The perils of prejection

Nobody likes to be rejected. In fact, the feeling of rejection can help drive some of humanity's worst behaviour, and triggers our stress hormones in the same way as fear of physical attack. It's bad enough when you're being rejected for a job or promotion, but the fear is most intense when it's social – like the fear of being rejected from a friendship group or, of course, a romantic relationship.

Much like other animals, humans tend to behave differently when they're afraid. One of the biggest adjustments is that we become more hostile to new stimuli, whether those are ideas, our physical surroundings, or people. This hostility usually manifests itself in avoidant behaviour (e.g. getting nervous before a party and deciding to stay home), but can also make itself known in displays of anger (e.g. when we lash out at someone who's winning an argument against us).

It's common to write this behaviour off as irrational, but to do that is to do ourselves a bit of a disservice. Fear is often a very proportionate response to our environment: if someone runs at us with a knife, it's perfectly rational to experience anxiety and try to avoid being hit. If we didn't have that emotional response, the outcome for us might not look too good.

The same is true of social problems. We're social animals, which is a short way of saying that amongst other things, we're basically programmed to fear rejection. Historically, social rejection could result in starvation and death. Nowadays the consequences are usually subtler, but they can still be excruciatingly painful (and even dangerous).

But whilst fear and fear behaviour can be completely reasonable responses to our environment, they don't usually make us happy. In fact, happiness is associated with at least a modest level of risk-taking, which is something fear conditions us to avoid.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in romance. At Swan, a pattern we're beginning to see emerge in a few of our wonderful users is "prejection." What does that mean? Well, someone goes on dates, has a good time and likes their match, but then rejects them immediately afterwards – before they have the chance to be rejected themselves.

When we ask about this, the response is often very similar: "I didn't think s/he was into me."

But because we get feedback from both people, we can see pretty quickly whether or not this view is accurate. And surprisingly often, it's  wrong. One person can even go on several dates and report the same thing each time ("He was cool, but I don't think he liked me very much") and each time the other person will write something like: "I really liked her, but she declined the offer of another date."

What's going on here? It looks like fear of rejection is overcoming our ability to make healthy romantic choices. This isn't surprising: if we're stressed by the prospect of romantic failure, our whole endocrine (hormonal) system is encouraging us to avoid further hazard, and what could be more stressful than putting ourselves on the line with no guarantee that the other person responds positively?

The difficulty is increased by the fact that men and women show romantic interest in different ways, and individual men and individual women have very different flirting styles. As many women (and some men) can attest, what one person thinks is normal warmth and friendliness can easily be misconstrued by another person as an invitation to romantic or sexual partnership, and vice versa. In an ideal world, perhaps we'd all be able to say something like "I am interested in pursuing a romantic relationship with you" or "I enjoy our friendship and do not want anything else from our relationship" without fear of rejection or causing offence... but that's not yet a norm for most people, and especially not with people we don't know well.

A good alternative, at least for Swan customers, is to hold off judgment until you know for sure what the other person thinks. If they're not interested, no big deal – you'll get another match next month. If they are, you've found a potential romantic match. Prejecting someone means that no matter how intrigued they are by you, you've lost that opportunity. If there's anything that has to be rejected, surely it's that.