self esteem and relationshipMost people look toward their marriage or long term relationship as a context for love, support and affirmation. Research suggests, however, that a person’s self-esteem may significantly impact this relationship potential.

How Do We Define Self-Esteem?

In psychology, self-esteem is defined as a reflection of a person’s overall self-appraisal, of their own worth.

Measurement of self-esteem and the most commonly used definition in research was offered by Morris Rosenberg and social-learning theorists who defined self-esteem in terms of a stable sense of personal worth or worthiness, measurable by self-report.  Rosenberg’s Self-Esteem Scale which is available for use, consists of 10 statements about self like the following:

“I feel I have a number of good qualities”

“I feel I do not have much to be proud of.”

These are rated from strongly agree to strongly disagree on a 4 point scale and are tallied to offer a score that ranges for 0-30 with scores below 15 suggesting low self-esteem and score 15-25 as within the normal range.

The Impact of Self-Esteem

In an interesting series of studies by Murray, Holmes, MacDonald and Ellsworth (1998) using Rosenberg’s Self-Esteem Scale to differentiate groups, researchers found that no matter how they adjusted variables, self-esteem colors not only a person’s perception of self but impacts expectations of the partner and the tenor of the relationship.

From Self Doubts to Relationship Insecurities

Of particular concern is the consistent finding that although those with low self-esteem want affirmation from partners and need the relationship as a source of acceptance, their self-doubts translate into relationship insecurities, precluding the very benefits to self-esteem a loving relationship could offer.

From Insecurities to Self-Reflection

  • Given that we most often are unaware of the ways in which our efforts to psychologically protect ourselves sabotage the very things we need, consider the findings and dynamics listed below as an opportunity to self-reflect.
  • Curiosity about self is a step toward positive self-regard and interpersonal possibilities.

Assuming the Worst Obscures Finding Out the Best

Although they wanted their partners to see them in a better light than they saw themselves, dating and married partners with low self-esteem greatly underestimated just how positively their partners saw them. High self-esteem partners were much more accurate in their perceptions.

Assuming that Love is Conditional Will Keep You Frightened

  • A negative review at work, losing the deal or losing a job disappoints and feels upsetting to anyone. Those with low self-esteem tend to take outside events as indictments of low self worth. While they need their partner to help them see past this, they fear their partner will no longer love them.
  • They begin looking for evidence that proves their worst fear. The set-up for their partner is that if he/she tries to minimize the outside event, point out assets or offer alternative perspectives – they are not believed. Often they withdraw or actually become critical- exactly what was feared.
  • Although not easy, if the partner can hold their positive perspective – “I still love you and think you deserve better than that job.” – The message is affirming and whether believed at the moment or not – it is on record.

Contaminating the Partner is not Protection

  • In a study in which partners were asked to recall a past transgression toward their partner, those with low self-esteem reacted by questioning their partner’s positive regard for them and then devaluing their partner- an attempt to preempt presumed rejection by diminishing the value or need for the partner.
  • This contamination dynamic robs a partner of a loving relationship that can weather human frailty and that includes forgiveness. To the other partner it adds insult to injury.

Compensating As a Way to Restore the Relationship

  • After remembering a past transgression, those with high self-esteem did not alter their perception of their partner’s positive regard. They presumed love was not incompatible with mistakes, transgressions or forgiveness.
  • One study found that those with high self-esteem actually compensated for the self-threat implied in their transgression by embracing their partner’s continued positive regard and acceptance.

Self-Forgiveness and Embracing the Positive

For many reasons, most of which are not chosen, people walk into adult life wounded by reality. One of the scars is low self-esteem. We know that we can’t change our past but we can take charge of our present. Having a partner is one way to find a new reference point, a different perspective and an affirming presence.

Consider looking at one positive quality of yours and one positive quality of your partner’s each day no matter what else happens. You are laying the foundation for a different sense of self and a different sense of trust in your relationship.

We know that positive emotions have the unique quality to broaden and build both social and psychological resources.

It is never too late to start re-building.

Further Reading:

Murray, S.L., Holmes, J., MacDonald, Ellsworth P., (1998) “Through the Looking Glass Darkly? When Self-Doubts Turn Into Relationship Insecurities. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol.75, No.6, 1459-1480.

Photo by Sasha Wolff, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.



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APA Reference
Phillips, S. (2011). Is Your Self-Esteem Threatening Your Relationship?. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 27, 2015, from


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