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Rejection Sensitivity, Irrational Jealousy, and Impact on Relationships
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.

  • Also read: The Porcupine Effect: Pushing Others Away When You Want to Connect

  • "Individuals who are rejection-sensitive are more likely to perceive rejection in situations others may
    not interpret as rejection."

    As a child Cynthia's hyperactive behavior often annoyed others. Her teachers frequently reprimanded her in school. The other students called her "stupid" and refused to let her join them in activities. At home, her father criticized her and beat her with a belt whenever her parents received a negative report from school. Due to depression, her mother tended to ignore Cynthia's needs for emotional support and attention. As a result, she grew up expecting rejection from others. It seemed that no matter how hard she tried, all she experienced was rejection.

    As an adult she had numerous unsuccessful relationships. She desperately wanted the acceptance to be found in a relationship; however, she perceived her partner's behavior negatively often thinking about how he wasn't as committed to the relationship and that she was just good enough until someone else came along. These thoughts led to hostility toward him and accusations "You don't care about me!" Due to her focus on her worries about losing him she did not focus on his needs and provide him with emotional support. Her partner tried to reassure her and comfort her at first but the constant negativity and hostility drained his ability to respond to her needs.

    Jake was physically abused as a child; for seemingly no reason to Jake his alcoholic father became enraged and beat him leaving bruises and welts. These beatings included screaming at Jake about how worthless he was and that no one could possibly ever want him or love him. His mother was rejecting in a more subtle way by tending to blame him for his father's behavior "If you just wouldn't set him off, he wouldn't hurt you."

    When Jake developed an intimate relationship as an adult, he perceived his wife's behavior as indicating she was cheating on him. He examined her phone records and questioned her endlessly about calls she made. He didn't allow her to go out socially unless he was present and even then he questioned her about her interest in other men if she talked to someone. His wife could not convince him she was not having an affair. Eventually, his irrational jealousy led to slapping her when she denied his accusations.

    What do these two people have in common? They developed rejection sensitivity due to childhood experiences which led to irrational thinking and behavior about their adult relationships. This thinking and behavior often reinforced itself by creating situations in which they were more likely to be rejected.

    What is Rejection Sensitivity?

    Individuals who are rejection-sensitive are more likely to perceive rejection in situations others may not interpret as rejection. For instance, they may think, "He didn't respond right away to my text message, so I must not be important to him." This thinking frequently creates stress and anxiety. Whereas the same situation may not even register to another person as involving rejection; they may not expect an immediate response or they may understand that response latency may not be directly related with how important the other person thinks they may be. Or even if they do consider it related, they may not view lack of importance as rejection and may be able to shrug it off as meaningless.

    In addition, someone who is rejection-sensitive is more likely to overreact to rejection. They may view rejection as horrible whereas someone else may view it as just a normal thing that occurs because people are different and no one can be liked by everyone. Therefore, the person who views rejection as "horrible" often feels an intense need to avoid situations that may potentially involve rejection.

    What is Irrational Jealousy?

    Irrational jealousy is jealousy that has no basis in fact. In other words, the individual perceives situations as meaning that their partner is likely to reject them when the partner has no intention of doing so. Thus, irrational jealousy is a thinking style in which an individual evaluates a situation negatively and makes assumptions base on that evaluation. Those assumptions are usually related to losing their partner due to a rival.

    How is Rejection Sensitivity Related to Childhood Abuse?

    Scott Feldman and Geraldine Downey (1994), psychologists who conducted a number of studies examining rejection sensitivity indicated that a link existed between adult sensitivity to rejection and childhood experience with rejecting parents. One of the tasks of childhood is to learn how to relate to the world around us. However, our primary experience is with a select few adults including our family and our teachers. If this experience teaches us that those closest to us are likely to hurt us and reject us, we carry this knowledge with us into adulthood.

    Erik Erikson described the stages of psychosocial development over fifty years ago. For our purposes, his first two stages directly relate to the development of rejection sensitivity: trust vs. mistrust stage and autonomy vs. shame and guilt. During the first year of development, if the child learns that his needs are not likely to be met he will develop mistrust. During the second year of the development if the child is made to feel bad or wrong about normal exploration of the world around her, she will develop shame and guilt. Accordingly, if these stages are not successfully resolved the child will not be able to move on and successfully manage the other stages of psychosocial development including but not limited to the stage of identity development and the stage of intimacy.

    Thus, in the example above, Jake was physically abused by his father and blamed for the abuse by his mother. Typically, we are taught that our parents love us and protect us, so it is reasonable for a child to come to the conclusion that if he can be treated this way by the people who are supposed to love him the most, then the rest of the world must be the same or worse. In fact, sometimes children are taught this specifically. Imagine Jake's father saying to him, "You better respect me because no one else would ever put up with you." As a result of his treatment by his parents, Jake developed a mistrust of people, especially those who love him, and felt shame and guilt because of his inability to act in a way that would cause them to treat him better. Therefore, in his adult intimate relationships he became jealous and controlling.

    What is the Relationship Between Rejection Sensitivity, Self-esteem, and Social Anxiety?

    Although Downey and Feldman (1996) found that there is a relationship between rejection sensitivity and self-esteem as well as between rejection sensitivity and social anxiety and the personality characteristic of introversion, they did not find that this relationship explained the connection between rejection sensitivity and poor intimate relationships. In other words, an individual may have low self-esteem or high social anxiety or be introverted, but their perception of rejection may be accurate and they may not over-react to rejection. So, the problem is due more to tendency to expect rejection in intimate relationships, perceive rejection when it may not be present, and to see rejection in an extremely negative manner.

    How Does Expectation of Rejection Affect Perception of Rejection?

    There's an old story about a traveling salesman who has a flat while he is driving a country road. He looks in his trunk and discovers that he is missing his jack. So he thinks, "There's a farmhouse a couple miles back, I'm sure the farmer will be able to help me." However, as he starts walking he begins to think, "Why should he put himself out and help a stranger? I'll probably need to pay him 5 or 10 dollars." As he continues to walk, his thinking becomes even more negative, "Why should 10 dollars be enough? He really has me over a barrel. Why should he even help me at all?" By the time he reaches the farmhouse he is convinced that the farmer will take advantage of him. When the farmer opens the door and asks "What can I do for you?" the man sputters in anger "You can just take your jack and shove it!"

    This story illustrates how we can expect rejection in a situation, respond to the situation as if there is rejection, and then most likely create rejection. Downey and Feldman (1996) did an interesting study with college students to examine the relation between expectation of rejection and perception of rejection. They had previously developed a questionnaire to measure rejection sensitivity. The questions asked about hypothetical situations and the degree of anxiety about the outcome as well as the expectation of rejection. Some of the situations included: You ask someone in class if you can borrow his/her notes; You ask a friend to do you a big favor; You call your boyfriend/girlfriend after a bitter argument and tell him/her you want to see him/her. In the study, the students were placed in an ambiguous situation in which rejection-sensitive people were more likely to feel rejected whereas others were not. The situation involved having a short conversation with an opposite-sex stranger (who was actually one of the experimenters which was unknown to the student) and being told that it would be followed by a break and then another short conversation. However, after the first conversation the students were told that their partner chose not to continue with the experiment and no other explanation was given. The control situation was similar except the students were told their partner did not continue due to time constraints.

    The researchers found that the students who were high in rejection sensitivity and were not given an explanation for their partner's decision not to return for the second conversation tended to provoke feelings of rejection and statements of " 'I felt so badly. I wondered what I had done wrong' and 'I was worried that I had bored him (Downey and Feldman, 1996).' " Whereas people with low rejection sensitivity did not react with negative emotions.

    How Does Rejection Sensitivity Impact an Intimate Relationship?

    Downey and Feldman (1996) furthered examined how an individual's level of rejection sensitivity might affect their intimate relationships. First, they conducted a study to determine the relation between rejection sensitivity and the tendency to interpret insensitive behavior by their intimate partner as a deliberate desire to be hurtful. They assessed students for rejection sensitivity prior to beginning a romantic relationship. After they began a new relationship, scenarios that could be considered insensitive but could have occurred for a number of reasons were posed to them such as "If your boyfriend or girlfriend was being cool and distant, you would feel he or she was being intentionally hurtful to you." They found that high levels of rejection sensitivity predicted the likelihood that the student would interpret their new partner's insensitive behavior as having hurtful intent.

    In a related study Downey and Feldman (1996) recruited couples in a committed, nonmarital relationship to complete questionnaires designed to examine how this tendency to negatively interpret insensitive behavior would impact the relationship. They found significant correspondence between rejection sensitivity and relationship security, relationship satisfaction, and behaviors that jeopardize the relationship.

    1) Relationship Security. They examined the relation between rejection-sensitive people and their perception of their partner's commitment to the relationship. The results indicated that rejection-sensitive people were more likely to believe and to be concern that their partner was likely to leave the relationship. This response occurred no matter what the partner's level of commitment actually was. In other words, even when the partner was fully committed to the relationship, the rejection-sensitive individual still believed he/she wanted to end the relationship.

    2) Relationship Satisfaction. Although they found that the partner's of rejection-sensitive people were less satisfied with the relationship, the rejection-sensitive people tended to exaggerate the degree of dissatisfaction they thought their partner experienced. Possibly, the dissatisfaction that was experienced was due to the problematic behaviors in which rejection-sensitive people engage.

    3) Behaviors Jeopardize Relationship. Therefore, Downey and Feldman (1996) examined the behaviors of rejection-sensitive people that could jeopardize the relationship. Although rejection-sensitive people were more likely to engage in self-defeating behavior, a difference occurred in the type of behavior in which men engaged and women engaged. In particular, it was found that men tended to engage in more jealous controlling behavior. These behaviors may include being particularly reactive to, jealous of, and controlling of their partners contact with potential rivals. Many of these behaviors could potentially lead to physical abuse. Downey and Feldman interpreted these behaviors as being based upon men's tendency to want to actively solve problems.

    However, rejection-sensitive women relationship behaviors tend to include hostility and lack of emotional support. Frequently, women's hostility is reflected in negative comments/criticism and non-verbal disapproval. Downey and Feldman attribute the rejection-sensitive women's behavior as due to women's tendency to worry and to retaliate for perceived offenses. An example may be a tendency to be sexually cold when she feels her boyfriend is paying too much attention to another woman. They believe that this pattern is likely to cause the women to be less invested in the relationship and less positive towards their boyfriend.

    How is Rejection Sensitivity Self-perpetuating?

    Rejection sensitivity tends to create increased rejection sensitivity due to the process of self-fulfilling prophecy. A self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when an individual creates an outcome based upon his/her belief about the outcome. For example, if a football field kicker believes he is likely to miss a kick becaue he missed the last two kicks, his chances of missing are increased and he may create the outcome he feared. Rejection sensitivity reinforces the irrational beliefs that the individual will be rejected and that other people can't be trusted because the behaviors in which the rejection-sensitive people engage will often cause the termination of a relationship. Thus, with the failure of each relationship the individual becomes more and more convinced that these beliefs are valid. They often don't recognize that it was their behaviors due to their fear of rejection that caused the problems in the relationship.

    How Can Rejection Sensitivity Be Changed?

    1) Recognize the rejection sensitivity. For an individual to be able to make changes, they have to first recognize the problems and the behaviors that are self-defeating. In this instance, it is important to stop blaming other people and to stop examining others' behavior for every nuance that could be considered as potentially rejecting. Instead, the individual needs to recognize their sensitivity to rejection, how it causes them to frequently misinterpret others' behavior and intention, and lead to problematic behaviors that can be destructive to the relationship. Once the individual recognizes the reality of the situation, he/she can begin to take the steps to change.

    2) Challenge the irrational beliefs. Cognitive restructuring is a technique that focuses on changing the underlying thought processes that tend to create and perpetuate the behavior. One method of cognitive restructuring is "reframing" which involves recognizing other possible reasons for the behavior. The rejection-sensitive person often believes there is only one possible interpretation of a situation and that interpretation involves being rejected. Thus, if their partner's behavior is "cool and distant" they may believe their partner's satisfaction in the relationship has declined. However, it is also possible that the partner may be worried about something unrelated to the relationship and they may feel they are protecting the partner by not sharing their worries. Or the partner may be dealing with a problem such as depression which causes him/her to withdraw. If we thought about it, we could probably come up with many other reasons for this behavior. Therefore, the reframing technique requires the rejection-sensitive person to look at some of these other possibilities and to recognize that if other possible explanations exist, their interpretation may not be accurate.

    Another way to challenge the irrational thinking is to recognize the fallacy in the belief that we "should never be rejected." Instead of seeing rejection as a bad thing, we could see it as a good thing. For instance, many people believe that they should make a new relationship work at all costs. This is not a good idea. What happens when you passively allow your partner to make the decisions in the relationship even when you don't agree? You're likely to build resentment and eventually it will impact the relationship. It is better to recognize the potential for rejection as a way of determining the "fit" of the relationship. For instance, instead of just agreeing with your partner, you voice your opinion. Now there are different possible outcomes. One possible outcome is that your disagreement leads to a discussion which leads to a resolution of the problem. Another possible outcome is that your partner becomes demanding about his/her decision and refuses to listen to you. Now, based on what outcome occurs, you have information about whether this relationship is the right "fit" for you.

    3) Mistake practice technique. Once an individual has begun to change the thinking about rejection, he/she may try some "experiments" to show that their perception of rejection may be inaccurate or exaggerated. One way of doing this is a technique called "mistake practice." This technique helps to change beliefs about making minor mistakes. An individual who is rejection-sensitive may believe that relatively minor mistakes that everyone makes are catastrophic and other people won't like them as a result. An example of this is calling someone by the wrong name. This is a common error, one which most people take in stride, often don't think twice about, and certainly don't view as "horrible" and a reason to reject someone. However, someone who is rejection-sensitive may be horrified at such a mistake.

    Mistake practice involves making a list of minor mistakes that would cause you to be uncomfortable, put this list in order from easiest to hardest, and then deliberately make a mistake. So, if you're concerned about calling someone by the wrong name, you would deliberately do so. The idea is that after you make this mistake a few times, you find that are other people aren't reacting as negatively as you anticipated.

    4) Exposure practice to rejection. Exposure practice is similar to mistake practice except it is to deliberately elicit rejection and to prove to yourself that you can handle and survive rejection. For instance, Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Therapy, was terrified of asking women out for fear of being rejected. To overcome his fear he was determined to ask a hundred women out recognizing that he would be rejected by the majority. I guess it worked because he did eventually get married.

    I often tell people, "If you have two men who both want to have a date on Saturday night and one man asks 10 women out and one man asks one woman, which man is more likely to have a date on Saturday night and which man is likely to have more rejections?" Obviously, the answer is the same man, the one who asked 10 women out. This is an example of how rejection may be a good thing because taking the risk of rejection leads to potential success.

    In conclusion, what we have reviewed is that people's early experiences in life may lead to increased sensitivity to rejection. This rejection sensitivity often leads to misinterpretations of others' behavior and irrational jealousy leading to problematic relationship behaviors by the rejection-sensitive person. These behaviors may cause dissatisfaction and termination of the relationship reinforcing the irrational thinking about the likelihood of rejection. However, there are methods that can be used to reduce rejection sensitivity.


    Downey G. and Feldman, S. (1996). Implications of Rejection Sensitivity for Intimate Relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 1327-1343.

    Erikson, Erik H. Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: International Universities Press, 1959.

    Feldman, S. and Downey, G. (1994). Rejection sensitivity as a mediator of the impact of childhood exposure to family violence on adult attachment behavior. Development and Psychopathology, 6, 231-247.

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