Why do I keep being rejected in relationships?

None of us are immune to experiencing rejection, unfortunately. It’s a painful experience we simply have to get used to in life. The pain of rejection varies depending on the situation and who you feel rejected by. 


Let’s say you’re a writer and a stranger criticises your style of writing. Or perhaps you were recently turned down in a job interview? Maybe someone ignored you when you said hello to them at your local shopping centre? These experiences can hurt our egos and stick in our minds for a while. However, nothing beats the pain of being rejected in a romantic relationship with someone you care deeply for. It’s gut-wrenching.

Why is rejection so agonisingly painful? 

Being rejected by a lover triggers a deep, primal impulse for acceptance and validation. This is something human beings naturally crave from others. Our urge for acceptance is so powerful that it can feel like our very survival depends on it, and this is, in fact, true.

Without the love, attention and care of a parent or caregiver, none of us would have survived as babies. Unlike animals, we are completely dependent on adults for physical survival. So, in this sense, physical rejection means death. A baby couldn’t be left alone to fend for itself to seek out safety, shelter and food.

We can say that each significant time we’re rejected, it triggers a very real biological survival impulse. Powerful, right?

The impact of parental rejection

If that wasn’t significant enough, our psychological and emotional states are also heavily dependent on acceptance and validation. As children, we look for praise and acceptance that we are a good boy or girl in order for us to feel worthy of love. Pleasing our parents is a very real survival mechanism and counteracts the possibility of being (or feeling) rejected by them.

How and why do we seek to please our care givers?

As we grow up, as children, we are exposed to a set of unique characteristics, behaviours, attitudes and ways of communicating within the family home. Our parents dictate the nature of the family ecosystem. These unique ways of living form ‘conditions of worth’. That is to say that we learn mum and dad will accept us if we act in a particular way.

In other words, we learn that to be worthy of their love, we must follow our parents' lead and abide by their expectations, otherwise we risk rejection. However, this formula plays havoc in romantic relationships with future partners and, more often than not, leads to feeling rejected or actually being rejected.

Let’s take a look at two examples of how this happens.

Example one: Jane

Jane’s mother is extremely opinionated and rules the roost. She’s always right and asserts herself aggressively. It’s her way or the highway! So, when Jane dares to have an opinion or express her own voice, her mother shuts her down or shows her contempt.

To gain validation and avoid rejection, Jane learns to say nothing, keep quiet and suppress herself through fear of being shouted at or shut down. This way she won’t be rejected by her mother. In other words, Jane is only accepted (under the condition) that she agrees with her mother, keeps quiet and pleases her. This is the only way she will receive validation and acceptance. 

Jane’s father, on the other hand, is a quiet and studious intellectual and mathematician. He’s an introvert and often disappears into the study for long periods. Jane never receives praise or much acknowledgement from her father and so, feels rejected.

In order to exist in her father’s eyes, she attempts to connect with him by working hard at maths in school, even though she dislikes the subject. She does this to prove herself worthy and validate herself to her father with the hope of being accepted by him, at least then she gains some kind of acknowledgement. In other words, Jane feels somewhat accepted by her father under the condition that she values what her father does, but feels rejected by him if he doesn’t. 

In a romantic relationship, Jane seeks out an opinionated and assertive partner (like her mother). She doesn’t express her opinions, preferring the safety of ‘sitting on the fence’ (like her father,) and instead seeks to be agreeable by pleasing and soothing her partner within the relationship as it becomes more serious. This is how she attempts to prevent rejection and gain validation, it worked as a child.

Over time, and without a unique voice, she becomes more and more distant like her father and feels rejected. She secretly harbours anger towards her partner (the anger she could never express to her mother as a child through fear of rejection) and eventually ends the relationship with him. Jane feels rejected in relationships for acting out her childhood condition of worth by suppressing her views and pleasing.

Example two: George

George’s father is a big character. He loves to debate, argue and prove himself right. His mother is also very expressive. Being quiet in the household isn’t an option and when George seeks a little peace from time to time, it's met by his parents with, "What’s wrong with you!?"

George learns that to gain acceptance, he must express his opinions as freely as both his parents regularly do. On some unconscious level, George learns that he gains attention by being opinionated, (even though his opinions are seldom validated). So George feels accepted by his parents under the condition that he strongly expresses himself. However, he is dismissed, unheard and attacked by his father when he does, so feels overall rejected. 

In a romantic relationship, George follows what he knows. He tries to get his point across forcefully in order to be heard and have his voice validated, thus crushing his partner’s views and taking away space in the process as his father did with him. Expressing his opinion is how he gained attention growing up, but not the validation for his own perspective he craved from his parents.

However, his partner feels shut down and can’t get her view across to him. In the end, his partner feels emotionally shut down and rejected just as he was as a child and, therefore, ends the relationship with him. George is ultimately rejected for acting out his childhood conditions of worthiness; seeking to be heard by attempting to force his partner to hear him.

Feeling rejected as a child leads to rejecting behaviours such as anger, neediness, pleasing, sulking or distancing. All of these behaviours lead to feeling rejected in relationships because that’s what you experienced from your parents. It’s also how you adapted to rejection as a child.

How can you change your cycle of rejection?

When you don’t feel good enough, valued, or accepted in your romantic relationship, and find yourself attempting to gain validation from your partner, then ask yourself the following five questions:

  • Do I feel rejected by my partner either emotionally, psychologically, or physically?
  • Am I seeking validation from my partner by pleasing, expressing anger, being clingy, or sulking?
  • Am I behaving like I did as a child when I felt rejected by my mother or father? 
  • Do I feel like I did as a child when I felt rejected?
  • Am I being defensive with my partner because I feel hurt and rejected?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, it’s highly likely you’re responding to your partner through past childhood rejection wounds.

Rejection is brutal. It can destroy your confidence and leave you feeling worthless. But, if you explore it openly through therapy, it can raise your awareness and dynamically change romantic relationships for the better.

If you would like to work through feelings of rejection, feel free to contact me and book therapy sessions. You’ll go from feeling resentful and rejected by your partner to no longer taking things personally, ultimately healing from childhood wounds, and re-energising the intimacy in your relationship.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Romford RM3 & Brentwood CM15
Written by Adam Day, Counsellor/Psychotherapist/Coach
Romford RM3 & Brentwood CM15

Adam Day is trained in various approaches as an integrative therapist; these include humanistic (person-centred/existential), cognitive behavioural, transpersonal and psychodynamic. He is available for therapy throughout the week from 10am to 8pm.

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