What does self-esteem have to do with it? That was the question two social scientists asked about the topic of starting a romantic relationship. From their study of more than 9,000 people, who participated in the research for three years, the authors were able to figure out whether people who had higher self-esteem were more likely to start a new romantic relationship. (More details about the study, and the answers it provided to other questions about self-esteem and romantic relationships, are here.)

Whether people who started a new romantic relationship had higher self-esteem than those who stayed single depended on how long that relationship ended up lasting. If it lasted less than a year, then self-esteem had nothing to do with it. People with higher self-esteem were no more likely to get into a new short-lived romantic relationship than people with lower self-esteem. But it was different for relationships that lasted at least a year: People who entered those relationships did have higher self-esteem to begin with.

So why is it that people with high self-esteem are more likely to start a romantic relationship that ends up lasting and not any more likely to start a romantic relationship that doesn’t even make it to the one-year mark?

Of the possible explanations that the authors suggested, my favorite was this: People with high self-esteem aren’t about to give up their single life for just any romantic relationship. They aren’t going to jump at the opportunity to be coupled just to be coupled. They don’t want the potential for conflict that comes with a romantic relationship that already seems a bit if’y at the outset. They will instead hold out for a high-quality relationship.

And in fact, the self-esteem dynamics are the same with high- and low-quality relationships as they are with lasting and short-lived relationships. People with higher self-esteem are more likely to get into high-quality romantic relationships, but they are no more likely to start a relationship that ends up being low quality.

That first explanation the authors offered – that people with high self-esteem have higher standards when it comes to romantic relationships – sounds a lot like the psychology of people who have been called quirkyalone. Sasha Cagen, who put quirkyalones on the map, said of them:

“Romantics, idealists, eccentrics, we inhabit single-dom as our natural resting state…For the quirkyalone, there is no patience for dating just for the sake of not being alone. We want a miracle. Out of millions, we have to find the one who will understand.”

People who are “single at heart” embrace their single lives even more than quirkyalones do.  They aren’t holding out for The One, not even the very, very special One. To them, living single is how they live their best, most authentic, meaningful, and rewarding lives.

The other two explanations the authors offered are also worth noting:

“Second, individuals with high self-esteem might be more attractive mates than individuals with low self-esteem, so that they might be able to choose from a larger pool of potential partners. Third, once individuals with high self-esteem begin a relationship, they might show more competent relationship behavior, increasing the satisfaction of both partners and contributing to a longer relationship duration.”

Maybe people with lower self-esteem want a romantic relationship a little too badly. They are more inclined than people with higher self-esteem to take a chance on a romantic relationship that ends badly and quickly. The depressing process seems to be self-perpetuating. People with lower self-esteem get into lower-quality, less enduring romantic relationships, and then, when those relationships end, their self-esteem suffers even more.

I love living single but I understand that not everyone does. I think this research suggests that if you do want to find a romantic partner, there are risks to lowering your standards too much. You may need to feel particularly good about yourself to have the confidence to decline opportunities to get into a new romantic relationship; but if you do stick to your standards, maybe you will avoid some of the downward spirals of disappointing romantic relationships.

Reference:

Luciano, E. C., & Orth, U. (2017). Transitions in romantic relationships and development of self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112, 307-328.