Your romantic partner can be your best friend, your activity buddy, and your confidant. When a relationship ends, this source of approval and support is suddenly gone. This can be particularly difficult when your partner instigates the breakup, leaving you trying to understand why the relationship ended. Dealing with the feelings of rejection can take several potential paths. Your relationship may linger in the back of your mind, with bad memories triggered by hearing a shared favorite song or coming across an old picture. On the other hand, experiencing rejection may be a time for reflection and personal growth, triggering understanding as to what is most important in a relationship partner.
What factors may lead to these different scenarios following the same type of event? Recent psychological research on romantic relationships suggests that the long-term impact of romantic rejection is dependent, in part, on how you view yourself (Howe & Dweck, 2016).
Previous research has looked at how individuals differ in their beliefs about personality. Some people believe that their personal traits are innate, fixed, and unchanging over time (an entity theory of the self). However, others believe that personality is malleable and changes over time (an incremental theory of the self) (Dweck & Leggett, 1998). Through five studies, Howe and Dweck (2016) examined how people’s differing views about personality affect the experience of romantic rejection. They found that rejection can be especially hard for someone who believes that personality is fixed. They may be slower to recover from rejection, feeling a greater negative impact over a longer period of time. By comparison, for those holding a belief that personality is malleable, rejection can be viewed as an opportunity for growth and change. Rejection can be construed as a learning experience, with a focus towards future relationships.
Overall, researchers found that compared to those who endorsed a malleable view of the self, people who held the belief that personality is fixed were more likely to believe that the rejection revealed something inherently negative about themselves. They also felt more negative lingering emotions, even if the breakup had happened years in the past. Holding a fixed belief about the self was associated with fear of future rejection. With this mindset, experiencing a rejection led to expectations that new relationships would also follow the same pattern. This negative effect held regardless of the severity of the rejection experience (for example, being rejected on a first date compared to a breakup in a long-term relationship). Following an experimental manipulation designed to facilitate more of a fixed vs. malleable view of the self, respondents who were led to believe that personality is fixed were more likely to report strong negative emotions following rejection and were also more likely to anticipate future rejection experiences.
Internalizing negative emotions and views about the self after a rejection may have a cyclical effect. Participants who viewed the self as unchanging were more likely to report wanting to suppress memories of the rejection and expressed wishes that the relationship had never happened. They also reported more wariness about being open to another relationship out of fear that new partners would “discover” the same negative things about themselves that their former partners found.
This research reveals that having a more flexible view of yourself is important for both personal well-being and the health of your romantic relationships. Working through the different emotions and thoughts that come from rejection and taking a learning approach to this negative experience can be important to future relationships. Although rejection is always painful, remaining open and positive about the future ensures that the experience can be a small footnote in a long and successful relationship history.
Dweck, C. S., & Legget, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95, 256-273.
Howe, L. C., & Dweck, C. S. (2016). Changes in self-definition impede recovery from rejection. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42, 54-71.