Research Discovers A Lesser Known Fear People With Dating Anxiety Have To Suffer Through

Psychologist Myles Rizvi helps us understand why dating anxiety is more complex than just not wanting to be rejected.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 25, 2023

A study published in The Family Journal uncovered a lesser known reason why dating makes you unusually anxious – the prospect of rejecting others romantically.

I recently spoke to Psychologist Myles Rizvi of Pacific University, Hillsboro in Oregon to understand why the fear of rejecting others can cripple us as much as, if not more than, the fear of romantic rejection. Here is a summary of our conversation.

Your study mentions that it is natural to feel anxious when you are dating and forming new romantic relationships. When does dating anxiety become an actual cause of concern and how does one identify it?

Anxiety is a natural human experience that can be particularly helpful in preparing us to deal with actual or imminent threat or danger. However, anxiety becomes a cause of concern when it gets in the way of what we have or want to do in life.

Dating anxiety becomes an actual cause for concern when the degree of anxiety experienced causes significant distress that makes dating difficult to enjoy or tolerate, and when dating-related activities are altogether avoided because of anxiety.

Anxious avoidance, or avoidance of feared situations, is perhaps the prime marker of problematic anxiety. When anxiety prevents people from exploring and forming relationships with others, and meeting their needs regarding physical, emotional, and intellectual intimacy, I would consider that to be clinically significant dating anxiety.

Could you walk us through the concepts of DFNE, FPE, and FRO and how they contribute to an individual's dating anxiety?

Understanding DFNE, or dating-specific fear of negative evaluation, requires discussion of fear of negative evaluation (FNE). FNE is an empirically supported construct involving feelings of apprehension about others' evaluations, distress over those evaluations, and expectations that others will evaluate one negatively. FNE is a prominent characteristic in both social anxiety disorder (SAD) and dating anxiety and many have cited FNE and its corollary fear of rejection as the core fears.

In social anxiety disorder, individuals often fear being negatively evaluated in a variety of social-evaluative situations (although some individuals with social anxiety disorder can fear negative evaluation specifically in public speaking situations), while individuals with dating anxiety tend to fear negative evaluation specific to dating contexts.

Reasons why negative evaluation is feared in the first place include overestimating the consequences of negative evaluation — namely, rejection — that will result in the loss of social status and worth, and abandonment, all of which can be terrifying prospects to social creatures such as ourselves.

Dating-specific fears of negative evaluation similarly have a corollary fear of rejection due to the overestimation of threat posed by being rejected by a potential romantic partner, and many often point to fears of negative evaluation and rejection as the core fear in dating anxiety. People generally want to make a good impression with a potential partner to form connection and belonging and have our needs met, and negative evaluation by potential romantic partners is feared due to the belief it will lead to rejection, abandonment, and preclusion of needs being met.

FPE, or fear of positive evaluation, is another empirically supported construct involving feelings of apprehension about being judged positively or favorably by others. It may seem odd at first that positive evaluation by others would be feared, but FPE has been found to be a salient fear in SAD, one that is also distinct from FNE.

Proposed reasons why positive evaluation can be feared by individuals with SAD includes fears that positive evaluation would set them up for negative evaluation and that increases in social status resulting from positive evaluation would become impossible to maintain and produce conflict with others.

Essentially, positive evaluation is feared because expectations on performance are seen as getting higher and higher to the point where they cannot be maintained. Given that dating anxiety is considered to be a manifestation of SAD, we considered that individuals with dating anxiety and high levels of FPE may also fear being viewed favorably due to fears of not being able to meet consequentially higher expectations potential partners may place on them, whether by being asked for more dates or taking steps towards deeper emotional and sexual intimacy.

FRO, or fear of rejecting others, is an experimental construct that involves feelings of apprehension regarding the prospect of rejecting potential romantic partners, whether by declining advances and/or breaking up with romantic partners.

The relevance of FPE as a fear of doing well socially initially prompted consideration that individuals with dating anxiety might fear being judged positively by others if they did not have reciprocal feelings of attraction, as this might put them in a position of rejecting others and thus being judged negatively by failing to meet others' expectations.

However, fear or rejecting others can be salient to dating anxiety independent of whether one receives positive evaluation from potential romantic partners or not, which the results of our study supported by finding that FRO was positively correlated with DFNE even after accounting for FPE.

Expressions of romantic interest are not always necessarily perceived as positive evaluation and can be unwanted, and for this reason fears of rejecting others can be due to fears of reprisal, guilt for hurting pursuers' feelings, and concern about coming across as unkind.

What, according to you, was your most critical finding and how do you think it contributes to the larger body of research on dating anxiety?

Our most critical finding was that FRO was significantly and positively correlated with DFNE, supporting our hypothesis that people who fear being negatively evaluated and rejected by potential romantic partners are also afraid of being the ones to reject them.

Around the time we conducted our study, no efforts to our knowledge were made to investigate whether individuals with dating anxiety feared rejecting others in addition to fearing rejection. Our finding challenges the predominant view that dating anxiety's primary cognitive features are fears of negative evaluation and rejection, suggesting dating anxiety also includes a salient fear of rejecting others.

I think our study contributes to the larger body of research on dating anxiety by highlighting the salience of FRO as a clinically important cognitive feature of dating anxiety. The findings of our study suggest that dating can be anxiously avoided for reasons beyond fears of rejection, possibly necessitating empirical revisions or modifications of existing cognitive models and treatment approaches to dating anxiety.

Cognitive (e.g., cognitive restructuring and reframing) and behavioral (e.g., exposure therapy) interventions would require tailoring to address fears of rejecting others. Rejecting others requires a recognition that one's feelings and desires matter just as much as others, and the salience of FRO strongly indicates the incorporation of assertiveness training when treating dating anxiety.

Would you have any words of advice for someone who feels intense anxiety when facing the prospect of dating someone new?

  1. I believe a fundamental truth across psychotherapeutic approaches is that it is ok to not be ok, and in that theme, give yourself permission to feel anxious. Dating anxiety is the subject of countless movies, TV shows, comedy routines, and memes, which speaks to its universality and highlights the fact that you are not alone in your anxiety, and it is likely that the person or persons you might be interested in are just as anxious and possibly more so.
  2. When you feel anxious about the prospect of dating someone new, reflect on what you hope to gain, accomplish, or experience while dating. Anxiety never lets us be excited about anything, and we hardly get the chance to look forward to things. Dare to be excited for your reasons for dating, and dare to look forward to the opportunity to get them.
  3. Give yourself permission to have and set boundaries with the person you are interested in dating. This goes hand-in- hand with identifying what you want in dating, as this inherently involves identifying what you do not want. Some people with dating anxiety often have difficulty setting boundaries and asserting their needs due to fears of negative evaluation and rejection, and it is crucial from both anxiety treatment and interpersonal wellbeing perspectives to practice setting boundaries. This can involve choosing and communicating how much time you would like to get to know the person before becoming more physically and emotionally intimate. People vary in terms of what they are comfortable doing in the early stages of dating, and you can allow yourself to set and establish what you are comfortable doing and not throughout dating.
  4. There is a considerable thread of uncertainty in anxiety, including dating anxiety. Anxiety often prevents us from exploring and gaining new experiences, which help us learn more about ourselves as individuals and partners. People with significant dating anxiety can believe they must be 100% certain that they can see themselves being in a long-term relationship before even going on a first date or even swiping right on an online dating app. You cannot ever be 100% certain or sure, nor should you be expected to, especially when it comes to dating, which is all about exploring compatibility. Realign with the fundamental purpose and essence of dating: exploration!
  5. Overcoming anxiety involves gradually moving towards what we avoid due to anxiety, which is the essential feature of exposure therapy. However, exposure therapy is a gradual, step-by-step process, where direction is much more important than pace. If the prospect of going on a date feels too anxiety-provoking to begin with, find a starting point that is not too difficult but also not too easy, and build from there. If your starting point is creating an online profile and swiping on people, start there. If your starting point is looking at online profiles, start there. Once you find your starting point, steadily build from there.
  6. Being rejected by a potential romantic partner can be painful, and yet it is survivable. If you are on the receiving end of rejection, allow yourself to feel that disappointment while also giving yourself credit for taking a risk and pursuing what you wanted. Independent of the outcome, you have still taken steps that have put you closer to getting what you want out of dating. Being turned down by a romantic partner, as hard as it can be, brings you closer to finding a partner that will be compatible. If you are on the delivering end of rejection, remind yourself that you are allowed to honor your preferences and interests, even if that means disappointing others. Rejection, after all, is survivable, and rejecting others brings them closer to finding a partner that will be more compatible.
  7. Consider establishing treatment with a therapist to overcome and manage dating anxiety. Overcoming anxiety is hard to do on your own; if it was not hard to do on your own, therapists such as myself would be out of job. You do not have to overcome anxiety on your own, and working with a therapist specializing in anxiety treatment can be a very powerful starting point, and they will be instrumental in giving you the skills, strategies, and confidence to overcome dating anxiety.

Are there any clinical interventions that have proven to be effective with dating anxiety?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) are evidence-based treatments for anxiety-related concerns that readily come to mind, and as such can be particularly effective in treating dating anxiety. Exposure therapy is one of the most powerful clinical interventions for anxiety-related concerns, including dating anxiety, and I emphatically recommend incorporating exposure therapy into any intervention addressing dating anxiety.