To start this article, I want to begin with a simple premise: Physical pain and the pain from being rejected are the same. The human brain and the brain of other social animals reacts the same whether someone is dying from a chronic illness, being shocked, or being dumped by an intimate partner or being denied entry into a group. However, we for some reason like to separate the two, and place rejection within the realm of emotions (which as humans we falsely think are controllable) and physical injury in the domain of the uncontrollable (after all it was not their fault the sidewalk was there when they fell off their bike while trying to do a hand stand). What I mean by these statements is we tend to empathize with physical injury and forgive the reasons, but we tend to consider the suffering from reject as a sign of weakness and not being of hardy stalk. However, our world view of rejection is wrong, and by correcting this view, we can heal from the pain of rejection better, heal faster, and regain a sense of stability. To do this I think it is useful to use a common form of rejection and that is intimate partner rejection and I want to compare that to a more long-term physical disease such as cancer. I like this analogy because both rejection of an intimate partner and the development of cancer can occur very quickly or they both can sit dormant for years until an escalating moment. The second, is once cancer and the possibility of the loss of an intimate partner is made apparent both disease states tend to accelerate in their progression. Third, once the cancer is removed or the person leaves there is no guarantee of recovery or that one will not experience the disease ever again. Finally, I think this is a good analogy because we need to be honest both cancer and rejection from a close intimate partner can both lead to death. Indeed, the number one cause of homicide in the United States is intimate partner homicide, and over the past three decades cheating – the ultimate form of rejection – has become the number one reason for intimate partner homicide. Additionally, suicidal behavior is often followed by rejection, especially of a close intimate partner. With these four similarities in mind let us move on and explore how we can heal successfully.
I want to start our comparison by first stating a simple disease step model, I think by using this simple model it will be easier to come to understand how rejection occurs and the pain process:
There are a few qualities of this comparison that I like to make. First is that it is a progression, while it may seem like it at times, when two people are truly intimately connected they do not just wake up one morning and say “I am leaving”. There is always a progression that continually erodes the relationship much like a cancer erodes and destroys a healthy body. A good example of this is research that interviewed divorced individuals and indicated that when the individual really starts to analyze their relationship, the relationship started to erode about two years before the individuals start to realize there is a problem.
The second thing that I hope the reader recognizes is that while this is a very general model, the processes are almost identical – BUT – the major difference is how the individual tends to respond, especially as both diseases progress. This is largely due to our belief systems that (1) a person should have control over their relationship, and (2) if there is a problem one should be able to fix it, if the couple ‘really’ loves each other. I think it is worth taking some time exploring these two faulty belief systems. The first is the illusion of control, the fact is, you and your partner, can do everything perfect. You can follow all the relationship advise, treat each other with complete respect, cherish one another completely, and guess what? – You can still end up being a divorce statistic. Please do not take this as a criticism of humans and our ability to have long lasting relationships. Remember the analogy between physical disease and rejection. A person can eat right, exercise, refrain from toxins and they can still end up having cancer or dying young of heart disease. This same principle applies to human relationships. With that being said, we should not end up be complete skeptics of our health or our relationships. The person who eats right and exercises will have a much better quality of life even if they still end up with a disease. The same goes with relationships, while all relationships may end, the more we invest healthily into them the higher the quality of experiences we have. The second illusion that if two people really love each other they should be able to fix it, I think comes from our overall illusion that we can also control our own fate.
Especially in highly individualistic societies, like the one here in the United States, individuals tend to believe that everything good and bad that a person does OR that a person experiences is solely due to the actions and beliefs of that individual. In other words, we maintain bad beliefs such as “she broke up with you because you are a bad person”, or “If he can’t love you because of who you are, no one else is going to either”. Now we should qualify this, because for much of western society’s history we did this with physical diseases, so once we believed that people got cancer because the gods were punishing them for being a sinner, or a person has a mental illness because they had a weak mind that allowed them to be possessed by some demon. It was not until western medicine and science started to debunk these myths that we started to see physical diseases as we do today – Although there are still some people who believe that diseases are a punishment from god, but that a whole other article. It is in this same tradition of science that I write this article, in that we know enough scientifically about human relationships, that placing the entire fault for rejection on a single person or a single occurrence or process is ridiculous. So, if it is not because one person changes, that ruins a relationship, then what is it? As you think about this question you probably thinking that it is an unsolvable question, but it is actually fairly simple, change is the culprit to eventual rejection. But before I explain this there is one more faulty belief system that we must first address. That faulty belief is that we as individuals do not change greatly over time, and that our personality, beliefs, and who we are at the core does not change. The fact is you will be a different person five years from now than you are today. Indeed, you probably been a different person several times today already. Let me provide a simple example, what if someone secretly recorded you alone in your bedroom, out with friends at night, playing with your kids, and let us say giving a big work presentation. I am willing to bet if I blurred your face and changed your voice in each scenario and played it back to you, you would report seeing and hearing four (amazing) but different individuals. The truth is we are who we are based on (a) the demands of the situation, (b) our skills and ability to respond to the situation, and (c) our ability to comprehend the situation. Additionally, each situation demands something different from us, and therefore we must respond to a situation differently. However, because it would make us crazy to think we have so many different selves, which would lead us to feeling very unstable, our mind and brain have developed the illusion that we are consistent and stable overtime. In fact, we have gotten so good at this that we can change memories going clear back into childhood to make them congruent with who we are today without even realizing it is happening. The problem is, if I am stable and that is core to who I am, then my relationships remain stable and the same, because they are also core to my own identity. Therefore, any time a person has relationship difficulties, they sadly try to reset the relationship to “how we use to be when we first fell in love”. As you can guess, this almost always ends up failing. Indeed, most successful couples when they reach a point of recognizing their relationship has eroded, recognize first how much they and their partner has changed, and instead of rekindling the old flame, they go through process of courting and falling in love with this new person and leave that old relationship behind. It is as Mignon McLaughlin stated, “A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person” – but should add with the same person as they are today.
So the question that remains is given that any relationship no matter of the healthy behaviors the couple engages in, how does one have a long lasting relationship and decrease the chances of eventual rejection and loss.
#1 – Engage in healthy relationship behaviors, say “I love you” daily, touch, communicate, be honest with feelings for each other, doing things together, etc. For this there are plenty of relationship books that can help couples learn exercises of a health relationship.
#2 – Self-awareness. The ability to recognize one’s own physical and mental state as it relates to one’s situation is what we call self-awareness. We often go through our day with a narrow window of self-awareness because that all we really need to get through the common roles we have in life. However, it is advised to at least once a week for at least 30 minutes a person becomes completely self-aware of their physical, social, and psychological world. After which, engaging in self-reflection about how one is doing, how one is changing, and how one is feeling about their current situation is an important and provides a person with a guide. This can be done through several mediums such as journaling, yoga, meditation, prayer (if your religious), or any form activity that allows you to be aware of where you are completely as a person.
#3 – Recognize and embrace change. Accept that change is going to happen and that means you will need to continually work at your relationship. Never assume that your relationship is like a rock and is unbendable or unbreakable.
#4 – Continually try new things. Stagnation is like stopping exercise or eating right when it comes to relationship health. Yes there are times in all our lives when we do the day-to-day grind. However, actively seeking ways to engage one’s interest, discover new things, and engage one’s world differently can provide great learning opportunities and relationship bonding moments.
#5 – This probably should be number 1 – but remember if you decide to live in a radioactive bucket – do not be surprised if you get cancer. In same vein, if you live your life with toxic people, do not be surprised if you always are experiencing rejection and loss. Sometimes the people we desire – are reason for our disease – just like I know if I continue eating chocolate cake I will gain weight and run risk of heart disease.
#6 – Be human! Often, we think that the perfect relationship is a relationship without conflict and problems. We forget that relationships are made by imperfect people, and therefore are inherently not perfect. Be honest with feelings, do not hide your faults, and encourage your partner to do the same.
#7 – Do not ignore other social relationships. Sometimes we can get so caught up in the excitement of an intimate relationship we let other important relationships in our lives weaken or even completely abandoned. Remember that we are a social creators, and we all have a differing needs for both social connections and emotional connections. When we do not maintain the needed level for both, we can find ourselves in deep despair, loneliness, and possibly depression. While it is wonderful to fall in love, remember that you both need to fall in love with each other’s complete world.
#8 – Maintain connection through common beliefs. Interestingly the idea of opposite attracts is not true when it comes to long successful relationships. Indeed, individuals who are in long-term relationships – and are still in love – have the same or similar belief systems and attitudes. Identify these early on in a relationship and nurture them together.
#9 – Intimate relationship that include sexuality, should be a vibrant sexuality. I often gross out my younger students when lecturing on long-term relationships, because I ask “how many have grandparents who were married for most of their lives and still really love each other?”. I then explain to these students that when it comes to sexuality, your grandparents were – and still probably are – freaks in the bedroom. Indeed, we find that individuals in long-term loving relationships tend to try new things, get adventurous with each other, and never let their sexually intimate life become stagnate. Now there are always those exceptions where one or both partners, usually due to health problems, lose interest in sex and we know that sex interests vary across the life span. We still find that individual who are going through a period of low sexuality or loss of their sexual life, tend to compensate in different ways such as increasing and diversifying other pleasurable couple activities.
#10 – Understand your own ‘life space’ and the life space of your partner. A famous social psychologist, Kirt Lewin, introduced the idea of life space, as a way to try and visually represent human behavior. If you can imagine a large bubble, that contains all of a person possibilities, then you understand visually what one’s life space is. But first what is meant by all of a person’s possibilities? Lewin recognized that every situation that we find our self in there is a range of possible reactions to that situation. All of one’s possible reactions is one’s life space. So, let me give an example, a school teacher who is making 40,000 a year, is at a car show where she is presented with the opportunity to purchase a $200,000 luxury car. Is this part of the teacher’s life space or range of possibilities? Given her income, cost of insurance, other financial obligations, the probability of buying the luxury car given the teacher’s current life space is very very small. Now the teacher recognizing that the car is not within her current life space can do things to add to it, life get a higher paying job, pay off lots of bills etc etc. But unfortunately, we do not live in a world of what we could do, we often live in the here and now, and understanding our current life space helps us understand our limits and abilities when it comes to actually engaging in a intimate relationship. Once we are aware of it, then and only then can we recognize how it will impact our current relationship, but also what we need to work at, so that the range of possibilities within a relationship can increase through the expansion of our own life space. The other reason for bring up the concept of life space is we often need to recognize the boundaries of our partner’s life space. If you are approaching a relationship with the intent on changing someone, you might as well start saving for the divorce now. For a person to change they must recognize the limitations of their own life space and have the tools and ability to expand their space. Now this does not mean if someone does not meet all your standards that you should not consider being in a relationship with them, but it does mean that you will need to sacrifice something to have that relationship – and sometimes sacrifice is okay.
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