Self-esteem, a sense of personal value, affects every aspect of our lives. Our level of self-esteem influences the way we see the world and how we interpret each situation we find ourselves in. Self-esteem is therefore crucial for our everyday well-being, but yet few people are aware of its importance. We complain about not achieving the results we want in our careers, with our bodies or with our friends. Most of all, we complain when our most intimate relationships do not work the way we would like them to. In these situations it is easy to blame our partners, but perceived relationship difficulties may instead be due to our own low levels of self-esteem. Without a high level of self-esteem, romantic relationships can become frightening disappointments rather than sources of security, support and happiness.
Flourishing relationships are to a large degree dependent of positive moods and attitudes of the partners involved. For example, Srivastava, McGonigal, Richards, Butler and Gross (2006) found that optimism is an important contributor to relationship long-term success and satisfaction. Unfortunately, people with low self-esteem experience negative emotions more often than people with high self-esteem (Conner & Barrett, 2005; Wood, Heimpel, & Michela, 2003), and they are less motivated than people with high self-esteem to repair their negative moods (Heimpel, Wood, Marchall, & Brown, 2002). Likewise, low self-esteem individuals have poorer mental and physical health, worse economic prospects, and higher levels of criminal behaviour, compared with high self-esteem individuals (Trzesniewski, Brent Donnellan, Moffitt, Robins, Poulton, & Caspi, 2006). In contrast, high self-esteem promotes happiness, mental health (Taylor & Brown, 1988) and life satisfaction (Kwan, Harris Bond, & Singelis, 1997). Thus, at least a moderate level of self-esteem seems to be a prerequisite for healthy human functioning, which in turn is a prerequisite for prospering romantic relationships.
Selection of partner
Level of self-esteem seems to be implicated, not only in how we behave in our relationships, but also in our selection of partners. By comparing participants’ attachment style dimensions, Collins and Read (1990) found that individuals tend to be in relationships with partners who share similar feelings about intimacy and dependability on others. However, people do not simply choose partners who are similar on every dimension of attachment. For example, individuals with low self-esteem and high levels of attachment anxiety do not choose partners who share their worries about being abandoned. Similarly, Mathes and Moore (1985) argued that individuals with low self-esteem seek to fulfill their ideal selves by choosing partners who they believe have the qualities they lack. Consequently, people choose partners with attachment styles that compliment their own.
Coping with problems
Level of self-esteem affects the kind of personal feedback people seek. On the one hand, some studies have found that people prefer to interact with others who view them as they view themselves. Hence, individuals with high self-esteem seek positive feedback and therefore prefer to interact with people that see them positively, whereas people with low self-esteem seek negative feedback and therefore prefer to interact with people that see them less positively (e.g. Swann, Griffin, & Gaines, 1987; Swann, de la Ronde, & Hixon, 1994). On the other hand, Bernichon, Cook and Brown (2003) found that high self-esteem participants seek self-verifying feedback even if it is negative, but low self-esteem participants seek positive feedback, even if it is not self-verifying. The truth behind these conflicting findings seems to be that people with low self-esteem are more hurt by negative feedback and therefore try to avoid it. However, to successfully avoid negative feedback they first have to find it, and they therefore constantly look out for it. For example, Brown and Dutton (1995) found that personal failures make low self-esteem participants feel worse compared to high self-esteem participants, probably because low self-esteem participants are less apt than high self-esteem participants to use effective coping mechanisms such as making external attributions for their failures (Blaine & Crocker, 1993) or emphasise their strengths in other domains (Dodgson & Wood, 1998). Furthermore, people with low self-esteem tend to over-generalise the negative implications of failure (Brown & Dutton, 1995), and they are more likely to make internal, global, and stable attributions when they encounter negative life events (Tennen, Herzberger & Nelson, 1987). As a result, people with low self-esteem adopt a more self-protective approach to life by aiming to avoid negative feedback.
This self-protective attitude and lack of appropriate coping mechanisms have important implications in romantic relationships. As people with low self-esteem are less able to cope with negative feedback, they are also less able to cope when problems arise in their relationships. In three studies, Murray, Rose, Bellavia, Holmes, & Kusche (2002) led participants to believe that there was a problem in their relationships. Although the methods for doing this are questionable for the first two studies, the last study led participants to believe that their partners (who were physically present) spent an excessive amount of time listing qualities in the target participants that they disapproved of. As indicated on questionnaires completed after this threat inducement, low self-esteem participants read too much into the perceived problems, seeing them as signs that their partner’s affections were waning. In contrast, participants with high self-esteem showed increased confidence in their partners’ continued acceptance. The authors thus concluded that people with low self-esteem perceive signs of rejection too readily when threatened by relatively mundane difficulties in their relationship. A suggested reason for this is that low self-esteem individuals’ occasional failures activate an ever-present worry that their partners will eventually discover their “true” selves and their affections might then diminish. This way in which low self-esteem individuals over-generalise consequences of minor difficulties apparently inhibits the development of trusting relationships. These findings therefore indicate how important self-esteem is for successful romantic relationships.
Protection against rejection
Murray et al. (2002) found that low self-esteem participants reported less positive views of their partners and diminished feelings of closeness after perceiving a threat to the relationship. Instead, high-self esteem participants coped with the problem by embellishing the positive qualities of their partners and drawing closer to the relationship. The same results were found by Murray, Holmes, MacDonald, & Ellsworth (1998). Consequently, it seems that people with low self-esteem attempt to protect themselves against potential rejection by devaluing their partners and thus downplaying the significance of what they stand to lose. By finding faults in their partners, the prospect of rejection appears less threatening because the partner is now seen as less desirable (Murray et al., 1998; Murray et al., 2002). Obviously, this strategy of coping with difficulties has detrimental effects on relationships. It is therefore understandable that dating partners of low self-esteem individuals report decreasingly positive perceptions of their partners, less satisfaction and greater conflict as their relationships progress (Murray, Holmes & Griffin, 1996). By devaluing their partners, low self-esteem individuals may thus bring about the end of the relationship, which is what they are trying to protect themselves against.
Interestingly, in the study by Murray et al. (1998) it was also found that low self-esteem participants devalued their partners and doubted their partners’ affections after an experimental manipulation intended boost to self-esteem. The authors suggested that this phenomenon might be because when low self-esteem participants received positive feedback (high scores on a questionnaire said to measure how considerately they behaved towards their partners) they activated thoughts of conditionality. In other words, low self-esteem participants might have started to think that their partners’ continued acceptance was dependent on their possession of specific virtues, rather than who they are intrinsically. This hypothesis is supported by findings by Schimel, Arndt, Pyszczynski, and Greenberg (2001), who found that positive social feedback based on what one considers to be intrinsic aspects of oneself reduces defensive reactions (such as distancing oneself from a negatively portrayed other), whereas positive social feedback based on one’s achievements does not. Thus, well-meaning attempts to soothe insecurities in low self-esteem partners by pointing to their virtues may instead exacerbate the insecurities.
The ways in which people with low self-esteem react to self-esteem threats can also be understood in terms of the sociometer theory (Leary et al., 1995). A threat to their self-esteem indicates a threat of social exclusion, and thus requires measures to eliminate this threat. As a result, individuals devalue their partners and distance themselves from them to make a potential rejection less threatening. This theory is also supported by the types of feedback people with high and low self-esteem seek following a threat to their self-esteem. As demonstrated by Vohs and Heatherton (2001), high self-esteem individuals seek feedback relating to their personal competence (e.g. intelligence) after a threat, whereas low self-esteem individuals seek feedback relating to whether or not others accept them. High self-esteem individuals become more independent after a threat, but low self-esteem people become more interdependent. Hence, level of self-esteem influences people to focus on different self-aspects after a self-esteem threat, so that high self-esteem individuals focus on personal aspects and low self-esteem participants focus on interpersonal self-aspects. However, although the sociometer theory states that a threat to self-esteem indicates a threat of exclusion, it does not say that people with low self-esteem automatically feel excluded when they encounter a self-esteem threat. Feelings of exclusion lead to lower self-esteem, but low self-esteem may not necessarily lead to feelings of exclusion, merely the anticipation of feeling it. For example, Leary et al. (1995) only found that exclusion leads to lower self-esteem and that perceived exclusion and low self-esteem are correlated. They did not demonstrate that low self-esteem leads to perceived exclusion. Consequently, it seems that low self-esteem per se may not necessarily make individuals feel excluded, but by constantly anticipating it, individuals with low self-esteem react in ways that eventually make their partners more likely to reject, and thus exclude, them.
The anxieties that low self-esteem individuals hold about being rejected can also be understood in terms of their anxious or avoidant adult attachment styles. Adult attachment researchers, such as Collins and Read (1990) and Srivastava and Beer (2005), have found that low self-esteem is correlated with high levels of attachment anxiety and avoidance. Anxious and avoidant adult attachments are thought to spring from inconsistent or avoidant care-giving throughout childhood, during which individuals learnt that love and support is not constantly available. Participants with these attachment styles therefore have relationships marked by emotional highs and lows, jealousy, and either less intimacy or obsessive preoccupation with their partners as they are afraid of losing them. People with secure attachments styles, on the other hand, have relationships characterized by happiness, trust, and friendship (Collins and Read, 1990). Hence, the insecurities and consequent inadequate coping strategies demonstrated by low self-esteem participants in the studies by Murray and her colleagues (e.g., Murray et al., 1998; Murray et al., 2002) may be due to anxious or avoidant attachments established during their childhoods. Attachment styles of partners in a relationship also predict relationship satisfaction. Collins and Read (1990) found that greater anxiety in women was associated with lower satisfaction in their male partners. Because anxious women are less trusting and more jealous, their partners feel more restricted and therefore less satisfied. In contrast, women showed higher satisfaction when their men were comfortable with closeness and intimacy. Men are often stereotyped as less comfortable with intimacy, so a man’s willingness to become close may be particularly valued by women (Collins and Read, 1990).
Perceptions of partner’s affections
People with low self-esteem assume that their partners see them in the same negative light as they see themselves. Consequently, they cannot understand why their partners would love them. On the other hand, people with high self-esteem assume that their partners see them as the great people they believe themselves to be, and their partners’ affections are therefore no mystery to them. In a study by Murray, Holmes and Griffin (2000), couples described themselves, their partners and how they thought their partners saw them. The results revealed that low self-esteem participants dramatically underestimated how positively their partners saw them. Participants who underestimated their partners’ regards also had more negative perceptions of their partners. The converse was found for high self-esteem individuals. Consequently, perceived regard seems to be the link between self-esteem and relationship satisfaction, so that self-esteem influences perceived regard and perceived regard influences relationship perceptions. However, it seems that even low self-esteem individuals want to be positively seen by their partners. For example, Murray et al. (1996) found that individuals are happier in their relationships the more positively their partners see them. Thus, although low self-esteem individuals wish to be positively regarded by their partners, their own negative self-perceptions prevent them from feeling this positive regard.
To get a clearer understanding of this issue, Murray et al. (2005) investigated the effects of pointing out strengths in the self or flaws in the partner. For example, when low self-esteem participants were led to believe that their personality traits fit easily with many potential partners, and hence, were in high demand, they reported higher self-perceptions, greater security in their partners’ positive regards and more commitment to the relationship. This finding is interesting because it goes against earlier findings by Murray et al. (1998). As discussed earlier, these researchers found that pointing out specific virtues in low self-esteem individuals made these individuals doubt their partner’s affections, probably because they felt that their partners’ positive regard was dependent on their continued possession of certain virtues. The reason why the first study found different results seems to be because they focused on specific personal strengths (considerateness) rather than on general interpersonal strengths (more intrinsic characteristics) as in the later study.
Furthermore, Murray et al. (2005) found that low self-esteem participants felt better about themselves and valued their partners and their relationships more when flaws in their partners were pointed out. As a result, this study suggests that the reason why low self-esteem people underestimate their partners’ affections is not necessarily only because they assume that their partners see them as they see themselves, but also because they feel inferior to their partners. That is, seeing faults in their partners gives low self-esteem individuals reason to expect greater tolerance from their partners of their own faults. Moreover, by emphasising own interpersonal virtues, the feeling that the partner is out of their league diminishes. Perceived security in a partner’s continued positive regard and commitment thus depends on the perception that each partner is bringing comparable personal strengths and weaknesses to the relationship.
Self-esteem plays a very important role in romantic relationships. People with low self-esteem experience more negative emotions, whereas people with high self-esteem experience more happiness and life satisfaction. Level of self-esteem influences who we select as partners and how we view them. Individuals who have negative perceptions of themselves also have more negative perceptions of their partners. Also, because they feel inferior, they cannot see any reason to why anyone would like them. Low self-esteem individuals therefore doubt that their partners actually love them, and consequently they take minor relationship difficulties or failures as signs that their partners’ affections are waning and that they will put an end to the relationship. At the face of such problems, people with low self-esteem distance themselves from their partners and devalue them even further, because the prospect of rejection becomes less threatening if the partner is seen as less desirable. On the other hand, people with high self-esteem value their partners more highly and even in situations of difficulties they maintain their confidence in that their partners will continue to love and support them. Consequently, low self-esteem poses a serious threat to successful relationships.