Emotions & Shame

How Rejection Sensitivity Casts a Cloud Over My Marriage

I feel personally attacked more than most people do. The sharp tips of criticism gut me open. Even the anticipation of rejection can paralyze me. And when it does, I’m tough to live with, tough to calm, tough to help. Here is how Rejection Sensitivity challenges my most important relationships, and what helps us heal.

Two umbrellas symbolizing the rain that can fall on a marriage when one partner has Rejection Sensitivity (RS), or Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

I am staring at my husband. I am just staring, not blinking, narrow-eyed, mouth a straight line, standing across the room and fixing him with a look.

He tells me to stop. He says I am not accomplishing anything with this. He says I just need to accept that I yelled too much at the kids because I was stressed and that’s okay, everyone does it sometimes. And I admitted I did it and felt guilty and sad and awful and terrible about it. And I apologized to the kids. So it’s over and there’s nothing else left to do but move on. But my attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) comes with Rejection Sensitivity (RS) — a.k.a. Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria. And it can be a beast.

Stop staring, he says. Stop. Just stop. When you feel upset like that, just walk away.

I cannot stop. I know I am not accomplishing anything. I am so, so angry right now. I am livid. I am raging. It’s one thing for me to say I feel sad and guilty. But it’s a whole other issue for him to agree with me.

Because, by doing so, he is saying I am a bad parent.

He is saying I am a terrible parent who lost control.

He is saying I should not have kids.

He is saying, when he tells me to walk away, that it would be better if I were not around my children.

[Self Test: Could You Have Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria?

Of course, he is not actually saying any of these things.

But I hear them. I hear them as if he is shouting them at me. I feel them like a punch in the gut. This is what Rejection Sensitivity means. In my house, we all have ADHD. But I have a bad case of RS and my husband does not. In my case, it means that I have an extremely difficult time taking any type of criticism whatsoever.

A good marriage is built on honesty. That means, at times, gentle and constructive criticism from your spouse. I can’t take it.

I Curl Inward

A lot of the time, when my husband offers up suggestions for family improvement — “Hey, maybe we should enroll the kids in some sports programs,” for example — I clam up. I don’t initiate a discussion about the pros and cons of the idea, and I don’t offer my input. I just curl inside myself.

There’s a line from the poem Fiddleheads by Maureen Seaton: “When you hurt me, I evolved like a backboned sea creature, translucent/ nervous system sparking along in the meanest deep where I was small enough not to care …” I think of this every time I stop talking and cross my arms as if to hold myself inside and feel like the worst person in the world for not thinking of this beforehand. I might feel like I am right and he is wrong but I cannot offer up suggestions about the mundane like a rational person at that moment. I am too busy feeling rejected and alone.

[Self-Test: Could You Have Emotional Hyper-Arousal?

I Lash Out

Sometimes, when my husband asks something as simple as, “Did you water your plants today?” which he doesn’t particularly care about, and is just part of the background patter of marital conversation, I hear something else.

I hear, you are irresponsible. I hear, you do not take care of your things. And I feel the anger rising. I snap. “Of course I did! I always water my garden! I take good care of it!” And he is left baffled. “What did I say?” he asks. “What’s wrong? Did you have a bad day? Are you okay?” And it might evolve into a fight. Which I pick, almost every time.

I Pick Fights — Because It is Easier

Psychologically, we pick fights with those we love because we are hurting and angry at ourselves, and we want to stop that anger from clawing at our insides. If we can get mad at someone else, we can deflect our hurt and anger outward, and suddenly the hurt isn’t hurting so badly. Or at least, it hurts differently, in a way that doesn’t feel so damaging and broken.

We’re mad and disappointed in our spouse instead of ourselves. This can erode a relationship, especially an ADHD relationship. Luckily, my husband knows I do it, calls me on it, and walks out of the room. I have been known to both follow him and keep arguing (if the kids aren’t around) or dissolve into a puddle of tears (if they are). Then we can move into something constructive.

I Snark Out

Sometimes, when my husband makes a suggestion, I don’t so much lash out as snark out. He might say something like, “Man, I need to do the dishes,” and I hear, “You should have done the dishes,” even though according to our household division of labor this is not my job and I never touch them. “Oh, I’ll try to fit that in between my bon-bon consumption and Days of Our Lives tomorrow,” I bite back, even though he knows I spend my days loving, feeding, homeschooling, policing, and cleaning up after three children.

Not a constructive way to deal with life, and something that leaves him stuttering for an answer. To me, he’s telling me I should have done the dishes for him and I’m lazy for not fitting them into my busy schedule. To him, it’s an offhand comment.

I Stomp Off

Sometimes, it all gets to be too much. Maybe there are too many little things I can interpret as criticism, so much so that I feel unwelcome in my own home. I feel so attacked that I can’t function as a parent or spouse, whether I’ve curled up inside myself or lashed out. So I stomp out the door to Target or Goodwill and go shopping — sometimes compulsively. I buy stuff we don’t need and I feel momentarily better about life. Except when I come home, my husband will ask what I bought, which I hear as an indictment, and which can start the cycle all over again if the shopping hasn’t thoroughly calmed me down (it helps, I’ve found, to take a kid along for balance).

I Think My In-Laws Hate Me

Rejection Sensitivity extends beyond my husband and into the rest of the family. I am utterly convinced my in-laws (excluding my father-in-law) hate me. Every comment, every request to re-organize the dishwasher I just loaded, any question about my homeschooling (no matter how innocent), any insinuation the kids should play in one room instead of another for fear they might break something priceless, is read by me as a comment on my inability to function as an adult with competent parenting skills. It sucks.

I know intellectually that they don’t mean it. And they are truly nice people who do actually like me. But I fret and freeze and clam up and fake migraine headaches and sleep too much around them because I find their presence, at times, an excruciating march of rejection. This leaves my husband to run interference, to keep me calm, to cajole me into every single visit. It sucks. They are super nice and super sweet. But my RS prevents me from feeling it.

I Make My Spouse Deal with My Parents, Too

My RS is so severe that some days, I can’t even talk to my own mother. For example, she moved to our town and needed help, because moving is stressful and busy and messy. I went over one afternoon to meet the plumber and, while I was there, broke down all her boxes and organized her linens. I instantly regretted it. She would hate it. She would hate me for it. I had so much internalized my RS that I anticipate it from those I love.

So when she called that night, I made my husband answer the phone for fear she would berate me for doing everything wrong. My mother is not the berating type. Of course, she was wildly grateful (I still think she rearranged all her linens while cursing my name). The constant need to deal with not only his parents, but also mine, can wear on him. He always has to be the adult while I’m the scared kid.

I Spiral Into Despair

RS is often mistaken for any number of psychological disorders, and I am not 100% convinced that my diagnosed bipolar II disorder isn’t actually severe RS. But sometimes, when I feel rejected or criticized, I can’t help falling into a spiral of despair and misery that can culminate in tears, panic attacks, and the need to take medication to calm myself down.

My poor husband has to play both comforter and psychiatric nurse to these episodes. It’s not fun, it’s not pretty, and it’s not conducive to an equal partnership when one person might fall off the deep end at any moment.

I Suffer Suicidal Ideation

Sometimes, my RS gets so bad that I feel like the world would be better off without me. Let me be clear: I would never harm myself, because I cannot stand the thought of hurting my children. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think about it. That doesn’t mean that sometimes I don’t want to. And when that happens and I voice the thought, he goes into panic mode.

Is this bad enough to call the doctor? Does he need to take my pills away? Can I be left alone? He often has a panic attack himself at the thought of losing me. I’m feeling guilty and rejected and unloved and so terrible I think I don’t deserve to live, and the person who loves me the most is scrambling to keep me safe. It’s not healthy for either of us.

Basically, RS can strain a marriage to the breaking point. I’m lucky. I married a man who will stick by me through anything, who loves me deeply, and who was aware before our marriage that I had psychiatric issues, whatever labels psychiatrists have decided to slap on them over the years. He knew what he was getting in to and he’s able to see the person behind the RS: the woman who loves him deeply and who acts out not because of malice, but because of despair and fear.

I don’t go on an RS tear every day. Or even every other day. For long stretches, I hold it together, and I try my best to hear the words people are saying, rather than the words I hear. But sometimes, I can’t help it. Sometimes, the words twist and turn like a knife in the back. Then I start to lose control. The RS takes over. The strain on my marriage begins. And I am lucky — damn lucky — to have married a man who can cope with it.

[Self Test: Bipolar Disorder in Adults]

Updated on February 6, 2019

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  1. I think you’re incredibly brave here. I know the struggle. One trick I learned is to carry a Qtip in your pocket so you can feel it an remember Quit taking it personally. I’m getting to the point where I can usually recall it is not about me but it has taken 60+ years to get there. Some days I still fall into that place. Now i am working on learning how not to stress myself in other ways so i can qtip all the time.

  2. Thanks for writing this incredibly descriptive narrative about how it feels to be overly sensitive to rejection. It is so similar to the hundreds of stories I’ve heard from couples over the last 35 years.

    I am convinced that rejection and taking things personally are almost always connected. As one of my clients so vividly describes “The tornado hits and I’m Dorothy!”

    I’ve taken things personally my whole life, and only recently was diagnosed with ‘mild’ ADHD after decades and decades of not having a meaningful‘ label’ for trying to deal with these confusing reactions to family, friends and workplace peers.

    In the 80’s I researched and wrote my dissertation on how perceived childhood rejection impacts adult intimate relationships. Two books, now published in 9 languages, evolved: Don’t Take It Personally! The Art of Dealing with Rejection and Breathing Room – Creating Space to Be a Couple.

    I have worked with hundreds of clients –– especially couples where ADHD, Rejection Sensitivity and Taking Things Personally converge, causing havoc in relationships.

    It’s amazing what we can actually do to make a choice to modify and change reactive behavior once we are able to separate the ‘then’ from the ‘now’ by identifying and isolating those early painful message which seem to stockpile and explode.

    Elayne Savage, PhD

    1. Hi in a 34 yr old ADHD inattentive type female. I’ve also got a diagnosis of GAD. My fiance has an abusive alcoholic father who never expressed love toward him but instead did the opposite & always told him how he wished the he’d never been born n that he ruined his life. He actually had him believing he wasn’t really even his dad bc he always said he was wasn’t. Anyway, my bf has always had this RSD type way of thinking & acting and the articles I’ve read about it on here describe him exactly. He does not however have ADHD. I’m curious about how you have managed to help people change this irrational way of thinking to a more healthy realistic one? I really am at my wits end having 2 stress about the way I word everything I say 2 him & even then still constantly finding myself in arguments with him which are almost always brought on by him taking things I say and assuming I’m trying to say something negative, like he believes he’s got this 6th sense where he can read between lines and understand the real meaning behind what ppl say but in reality there are no lines to read between(not in my case anyway)! If the argument isn’t about that then it’s him going on about me not caring about him or showing him enough attention/affection. I’ll admit I’ve been told my entire life that I’m hard 2 read and don’t show emotion the way most people do, for instance I can be all to hell on the inside but to someone looking at me I appear unbothered like I don’t care. I don’t know how to be any other way tho bc honestly I don’t even understand what it is about me that makes me “hard to read”. If I voice the way I feel he just doesn’t believe me & says its just words & my body language shows otherwise. I’ve dealt with his emotional instability going on 8yrs now & lately it’s gotten even worse (prob due to the fact that his dad’s been being worse than ever due to the fact that he’s dying from cirrhosis of that liver (his mind is being attacked by toxins since his liver isn’t functioning to filter the toxins out of his body) so he’s been acting even meaner than normal & my bfs actually scared his dad might even kill him. I’ve stuck around this long bc I realize his issues stem from things beyond his control but I don’t think I can deal with such a huge amount of stress for the rest of my life esp since I’ve got my own probs & they’re constantly on the back burner while im forced to listen to him complain about me not loving him and having to try to give my attention to him rather than things I need to be doing for myself. Any advice would be incredibly appreciated bc I do love him and im not trying to throw away the last (almost) decade of my life with him (which btw resulted in our 4 yr old daughter).

      1. I also have ADHD and RSD and looking back can see how it was RSD that caused me so much pain when I was younger. In my early 30s I was put on anti-depressants because of suicidal ideations and Luvox has dampened my RSD by about 90%. Very rarely now will it bring me to tears.
        My husband also could not take any perceived criticism to the point of violence but did seek medical help and AD’s also helped him immensely. He still struggles and as someone else mentioned, appears narcissistic,including the gaslighting mentioned in this post. I read a book called “Stop Caretaking the Borderline or Narcissist: How to End the Drama and Get on with Life” by Margalis Fjelstad and it really was life changing. Some very simple ideas that I found so easy to implement, when I had actually thought that there was no way forward.

  3. I really struggle with the characterization of the husband as a saint. What is the benefit to him to stay married other than to protect the children?

    I am diagnosed ADHD, one child is diagnosed ADHD/RSD/ODD. My wife has no interest in being evaluated, and yet I am 100% certain that she has a very severe RSD. Our relationship is at the point where it is utterly impossible for me to say anything even vaguely negative without some kind of explosion, and all forward motion in our growth as a partnership stopped years ago as a result.

    I find excuses every day to stay married, but I am quickly running out. While there is a strong psychiatric component to her behavior, at the end of the day if she is abusive to me on an ongoing basis, why would I stay, vows or no. Unlike the husband in the article, I had no idea at all what I was getting into when we married.

    The post doesn’t mention if the wife is trying medication or anything else to get RSD under control, or if it is just a thing that the family is learning to live with.

    I am really curious about whether there is any way to accommodate RSD other than tolerating the abuse.

    1. I have to agree. At this point I just feel like I’m being abused. also as much as I appreciate this forum for bringing these issues to light I do honestly get frustrated with the lack of answers. For instance this article said what helps us heal and yet I don’t see anything in this article about healing just coping which I’m tired of just coping…

    2. I’m in the same boat, except it’s my husband who I think may have RSD. I can’t offer any insight, or any sort or criticism, even constructive, without him losing it and blaming me for being aggressive, mean and degrading. It is so exhausting, and I feel defeated. I feel emotionally abused, and I’m walking on eggshells. What are we supposed to do as the spouses in these situations? I want to keep seeing the good in the man I married, but I don’t think I have anything left to give emotionally.

      1. Do you really need to offer constructive criticism? Pay close attention to how often you do it. You might be surprised. Were you or was he raised in a critical environment, or an environment in which doing anything less than one’s best wasn’t okay?
        Remember that your suppose with RSD is suffering. Objectively they may be over-reacting, but their reaction is consistent with their actual feelings.
        If you are sensitive to and understanding of your spouse’s experience, maybe your spouse will be receptive to its effect on you, and together you can help your spouse get treatment.

        1. Kady I understand what you’re saying. However there is a limit. I didn’t know what I signed up before marrying my husband with ADD and RS. And I am truly at my wit’s end. I try to be understanding and realize that he’s been through a lot and he doesn’t mean it, etc. But when it comes down to the nitty gritty, he is verbally abusing me. And our kids. Why should I have to put up with it and understand his issues. Don’t my feelings matter? What about my issues? When does he start to understand my issues? I can not be like the husband in this article. God bless him for his patience and willingness to let the outbursts just flow by. But after 17 years, I’m tired of it. Clearly I have reached the point of anger. I can’t have any productive conversation about our relationship without being yelled at and blamed and made to feel as if it’s all my fault. And it has reached the suicide stage with him a couple times. So then, of course, all topics where he may feel as if he’s to blame are tabled. Because if I upset him too much, I may come home to a dead spouse. Certainly I don’t want that. When does this change? How does it change?
          This article is SPOT ON. Down to the shopping to make them feel better. I can’t believe what I was reading. It was as if he wrote it.

          1. I had to set boundaries with my best friend; took him time to get used to that, but he knew that if he didn’t stop taking things out on me, he’d lose me, and I’m his primary support system. It took some time, but my persistence worked and he knows how to separate his thoughts/feelings from his perception about the things I say and do.

      1. The linked article indicates that medication is the only treatment, but a commenter suggests that the author is mistaken. It would be interesting to hear more on this topic from Dr. Dodson and other experts. It’s a very challenging issue. Thank you.

        1. Some Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) could help. There are no studies on RSD to my knowledge.

          Penny
          ADDitude Community Moderator, Parenting ADHD Trainer & Author, Mom to teen w/ ADHD, LDs, and autism

    3. In fairness to the author, I think that the experience that she describes is different from what you are describing. You referred to constant explosiveness. The author indicated that she often withdraws and sometimes lashes out, and that she doesn’t experience this every day or every other day. I don’t think that the author’s behaviour is abusive.
      I’m afraid that I don’t have any helpful advice re your situation. If this is new behaviour, is it constant? Could it be PMDD or perimenopause? Is she under a lot of stress?

      1. Hi kjandkd –

        Our life together is like walking through a minefield. A day or a week can go by and there is peace, and then the most offhand comment provokes an explosion that ends all conversation. Often it leads to the silent treatment for the rest of the day or into the next day. No real correlation to external stuff.

        She is perimenopausal so it’s interesting you mention that, although this behavior predates menopause by years. Stress? Again, the behavior has gone on for a long time, and stress has been all over the place in that time.

        If I could wave a magic wand, I would want her to recognize there is an issue, be it RSD or NPD or just some low grade depression or anger management issues, and agree to work on it. But the only way I will ever get there is with a gigantic fight and a very real chance of divorce. So timing is everything.

        Thanks for listening.

        1. It sounds really tough that your spouse is unwilling to seek help or discuss her behaviour. I guess you’ve tried discussing it when she’s feeling good? Love and acceptance and understanding go a long way. Are you sure she’s overreacting to the offhand comment, or to an underlying, unspoken issue? If you’re running out of reasons to stay married, perhaps she’s sensing that (unspoken) rejection.
          Perimenopause does go on for years before menopause.

        2. This sounds so much like my relationship with my husband, so he’s definitely not peri menopausal! Both of our kids have adhd & several therapists have said my spouse does too, but he refuses to be diagnosed, seek help, or attend therapy on an on-going basis. It is extremely challenging & his behavior also affects his relationship with our kids, which he blames me for, of course. Takes a lot of prayer to keep myself sane.

    4. I once had a friend who (after the fact, I learned….) had clear-cut, “every box checked” Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Talk about being ABUSED!!!

      I would like those who feel like they are being attacked to research some information on this insidious personality type. It is important, as Narcissists can not only severely damage your psyche but they are capable of putting you in physical danger. THESE PEOPLE you MUST get away from!!!
      Peace be with you all ~~

      1. In our particular case I explored and considered the various disorder definitions for years, and found the ADHD/RSD diagnosis to be a lot more explanatory, especially since our child officially had the diagnosis as well. Sorry about your friend.

  4. I really feel for your situations. My husband definitely has this issue and I suffer with him.

    I did know about the abuse he suffered as a child, but had no clue he would take it out on me…(RS)
    What I would say is that instead of just suffering…I got help- and I told my husband he needed
    help, too; And that me staying around would be conditional upon him getting help and sticking with
    it. If he stopped counseling, I would leave. If he was sincerely working on his issue, I would
    stay.

    I had to learn how I enabled him to continue to treat me badly- because my passivity or my “rescuing/fixing”
    response contributed to and reinforced his offending behavior…

    We teach people how we want to be treated and what we will tolerate…
    We allow people to step on our boundaries if we don’t enforce them with consequences.

    I also had to learn how to separate his behavior from my reaction. I, too, became
    emotional and had muddled thinking when he would go on a tirade. I let fear and or anger make me irrational.
    Instead, I practiced my measured and fair response with my therapist so that when the situation arrose, I’m
    wasn’t caught off-guard.

    Although things aren’t perfect, they are getting steadily better and I am glad because I do love my
    husband and want our marriage to go the distance.
    Best wishes and prayers for yours.

    1. Well that’s awesome and I congratulate you. There is no question that I perpetuate the behavior. The big leap that you made and I am not quite ready to take is the ultimatum. I hope to be able to get there.

      My wife is never wrong and never apologizes, so therapy has never helped. Sounds like you have a great therapist as well. Any bibliotherapy you would recommend?

      1. Yes! MichealFreesmith

        Bibliotherapy…

        “Stop Walking on Eggshells”
        “Boundaries”
        “You can be Happy No Matter What” (Hate the simplistic title, but I love the content)

        titles only because I’m doing it from memory, don’t remember the Authors offhand…

        It is very difficult when a spouse doesn’t have much ‘leverage’ to work with in getting a partner to Therapy. I hope for the best for you, truly…

        1. Thank you both for your discussion. It helps to not feel so alone. I feel trapped in my marriage as, due to some health issues, I don’t think I can work full time & take care of the kids & house on my own. Otherwise, I’d be at the point of an ultimatum. I wish I could find a therapist as good as yours!

    2. I wish I could have stayed with my husband. I walked on eggshells for a very long time. I tried different ways to talk with him but it seemed like no matter how I approached any subject he blew up. If I said A, he said B. He refused to go to counseling with me. He misconstrued pretty much whatever I said, which is why I knew he was RSD. He would rage and started giving me ultimatums. Like it or leave or some version thereof. After 10 years I couldn’t take it anymore. I love him and I hated to leave, but at a certain point if the person won’t seek help, blames what’s in their head on you, it becomes abuse. I have ADD but it is more related to a lack of executive function. I couldn’t take care of myself and get better as long as I was in that situation. I finally had to put my mask on first as they say on airplanes. I am starting to recover and I wish him the best. It is easy to characterize these types of people as narcissists but I don’t really think that he was. He was in a lot of pain instead of being manipulative. I hope he gets better now that we are apart.

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