When seeking a romantic relationship, we are often encouraged to focus on what we’re looking for in a partner. Do they need to be funny? Kind? Tall? Smart? Are we hoping they’re going to be older, younger, of similar or different backgrounds? Do they have similar life aspirations? Of course, it is helpful to use our values to guide whether we may connect well with a potential partner; however, this mindset often shines the light on the partner’s qualities or values, and shines the light away from what we bring into a relationship. We each not only bring our own special quirks, we also bring in more significant characteristics like our core beliefs (see Maeve’s blog), attachment styles (see Simcha’s blog), and self-esteem. All of these can relate to how we perceive and experience our relationships, and thus it is crucial that we better understand how these impact our view of our partner and relationship in order to make choices that best serve our well-being.
Self-esteem has been shown to relate to relationship satisfaction in both the short- and long-term (Sciangula & Morry, 2009; Orth et al., 2012; Enrol & Orth, 2013). Essentially, what this means is that how we feel about ourselves impacts how we feel about our partners and our relationships. This dynamic can play out in a number of ways, so let’s consider a few examples:
Max, who has high self-esteem, begins dating another individual. Max soon begins to feel that his new partner does not prioritize his needs or make efforts to connect with him, so he may choose to not continue in the relationship because he recognizes his own self-worth and understand that this new partner is not valuing him appropriately.
Olivia, who has lower self-esteem, begins dating someone who does not make time for her or consider her thoughts and feelings. Olivia, however, assumes that she is the problem, that she is not ‘good enough’ and that it makes sense that her new partner is not valuing her as a result. Olivia then chooses to stay in the relationship even though her partner is not behaving in a way that indicates a healthy long term relationship.
Olivia, who has lower self-esteem, begins a relationship with someone who treats her well. At first, she finds this experience positive and enjoyable. However, as time goes on, she begins to grow concerned that there must be something wrong with her partner if they are interested in her. She doubts that she would interest someone who is kind and respectful. So, she begins to look for flaws in her partner and their relationship in order to make sense of the situation. This tendency puts strain on the relationship, creating distance and disconnection in an otherwise healthy and respectful relationship.
Example 4: Max, with high self-esteem, finds himself in a positive and caring relationship. He trusts that this makes sense and is in line with what he deserves, and thus he is able to allow himself to enjoy the relationship and be vulnerable with his new partner.
As you can see, our self-esteem can serve as the lens through which we view our partner. When we struggle with low self-esteem, we may be more likely to seek relationships that do not promote mutual respect and care. We may also be likely to reject relationships that are in fact healthy (Murray et al., 2001)! So, what can we do about this dynamic?
Step 1: Notice the lens!
In order to make a change, we must first notice that we are projecting our own self-worth onto how we see the relationship. Once we do that, we can then begin to figure out what we can do differently to take care of our needs rather than settle in or change the relationship.
Step 2: Work to improve self-esteem.
Aim to increase self-esteem in order to address the underlying cause. Self-esteem can be modified in a number of ways, including:
- Recognizing the ‘inner critic’ (see Lisa’s blog) and learning to notice and challenge or let go of these unhelpful thoughts
- Treat yourself as you would a good friend, imagine speaking to yourself gently and with respect and care (see Andrea’s blog on self-compassion)
- Work toward personal goals that align with your values
- By taking actions to help us move towards the things that we care about, we can begin to feel good about the choices we’re making and the impact it’s having
- Challenge your beliefs about your self-worth (see Maeve’s blog)
- Explore a book (Schiraldi, 2016) that provides step by step exercises to work directly on self-esteem
Tobey Mandel is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.
Sciangula, A. & Morry, M. M. (2009). Self-esteem and perceived regard: How I see myself affects my relationship satisfaction. The Journal of Social Psychology, 149, 143-159.
Erol, Y. & Orth, U. (2013). Actor and partner effects of self-esteem on relationship satisfaction and the mediating role of secure attachment between the partners. Journal of Research in Personality, 47, 26-35.
Orth, U., Robins, R. W., & Widaman, K. F. (2012). Life-span development of selfesteem and its effects on important life outcomes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 1271–1288.
Murray, S. L, Holmes, J. G., Griffin, D. W., …, Rose, P. (2001). The mismeasure of love: How self-doubt contaminates relationship beliefs. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 423-436.
Schiraldi, G. R. (2016). The Self-Esteem Workbook: 2nd Edition. New Harbinger Publications.