/ 25 June 2020

Raising men to handle romantic rejection can diminish violence against women

(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)
(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)


In our society, it is a cultural norm that only men have a right to reject women, not the other way around.  Men are deemed to have the last say in whether the relationship ends or proceeds. This is especially the case in traditional marriages. 

This rule is never articulated, but from generation to generation men grow up believing that they are the ones who will be doing the discarding.

A former colleague, who is now a health professional, found out that when she left her home for a night shift, her husband brought over a girlfriend who is now pregnant. 

She filed for a divorce, but her husband refused, saying he had paid full lobola and therefore she was not entitled to leave him.

Whenever she brought up the conversation about divorce, her husband would get violent and assault her. The aggression continued because her husband suffered from rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD). 

Rejection sensitive dysphoria refers to individuals who respond extremely negatively to the perception of being rejected: it goes far beyond the run-of-the-mill discomfort that most of us experience. 

Downey, Bonica, and Rincon (1998) describe people with RSD as those who have such a strong emotional reaction to negative judgments, exclusion, or criticism from others that it sends them into a mental tailspin, leading to rumination and the “pit-of-the-stomach malaise” that will not let them move forward with their day. 

They feel like failures, disproportionate to what has actually occurred. They may feel rage and want to lash out. They often exaggerate how people are against them, or how much people dislike them, or they carry long-term shame.

Elders called a family gathering to tell my former colleague not to give up on her husband because of his “infidelity”. She was also told to endure the troubling issues she is faced with in her marriage. The husband was present in the meeting, he was ordered to end his affair with his girlfriend and focus on building his home and marriage. 

He rejected the girlfriend and promised to look after the baby once it has been born. 

The same man who could not come to terms with rejection, found it easy to reject the woman he’s been cheating with. 

Being rejected never feels good in the moment, no matter how lucky you might feel about the “near miss” a week, a year, or a decade later. There is a gender difference, however, in cultural expectations regarding acceptable responses to rejection.

Men and women respond differently in culturally normative ways: males tend to take rejection as a challenge to their masculinity or an insult to their perceived place in the social hierarchy. 

Women are likely to feel emotionally hurt and to assume that there is something lacking in them that warranted the rejection, or they blame their ex-partner. But they often use self-soothing to get over the insult rather than lash out as males might do. 

In romantic separation, women are encouraged to “get over it,” but men often feel the need to “get even”. Gender-based violence is perpetuated through such norms. 

What men don’t understand is that violence and abuse against women is the most pervasive and profound human rights’ violation, sapping women’s energy, compromising their physical health and eroding their self-esteem.

It is time that we have honest conversations about how our society would benefit from having men who better navigate romantic rejection; I believe this would help to diminish violence against women. 

Most women who are murdered by their partners are those who wanted out of a relationship. As many as 51% of women in South Africa have experienced violence at the hands of someone they were in a relationship with, whereas every three hours a woman is murdered in South Africa. 

This month, South Africa has had to endure the news of the brutal killing of Tshegofatso Pule, a 28-year-old woman who was eight months pregnant. She was stabbed multiple times and then hung from a tree. I also felt the pain of losing Naledi Phangindawo, the 25-year-old who was also stabbed and axed to death in the harbour city of Mossel Bay and Sanele Mfaba, the young woman whose body was dumped under a tree in Soweto, outside Johannesburg. 

This week, attention shifted to Philippi, Cape Town where 17-year-old Amahle Quku’s naked and bruised body was found in Brown’s Farm. She had been raped and brutally murdered. 

Will this ever stop? 

I believe the day men start having honest conversations about romantic rejection they will stop killing women. Our biggest enemy in fighting the scourge of gender-based violence are those who suffer from RSD.

Violence happens in our communities because we let it. Therefore, we have to bring men, the main perpetrators, into the discussion if we are ever to break the cycle. 

There are men who are seizing the opportunity to play an increased role in ending the scourge of violence against women through awareness forums, marches and social media campaigns such as #NotInOurName. 

This is a positive step towards finding solutions. 

Let us prioritise teaching boys and men how to handle romantic rejection and speak to society at large about the need to debunk stereotypes and norms around this serious issue.

Siwaphiwe Myataza is a political science graduate from the University of the Western Cape, who works as a media liaison specialist for the City of Johannesburg. She writes in her personal capacity