New study indicates people in relationships systematically overperceive sexual rejection

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Most people know that when dating, it can be difficult to decode signals from prospective romantic partners. A study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior suggests that people can accurately detect rejection when it happens but overestimate the frequency of this rejection.

Rejection can be a troubling and tough occurrence in peoples’ lives. Humans have an innate desire for social connection, and can face humiliation, pain, and shame when their attempts to connect fail. Previous research has highlighted how individuals can be both accurate and biased in their perception of romantic partners.

People tended to have overly optimistic views of the future of their romantic relationships, while overestimating negative interactions and underestimating positive interactions. Generally, people tend to misinterpret cues in the least costly way.

This research comprised of two studies. Kiersten Dobson and colleagues utilized 98 Canadian adult couples who had been together at least 2 years to make up their sample for study one. Study one allowed participants to complete measures on relationship and sexual satisfaction and sexual rejection. For the sexual rejection variable, participants indicated whether sexual activity had occurred, which partner had the higher sexual desire, and the degree to which they communicated sexual disinterest for 28 days.

Study two utilized 130 cohabitating, heterosexual, monogamous couples to serve as the sample. Measures utilized were accuracy in perceptions of sexual rejection, sexual satisfaction, and relationship satisfaction. For accuracy in perceptions of sexual rejection, couples were asked to report if they or their partner made a sexual advance and if that advance led to sexual activity.

The researchers found that individuals in romantic relationships could accurately interpret the pattern of their partner’s sexual rejection. Despite this, participants were more likely to overestimate the frequency of this rejection, rather than underestimate. This is consistent with previous research on this topic.

Overestimating likelihood of facing sexual rejection from a partner can lessen intimacy and be extremely detrimental to a romantic relationship. “For example, overestimating the likelihood of rejection from one’s partner may result in partners expressing sexual interest less frequently with one another than one or both partners desires, thereby impeding optimal sexual functioning among couples,” the researchers explained.

Gender differences occurred in that men were better at detecting rejection while women were better at knowing when they were not being rejected.

Despite this study taking great strides into understanding the perception of sexual rejection for couples, it also had limitations. Firstly, the data collected about sexual advances and rejection were based on self-report, a type of data collection that can be less accurate. Additionally, the sample was comprised primarily of white, young-adult, heterosexual couples. Future research could aim to increase diversity.

The study, “Perceptual Accuracy for Sexual Rejection in Romantic Relationships“, was authored by Kiersten Dobson, James Kim, and Emily A. Impett.

New study indicates people in relationships systematically overperceive sexual rejection

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