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Rejection Sensitivity

Re-Enchanting Your Romance

Getting beyond the fear of rejection through expressive writing.

Key points

  • Many people struggle to build and stay in a rewarding romantic relationship.
  • Those who are especially fearful of rejection may find romantic relationships threatening.
  • These fears often lead to pushing their partners away before the relationship takes root.

It is the rare man or woman who easily builds deeply rewarding intimate relationships. Many people find that building a lasting romantically intimate relationship is an elusive quest, one that often feels cruelly just out of reach.

Although a variety of factors contribute to this problem, one common reason is that the fear of being hurt is so strong and pervasive that it leads people to push others away unintentionally. This is called "rejection sensitivity."1

Rejection-sensitive people deeply wish to establish rewarding intimate relationships, but they are convinced that potential partners will in some way hurt or betray them. This is similar to someone who spends the night in what is thought to be a haunted house and subsequently perceives every gust of wind against the windows and every floorboard creak that comes from the house settling as the sign of a ghost.

Rejection-sensitive people misinterpret the behavior of their love interests, reading too much into what are genuinely innocent gaffs or clumsy statements. These misunderstandings lead to conflict and the eventual end of the relationship.

Such tendencies to overreact create a perpetual cycle of failed intimate relationships and eventually cement the belief that others cannot be trusted. This creates a foundation upon which, not surprisingly, no romance ever flourishes and grows into a deeply satisfying intimate bond.

Were these men and women able to gain some emotional distance and see their situation more realistically, the cycle might be broken.

How to Dampen Rejection Sensitivity

Expressive writing is one way to gain perspective and achieve a happier outcome. In the 1980s, Pennebaker, a social psychologist, began to study the impact on mental health of journaling.2 He wanted to know if those who kept a trauma experience hidden from others would benefit from writing about it even briefly over a few days.

The results of this study reflected that those who wrote about past trauma, as compared to those who did not, showed significantly less mental distress over the next six months.

Since the time of this initial study, expressive writing has been applied to many issues of psychological health, and a robust research literature has grown that supports its use.

The basics of expressive writing involve journaling for 15 to 20 minutes about some troubling events in life. This exercise is repeated every two to three days. Spelling and grammar are of no concern. The focus is directed toward objectively reviewing events, acknowledging feelings, and identifying how the events being written about impacted your thinking, your view of yourself, others, and your expectations.

Most people who engage in expressive writing find that they are better able to distance themselves from troubling events emotionally. They also begin to examine their relationships more objectively and compassionately.

Romance and Expressive Writing

With these benefits of expressive writing in mind, the question arises of whether this exercise might also change the durability of romantic relationships. That is, if it helps someone look at their relationship more objectively, see one’s partner’s perspective more clearly, and do so with greater compassion, would this help someone maintain that romantic connection longer than otherwise would be the case?

This is the question that Slatcher and Pennebaker wanted to answer in a 2006 study.3

They had two groups of participants, all of whom were already in a romantic relationship. One group spent 20 minutes a day on three separate days writing their candid and "deepest" thoughts about their relationship. They did not share this writing with anyone. The other group (the control group) spent 20 minutes a day on three different days writing about what they had done or planned to do that day. Both groups reported the same levels of satisfaction with their relationships at the beginning of the study.

Three months after the brief writing assignment, 77 percent of those who wrote about their romantic relationship remained with their love interest. Only 52 percent of those who wrote about their daily activities remained with their initial partner.

These results suggest that spending one hour reflecting on and writing about one’s romance increased the chances of remaining in that relationship by 50 percent.

One way to think of this is that expressive writing helped provide the perspective and emotional resiliency to work through the inevitable problems that arise in every intimate relationship.


If you are a rejection-sensitive person struggling to build intimate relationships, consider taking 20 minutes a day to write deeply about the romantic relationship you are currently building. Do this three or four times over the next week.

Don’t worry about grammar or spelling. Don’t spend energy on writing in a way that others would understand (this writing is just for you, not to be shared). Try to include the other person’s perspective and find causal links between feelings and behaviors (e.g., “I thought this meant that he took me for granted, and I felt anxious that…”).

If you are particularly ambitious, you might do this regularly, perhaps during the first week of every month.

It costs little to try, and you may just find that it provides the sense of perspective and clarity you need to let that relationship grow deep roots.


1. Downey, G., & Feldman, S. I. (1996). Implications of rejection sensitivity for intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(6), 1327–1343.

2. Pennebaker, J. (2018). Expressive Writing in Psychological Science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 13(2) 226–229.

3. Slatcher, R. & Pennebaker, J. (2006) How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Words. The Social Effects of Expressive Writing. Psychological Science, 17(8):660–664.

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