When your partner feels you have rejected them, whether their feeling is fair or not, you are at risk of your partner lashing out in anger and aggression, potentially with violence. To avoid being the victim of rejection-aggression, it is important to understand a few things about rejection and the physical or emotional aggression that often follows.
Bullies don’t take responsibility, do place blame
Let’s get this under your belt right away. People with a long-term pattern of engaging in rejection-aggression, coercive behavior, or bullying, rarely if ever take responsibility for their behaviors. These are two parts of their personality patterns so they won’t change easily. Even if they do take responsibility, or appear to offer an apology, they may quickly forget their apology and/or ignore their promises.
They tend to blame other people for everything. Maybe you have experienced being the primary target of someone’s blame? Responsibility-avoidance, blame, and often projections, all support each other as a type of super defense mechanism. “It’s not my fault. It’s all your fault. You are the worst parent in world! I’m the best, always have been. You should just move out.”
Cycle of violence can be large or very small
The classic cycle of violence is well understood among domestic violence professionals. 1) The person builds up their frustration, 2) they explode, and 3) they are super-charming as they try to make up. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
What is less understood is that this happens at a micro level, every or most days, often throughout the day. It can happen in the course of a conversation, in the course of a paragraph of words, in the course of a sentence, and in the course of a brief series of nonverbal communications. “I really appreciate you made dinner tonight. But I don’t know why we have to have chicken every night… But it’s pretty good. Let’s go to bed early okay?” (Can you see the charm-aggression-charm oscillation which is very light in this example?)
Oscillations of aggression and charm
Rather than thinking about this behavior pattern as a cycle of violence, it might be better to think about it as alternating between aggressive behaviors and charming (or disarming) behaviors. In the ebb and flow of daily micro-aggressions, there is not always a buildup of tensions, rather there is a quick and aggressive response to a perceived rejection, followed eventually by some behavior to take your attention off the aggressive behavior.
The alternation is more technically called an oscillation. People who engage in bullying, coercive control, or domestic violence can go through parts of their day in a neutral position, but tend to oscillate between using aggression to get their needs met, and disarming their aggressive behavior afterwards. In other words, their primary way of getting what they want is to use coercion or aggression, and they have learned that it’s best to follow it up with charming/disarming behaviors. The level of behavior can be light, medium, heavy, or deadly.
Two helpful definitions of rejection
Definition 1: A rejection is a subjectively perceived and dramatic relational devaluation.
I know that is a mouthful. Basically, it involves a relationship between any two people. “Subjectively perceived” means one person feels rejected, even if no one else in the world would feel the same way. Dramatic devaluation means the person feels like their status in the relationship dropped quickly and in a big way. A simple example of relational rejection is: “You’re a jerk! I’ve had it with your garbage. I’m leaving you and taking the kids. You’ll never see me again!”.
There are lots of examples in news reports which involve shootings. Anytime you see a story of a shooting, look to see if you can find a rejection the shooter subjectively experienced before the shooting.
Definition 2: A rejection involves exposing someone to a subjectively perceived danger, especially relationship danger.
Danger comes in many forms. It could be financial instability, loss of housing, or loss of perceived control. It could be some type of embarrassment: in front of family members; to one’s identity as a male, female, father, or mother; in the context of work, the perceived risk of losing employment. A danger/rejection could be dismissing and treating with disgust something that is important to the person, like their pride in a project. Relationship loss and abandonment are well-known rejections. In a divorce context, it could be all of these things and also the loss of time with children.
But relationship danger is much broader, and as we can see in both definitions, danger and rejection are subjective. So how do we handle, or make sense of what might be a subjective danger to someone?
Two primary types of rejection sensitivity and response
It turns out danger can be described in two general groupings, and we can start to make some sense of what might subjectively dangerous to a person even though the same thing is not at all dangerous to you.
Shame vs. humiliation offers one example of dangers which can be subjectively perceived.
For one group of people, they tend to be very sensitive to being humiliated and not particularly sensitive to being shamed. If you can think of a person for whom you might say “Have you no shame?” and the answer is “No, not really” , then you are seeing this type of person. They may also be doing things to hurt others, even when they are really causing as much or more harm to themselves, and the shame they are causing themselves is either not apparent or not relevant to their needs.
It’s the opposite for the other group of people, who tend to be very sensitive to being shamed, and are not particularly sensitive to being humiliated. For these people, leaving a relationship is tremendously shameful and it is safer for them to stay in the relationship even if it is bad and they are constantly being humiliated, or beaten. This may be a partial explanation for why some victims of domestic violence stay in abusive relationships.
For the first group of people described above, when they are facing danger and/or rejection, they tend to be driven by the very intense feelings they have, and satisfying those internal feelings is more important, and safer, than not satisfying them. This tends to cause them to think more about themselves and not so much about other people and their needs. They tend to demand that other people care for them and are less concerned about caring for others. They are quick to express and use anger and aggression to coerce others to give them what they want. They tend to feel safer and more comfortable if there is conflict or drama going on. They tend to not follow the rules even if it leads to other problems, at least when they are facing rejection or danger. Sometimes it feels like we could describe this group of people as being a drama queen or king, and acting like “It’s all about me!” and “It’s all your fault!” Some people in this group can also be quite vindictive and revengeful if their emotions are not checked. This group of people tend to react to danger/rejection quickly and strongly, and can react with emotional and/or physical violence.
For people in the second group described above, they tend to be driven by a desire to meet other’s needs or social norms they have adopted. They tend to ignore their own needs, or put them off, and it can be more important, or safer, to meet other people’s needs. They tend to stuff their anger, or hold it at bay. They tend to feel conflict and fighting is dangerous and the safest way to manage the danger is to avoid conflict, sometimes at all costs. Some people in this group might be perceived as being cold or distant, like an ice queen or king, having a hard time showing their true feelings. When faced with danger or rejection, they may tend to hunker down and excessively follow “the rules” and the “shoulds”, even if it leads to other problems. “If I act better, he/she will should stop being so aggressive.” This group of people tend to stuff their negative emotions, and when they are facing a subjectively perceived rejection they may react by withdrawing from people and relationships. They may also put on a happy face even if they are feeling quite terrible inside (this is technically called False Positive Affect, where they display smiles and indicate “All good, never better” when in reality they are facing danger).
For more types of subjective danger for each group, see the DMM Danger List at https://www.conflictscienceinstitute.com/dmm-danger-list/
For more information about elements in the pattern for people who use coercive control and tend react aggressively when rejected, see the article 13 Shiny Objects, https://www.conflictscienceinstitute.com/13-shiny-objects-how-attachment-science-can-give-a-deeper-understanding-into-the-problems-of-and-solutions-to-coercive-control/
Please note, there are many other distinctions and subgroups within these two broad patterns, and their adult behaviors are really about the ways they learned to get their needs met as children, especially protection from danger and obtaining comfort when frightened.
So what can you do to deliver a rejection and avoid aggression?
The first thing to do with this information is try your best to avoid doing something the other person would see as a rejection. Of course, this does not mean just giving in to every demand, nor tolerating bad behavior. It is also important to know what your true and necessary needs are and find ways to meet them. Think about what pattern the person may be using and what kinds of dangers that are subjectively important to them which you may want to give more attention to. For example, if the other person is sensitive to financial loss or humiliation, work hard at handling these issues with great care.
Because rejection-aggression involves a “dramatic devaluation in the relationship,” plan ahead to deliver news that might be a rejection slowly and carefully, or at optimal times. Try adding some “valuation”, or positive comments to make the devaluation feel less dramatic.
Give the person choices. Rather than tell them what you want them to do, offer choices, or raise the issue and ask for their feedback before you have to hold a strong boundary. It may be they can find a way to solve the problem without you having to issue a hard boundary and a rejection. It may be a solution can be found without anyone having to directly talk about, and admit, the problem.
If the relationship is causal, work related, or intimate but short, it can be easier to hold boundaries. If the relationship has been going on a while and the pattern of oscillating between aggression and charm has gotten out of control, it can be much harder to recognize what your needs are and start holding boundaries. If violence is prevalent in the relationship, planning a safe exit strategy, or at least developing a safety plan can be critical.
For people who respond to rejection quickly and with aggression, they will likely have a hard time recognizing their own responsibility in causing the problem, and will likely blame you. “Now look what you made me do!” Holding them accountable may or may not be necessary, but if the relationship has been going on, this must be done very carefully to avoid extreme violent outbursts. At the very least, reset your expectations that the person will accept responsibility. Taking this a step further, consider whether the relationship is worth keeping if the person is seriously avoiding responsibility.
It can become tricky to manage aggressive reactions in longer term relationships. Their behaviors can be so atrocious that it can be hard to hold back criticism and rejection, and a rejecting statement can slip out of your mouth when you lose focus. If you do slip and make a rejecting act, the other person’s violence is not your fault, they are always responsible for their actions. You may be able to reduce the sting of the rejection by apologizing for not being sensitive enough to what they are very sensitive to, without taking responsibility for their bad actions.
When the other person is getting very violent, as in an earthquake situation, it may be best to “duck, cover, and hold.” When the explosion is over, reassess your situation and find solutions to prevent it from happening again. This may require big changes on your part.
Above all else, keep a focus on love and compassion.
Rejection Begets Aggression (the RBA rule), requires us to think about rejection and aggression in new ways. It takes practice and everyone should expect to fail at times, sometimes spectacularly.
The first definition of rejection above comes from a meta study of rejection and aggression by social science researchers Leary, Twenge and Quinlivan. Their definition comes from looking at many forms of rejection, including partner homicide and assault. Interpersonal rejection as a determinant of anger and aggression. Personality and social psychology review, 10(2), 111-132 (2006).
The description of subjective dangers and response patterns are described by adult attachment theory and science, particularly by the Dynamic Maturational Model of Attachment and Adaptation (DMM). Crittenden, Patricia M. & Landini, Andrea (2011), Assessing Adult Attachment: A Dynamic-Maturational Approach to Discourse Analysis, W.W. Norton & Company. Crittenden, Patricia M. (2016, 2d ed), Raising Parents: Attachment, representation, and treatment, Routledge.
Copyright Mark Baumann 2019