Study: Mindfulness mitigates rejection fears and destructive relationship behaviors

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New research suggests that dispositional mindfulness can reduce the negative impact of rejection fears in romantic relationships.

Dispositional, or “everyday” mindfulness, describes the personality trait of having a greater awareness of the present moment as well with one’s present thoughts and feelings.

In the study, which was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 72 New Zealand college students in romantic relationships completed a survey to measure their dispositional mindfulness. The participants then kept a diary of their daily experiences regarding relationship conflict, fears of rejection, and destructive behavior for the next 10 days.

The researchers found that relationship conflict was associated with greater rejection fears and greater destructive behavior toward intimate partners. But greater dispositional mindfulness attenuated both of these associations.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Holly Claire Dixon of The University of Auckland. Read her responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Dixon: There is a lot of research demonstrating how conflict in romantic relationships can lead to rejection fears and destructive relationship behaviours (e.g., dismissive behaviour, disengagement and hostility), which obviously have considerable relationship costs. There is also a lot of research demonstrating that this link between relationship conflict and destructive behaviour is stronger for those that have low self-esteem or chronic anxieties in relationships. This is because such individuals are hyper-vigilant to signs of rejection. When their internal “rejection-risk-radar” alerts them to possible danger (i.e. the possibility that they will be rejected), they seek to shield themselves from the pain of possible rejection… which often means distancing themselves from their partner or acting destructively.

So, while existing research has (1) established links between conflict, fears of rejection and destructive relationship behaviours, and (2) has identified for whom regulating these exchanges will be most difficult for, very little research has been done to establish what might support individuals to engage more constructively in rejection-risk situations. Essentially – I wanted to find out whether there was a way to circumvent or reduce the emotional and behavioural reactions that ensue following conflict with one’s romantic partner (especially for those that are extra vulnerable in these situations). This is where mindfulness comes in…

I’ve practiced mindfulness meditation since I was 18, and have witnessed its calming, restorative effects in my own life. My practice has helped me to “come home to myself”—to ground myself—in times of great anxiety (including when that anxiety arises during relationship conflict). It has allowed me to pause, reflect, reconsider my experiences, and then choose the best way to respond in a rejection risk situation with my partner. This personal experience with mindfulness, coupled with my desire to find out what can support individuals to engage more constructively in challenging relationship situations, is what sparked my interest in the topic and what motivated me to complete this research.

What should the average person take away from your study?

I think that the key message the average person should take away from this research is that experiencing conflict and rejection fears in relationships does not unequivocally lead to adverse relationship outcomes. Indeed, being high in dispositional mindfulness can protect against the detrimental outcomes that often go hand-in-hand with conflict and heightened rejection fears.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

I don’t believe there are any “major caveats” in this study. Nonetheless, limitations are mentioned in the article (e.g., sample characteristics, correlational data). We also note that the use of mindfulness-based interventions (in particular, randomized controlled trials) would overcome the limitations of dispositional measures of mindfulness, and would strengthen our view that enhancing mindfulness builds the capacity to more effectively manage challenges in relationships.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

For more information on relationship research going on at the University of Auckland, visit: www.reach.auckland.ac.nz

The study, “Regulating fears of rejection: Dispositional mindfulness attenuates the links between daily conflict, rejection fears, and destructive relationship behaviors“, was also co-authored by Nickola Christine Overall.

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