Written by Mary Grace Payne
The current study, developed by Hafen, et. al. (2014), measured the rejection sensitivity among participants in a longitudinal survey over the course of the participants’ late adolescent and early adulthood years. In the current study, the researchers aimed to determine whether rejection sensitivity in adolescence has an impact on the romantic relationships in early adulthood (i.e., early twenties), and how rejection sensitivity affects romantic relationships in early adulthood.
What is rejection sensitivity?
People who are high in rejection sensitivity, have experienced some sort of relational or social rejection in the past that has caused them to overact towards perceived, real or unreal, threats from others. Those high in rejection sensitivity may distrust reliable romantic partners. This distrust can create a rift in one’s relationship. The processes involved in fostering rejection sensitivity in an individual are best understood by linking past relationship experiences of this person to outcome expectancies (Hafen et. al, 2014).
Why study rejection sensitivity?
In order to improve one’s romantic relationship, it is necessary to understand the past experiences of our significant others and thus, gain a better understanding of our partner’s behaviors. Experiences in adolescence create a foundation for many attitudes and behaviors that are carried out in one’s life throughout adulthood. Experiences in adolescence can have a significant impact on future romantic relationships.
Hafen et. al’s (2014) study suggests that as a result of the common transitions into romantic relationships during adolescence, worries about rejection during the adolescent years are particularly likely to affect the formation and quality of romantic relationships in late adolescence and early adulthood.
The current study
The current study was a longitudinal survey that followed 180 adolescents over a 6-year period, from the ages of 16-22. The survey consisted of two primary periods during which the target participants were tested: late adolescence (i.e., ages 16-19) and early adulthood (i.e., ages 20-22) (Hafen et. al., 2014). Participants reported that “experiences of rejection within parent and peer relationships foster sensitivity for individuals toward the possibility of rejection” (Downey, Lebolt, Rincón, & Freitas, 1996).
In order to measure rejection sensitivity, the Rejection Sensitivity Questionnaire (RSQ; Downey & Feldman, 1996) was used during the target participant’s late adolescence stage. This questionnaire was given to participants yearly at four time points in mid-to-late adolescence. The RSQ has 18 hypothetical situations in which rejection by a significant other is possible. For each situation, participants were asked to indicate their level of anxiety or concern regarding the outcome of the particular situation, on a 6-point scale from 1 (very unconcerned) to 6 (very concerned). Additionally, for each situation, participants were asked to indicate the likelihood that the other person would respond in an accepting manner on a 6-point scale from 1 (very unlikely) to 6 (very likely; Hafen et. al., 2014).
When the participants reached early adulthood, they completed the Multi-Item Measure of Adult Romantic Attachment (Bartholomew, 1990; Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998). The Multi-Item Measure of Adult Romantic Attachment is a 36-item measure, in which avoidance and anxiety in relationships were measured (Cooper, Collins, & Shaver, 1998). Each item asked participants how they generally felt in romantic relationships, rather than only in their current relationships. The items were measured on a 7-point scale, from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree), with lower scores reflecting lower levels of anxiety and avoidance in romantic relationships (Hafen et. al., 2014). In addition to the Multi-item Measure of Adult Romantic Attachment, each participant and their romantic partner (if they had a romantic partner at the time) were interviewed and videoed. Each video was coded by the researchers based upon a coding system developed by Grotevant and Cooper (1985). In this coding system, the participant’s overall behavior towards their romantic partner was analyzed. Summary scores of participant’s displays of negativity (eg. “I can’t believe you’d say that, whatever, I don’t want to talk about it”). The frequency and intensity of these negative behaviors were coded (Hafen et. al., 2014).
Findings of the study
The current study had two primary findings. Individuals who were high in rejection sensitivity at age 16 were more anxious and avoidant in relationships, less likely to have future romantic partners, and more likely to have relationships that are characterized by a negative interaction style (Hafen et. al., 2014). Secondly, this study concluded that individuals who were high in rejection sensitivity in late adolescence (ages 16-19), especially females, were more likely to exhibit submissive behaviors in their future romantic relationships. The researchers of the study propose that “intervention efforts that target reducing the anxiety and worry over being rejected by friends and romantic partners in adolescence may have lasting positive impacts in adulthood” (Hafen et. al, 2014, p. 9).
Take home point
In order to reduce the anxiety of being rejected, whether in adolescence or adulthood, it is beneficial for individuals who may be high in rejection sensitivity to understand the reality that everyone has been and will be rejected at some point in their life. Additionally, those high in rejection sensitivity should be aware that rejection comes in many forms and it is not always personal. Sometimes people mean “I am not ready” or “not right now”, even though the message may be perceived as rejection. Finally, it is important to note that it is beneficial for everyone who is or will be in a relationship, to take the RSQ and discover if their partner or his/herself is high in rejection sensitivity. Knowledge of rejection sensitivity will help couples alleviate future conflict and issues that may arise to one partner’s high rejection sensitivity.
Bartholomew, K. (1990). Avoidance of intimacy: An attachment perspective. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 7, 147-178. Doi: 10.1177/0265407590072001
Brennan, K. A., Clark, C.L. & Shaver, P. R. (1998). Self-Report measurement of adult attachment. In J.A. Simpson & W.S. Rholes, Attachment theory and close relationships (pp. 46-76). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Cooper, M. Lynne, Collins, Nancy L. & Shaver, P.R. (1998). Attachment styles, emotion regulation, and adjustment in adolescence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 5, 1380-1397. American Psychological Association Inc.
Downey, G., & Feldman, S.I. (1996). Implications of rejection sensitivity for intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 1327-1343. Doi: 10.1037/002235220.127.116.117
Downey, G., Lebolt, A., Rincón, C., & Freitas, A.L. (1998). Rejection sensitivity and children’s interpersonal difficulties. Child Development, 69, 1074-1091. Doi: 10.1111/j.14678624.1998.tb06161.x
Grotevant, H.D.& Cooper, C.R. (1985). Patterns of interaction in family relationships and the development of identitiy exploration in adolescence. Child Development, 56, 415-428. Doi: 10.2307/1129730
Hafen, C. A., Spilker, A., Chango, J., Marston, E.S., and Allen, J.P. (2014). To Accept or Reject? The Impact of Adolescent Rejection Sensitivity on Early Adult Romantic Relationships. Journal of Research on Adolescence (Wiley-Blackwell), 24 (1), 55-64. https://doi.org/10.1111/jora.12081
Dr. H. Colleen Sinclair
Social Psychologist, Relationships Researcher,
Ms. Chelsea Ellithorpe
Lab Manager of the Social Relations Collaborative and Blog Editor