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Rejection Sensitivity: Its Impact on Interpersonal Difficulties and

Romantic Relationships, 0

Rejection Sensitivity: Its Impact on Interpersonal Difficulties and


Romantic Relationships
Alexis V. Marbach
SB 721 Behavioral Sciences and Public Health
November 19, 2009

Rejection Sensitivity: Its Impact on Interpersonal Difficulties and


Romantic Relationships, 1
Introduction
Humans have an innate desire to feel accepted in their communities, especially by
close friends, family members, and intimate partners. In an ecological model, a person
could have this need met by being accepted by proximal (parents, peers, romantic
partners) or distal relationships (society, groups, communities) (Levy, Ayduk, Downey,
2001, p. 253). Rejection sensitivity can build a barrier between our true connections with
others. The fear of being rejected can make an individual retreat into isolation or search
for validation in relationships. Rejection expectant individuals may also be at a higher
risk for becoming a perpetrator or a victim of intimate partner violence or sexual assault.
This paper will address the Model of Rejection Sensitivity and its resulting negative
impact on interpersonal relationships, especially romantic relationships.

Origins of Rejection Sensitivity


The Model of Rejection Sensitivity was originally developed to provide a socialcognitive account of the relationship between early rejection by parents and peers and
interpersonal difficulties later in life (London et al., 2007). This individual level theory is
used to explain individual behavior yet it is influenced by and has implications for
interpersonal networks. Peers and parents (interpersonal networks) initially create the
expectation of rejection in the individual. Geraldine Downey of Columbia University
emerged as the leading researcher on this theory, co-authoring the majority of the current
research utilizing the concept of rejection sensitivity. Rejection sensitivity is formally
defined by Downey and Feldman (1996) as a, cognitive-affective processing dynamic or

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disposition to anxiously expect, readily perceive and react in an exaggerated manner to
cues of rejection in the behavior of others (Romero-Canyas & Downey, 2005, 132).
The Model of Rejection Sensitivity emerged through studies of anxiety, mistrust,
and distress within familial, social, and romantic relationships. Horney (1937), the first to
discuss rejection sensitivity, attributed maladaptive orientations to relationships to a
basic level of anxiety (as cited in Downey & Feldman, 1996, p. 1327). This anxiety
centered around fear of desertion, abuse, humiliation, and betrayal and was a painful
sensitivity to rejection, no matter how slight. Erickson (1950) proposed, that a basic
mistrust of others would compromise the possibility of personal and interpersonal
fulfillment (as cited in Downey & Feldman, 1996, p. 1327). Sullivan (1953) believed
that the basis for how people perceive others or relate to them is through, generalized
expectations or personifications of significant others as meeting needs or as punitive,
disapproving, or rejection (as cited in Downey & Feldman, 1996, p. 1327).
Psychological theorists have also used sensitivity to rejection as an explanatory theory.
The Model of Rejection Sensitivity draws on both the attachment and attributional
frameworks. Bowlbys Attachment Theory (1982) is a model of psychological mediators
that link rejection with later interpersonal function (as cited in Downey & Feldman, 1996,
p. 1327). Bowlby suggested that caretakers and parents are consistent and compassionate,
children learn that people can and will be supportive and ultimately accepting of them.
When caretakers and parents reject a child, that child becomes insecure, doubting if a
person will support and accept them. This rejection is not a one-time event and may take
years to manifest itself in interpersonal problems.

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Downey and Feldman expanded on Bowlbys theory, conceptualizing, the
psychological legacy of early rejection in cognitive-affective processing terms (Downey
& Feldman, 1996, p. 1328). Downey and Feldman analyzed how early rejection
experiences shape, the expectations, values and concerns, interpretive biases, and selfregulatory strategies that underlie behavior in particular interpersonal contexts (Downey
& Feldman, 1996, p. 1328). The researchers also studied the dynamic relationships
between the expectations, values, concerns, and interpretive biases and the interpersonal
behavior displayed.
Conceptual model and description of constructs
While the Model of Rejection Sensitivity is used to describe interpersonal
difficulties that manifest in adolescence and adulthood, rejection expectations are
developed early in life. Rejection sensitivity is a response to rejection from caretakers,
namely parents. Parents may display rejection in the form of physical and verbal abuse,
cruelty, hostility, or neglect. According to Romero-Canyas & Downey (2005), once the
legacy of rejection is internalized, it leads the individual to expect rejection and to be
concerned with its occurrence (Romero-Canyas & Downey, 2005, p.134). For an
individual with this experience, the concern no longer becomes a matter of if rejection
will occur but when rejection will occur. Levy, Ayduk, and Downey (2001) state that,
although vigilance may be an attempt to predict rejection and, thus, be intended as a
coping strategy, it makes the individual susceptible to false alarms as the threshold for
perception of rejection is lowered (Levy et al., 2001, p. 254). Instead of analyzing
contextual cues and looking for an alternative explanation for others behavior, a person
with a high level of rejection sensitivity hyper-vigilant and is ready to attribute any

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actions from another person as being a form of rejection. These feelings of hurt, anger,
and self-blame may evolve into dejection, aggression, and withdrawal. As a result of
social-cognitive responses, people who experience rejection sensitivity have altered
expectations, perceptual biases, and encoding strategies.
The key assumption in the Model of Rejection Sensitivity is that HRS individuals
expectations of rejection are activated in situations that have the possibility of rejection
(Levy et al., 2001, p. 252). The interpretation of perceived rejection from environmental
or interpersonal experiences makes the person actually feel and internalize rejection. The
feeling of rejection triggers an affective or behavioral overreaction. Romero-Canyas and
Downey clarify overreactions such as hostile behavior, depression, and socially
inappropriate behavior are typical of someone with high rejection sensitivity (RomeroCanyas & Downey, 2005). As a result of rejection expectancy and behavioral
overreactions, rejection sensitivity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Romero-Canyas
and Downey state that, most of these maladaptive strategies probably lead to the social
outcome that rejection sensitive individuals fear the most: rejection and the absence of
acceptance (Romero-Canyas & Downey, 2005, pg. 139). The conceptual model posed
by Levy et al. (2001) outlines this vicious cycle (Appendix 1).
In the conceptual model posed by Levy et al., different links signify different
stages of rejection sensitivity. Link 1 signifies the development of rejection sensitivity,
originating in early experiences of rejection by parents and peers. Links 2 signifies
rejection expectations and perceptions of rejection. Links 3 and 4 signify perceptions of
rejection and reactions (Levy et al., 2001). All rejection sensitive individuals share the

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pathways of the conceptual model but each individual has a unique level of sensitivity
within the model, measured by the Rejection Sensitivity Questionnaire.
An individuals personal level of rejection sensitivity exists along a continuum, as
no one is immune from the fear of potential rejection. Rejection Sensitivity is quantified
by using the Rejection Sensitivity Questionnaire (RSQ). The length of the RSQ is
dependent on age. The adult version has 18 questions while the child version has 12.
Through a series of questions, the RSQ assesses rejection sensitivity as being comprised
of expectations and anxiety about a partner or peers potential to accept or reject ones
needs. Each study modifies the RSQ to address the specific concerns of the particular
study but all RSQs use a similar rating scale to grade participants on their level of
rejection sensitivity. People with high levels of rejection sensitivity are classified as HRS
individuals while people with low levels are classified as LRS individuals. LRS is rarely
studied, as there is not a direct link between LRS and a consistent pattern of behavior.
HRS individuals, on the other hand, have more consistent behavioral patterns.
The core of the rejection sensitivity dynamic is defensive (i.e. anxious of angry)
expectations of rejection by valued others (Levy et al., 2001, p. 252). HRS individuals
may use two different coping mechanisms to defend themselves: avoidance strategy or
overinvestment strategy (Appendix 2). Initially used to describe how rejection sensitivity
manifests in adolescent relationships, the two categories of avoidance and overinvestment
are useful for adult relationships as well.
By utilizing an avoidance strategy to deal with rejection, an individual will avoid
entering into a romantic relationship or avoid investing in an existing relationship.
Rejection sensitivity is considered one of the core symptoms of extreme social avoidance

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and extreme social preoccupation. Social avoidance is characteristic of social phobia and
avoidant personality disorder, while social preoccupation is characteristic of dependent
depression, dependent personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder (RomeroCanyas & Downey, 2005, p. 134). An HRS individual may avoid rejection by spurning
relationships, believing that, if I withdraw, nothing can hurt me (Levy et al., 2001, p.
255). An avoidance strategy may lead the HRS individual to have more complex and
difficult interpersonal problems as they wont engage socially. Withdrawing from any
social stimulation will not provide the individual the opportunity to receive any social
support that would combat rejection expectancy. As a result, the individual can enter into
a downward spiral of loneliness and depression. The negative consequences associated
with rejection sensitivity are also present in the defensive strategy of overinvestment.
HRS individuals that employ the overinvestment strategy value saving their
personal relationships instead of valuing their personal wants and needs. If the HRS
individual manages to stay in the relationship, no matter how unhealthy, they believe that
they have not been rejected. The HRS individual believes that, if you love me, you will
not hurt me (Levy et al., 2001, p. 255). This method of avoiding rejection may push an
HRS individual to neglect his/her personal needs and boundaries in favor of maintaining
a relationship. Chronic anxiety about failure in intimate relationships may also
paradoxically increase the risk of failure. Conflicts within a relationship are likely to be
perceived as opportunities for a partner to reject the HRS individual. Overreaction and
hypersensitivity will drive current and potential partners away. Avoidance and
overinvestment are further analyzed in the application section of this paper.
Relation to other theories

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The Model of Rejection Sensitivity is related to the Social Cognitive Model of
Violence (Brendgen, Vitaro, Tremblay, & Warner, 2002, p. 226). Bandura (1986)
suggested that parents and peers may work together to collectively foster violence and
acceptance of violence through behavioral modeling and reinforcement (as cited in
Brendgen et al., 2002, p. 226). Children learn to accept physical violence as an
appropriate method for obtaining their goals by watching and mimicking their parent or
peers behavior. By submitting to the childs behavior and not punishing the child, parents
and peers reinforce the behavior. This positive reinforcement for negative behavior
causes children continue to strengthen their personal correlation between using physical
violence and getting what they want. The similarities of the Model of Rejection
Sensitivity and the Social Cognitive Model of Violence are displayed in Appendix 3.
Attachment theories, especially relating to attachment style, are also closely
linked to the Model of Rejection Sensitivity. Attachment style, according to Feiring,
Deblinger, Hoch-Espada, and Haworth (2002), is related to emotional and physical
reactions to intimate partner relationships. If a person believes that romantic relationships
are valuable and supportive (a secure style), they are expected to have, a lower
likelihood of aggressive behavior, less acceptance of aggression and justification for
sexual coercion, and more healthy relationship attitudes (Feiring, Deblinger, HochEspada, & Haworth, 2002, p. 375). Alternately, if a person has an insecure attachment
style and believes that relationships are not of any value and are not supportive, the
person is expected to have a greater likelihood of, perpetrating aggression and
accept[ing] of attitudes that tolerate aggression in romantic relationships (Feiring et al.,
2002, p. 375).

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In adolescent relationships, the Model of Rejection Sensitivity has been linked
with self-silencing, also referred to as Silencing the Self. Silencing the Self is a model
based on Bowlbys attachment theory (1986) as well as self-in relation theory and posits
that individuals whose vision-of-self is relationally-based and who initiate and maintain
relationships in self-sacrificing ways are particularly vulnerable to depression (Harper,
Dickson, & Welsh, 2006, p. 460). The self-silencing individual fabricates a new sense of
self for or around her intimate partners wants and demands in order to increase their
intimacy. When the fabricated sense of self enters into a relationship, the possibility of
creating a real, genuine relationship is lessened.

Critique
London, Downey, and Bonica (2007) critique the original Model of Rejection
Sensitivity, stating that the original model did not adequately analyze the links between
aggressive, socially anxious, and avoidant behavior and rejection sensitivity. London et
al. (2007) also believed that the model could be strengthened by accounting for specific
types of reactions for situations where rejection was expected, especially in adolescents.
Typically, studies have addressed rejection sensitivity as a piece of a larger puzzle, also
citing behavioral issues, temperament, previous sexual experience, and attachment
problems as possible contributing factors to a certain behavior. It is difficult to distinguish
what emotional and physical behaviors rejection sensitivity directly causes instead of
influences.
While there is limited criticism of the Model of Rejection Sensitivity available,
one criticism might be that the Model addresses the reasons that HRS individuals have

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interpersonal difficulties but does not provide possible prevention or intervention tools.
The Model of Rejection Sensitivity could be studied to analyze the weakest link in the
conceptual model posed by Levy et al. (Appendix 1), determining the best place to break
the self-fulfilling cycle. Another criticism could regard study design. Utilizing a
prospective study design to test whether, peer rejection, as reported by peers, predicts
subsequent increases in defensive rejection expectations (London et al., 2007, p. 484) is
the best method for determining a link between HRS and behavioral outcomes. A
prospective study design minimized the potential for recall bias relating to self-reported
accounts of rejection. Retrospective studies that use an RSQ after a person becomes a
perpetrator or victim could be critiqued for this reason.

Application of the theory


The Model of Rejection Sensitivity has been applied to explain risk factors for
both becoming a perpetrator or a victim of intimate partner violence or sexual assault. In
clinical descriptions, men who abuse their partners are characterized as insecure and
fearful of abandonment (Downey, Feldman, & Ayduk, 2000, p. 47). Holtzwoth- Munroe
et al. (1996) found that, relative to nonviolent husbands, violent husbands were more
anxious about abandonment, more jealous, and more anxiously attached to their wives
(as cited in Downey et al., 2000, p. 47). Dutton and Browning (1988) found that, the
angry responses of martially violent men to videotaped male-female conflicts were most
pronounced when the scenario involved the anticipated loss of the relationship (as cited

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in Downey et al., 2000, p. 47). Negative behavioral intentions and HRS were directly
linked in a study of college males performed by Downey and Feldman (1996).
In the seminal work done on the model, Downey and Feldman (1996) studied
college students, looking for links between their RSQ score and, attributions of hurtful
intent to a subsequent romantic partners insensitive behavior (Downey & Feldman,
1996, p. 1334). RSQ scores were analyzed before a romantic relationship began to more
clearly draw the link between rejection sensitivity and subsequent behavioral problems in
relationships. The study concluded that a partner with HRS undermined romantic
relationships and jeopardized their ultimate potential for success by exaggerating their
partners dissatisfaction and desire to leave the relationship. Partners reported that HRS
men were more jealous and controlling while partners of HRS women were reported to
be more hostile and provide diminished emotional support. Jealous, controlling, and
hostile partners may be more prone to lashing out at partners with violence.
Downey, Feldman, & Ayduk (2000) linked HRS and relationship violence,
concluding that the emotional and physical behavior of HRS males changed, depending
on the intensity of the romantic relationship. In the study conducted by Downey et al.
(2000), anxious expectations of rejection predict different outcomes depending on the
level of involvement of the individual in the maintenance and pursuit of romantic
relationships (as cited in Romero-Canyas & Downey, 2005, p. 138). If young men were
romantically involved with someone and highly valued the relationship, rejection
sensitivity was a greater predictor of engaging in a form of violent behavior against their
partner. When the relationship was not highly valued, rejection sensitivity was a greater
predictor of high levels of social anxiety, often leading them to retreat to isolation as

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opposed to lash out. These factors are outlined in Appendix 4. While much of the
research on predictive factors for intimate partner violence and sexual assault has been
done on men, womens interpersonal difficulties also provide information on predictive
factors for relationship violence.
Young and Furman (2008) studied Interpersonal Factors in the Risk for Sexual
Victimization and its Recurrence during Adolescence and concluded that having a high
level rejection sensitivity coupled with having insecure romantic relational styles
increased the risk of a female adolescent becoming a victim of sexual aggression.
According to Young and Furman, adolescents high on rejection sensitivity may be more
prone to tolerate unwanted sexual advances or less likely to resist coercive sexual
behavior from their partners (Young & Furman, 2008, p. 299). The authors suggest that
adolescent girls high in rejection sensitivity would engage in behaviors that they knew to
be wrong for the sake of saving their relationship with their intimate partner. Saving the
relationship would be an overinvestment strategy used to avoid rejection. Overinvestment
and avoidance of rejection also manifested in communication styles that increased female
adolescents risk for becoming victims of sexual assault.
Young and Furman concluded that adolescents with high rejection sensitivity may
be challenged by setting and enforcing clear sexual boundaries, influencing their risk for
sexual victimization. HRS adolescent females were more willing to acquiesce as they
worried about their partners perception of them, their ultimate risk of being rejected, and
their risk of being replaced in the relationship (Young & Furman, 2008, p. 306). Young
and Furman related this inability to effectively set and then commit to sexual boundaries
to the idea of token resistance. Token resistance encourages further sexual aggression.

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By initially saying no, then giving in, a perpetrator learns that he or she should not accept
no for an answer and that if they continue to push, their partner (or victim) will
inevitably give in to their desires. Young and Furman clarify by stating, the clear and
decided meaning of no becomes eroded for the perpetrator when the result is not to
consistently curb sexual activity (Young & Furman, 2008, p. 306). Poor communication
as a result of HRS can also increase a HRS individuals risk of becoming a perpetrator of
sexual violence.
Brendgen et al. (2002) suggests that the idea that rejection sensitivity is related to
retaliatory violent behavior as a result of poor interpersonal communication (Brendgen
et al., 2002, p. 238). Male perpetrators of dating violence, according to Brendgen et al.,
may believe that their partner intentionally provoked them. This feeling of provocation
can be related to one of the primary reasons for dating violence in adolescence: jealousy.
Feelings of jealousy may be intertwined with a HRS individuals hypersensitivity to
rejection.
Young and Furman (2008) suggest that rejection sensitive individuals may not
only struggle once they are in relationships because of their inability to assertively
communicate but also in their ability to find a safe and supportive partner. They suggest
that there may be a link between having higher levels of rejection sensitivity and having
partners who are more sexually aggressive. This link has not been empirically proven and
more research needs to be conducted.
Conclusion

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Rejection sensitivity and rejection expectancy prompt an individual to react
defensively, either through avoidance or overinvestment. While both are unhealthy
coping mechanisms that impact both the individual and his or her interpersonal networks,
overinvestment can increase an individuals risk of becoming a perpetrator or victim of
dating violence. More research needs to be done to establish a causal pathway between
rejection expectancy and behavioral outcomes. A causal pathway between rejection
sensitivity and behavioral reactions can help to guide prevention efforts targeting
unhealthy relationships, sexual violence, and intimate partner violence. By studying the
emerging Model of Rejection Sensitivity, prevention and intervention efforts can be
designed to keep both HRS individuals and their partners safe from violence within their
intimate relationships.

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