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How to Navigate Rejection-Sensitive Dysphoria in Your Relationship

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As an individual with ADHD who is dating someone who also has ADHD, rejection-sensitive dysphoria (RSD) plays a consistent role in our interactions. We’re both hypersensitive to rejection, but the benefit is the fact that we understand it — meaning we understand each other’s thought processes; behavioral responses; and what to do about it, both as the individual experiencing rejection-sensitive dysphoria or as the other person when your partner is experiencing RSD.

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The thing is, navigating rejection-sensitive dysphoria in a relationship is a two-person effort. It takes clear communication from both partners, the ability to ask for and to offer reassurance, and the patience and willingness to work through misunderstandings.

Let’s start with clear communication, because that doesn’t mean the same thing for someone with rejection-sensitive dysphoria as it does for a relationship where RSD is not involved. Rejection-sensitive dysphoria is a hypersensitivity and reactivity to perceived or real rejection, which means that even if it isn’t an indicator of rejection, it can feel like it is to the individual with RSD, which then results in reactivity to the perceived rejection, even if your partner never meant to express any form of rejection to begin with. Thus, clear communication in a relationship that involves RSD means recognizing that this can pop up with very minimal indication and actively taking steps in communication to avoid creating that misunderstanding. For example, instead of, “I can’t spend time with you tonight,” it’s going to be better received if you say, “I’d love to see you, but I’m swamped with work tonight and just don’t have the time. Would you be able to do something on Friday instead?” This tells your partner upfront, “Hey, I’m not rejecting you right now. I want to spend time with you; I’m just overwhelmed.” That said, the need for clear communication also falls on the individual who experiences RSD, because if their partner is never told, “When all you say is ‘I can’t spend time with you tonight,’ that feels like rejection to me.” it’s not fair to expect them to be able to prepare for that in communication.

Clear communication quickly funnels into reassurance. When rejection-sensitive dysphoria is activated, it’s important that the individual experiencing it is able to vocalize how they’re feeling and ask for clarification from their partner, even as daunting as it may feel. Getting that clarification from their partner can provide the reassurance they need to know that what’s going on isn’t rejection. That said, their partner also needs to be willing to understand that this is an area that is difficult for them and be willing to provide that reassurance when their partner is asking for it.

Still, even when these things are utilized, misunderstandings are going to happen. A time comes to mind where my boyfriend thought he was providing me with reassurance but the wording he used just made me more anxious. In that situation, I had to vocalize how I was feeling and we both had to be patient with one another as we willingly worked to clarify what each of us meant and figure out where the communication breakdown happened in order to avoid it in the future. Without the patience and willingness to work through misunderstandings on both sides, the partner with rejection-sensitive dysphoria will likely feel very hurt and become distant, which would likely lead to frustration and confusion from their partner, which could ultimately cause significant damage to the relationship.

All of this said, once you learn how to work around rejection-sensitive dysphoria in your relationship, it really isn’t that difficult. When you love someone and want to give them what they need, these things are easy to implement because they help achieve the goal of being a supportive person for your partner and loving them well.

Getty image by Fizkes.

Originally published: September 25, 2021
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