When it comes to dating, fear of rejection can be a major stumbling block. Whether one has a general lack of confidence, or is making a reluctant return to the dating scene following a breakup or divorce, this fear can hold us back, as fears so often do. We tend to want to avoid things that cause us pain: Research empirically confirms that rejection hurts and can be detected in brain activity. We may long to find a romantic partner, but this conflicts with an equally strong desire to avoid the sting of failure. The problem is, the fear of rejection does not prevent rejection from happening and may even amplify feelings of isolation and exclusion.
In the wild, the mating game involves a lot of rejection, which can be pretty extreme. Take Mediterranean fruit flies: Males of many fruit fly species, including the Mediterranean, must go through a series of...unique steps to find a mate. First, a male must establish a territory—a place where he will do all the necessary fruit fly rituals (singing, dancing, etc.) needed to convince a female to mate with him. When a female arrives, these little fruit flies go all out. So what is the rejection rate for Mediterranean fruit flies? Ninety percent. After all that effort, they get turned down nine out of ten times. Ponder that next time you feel scared to walk up to a man or woman who’s caught your eye and simply say, "Hello." (A simple but effective way to flirt-watch this video for more flirting tips).
The similarity ends, however, with how we humans feel about and interpret rejection. Years ago I watched a documentary about Koko, the gorilla. Her caretakers took a decidedly modern approach in attempting to find her a suitable mate (at least for the late 1980s/early 1990s), presenting Koko with videos of potential male partners. Something about one, Ndume, must have spoken to Koko, and she picked him. Unfortunately, Ndume did not reciprocate her romantic desires. As I recall from the documentary, Ndume rebuffed her advances, even running away from a frustrated Koko. It is impossible to say for sure whether Koko suffered emotionally from this clear rejection. What we do know is that she and Ndume developed a close friendship that has stood the test of time, even though they never mated.
In contrast, when our own interest in someone is not reciprocated, we may personalize and internalize the experience, possibly even believing there is something wrong with us. The reality is that, particularly on the first or the first several dates, the person sitting across from you doesn’t even knowyou well enough to reject you per se. More often than not, a broader incompatibility (based on personality, lifestyle, or physical attraction) has been detected. Being turned down for these reasons is nothing to fear—indeed, it should be welcomed. It saves a lot of time and frees you to move on to the next potential partner.
Take it from great tit birds, which search for mates that have similar personalities, or barnacle geese, that look for a partner similar in size. In the case of the latter, the smaller goose doesn’t feel bad about its size. It too is simply looking for a match—in this case another small goose. As for the great tit birds? Well, a homebody doesn’t bemoan its personality and feel bad that it wasn’t a great match for a more adventurous individual; it moves on to find a more compatible partner.
We must admit that being rejected, say, six months or longer into a relationship is more distressing—after all, at that point, a partner does know you better. Of course, you may hear, “It isn’t you. It’s me," as the reason for the breakup. And while many people say there is little truth to this platitude, in many ways it’s true—even if it really was you. Why? Because whatever the reason, you were simply not compatible with that person.
Perhaps they will tell you the reason and you can decide if it’s something you need to work on (e.g. communication skills). If they don’t, you can reflect on your part in the relationship and determine this on your own. Regardless, you are free to move on and resume your search. And although the research shows that we humans reduce our willingness to take risks after experiencing rejection, I think we would be better off taking the fruit fly's approach: Find another leaf and start singing and dancing your heart out. Maybe it'll pay off next time.