Dating and Mate Selection — 23 October 2003
How to Overcome Rejection in Romantic Love

Why is rejection in romantic love so profoundly devastating and so hard
to overcome? If you have ever experienced being jolted in a love
relationship, you are familiar with the tremendous impact it had, and
the long recovery process.

In my psychology practice I have seen many people who suffered the
trauma of being rebuffed by a spouse, lover, boyfriend, girlfriend or
even a date. The feelings associated with this event are many. Commonly people describe severe emotional pain of grave magnitude. Statements
like” It is the most pain I’ve ever experienced in my life, including
childbirth”, or “I don’t know how I could live through this, I am in
such pain”, are common. Though rejection is an emotional event, many of
the symptoms described are physical. People report difficulties in
eating, sleeping, concentrating and performing basic daily tasks.
Emotionally, they talk of profound sadness, prolonged crying, obsessive
thoughts, feelings of unworthiness and failure, depression, fear, guilt,
anger, helplessness, and even suicidal ideas. So why would the
withdrawal of someone’s love cause such deep emotional anguish and
suffering?

There are several reasons; the primary one is that love is essential for
survival. Anna Freud, in her psychoanalytic studies of children, in
1945, explained that the fear of rejection is an adaptive, necessary
emotion that aids all infants in their moral development. All babies and
children “know”, intuitively, that they must please their primary care
providers in order to survive. When they displease their parents, they
feel fear of rejection and abandonment and even dying. School age
children perceive the need to be liked by teachers, coaches and mentors
for their well being. You may have heard the lament of some kids; “I got
a bad grade because the teacher doesn’t like me “. Adults know that the
advantages of being noticed and recognized by their employers
contributes to job security. In life, people often state that they
received better service because the service provider liked them. Being
well thought of improves the quality of our life and enhances our sense
of security. Thus, rejection by any person feels hurtful, since it
threatens our ability to thrive.

In romantic love the stakes are even higher. It is not only a question
of surviving well; it is the validation of our personal worth. Self
esteem is an acquired, learned perception imparted to us by our parents
and mentors. The more affirming our primary care providers were, the
more likely we are to grow up with a healthy sense of self-esteem.
However, we need the validation of the people around us to keep our
sense of worthiness intact. Our lovers help us maintain the balance of
our well being. In a love relationship we tend to reveal our innermost
thoughts and feelings which can render us very vulnerable. When our
lover’s show enthusiasm for who we are, we feel secure and happy. When
the individual whose opinion of us is the most crucial to our sense of
self worth rejects us, we feel crushed, invalidated and even
annihilated. Rejection in romantic love is the deepest wounding to our
inherit value as a being. The realization that the person who knew me
intimately, loved me, adored me, appeared to fully accept me, has chosen
to leave me, feels like a personal earthquake of grave destruction Different people feel the devastation of abandonment in different ways,
depending on their basic personality types. Some attribute the loss to
their unworthiness, weakness, ineptness, being emotionally, sexually, or
otherwise undesirable, being a failure, displeasing or flawed. Whatever
the adjective, the theme is that the rejected person feels devalued. I
SHATTER WHEN I DON’T MATTER.

The truth is that the rejected individual is no less valuable after the
rejection than he was before it, it only feels this way. One does not
lose her worthiness because another stopped appreciating her. Esteem is
an internal, integral part of our essence that is not altered by anyone
else’s perception; it only feels this way. For most people, the wounds
of rejection heal with time; it just feels like the pain will never cease. In cases where a third party is involved, the pain is even more
excruciating. Here is an added dimension, the comparison with another,
more desirable lover. Jealousy, betrayal, comparisons, hate, and intense
regrets now compound the feelings of dejection. “What does he see in
HER?” ” How could she share with him what we used to have?” ” I thought
that what we had was special”, are frequently stated feelings of
bewilderment. The rejected partner is often tormented by images of the
new couple’s shared intimacy. The feelings of being replaced by another
love interest heighten the severity and duration of the trauma. The recovery from this emotional distress requires a process. As Dr.
Kubler-Ross discovered, all loss experiences are handled in five steps:
denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

In healing from a
loss of a love relationship we follow the same steps. The first one is
the initial disbelief “I can’t believe you don’t love me anymore”. The
second emotion is the anger, “after all that I have done for you, you
are now leaving me?” Then comes the bargaining, “I know I can change
whatever bothers you”. The depression ensues after the bargaining fails.
Acceptance arrives as a relief, when the thoughts turn from what could
have been to what’s next.
Though it seems impossible at the time, most people recover from
rejection in romantic love and resume a new romance with the next
partner. They regain a sense of worth and feel happy again. The process
of restoring one’s self esteem is sometimes prolonged and often hard.
Rejection hinders our balanced thinking and realistic self-assessment.
Some practical steps for recovery entail: learning to esteem oneself,
identifying previous successes, getting out of the victim role, owning
one’s part in the break up, seeking greater self knowledge, and most
importantly, surrounding oneself with loving friends and family.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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