The Psychology of Rejection
James E. Barrick, Ph.D. © 2013
Being single, or unattached from an ongoing relationship, can be both a bane or a blessing, it really depends on how you look at it. For example, having to depend on yourself can be a positive experience, a negative experience, or both. Being single by choice creates a different world than becoming single by chance.
How a person responds in relationships is often predictable, based on an understanding of their own, unique, history of relationships. For a person’s perceptions come from the context of their life, and this context is the psychological background to their present attitudes and behavior. It is the search for this understanding of one’s self in psychotherapy that can be a meaningful experience for the single person, in order to influence their future. It may also be the goal of many couples, however the focus is less intensely individual as the couple also tries to understand the “us-ness” of their relationship.
For most singles being alone is perceived as a temporary state, until the “right one comes along.” It can also be an opportunity to integrate what is learned about oneself, others, and relationships. It can be a productive time. A determining factor as to how productive it can be is often a function of whether one has rejected a relationship, or been rejected. And primary to the feeling elicited by the end of a relationship is the perspective of whether the relationship did, in fact, end in rejection. For the perception of rejection can be an entirely different experience, depending on the meaning attached to the word.
The word “reject” has, according to my Webster’s New World Dictionary, two definitions. Interestingly, the first definition is: “1. To refuse to take, agree to, accede to, use, believe, etc.” which speaks to the issue of disagreement or conflict. The second definition is: “2. To discard; throw out or away as worthless, useless, or substandard; cast off or out.”
The word “rejection,” when we speak of relationships, usually carries the second, more negative and angry sound and meaning. Especially to the one that feels rejected. It usually conveys that they have a defect, or are not good enough.
In fact, it just might be more accurate to say that the relationship is ending due to a disagreement, or conflicting desires, rather than because either person is worthless.
The problem of rejection usually arises out of the perception of the person trying to maintain the relationship. Trying to maintain a non-functioning relationship becomes enormously costly, whether you count the emotional, physical, or financial aspects.
By selecting the first definition, one can look deeper into the conflict or disagreement to attempt to resolve the differences, if they are resolvable.
By selecting the second definition, by focusing on this “meaning” of the word, it is more likely to result in an escalation of emotions and less energy is spent trying to resolve the relationship problems. By concentrating on the second “meaning” of the end of a relationship many people appear to be stopped by an adolescent definition of relationship, e. g., “If you were really my friend you’d agree (put up with) everything I do.”
You may have seen them at parties, talking endlessly about “If it hadn’t been for old (insert ex’s name), my life would be perfect.” They are trying to maintain their self-respect, or dignity, by blaming the ‘other’ person for the breakup.
This understanding is too often lacking in the person who wants to end the relationship, as well as the person who wants to continue. In other words, some people spend more time and energy trying to deny imagined deficiencies in themselves or to imagine deficiencies in the other person.
An adult response would be to realize whether there are enough points of difference or conflict, that will only become more exaggerated over time, that neither party would want to continue. Then they can agree to disagree and end the relationship without doing extensive damage to each other, or themselves.