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.
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. He is not gaslighting me — 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.
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.
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. 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.