Once we’re in a close relationship, most of us want to relax and not worry about the relationship ending. But this level of ease may not come that easily to everyone. Do you constantly think about your lover walking out on you? Do you worry that if your true self were revealed, your partner would be so disgusted that things would come to an immediate end? When these concerns swirl around in your head, they can easily overpower the thoughts and feelings that come from positive interactions with your partner.

Where does such extreme sensitivity to rejection come from in the first place? Why are some people constantly on guard for signs of displeasure from their partners? One possibility is that people who are highly sensitive feel so insecure about themselves that they constantly need positive affirmation, especially from their partners. They need to be bolstered by a partner who fills in the missing pieces of their own sense of self.

Unfortunately, this sensitivity to rejection, plus a weak sense of self can backfire completely, contributing to a weaker—not stronger—relationship. Not only does an individual’s fear of rejection create undue stress for his or her partner, it also makes that person constantly feel that the relationship isn’t as good as it could be. It’s difficult for a relationship to fulfill one’s every hope and dream, but this becomes even harder when one partner is always questioning and wondering about the stability of their relationship.

This lack of secure identity can add to a fear of rejection and reduce the feelings of satisfaction in a relationship. University of Tennessee psychologists Jerika Norona and Deborah Welsh (2016) believe that identity struggles are particularly evident among young adults in the process of defining their sense of self. At this age, people are at the peak of figuring out who they are, and at the same time, they’re trying to figure out what they want from a relationship. If their identities are still undefined, the young adults may seek more confirmation from their relationship partner than if they would if they were secure in who they are.

To test the prediction that a weak sense of self combined with a fear of rejection can produce negative outcomes, Norona and Welsh sampled 217 undergraduates who had been in a relationship for at least three weeks. The researchers defined weak sense of self as lack of self-differentiation, or the ability to achieve a healthy balance between dependence and independence on others. People low in self-differentiation show the following four characteristics:

  • an inability to regulate their emotions in the face of emotions expressed by others (what I would call emotional contagion);
  • emotional cutoff, in which they distance themselves from others to retain their independence;
  • an ability to stick to their own values when challenged by others; and
  • fusion with others, in which a person constantly seeks the approval of others.

Although difficulties in this area may be particularly pronounced among young adults, a weak identity can stay with an individual throughout life. Perhaps, as you looked at these four features of low self-differentiation, you spotted some of your own tendencies. Maybe you’ve been like this your whole life, and have never been able to live independently, or have constantly tried to be like your friends and intimate partners. Alternatively, you might push away from a partner to avoid yielding to the partner’s influence.

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