The fear of rejection can get the better of most anyone once in a while—maybe you don’t apply for that job you want because you don’t think you’ll get it, or you don’t ask that cute person to dance because what if they say no. But for some people, this fear of rejection runs their life. And it could be the cause of less satisfying and romantic relationships.
Simona Sciara and Giuseppe Pantaleo of the Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Italy wanted to know how the fear of a relationship ending can influence how we behave in that relationship.
“Only a few studies have focused… on perceived risk in romantic relationships…, the anticipated fear of being rejected or disregarded by the romantic partner,” the researchers wrote in their paper.
To get to the heart of the matter, Sciara and Pantaleo asked study participants to share information about their relationship dynamics. Then the researchers used manipulation techniques—providing statistics about the relationship failure and making false comments about how likely their relationships were to end based on arguments they had—to get some of the participants thinking that their relationships would not last.
“We directly manipulated the risk of breakup, in the conviction that any challenge to the stability of a romantic relationship would systematically strengthen or reduce the intensity of romantic feelings, as long as it affected the perceived risk of relationship breakup,” the researchers wrote in their paper.
They gave different feedback to different participants—some were told their relationships were more likely to last than others were.
Afterward, the participants were asked to talk about their commitment to their partners and how they felt about them.
Interestingly, participants’ romantic feelings and levels of commitment were higher before any notion about their relationship ending was introduced. When it was suggested there was either a low or a high risk they would break up, participants felt more ambivalent about their relationships, the researchers wrote, likely as an emotional buffer to protect them from impending heartbreak.
The lack of warm feelings toward a partner brought on by problems in the relationship can ultimately exacerbate those problems and lead to a break up.
“We found that the intensity of romantic (feeling) was strong when the risk of breakup was not mentioned; substantially reduced when the risk was low; strong when the risk was moderate; and, again, significantly reduced when the risk was high,” Sciara and Pantaleo wrote. “The intensity of commitment followed exactly the same… pattern.”
This pattern flips the script on past research findings, which suggest that the more obstacles a relationship encounters, the unhappier the couple will be. Sciara and Pantaleo’s findings suggest that there’s a more nuanced recipe to relationship satisfaction and dissatisfaction—the participants who were told they had a low risk of breakup were less excited about their relationships afterward than the ones who were told they had a moderate risk of breakup.
The folks who were told they had a moderate risk felt strongly about their partners. To the researchers, this means that some perceived risk of breaking up can actually be good for a relationship, maybe encouraging the people in it to defy the odds and stay together.