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As humans, we are wired to fear and avoid rejection.
Think about pre-civilization mankind for a moment: if individuals were shunned from their hunting-and-gathering group, they’d have a hard time surviving on their own.
Although in modern life rejection doesn’t endanger our physical survival, we still have vestiges of those evolutionary traits that make rejection extremely painful. So it makes sense that we would do whatever we could to avoid it. Often this means not striving for things where we might hear “no,” even if those things are likely to add richness and meaning to our lives.
In the equation involving desire and fear, we must want something enough that we are willing to risk rejection to get it.
What does the fear of rejection have to do with your marriage/relationship?
In short, a whole lot!
If you’ve been married or in a committed relationship for quite awhile, you might think you’ll never need to consider rejection again.
“My wife and I are in it for the long haul,” one husband said. “It’s not like we’re just dating and I have to worry about her deciding not to see me anymore.”
On a broad scale, that husband is right. When our intimate relationship is stable and secure, we don’t live in constant fear that our mate will abruptly call it quits. If we did hold that fear in the forefront of our minds and make it the focus of our awareness, we’d ironically be nurturing that fear instead of nurturing the relationship.
And one of the many rewarding aspects of long-term relationships is the sense of security we get from them. Security and chronic fear can’t coexist.
(However, this doesn’t mean you should take your marriage/relationship for granted and assume that whatever you do—or don’t do—your partner will always “put up with it,” and will always be there. Security should not slide into complacency. But that subject is a big one and therefore is best left to another article…)
What happens when you let the fear of rejection hold you back with your partner?
To have the most fulfilling relationship possible, you need to feel a deep level of emotional intimacy with your partner. Whereas in many areas of our lives it makes sense to “hold back” so that we don’t overstep, look like a fool, or leave ourselves wide open to wounding, our intimate relationship gives us the great gift of room to be ourselves, our true selves.
Sometimes, though, that gift may feel daunting…especially when we are conflicted about some aspect of ourselves, or when we want to share something with our partner that we realize may surprise him/her or may be perceived as a “departure” of sorts. It’s natural to feel trepidation in those cases.
Emotional intimacy requires you to be open and genuine with your mate—and that requires a willingness to bring all parts of yourself to your spouse/partner…even when that feels risky.
And keep in mind that when we discuss “fear” of rejection, sometimes the fear will feel obvious to you (your heart might race or your palms might get clammy when you get ready to tell your partner about a fantasy you have that you’d like to bring into your sexual relationship with him/her), but often the fear is more subtle, and therefore is not as easily identified.
Often we just automatically (and quickly) avoid potentially rejection-inducing scenarios, without even fully realizing what’s driving that knee-jerk, “opt-out” decision.
One wife’s story of prioritizing rejection-avoidance over intimacy-building
Sasha and Theo had been married for four years when they determined there was something missing.
“He’s not opening up to me,” Sasha insisted. “He swears he’s not holding back, but I can sense it.”
“I swear I’m not holding back!” Theo echoed. “I don’t know how to convince her.”
“It’s like we’ve been on auto-pilot,” Sasha said. “Like we’re just treading water instead of moving ahead.”
“Maybe so,” Theo said, “but it’s not because I’m holding back. Actually, every time I suggest we…you know…get a little…uh…crazier in the bedroom, she just changes the subj—”
“Isn’t our time just about up, Dr. Nicastro?” Sasha cut in.
(Yes, avoidance of something often looks like distraction or interruption or changing the subject.)
Eventually, Sasha and Theo got to a place where they could explore the underlying issue. Both of them did indeed crave more intimacy (emotional and physical intimacy…and it’s true that those often go hand-in-hand), but Sasha’s quick diversions whenever Theo attempted to lead them out of their ordinary day-to-day routines served to shut those explorations down.
And therefore, in a real sense, the relationship was operating on auto-pilot.
Except it wasn’t Theo who was holding back from Sasha, it was Sasha holding back from Theo.
(This is an example of the psychological defense known as projection. Sasha wasn’t knowingly blaming Theo for something she was doing; this was happening on a subconscious level for her. Often projection involves self-truths that are too difficult for us to acknowledge or explore, so in essence, we “get rid of them” by seeing them in someone else. There is no malice in true projection.)
It turned out that Sasha had been reacting to Theo’s attempts at deeper intimacy because of a fear of rejection and a desire to maintain safe equilibrium in the marriage and therefore avoid rejection at all costs.
She had been in a serious relationship before her marriage where she felt safe enough and secure enough to bring all parts of herself to her partner, including an intimate side that was both “tender” and “wild.” What she hadn’t expected—and what wounded her deeply—was her partner’s disapproval of the latter: open, articulated disapproval that verged on cruel denunciation.
She left that relationship shortly after, but because it was too painful to really look at what happened (even though if she had looked, she may have seen that there wasn’t an “issue” within her that needed “fixing,” but rather, it was a case of sexual incompatibility between the two of them), she shut down that part of herself to keep herself safe from future censure in an intimate relationship.
Indeed, Sasha shut down that part of herself so completely that she wasn’t even aware that’s what she was doing.
When you keep yourself folded up as a rule, you can’t honor the expansive part of you
All this isn’t to say that there aren’t sometimes perfectly good reasons to close off parts of yourself. For instance, you might have a particular emotional trigger or set of triggers based on a childhood trauma you suffered. Your brain wants to keep you safe, so it keeps you away from the metaphoric hot stove.
However, when closing yourself off to the partner you love and trust becomes the norm, rather than the exception, you’re limiting your relationship, and limiting yourself in the process.
Issues that foster and/or block trust should be openly discussed and negotiated, even if you and your spouse/partner have been together for many years. Don’t rest on the assumption that your partner feels completely safe with you and is sharing all of him/herself. It’s good practice to ask if there is something more that can be done to deepen emotional security (which lays the groundwork for deeper emotional intimacy).
Until next time,
Richard Nicastro, Ph.D.