This blog understands self-esteem as the product of two factors, namely, competence and worthiness working together, especially when facing the challenges of living (Mruk, 2018, 2013). Although much work in the field concerns the individual, it surprises some to know that we also focus on the role self-esteem plays in relationships. Since they are a primary source of worth, it is important to consider this dimension of self-esteem.
Many social scientists point out that we are social creatures because relationships motivate much of our behavior. Indeed, most of us spend considerable time looking for, struggling with, and (hopefully) enjoying relationships. One of the most important connections between self-esteem and relationships is that they provide the acceptance and type of being valued that fosters our sense of worth as a person — or a lack of it if things go poorly.
The Impacts of Low and Defensive Self-Esteem on Relationships
According to our definition, low self-esteem stems from a lack of competence combined with a poor sense of worthiness. Defensive self-esteem is more fragile or “touchy” because one factor is high and the other is low in this case, which creates instability. These two self-esteem deficiencies may be mild or severe. In either case, low or defensive self-esteem detracts from the relational well-being, just as they do for individual well-being.
For example, people with low self-esteem often underestimate how much a partner values them, which can make both parties feel less appreciated, cared about, or loved. Low self-esteem also makes it easier for someone to diminish or discount positive feedback from others, which may impair the likelihood of a relationship to form, deepen, or last over time. People with defensive self-esteem are often overly sensitive to perceived criticisms, minor slights, and other negative interpersonal phenomena, whether intended or not. This combination often makes them difficult to be involved with over time. Both problematic types of self-esteem involve people focusing on protecting themselves in a relationship, which decreases satisfaction for both partners.
Some researchers refer to this condition as “rejection sensitivity” (Downy & Feldman, 1996). For example, people with low or defensive (brittle or fragile) self-esteem often become overly concerned with the possibility of being let down or rejected by another. Such an interpersonal style damages the ability to either find healthy relationships or do the things that are necessary to help nurture one. Avoiding commitments, not facing problems, withdrawing love when it is needed, distancing oneself emotionally from the other, blaming or unnecessarily criticizing others, some forms of infidelity, and so on, all can be ways of protecting the self in a relationship that are related to problems with self-esteem. Unfortunately, they also undermine relationships and sometimes even destroy them.
The Impact of Healthy or Authentic Self-Esteem on Relationships
In addition to protecting the self, the other major function of self-esteem is to help people expand their possibilities in life. This function also pertains to self-esteem in relationships. Authentic or healthy self-esteem is connected to such things as being accepted by others, closeness, marital (partner) satisfaction, and the ability to provide emotional support to others. In other words, a good degree of competence and worthiness helps an individual take the risks necessary to initiate, sustain, deepen, or enjoy a relationship.
When faced with trouble in the relationship, people with authentic self-esteem tend to do just the opposite of those with low or defensive self-esteem. Instead of rejection strategies, they employ “rejection prevention strategies” (Berenson & Downey, 2006). These behaviors emphasize the importance or value of the relationship. For example, it is easier for someone with healthy self-esteem to do the things that are necessary to sustain or heal a relationship when it is in trouble. They include setting aside one’s own needs to care for those of the other, admitting responsibility for an error and sincerely apologizing for it, making amends when that is necessary for healing to occur, and so forth. Such individuals also report more playfulness, spontaneity, enjoyment, closeness, and satisfaction with many dimensions of their relationship, including their sexuality and degree of commitment. They even perceive their partners in a better light due to an inclination to focus on the person’s positive, not negative, characteristics. Most of us would appreciate this type of relational behavior because it affirms our worth as a person.
Self-Esteem and Relationships: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
There is something of a “bottom line” to consider about self-esteem in relationships. Most of us would do well to remember it from time to time. Social scientist use the term “reciprocity” to describe it, but the idea is simple. Self-esteem affects, and is affected by, relationships, something akin to a self-fulfilling prophecy. In this way, authentic self-esteem is a win-win for both the relationship and for those within it.
Downey, G., & Feldman, S. (1996). Implications of rejection sensitivity for intimate
relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 1327-1343.
Berenson, K. & Downey, G (2006): Self-esteem and rejection sensitivity in close relationships. In M. Kernis (Ed), Self-esteem issues and answers: A sourcebook of current perspectives (pp. 367-373). New York: Psychology Press.
Mruk, C. J. (2018). Feeling good by doing good: A guide to authentic well-being. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mruk, C. J. (2013). Self-esteem and positive psychology: Research, theory, and practice (4e). New York: Springer Publishing Company.