How Low/Fluctuating Self Esteem Impairs Relationship Satisfaction
People with low self esteem tend to have “lower quality relationships” than people with healthy self esteem. Their relationships have less love and trust, and more conflict and ambivalence.
People with low self esteem’s relationships are also less stable (more likely to break up).
Psychologists Dr Sandra Murray and Dr John Holmes developed what’s become a very influential model in psychology to explain why this happens. Their model is supported by lots of studies (including some of mine).
Here’s a summary of it.
Low Self Esteem and Relationships
Part 1: Regardless of their self esteem, people tend to assume that other people see them in a similar way to how they see themselves. For example, if I think I’m warm, attractive, smart, and funny then I’m likely to assume that other people also see me this way.
So people with high self esteem, who generally see themselves positively, tend to believe other people see them positively. They typically think that people who don’t know them yet will probably like them and that people who already like them will keep liking them.
In contrast, people with low self-esteem tend to be less confident that other people perceive them in a positive light. They doubt whether strangers will like them, and they’re not sure if the people they’re close to will continue to like/love/accept/want them.
What’s important to note about low self esteem is that most people with “low self esteem” don’t see themselves consistently negatively. Most people with low self esteem are probably better described as having “fluctuating self esteem.”
Their self esteem might depend on their mood or what’s happened that day, or they might have OK self esteem in some domains and problem self esteem in other domains (e.g. they might be confident about their self worth in the work domain but not in the relationships domain or friendship domain).
Part 2: The reason Part 1 is important is because how people act towards other people depends on how we think others view us. If we believe someone likes us we believe differently towards them than if we believe they don’t like us, aren’t sure about whether they like us, or aren’t sure if they will keep liking us.
Because it’s difficult for people with low self esteem to believe they’re unconditionally loved and accepted by their partners, they tend to hold back from fully committing in relationships or making themselves vulnerable, or engage in other types of behaviours that are unhelpful for relationships (e.g. testing their partners’ love).
Part 3: A benefit of being in a relationship can be increased self esteem or at least increased self esteem in certain domains. For example, if your partner sees you as smarter, more talented, more attractive etc. than how you see yourself, then over time you’ll probably start to see yourself as more of those things. We start to “believe” our partners view of us – that we really are a bit more attractive, smarter etc. than we previously thought.
But, as explained in part 1, the problem for people with low self esteem is that they often have trouble realizing and accepting their partners’ view of them. This means that the people who most need a self esteem boost often have the hardest time getting this benefit.
Self Esteem Test
You can test your self esteem here (Rosenberg Self Esteem Inventory). It’s not a very precise test, so don’t take the results as definitive but it’s a reasonable guide. Look at how far your score is from the high/low self esteem cutoff of 15. If your score is say, 18, you’re close to the cutoff so self esteem might be a problem for you.
What people with low self esteem can do
Now that you know this model you can be aware that these processes might be happening in your relationships or even in your friendships.
If being aware of the model and looking out for times when you might be thinking someone is judging you more negatively than they are isn’t enough, then you might want to see a psychology PhD. For self-help with developing a more stable self-concept, try The Anxiety Toolkit.
For psychology students who want to do additional reading – this post is based on the Dependency Regulation Model (developed by Dr Sandra Murray and colleagues).