Did You Leave Me for Someone Else or for No One Else?
On romantic infidelity and incompatibility
Posted April 8, 2019 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
“Dear John, I must let you know tonight that my love for you has gone… For tonight I wed another, Dear John.” —Pat Boone
Two major types of romantic rejection that end in separation are rejection because of someone else, and rejection because of no one else. Which type is more painful?
Two kinds of romantic rejection: Comparative and non-comparative
“How am I supposed to carry on, when all that I've been living for is gone?” —Laura Branigan
“My boyfriend of two years cheated on me and said, ‘Well, she is way prettier than you, could you really blame me?’ And the knowledge that he was an asshole and I was better off without him somehow didn't really take the sting away.” —A young woman.
The essential role of love in our lives and our profound personal involvement in love makes romantic separations, which are very common these days, very painful—particularly when they are interpreted as personal rejection. However, it is not entirely clear which type of rejection—comparative or non-comparative—is more painful.
Mark Leary (2005) argues that non-comparative rejections are probably more hurtful. While a comparative rejection may not be perceived as putting you low in absolute terms, he says, it must be perceived in this way in non-comparative rejections, where the message is that the relationship is so bad that the rejector opted to be alone rather than stay with the other.
In their empirical study on this issue, Sebastian Deri and Emily Zitek (2019) found the opposite: Participants who experienced, recalled, or imagined a comparative rejection felt significantly worse than those who did the same for a non-comparative rejection. One indication of the more painful nature of comparative rejections is that when people do not have information about the reason for the rejection, they tend to seek out this information: Their default worry is that they were rejected for someone else (Deri & Zitek, 2019). Moreover, the “immoral” nature of the affair enhances the negative attitude toward comparative rejection.
Two major causes for romantic breakdown: Infidelity and incompatibility
“Why have you left the one you left me for?” —Crystal Gayle
“It's hard to know another's lips will kiss you.” —Hank Williams
Romantic breakdowns of marriages and cohabitations do not stem from romantic rejections only, which are one-sided decisions; they can also stem from mutual decisions. Rejections are definitely more devastating than breakdowns. Nevertheless, the two phenomena overlap.
In accordance with the distinction between the two kinds of rejection, infidelity and incompatibility are two major causes for the breakdown of marriages and cohabitations. Infidelity, which is a well-defined concept, relates to a comparative rejection. Incompatibility, which is associated with non-comparative rejection, is much more complex, involving various factors, such as growing apart, arguments, different interests/nothing in common, and lack of communication (Amato & Previti, 2003; Gravningen et al., 2017).
Over the past few decades, infidelity has become less responsible for breakdowns, and incompatibility increasingly so. This development is driven by the high expectations of self-fulfillment in contemporary marriage and cohabitation, and the greater unacceptability of emotionally and personally unsatisfying partnerships Gravningen et al., 2017). The milder nature of moral criticism against affairs is also part of the picture.
Self-esteem and the comparative concern in emotions
“Have you ever noticed? Anybody going slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac.” —George Carlin
I believe that the issues of self-esteem and comparative concern are crucial in explaining the impact of romantic rejections.
Self-esteem involves belief and confidence in your own ability and value. Authentic self-esteem combines two major aspects: competence and worthiness; self-esteem must be earned by acting competently for worthy values (Mruk, 2013).
The importance of the comparative concern is illustrated by the story of the man who was upset because he had no shoes—until he met a man who had no feet. Similarly, someone who receives a 5 percent raise might be happier than someone who receives an 8 percent increase if the former expected less than the latter. In the same vein, a 5 percent raise can be quite exhilarating until one learns that the person down the hall received an 8 percent increase. Along these lines, the Greek poet Hesiod said that "The potter is furious with the potter and the craftsman with the craftsman, and the beggar is envious of the beggar and the singer of the singer." Indeed, it was found that jealousy is greater when the domain of a rival’s achievements is also a domain of high relevance to one’s self-esteem. Thus, women who consider external appearance to be of great relevance to their self-esteem are more jealous if their spouses had an affair with a good-looking woman than with a wise woman (DeSteno & Salovey, 1996).
From an emotional viewpoint, comparative evaluations often override evaluations concerning our absolute position.
The comparative concern in romantic relationships
“I hope that my children think that I am a good father, that my friends think that I am a good friend, and that my partner thinks that I am a good partner.” —Guillaume Canet referring to rumors that his wife, Marion Cotillard, had an affair with Brad Pitt
Comparative concern for our self-esteem is most pronounced in acute, brief, and intense emotions. In the short term, comparative rejections and breakdowns are clearly more destructive to self-esteem than non-comparative ones. Behind every comparative rejection and breakdown is a third person who humiliates us: We are perceived as unjustly inferior (like in envy), and as losing something precious to someone else (as in jealousy).
In my book, The Arc of Love (2019), I argue that although the comparative concern is crucial for our self-esteem, in enduring romantic relations, compatibility is more of a front-burner issue. The rise in cases of incompatibility breakdowns is linked to the rise in the importance of personal fulfillment in marriages (and other enduring partnerships), where enhancing self-esteem is crucial. Accordingly, a decision to separate should be made more on the basis of compatibility than of comparison.
This idea fits well with Eli Finkel’s (2017) view on self-fulfillment marriages. Finkel argues that in such marriages we do not merely want our spouses to meet our needs, but we want to meet their needs as well. Our spouses develop a deep understanding of our authentic selves, and time plays a crucial role in thriving in such marriages. Hence, there is no shame in pursuing a “good enough marriage.” We may aim high in our ideal marriage, but we should have the ability to be satisfied with less than perfect marriages (Finkel, 2017). Constant comparison is lethal to thriving marriages.
When we in an ongoing, enduring relationship, we should try to be happy with our own lot rather than busy comparing it with that of others. In the long run, our self-esteem is based more on compatibility with our partner than with whether our neighbor has a “better” partner. Rejections and breakdowns stemming from incompatibility may ruin enduring efforts to nurture our self-esteem and well-being, and they can cause irreversible damage. Comparative rejections and breakdowns, which result from occasional deeds that are not necessarily central to our self-esteem, might be reversible and less harmful.
The importance of personal circumstances in determining the damaging impact of romantic ones is expressed in the following comments of a married woman:
“If I were left due to my crazy working style, it would be less hurtful for me, because this is such a strong part of my personality that I did not know how to change in more than superficial manners. Yet being left for other reasons that gave room for personal adaptation and changes on my part (e. g. being too demanding with regard to my partner or being too jealous) would be more hurtful.”
“All rejections stink, no matter how you do it. It is a personal reflection of something going wrong, even if it’s not your fault.” —A married woman
Comparative rejection is usually more painful than its non-comparative parallel, at least in the short term. Of course, non-comparative rejections can also be excruciating. All romantic rejections stink—but the smell of some is less noxious than the smell of others. In any case, it is important to remember that romantic rejection marks the end of a loving relationship, but not the end of life.
Amato, P. R., & Previti, D. (2003). People's reasons for divorcing: Gender, social class, the life course, and adjustment. Journal of Family Issues, 24, 602-626.
Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.
Deri, S., & Zitek, E. M. (2017). Did you reject me for someone else? Rejections that are comparative feel worse. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43, 1675-1685.
DeSteno, D. A. & Salovey, P. (1996). Jealousy and the characteristics of one's rival. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 920-932.
Finkel, E. J. (2017). The all-or-nothing marriage. Penguin.
Gravningen et al. (2017). Reported reasons for breakdown of marriage and cohabitation in Britain. PloS one, 12(3), e0174129.
Leary, M. R. (2005). Varieties of interpersonal rejection. In Williams, K. D., Forgas, J., von Hippel, W. (Eds.), The social outcast (pp. 35-51). Psychology Press.
Mruk, C. J. (2013). Self-Esteem and positive psychology. Springer.