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Romantic Rejection: What Your Reaction Says About You

The personally revealing responses to relationship dissolution

LightField Studios/Shutterstock
Source: LightField Studios/Shutterstock

We often talk about the look of love. Two people locking eyes with each other across a crowded room. A couple gazing at each other on a first date, oblivious of their surroundings. If recognizing romantic interest is possible, can we also recognize rejection? And if we do, how do we respond? Research provides some answers to these questions.

Romantic Great Expectations

In a study entitled “What I See When I Think It's About Me” (2013), Rainer Romero-Canyas and Geraldine Downey examined how people with high versus low rejection sensitivity (RS) interpreted the facial expressions of potential dating partners' reactions to their online dating biographical sketch.[i] Results showed that people low in RS gave lower estimates of perceived negativity when they viewed videotaped reactions of people thought to have read their online dating sketch, as opposed to the sketch of someone else.

The authors note this is consistent with the tendency of low-RS people to confidently expect acceptance, as opposed to their high-RS counterparts, who tend to anxiously expect rejection. Interestingly, they did not find that RS was related to estimates of positive reactions.

What this means, the authors explained, is that people who are confident about being accepted by potential paramours underestimate negative reactions toward them, as opposed to those who expect to be rejected. They note this is consistent with the fact that interpersonal optimism, likely stemming from prior experiences of acceptance, may influence perception and promote approach behavior that enhances the likelihood of connecting with others.

How Men and Women Respond to Rejection: The Impact of Dominance and Depression

Obviously, every relationship is different, as is the emotional makeup of the parties involved. Although we cannot attribute the findings of scientific studies to every situation, there is some interesting research that is worth considering regarding how some personality traits might impact response to rejection.

Ashleigh J. Kelly et al. (2015) found that the reaction of heterosexual men to rejection depends on their degree of social dominance.[ii] They found, among other things, that upon experiencing romantic rejection, men higher in social dominance orientation were more likely to blame women, while also reporting having responded to past rejection with manipulation and persistence, as well as with aggression and threats of violence.

With women, research shows that depression might contribute to post-breakup blues. Ashley A. Yttredahl et al. (2018) examined romantic rejection in depressed women.[iii] They found that women with major depressive disorder were more emotionally sensitive to both rejection and acceptance in a romantic context.

Certainly, these results do not characterize the response of all men and women to romantic rejection. All research should be taken in stride, because everyone is different. Many jilted lovers simply shake it off and move on. This is true even among people who struggle with depression or exhibit behavior consistent with social dominance.

Self-Esteem Softens the Blow

Katherine L. Waller and Tara K. MacDonald (2010) studied the impact of initiator status on post-breakup distress, specifically as it relates to trait self-esteem, defined as “the degree to which an individual chronically evaluates him or herself positively.”[iv] They found that individuals with low self-esteem were more sensitive to romantic breakups when they were not the instigator, as compared to when they were. Individuals with high self-esteem, on the other hand, did not suffer differently after a relationship ended regardless of who initiated the breakup.

Taking self-esteem to the extreme, someone with delusions of grandiosity might even respond to rejection by questioning the judgment of the rejecter: “The problem is not me, its you!” They might also adopt a stance of “Your loss.”

Rejection and Resilience

Rejection is not necessarily a reflection of personal failures or flaws, but often simply reflects a relational mismatch. Incompatibility does not mean you will never meet the right person; it only means that, currently, you are with a partner who is not right for you.

Life is short; seek to spend it with loved ones who clearly reciprocate the sentiment. We often recognize in retrospect that time spent with a less-than-loving partner was time wasted. It was time we could have spent with family, friends, or getting to know alternative prospective paramours — who were clearly interested.



[i]Rainer Romero-Canyas and Geraldine Downey, “What I See When I Think It's About Me,” Emotion 13, no. 1, 2013, 104-117.

[ii]Ashleigh J. Kelly, Shelli L. Dubbs, and Fiona Kate Barlow, ”Social Dominance Orientation Predicts Heterosexual Men's Adverse Reactions to Romantic Rejection,” Arch Sex Behav. 44, 2015, 903-919.

[iii]Ashley A. Yttredahl, Erin McRobert, Benjamin Sheler, Brian J. Mickey, Tiffany M. Love, Scott A. Langenecker, Jon-Kar Zubieta, and David T. Hsu, “Abnormal emotional and neural responses to romantic rejection and acceptance in depressed women,” Journal of Affective Disorders 234, 2018, 231-238.

[iv]Katherine L. Waller and Tara K. MacDonald, “Trait Self-Esteem Moderates the Effect of Initiator Status on Emotional and Cognitive Responses to Romantic Relationship Dissolution,” Journal of Personality 78, no. 4, 2010, 1271-1299.

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