romantic Rejection

From protest, passion, rage, and despair to growth.

Posted Dec 07, 2020

Human beings are incurable romantics. This may be because our brains are hard-wired for romantic love. That hard-wiring may have an evolutionary basis to promote mating behavior. Romantic love activates the pleasure centers of the brain and releases “feel good” neurotransmitters as in the ventral tegmental area and middle limbic centers that activate dopamine (Acevedo et al., 2011). In turn, this neurally driven romantic attraction motivates courtship behaviors (Fisher et al., 2006). In other words, it feels good to be intensely in love—so good that we throw caution to the wind and plunge headlong into an experience that holds the potential for as much of a “low” as it does a “high.”

The flip side of romantic love is rejection. While being in love feels good, being “dumped” naturally feels bad. Rejection in a romantic relationship can be heartbreakingly painful (Finkel & Baumeister, 2019). Finkel and Baumeister also noted that the experience of romantic rejection is complex and variable impacting mood, behavior, and cognitions. There may be a sense of humiliation (feeling like a fool), intense emotional distress (profound unhappiness), and low self-esteem (believing that one is unlovable).  

In many ways, romantic rejection has parallels to bereavement, i.e., mourning the loss of a loved one. As in bereavement, some mental health professionals suggest that there are actual stages of romantic rejection.

  • Protest: The first stage may be a “protest” where there is a flurry of activity toward reviving the relationship. Rejection may provoke an intense behavioral response that can be irrational (holding on to unjustified hope), desperate (engaging in humiliating behaviors, such as begging the person to return), or aggressive behaviors (such as stalking, suicide threats) (Lewis et al., 2000).
  • Passion: A second stage may be feeling intense passion for the romantic rejecter. Such intensity may lead to strong attachment and desire for the rejecter. It may also fuel distorted beliefs, e.g., that the rejecter is idealized as the “love of one’s life” and no one can take that person’s place. The passion is a mixture of pleasure and pain as the person experiences longing, profound unhappiness, and frustration because the love is no longer reciprocal. Fisher (2006) suggests that the intensity of emotional experience following romantic rejection may be due to a “cocktail of neurotransmitters” (p. 14) triggered by romantic abandonment. This cascade of neurotransmitters encompasses pleasure (e.g., dopamine-based routes triggered by memories of the rejecter) and anxiety (stress-related activating hormones).  
  • Rage: Another reaction is that abandonment can trigger anger, and in its intense form—rage—when the person realizes that their lover is not returning. This is when love can morph into hate. At a neural level, this reaction may be due to the linkage and proximity of midbrain and deep brain areas related to rage/anger and pleasure (Fisher, 2006).
  • Despair: Lastly, over time rejection, particularly if one perseverates on the rejecter, can lead to severe depression and despair (Finkel & Baumeister, 2019; Fisher, 2006). Derogatory or devaluing statements about one’s self and the belief of a lack of desirability may be triggered by low self-esteem and attendant hopelessness that one may never be happy again.

Yet, people do recover from losing romantic relationships. Even if one was initially blindsided by the rejection, the movement through protest, passion, anger, and even despair may not be inevitable; or if it does occur, it may not be prolonged. There is a pathway out of the unhappiness activated by romantic rejection, and that is “growth.” Psychologist George Bonnano (2010) argues that human beings are hardwired for resilience. Bonnano suggests that there is another side to sadness that accompanies loss and bereavement, and that is “meaning.” Deriving meaning from romantic rejection is a process that augments psychological growth. By contrast, pining for lost love and miring in rage and despair leads to psychological deterioration. 

Psychological growth from rejection can be enhanced in several ways. It involves self-introspection to identify obstacles to growth. Removing obstacles clears away the psychologically harmful elements that can cloud one’s ability to understand and put in its proper place the meaning of the relationship and the loss within the overall context of one’s life.

  • Recognize rejection sensitivity: Oversensitivity to rejection keeps one embedded in pain. Rejection hurts, but it shouldn’t destroy you. Recognize that rejection happens to everyone; this means there is no need to feel targeted, or that you are in any way “less than” or “unlovable” just because a relationship fails.
  • Avoid self-fulfilling prophecies: Rejection may enhance expectations that you will be rejected again. If this is the case, you may be attracting rejection inadvertently, and thereby reinforcing or fulfilling the prophecy that you are “unlucky in love.” This is a self-perception you can and should control. Recognize that people change; there are seasons of closeness and seasons of loss. Don’t overly personalize it.
  • Monitor and minimize negative internal chatter: Although it is productive to review what went wrong as a “lessons learned” approach, mindless berating of oneself, idealizing the rejecter, and reliving humiliating moments halts growth. Focus on those lessons from the relationship that you need to make for you to be a better person; cut out thoughts that are demeaning.
  • Forgive yourself and move on. Recognize that human beings are fallible; no one behaves perfectly all the time. Perhaps you did behave badly in response to rejection; or maybe you were too demanding, critical, or argumentative in the relationship and this led to the breakup. Learn from the past but live in the present and plan for a better future.

As author Kent Nerburn (1996) keenly observes, life offers many opportunities to learn simple truths. Nerburn writes, “Too often, when love comes to people, they try to grasp the love and hold it to themselves, refusing to see that it is a gift freely given and a gift that just as freely moves away.” (p.60). Ultimately, the pathway to meaning and growth from romantic rejection is always deeply personal and, in the end, a profound experience that defies encapsulation.  

References

Acevedo, B. P., Aron, A., Fisher, H. E., & Brown, L. L. (2012). Neural correlates of long-term intense love. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7(2), 145-159. doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsq092

Bonanno, G. A. (2010). The other side of sadness: What the new science of bereavement tells us about life after loss. Basic Books

Finkel, E. J. & Baumeister, R. F. (2019). Attraction and rejection. In, E. J. Finkel & R. F. Baumeisterr (Eds.). Advanced Social Psychology: The state of the science (2nd Edition). (Pp. 201-221). Oxford University Press.

Fisher, H. E., Aron, A., & Brown, L. L. (2006). Romantic love: A mammalian brain system for mate choice. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 361(1476), 2173–2186. doi:10.1098/rstb.2006.1938

Fisher, H. E. (2006). Broken hearts: The nature and risks of romantic rejection. In A. C. Crouter & A. Booth (Eds). Romance and sex in adolescence and emerging adulthood: Risks and opportunities. (Pp. 3-28). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lewis, T., Amini, F., & Lannon, R. (2000). A general theory of love. Random House.

Nerburn, K. (1996). Simple truths: Clear & gentle guidance on the big issues in life. New World Library.