Two Major Causes for Romantic Breakdown

May 15, 2019

Two major types of romantic rejection that end in separation are rejection because of someone else, and rejection because of no one else. Which type is more painful?

Two kinds of romantic rejection: Comparative and non-comparative

“How am I supposed to carry on, when all that I’ve been living for is gone?” —Laura Branigan

“My boyfriend of two years cheated on me and said, ‘Well, she is way prettier than you, could you really blame me?’ And the knowledge that he was an asshole and I was better off without him somehow didn’t really take the sting away.” —A young woman.

The essential role of love in our lives and our profound personal involvement in love makes romantic separations, which are very common these days, very painful—particularly when they are interpreted as personal rejection. However, it is not entirely clear which type of rejection—comparative or non-comparative—is more painful.

Mark Leary (2005) argues that non-comparative rejections are probably more hurtful. While a comparative rejection may not be perceived as putting you low in absolute terms, he says, it must be perceived in this way in non-comparative rejections, where the message is that the relationship is so bad that the rejector opted to be alone rather than stay with the other.

In their empirical study on this issue, Sebastian Deri and Emily Zitek (2019) found the opposite: Participants who experienced, recalled, or imagined a comparative rejection felt significantly worse than those who did the same for a non-comparative rejection. One indication of the more painful nature of comparative rejections is that when people do not have information about the reason for the rejection, they tend to seek out this information: Their default worry is that they were rejected for someone else (Deri & Zitek, 2019). Moreover, the “immoral” nature of the affair enhances the negative attitude toward comparative rejection.

Two major causes for romantic breakdown: Infidelity and incompatibility

“Why have you left the one you left me for?” —Crystal Gayle

“It’s hard to know another’s lips will kiss you.” —Hank Williams

Romantic breakdowns of marriages and cohabitations do not stem from romantic rejections only, which are one-sided decisions; they can also stem from mutual decisions. Rejections are definitely more devastating than breakdowns. Nevertheless, the two phenomena overlap.

In accordance with the distinction between the two kinds of rejection, infidelity and incompatibility are two major causes for the breakdown of marriages and cohabitations. Infidelity, which is a well-defined concept, relates to a comparative rejection. Incompatibility, which is associated with non-comparative rejection, is much more complex, involving various factors, such as growing apart, arguments, different interests/nothing in common, and lack of communication (Amato & Previti, 2003; Gravningen et al., 2017).

Over the past few decades, infidelity has become less responsible for breakdowns, and incompatibility increasingly so. This development is driven by the high expectations of self-fulfillment in contemporary marriage and cohabitation, and the greater unacceptability of emotionally and personally unsatisfying partnerships Gravningen et al., 2017). The milder nature of moral criticism against affairs is also part of the picture.

Self-esteem and the comparative concern in emotions

“Have you ever noticed? Anybody going slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac.” —George Carlin

I believe that the issues of self-esteem and comparative concern are crucial in explaining the impact of romantic rejections.

Self-esteem involves belief and confidence in your own ability and value. Authentic self-esteem combines two major aspects: competence and worthiness; self-esteem must be earned by acting competently for worthy values (Mruk, 2013).

The importance of the comparative concern is illustrated by the story of the man who was upset because he had no shoes—until he met a man who had no feet. Similarly, someone who receives a 5 percent raise might be happier than someone who receives an 8 percent increase if the former expected less than the latter. In the same vein, a 5 percent raise can be quite exhilarating until one learns that the person down the hall received an 8 percent increase.

Along these lines, the Greek poet Hesiod said that “The potter is furious with the potter and the craftsman with the craftsman, and the beggar is envious of the beggar and the singer of the singer.” Indeed, it was found that jealousy is greater when the domain of a rival’s achievements is also a domain of high relevance to one’s self-esteem. Thus, women who consider external appearance to be of great relevance to their self-esteem are more jealous if their spouses had an affair with a good-looking woman than with a wise woman (DeSteno & Salovey, 1996).

From an emotional viewpoint, comparative evaluations often override evaluations concerning our absolute position.

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