There was the boy I dated in high school who went off to college and started seeing someone else. He couldn’t bring himself to tell me – for months – as I agonized over how hard it was to reach him on his dorm room phone. In the end, his best friend broke the news to me.
Chalk up his behavior (and mine) to adolescent inexperience. But more than a decade later, as I’ve described in my book “Unrequited: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Romantic Obsession,” I became enmeshed in a tortuous back and forth with a man who was involved with someone else. He said he planned to end the relationship and be with me, but that didn’t happen.
The quest to win him took over my life. I couldn’t eat or concentrate. I begged the resident at the local psychiatric emergency room to give me something to make the feelings stop. I incessantly called Mr. Unsure and banged on his door at dawn to plead my case.
When I’ve been the rejecter, ending a relationship was no picnic, either. I remember all the excuses I’d make to myself when I knew it was time to break up: We haven’t really been seeing each other that long — do I even have to say anything? Or: I’m going to hurt this person so much, I can’t handle it.
I didn’t want to cause pain. That guilty dread is probably why ghosting is becoming so popular, however blatantly crass. Disappearing seems so much easier than hurting someone. It feels like you’re hurting them less.
Of course, you’re not.
When a relationship is in a downward spiral, a clear and humane rejection is the kindest thing you can do.
I have felt this way ever since the man I was obsessed with said the words I will always be grateful for: We can never speak again.
Once he was clear with me, I could start to let go.
It’s true that rejection is devastating. Humans are social creatures, wired to bond with others, building kinship and communities that improve our chances of survival. Getting dumped breaks one of those bonds. The end of a romance is particularly painful, evolutionary psychologists point out, because it interferes with the basic human drive to continue the species.
Physiologically, a breakup is a huge blow. Our brains and bodies react much like we do to physical pain and addiction withdrawal. We hurt. We crave. We’re anxious and can’t think of anything else. The stress of a lost relationship can weaken our immune systems and increase the risk of depression and other mental health problems.
But avoiding the moment of truth – when you’ve got to hear, or say, that it’s over – doesn’t make the process any easier.
When you’re the one who wants to hold on, research has found, you’ll seize on any evidence you can to hold on to hope. While the rejecter hesitates, the hanger-on is encouraged by the positive signs, however vague – he returned my call/we had sex/she’s just too busy this week but might have some time for a drink next week – and discounts the negative ones. It may have taken days to get that phone call, or the sex was emotionally empty.
“If there’s ambivalence, it’s going to prolong the hope,” said Roy Baumeister, a psychology professor at Florida State University and co-author of “Breaking Hearts: The Two Sides of Unrequited Love.”
The situation basically reduces you to a state similar to the one experienced by lab rats in a famous study by B.F. Skinner. He found that when rats get a pellet every time they press a lever, they stop pressing when they’ve had enough food. But if the rats get a pellet only every so often, they press the lever harder and more frequently.
Skinner termed this “intermittent reinforcement.” You keep trying for that pellet of attention because sometimes you get one (and a vaguely friendly text sure can feel like a pellet!). It’s the kind of cycle that gambling addicts go through. Sometimes they win a little cash, and it makes them keep trying, no matter how much money they’re losing.
In a faltering romance, intermittent reinforcement feeds obsession. You get just enough pellets to keep pressing that lever, but you’re never satisfied.
In the Skinner experiment, when the lever stopped yielding pellets, the rats soon stopped pressing. A clear rejection can have a similar effect. There are no more attention pellets to be had. In the immediate aftermath, someone who’s been rejected is likely to spend a lot of time dwelling on what went wrong. But less than three months after a non-marital breakup, for example, 71 percent of people began to feel a sense of personal growth, according to a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology.
If breakup helps people move on, why are we so skittish about cutting ties? Part of the answer has to do with how confusing it can be for people to figure out whether to end a relationship. They may need time to decide.
But the other reason rejection seems so daunting is that we tend to perceive it as a sin. In the wake of a split, we reflexively demonize the rejecter. How could the person do this, after so many great dates, hot sex or hints of a future? This leaves rejecters with no good choice. If they avoid breaking the news, they’re being evasive, which is cruel. If they rip off the Band-Aid quickly, they’re also no good.
I’m not saying the brokenhearted shouldn’t feel hurt, sadness, anger and betrayal. That’s inevitable. The rejecter probably did plenty of things wrong. But the rejection itself isn’t one of them.
If we insist rejection is evil, and rally all our friends to agree, we’re making it even harder for hesitant rejecters to do the deed. They’re not only going to break someone’s heart, they’re going to despised because they did.
We need to reclaim the straightforward, honorable rejection as a moral obligation, not an unforgivable sin.
Rejection is mercy. Once it’s done, you can stop pushing that lever and move on.