How to Respond to Romantic Rejection With Grace

A lesson from reality TV's 'The Bachelorette.'

Posted Jul 26, 2016

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On last night's episode of the reality TV show 'The Bachelorette,' millions of viewers watched as Joelle "Jojo" Fletcher gave Chase McNary—one of three remaining contestants vying for her love—hope in the form of an invitation to spend the night with her:

"What are you most scared of?" Jojo asked, over a candle-lit dinner. He answered truthfully; scared of losing her. "I can see the man you deserve and I want to be that man," he tells her. They kiss romantically, before heading to a villa for their first overnight date. As they enter, he finally says, "I'm not scared and I want to say I'm 100% in love with you." Her face, at this point, says it all: She excuses herself, cries in guilt, and returns to a puzzled man, ultimately breaking his hopeful heart by saying, "I don't know if I'm in the same place as you."

She tries to explain, but he tells her to stop. Defensive, his demeanor changes as he tells her that she acted unfairly and dishonestly, explaining how "shattered" he feels, how he's now learned "love equals get out" because of her, and in frustration, he says, "you didn't give me a chance." He leaves, disappointed and cold, while she chases after him, saying, "I can't have you walk away like this." Obvious in his pain, he leaves without hugging her goodbye, a custom 'Bachelorette' fans know all too well. The 'goodbye hug,' at least in some form, solidifies a mutual understanding and respect for the strange relationship they've endured, no matter how difficult or seemingly unfair the break up might be.

The next day, however, while Jojo prepares to tell the two remaining contestants (one of whom will, if the show goes according to plan, ultimately become her fiancé) that Chase has been eliminated, he unexpectedly appears and asks for a moment of her time. He then tells her:

"I care too much to let a relationship go the way it did last night. I think I was shocked. There were a lot of things I couldn't say that night because I was so shocked. It was anger right away …I'm not asking for a second chance, but I'm here to tell you I admire you, and most of all, I'm not mad at you. I have a lot of love for you and I want what's best for you and you deserve something great."

Was Chase ultimately rejected? Yes. Did his rejection come from someone he loved? Yes. Was he devastated? Yes. Did he handle it with grace? Ultimately, yes.

In the aftermath of romantic rejection, particularly when it is unexpected, feelings of shock, distress, and even a heightened risk for substance abuse are not uncommon. The pain that comes from broken hope and shattered love is real. So real, in fact, our ancient brain processes it as physical pain. This may be why, upon first being rejected, we act in "fight or flight" mode, feeling attacked - our heart starts pounding, we feel butterflies in our stomach, we may even start to sweat. In rage, we hurl terrible words and spew hateful phrases to the person we love. In attack mode, however, we don't pause to consider the other person's feelings and, instead, come from a place of raw emotion, simply acting to protect ourselves and our ego from feeling overwhelming hurt.

Perhaps, however, on a subconscious level, we also act this way in order to guilt the rejecting partner into reconsidering by exposing his or her flaws. This is sound with Levinger’s Barrier Model of romantic dissolution, which suggests that tempting alternatives increase someone's likelihood of breaking up with his or her current partner. In a show like 'The Bachelorette,' where one person dates multiple others, Jojo herself recognizes how much alternative others influenced her decision to end her relationship with chase Chase, noting, "if we had met outside of the other relationships [I currently have], we would be so happy." If we point out our partner's shortcomings and how terrible they've made us feel, just as Chase did in the heat of the moment, perhaps it will give us a bargaining chip in rekindling the romance, hoping that our partner will see that while we have looked past his or her flaws, someone else may not be particularly keen to do so.

A lesson we can learn from Chase is how he handled the rejection after his initial emotional reaction: With understanding, care, dignity and respect for both the woman he had come to love and the relationship they had. If you have been rejected romantically, know that the initial feelings of anger are normal, but you can reclaim some of the power and control lost in the rejection by having a say in how you handle it:

1. Just breathe.

Taking slow, deep breaths will keep your vagus nerve, the main nerve responsible for the relaxation response, in check, helping to relieve stress. In turn, keeping calm will help you think and react in a more rational way.

2. Take some time to yourself.

If the breakup conversation is heated and you feel as though you may do or say something you will regret, it's best to excuse yourself ("I'm sorry, I need some time to myself") and walk away. During this time, take a Tylenol (seriously), whose active ingredient, acetaminophen, has been shown to lessen the pain of social rejection. Engaging in written disclosure therapy where you write down your feelings will also help you understand the situation at hand and settle your emotions. Once your emotions calm down, try to accept what your now-ex has told you:  He or she no longer wants to be with you.

3. Ask why, knowing it's a 'no.'

After fully accepting that it's over, if you have unresolved issues or questions that you feel you can't answer on your own, or you would just like a chance to clear the air, ask to have a conversation with your ex. Make a promise to yourself to ask 'why,' without responding by being defensive or attacking and blaming your ex. Knowing he or she does not want to be romantically involved with you any longer should be at the forefront of your mind at all times when asking the questions for which you seek answers. The best you can do now is retain your dignity and wish him or her well.

4. Remember, this is someone you loved (and still likely do).

Fighting past the anger and pain you feel and remembering the reasons why you loved your ex will help you shift your perspective and find gratitude for having been in the relationship. Despite still feeling love for your ex which we are wired to do (even after a breakup!), remember you have no claims to this person, his or her feelings, or his or her desire to be in a relationship with you. Try to remember that it is better in the long run to create a life with someone where there is mutual love, which will help you act in kindness, just as Chase did with Jojo in the end.  

As research has found, the dissolution of non-marital relationships function as an incentive for personal growth: What better way to start growing than to walk away from romantic rejection with grace.   

© Mariana Bockarova, Ph.D.

References

Fisher, H. (2016). Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray (Completely Revised and Updated with a New Introduction). WW Norton & Company.

Marshall, T. C. (2012). Facebook surveillance of former romantic partners: associations with postbreakup recovery and personal growth.Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15(10), 521-526.

Overbeek, G., Vollebergh, W., Engels, R. C., & Meeus, W. (2003). Parental attachment and romantic relationships: Associations with emotional disturbance during late adolescence. Journal of Counseling Psychology,50(1), 28.

Tashiro, T. Y., & Frazier, P. (2003). “I’ll never be in a relationship like that again”: Personal growth following romantic relationship breakups. Personal Relationships, 10(1), 113-128.