Romantic rejection doesn’t hurt men any more than it hurts women. Based on the last few years, though, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
In April, 25-year-old Alek Minassian drove his van into a Toronto crowd, killing 10 people and injuring 14. Earlier in the day, Minassian had gone on Facebook to praise Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old student responsible for a 2014 shooting spree at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in part because he felt rejected by women.
In his post, Minassian called for an “incel rebellion” ― a reference to the online community of self-described “involuntary celibates” who commiserate over their inability to have sex with women. Spurred on by sexual frustration, some fantasize about raping and killing women and discuss the idea of “redistributing sex,” as if it were some sort of commodity.
The incel community and the violence that has stemmed from it are extreme cases, but the fact remains: A lot of men are really ill-equipped to handle romantic rejection and the feeling of being undesired. Look no further than a recent Twitter thread where women shared how men overreacted when their feelings weren’t reciprocated:
Of course, women struggle with rejection, too, but they’ve been socialized to deal with it in a more internal way, said Kimberly Resnick Anderson, a sex therapist and a clinical instructor of psychiatry at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine.
“If a woman is ghosted or blown off, she will be more likely than a man to take it personally,” Resnick Anderson told HuffPost in an email. “She’ll assume she did something wrong (‘I shouldn’t have slept with him on the first date’ or ‘I should have waited until I fit in my size 6 jeans’).”
Men, meanwhile, learn from an early age to externalize the experience.
“Young men often assume that malice is involved in the rejection,” Resnick Anderson said. “It’s easier to justify an aggressive reaction if you can convince yourself that you were intentionally ‘wronged.’”
How have they been wronged, exactly? Many men believe they’re entitled to women’s bodies, and that a “no” from a woman is simply a “yes” in the making. Online pickup artist forums are full of formerly sexually frustrated men sharing tales of their supposed conquests and dispensing tips on how to turn a “no” into a begrudging “ugh, fine, but you get the Uber.”
The pickup artist and seduction culture outlined in Neil Strauss’ best-selling 2005 book The Game never really died; it just got a whole lot darker on subreddits and grimier corners of the Internet. (For what it’s worth, Strauss himself has said he no longer believes in the pickup game. “I’ve seen some people get into [the game] and it just speaks to their dark side,” he told Quartz in 2015. “They become worse human beings than they already were.”)
“I treated [women] more like video games than human beings. I was just looking for the sequence of moves that would get me the reward. I would never treat a guy like that: I’d engage with him, connect with him.”
Relationship coach Ken Blackman bought into those seduction techniques — hook, line and sinker. As an awkward teen and 20-something (“I wasn’t tall — I’m five foot zero — or wealthy, handsome, athletic, charming or extroverted”), Blackman was all too familiar with rejection until he learned the core tenets of The Game.
“I definitely objectified women then. They were alien creatures, not like me,” he told HuffPost by email. “I treated them more like video games than human beings. I was just looking for the sequence of moves that would get me the reward. I would never treat a guy like that: I’d engage with him, connect with him.”
In his late 20s, Blackman stopped trying to figure out an algorithm for sex with women and started to forge real, meaningful connections. That all hinged on realizing something important about rejection: A woman could either choose to have sex with him or not ― and if she didn’t, not only was there nothing he could do about it, he’d be fine regardless.
“I realized there was nothing I was entitled to or deserving of or any of that,” he said. “I finally started to see women differently. I could appreciate their friendship as incredibly valuable, rather than seeing it as ‘not sex.’”
In the process, his “self-esteem became constructed from something other than a woman’s approval,” he said.
Eventually, Blackman started to enjoy flirting for its own sake, without the implicit promise of sex. He also began to treat rejection like the normal, human experience it is, not some soul-crushing, emasculating defeat.
That’s a lesson we all need to take to heart in order to create a more sex-positive, post-Me Too dating culture for all people. Sure, rejection hurts like hell ― a 2003 study found that social rejection activates many of the same brain regions involved in physical pain ― but it’s a universal part of life, said Suzanne Degges-White, a professor and the chair of the department of counseling, adult and higher education at Northern Illinois University.
“Emotional pain and anger at rejection are totally normal reactions to abnormal situations,” she said. “No one likes being passed over, but it’s going to happen more times in life than we like to imagine. Not everyone gets the corner office and not everyone gets to play varsity, either. Rejection needs to be normalized, not catastrophized.”
Still, if you’re a millennial, that message may be especially difficult to swallow.
“We’ve spent years trying to build up the self-esteem of an entire generation and have created a world in which the word ‘no’ carries more power to wound adults more deeply than ever before.”
“We’ve spent years trying to build up the self-esteem of an entire generation and have created a world in which the word ‘no’ carries more power to wound adults more deeply than ever before,” Degges-White said.
That “everyone gets a trophy” conditioning ― coupled with online message boards that convince men they’re deserving of sex ― has created a world where a simple “sorry, I just don’t feel like we’re vibing” text can feel like a direct attack on a guy’s self-worth.
Women, too, can struggle to let go in the wake of romantic rejection and may also externalize their feelings. In a Role Reboot story last month, writer and communications instructor Chelsea Cristene described her own experiences mishandling rejection in college.
The guy was a friend of a friend, and a standard, run-of-the-mill crush until he let her know he wasn’t that into her. Then, as those suffering from unrequited love are wont to do, Cristene built him up in her head as something more. Things only got worse when he moved on with someone new.
“One night, I rounded the corner and saw him kissing another girl. I ran to my car and cried so hard on the drive home that I thought I was going to throw up,” Cristene writes. “The next time we saw each other, I unloaded everything I’d been feeling for the past several months. How dare you break my heart and date someone else. How dare you.”
“We talk about male entitlement a lot, but women can certainly harbor unhealthy feelings of entitlement, too, especially in a dating culture that pushes us to turn a "no" into a "yes."”
Sure, their friendship was sexually fraught and confusing. Both she and the guy were guilty of mind games, Cristene said. But by denying her crush’s platonic feelings from the get-go, Cristene fell into the same toxic, tired script of pickup artists.
“I discounted what he was actually saying in favor of my own future relationship fantasies and became angry when he dated someone else because I was so lost in that potential future,” she told HuffPost. “We talk about male entitlement a lot, but women can certainly harbor unhealthy feelings of entitlement, too, especially in a dating culture that pushes us to turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes.’”
Years later, the pair reconnected on Facebook and Cristene sent him an apology message.
“I’ve owed him an apology for a long time, because the way I treated him was unfair and unreasonable,” she said.
Ultimately, Cristene learned the same lesson Blackman did: Wasting your time on someone who’s not romantically interested is a lost cause, and it’s still worth building relationships with the opposite sex even if it doesn’t turn physical.
“We have to see friendship as not a consolation prize ― it’s simply a different form of love and connection than you wanted,” she said. “And most of the time, you’ll find out rejection is for the best. You just have to learn to channel all of that energy into someone whose relationship goals actually line up with yours.”
With her own patients, Resnick Anderson suggests reframing rejection as an opportunity to be self-reflective.
“It never feels good to be rejected, but allowing another person to dictate your self worth is a problem,” she said. “Maybe there is something to learn about yourself or the way you come across.”
Monitor your negative self-talk, too. Instead of telling yourself you were rejected, Blackman suggests seeing it in another light: You asked someone out and they simply declined that invitation.
“Assuming she hasn’t asked for no contact, learn to make an invitation that actually feels good to her,” he said. “If she says ‘let’s just be friends,’ great. Cultivate friendship, on her terms. Stop rejecting her — stop acting disappointed with the ninety percent of who she is that isn’t sex. She’s an interesting human being.”
It might also help to acknowledge that you’ve probably done your own share of rejecting people whose interest in you outmatched yours in them, Degges-White said.
“Romantic attraction is a fickle thing ― some people are going to think that you’re their perfect match, while you’re thinking that you can’t get out of the coffee shop fast enough,” she said. “That’s just the way life goes.”