Definition of self-esteem
To what extent is your self-esteem related to your relationship? To explore this question, I did some research and compiled for you the opinions of couples therapist Christian Hemschemeier, couples counselor Eva-Maria Zurhorst, my own experience in counseling clients, and scientific studies. But first a definition: Self-esteem is understood as an evaluation you have about yourself. This involves an evaluation in different areas, such as different qualities you have and your abilities. The foundation for this is laid in childhood experiences and further relationships.
Anna* is unhappy in her relationship. After all, her partner repeatedly does not keep agreements. They have agreed that he spends 1-2 evenings a week with his friends, where he usually drinks a lot and smokes. Anna is bothered when her boyfriend smokes, but for her the compromise is okay. Lately, however, he is out with his friends almost every other day and she doesn't feel like spending time with him at all. Still, she has trouble showing him consequences for these broken agreements. Because actually she is also very afraid of losing him. In fact, she's not even sure if anyone else wants to have a relationship with her at all. After all, she is a bit insecure, shy, and doesn't find herself attractive.
Experts' opinions on self-esteem and relationships
Anna's example shows how low self-esteem can affect a relationship. Because if someone, like Anna, is convinced that he or she is not worth much, then one accepts behavior faster that is actually not okay. Couples therapist Christian Hemschemeier also explains that people with low self-esteem are more likely to be and stay in toxic relationships. This is because people with high self-esteem would be less likely to endure the situations that occur in unhealthy relationships and more likely to end the relationship. People with low self-esteem cannot because they depend on the love and affirmation from the partner. The problem that occurs when self-esteem is low is also described by couple therapist Eva-Maria Zurhorst: "And when we are not at peace with ourselves, we subliminally need love, closeness and confirmation from others. In this way, we make our happiness dependent on others. But it is much more important to take care of ourselves" (Kendall, 2019).
Healthy balance of self-esteem sources: Yourself & your partner
You can think of self-esteem as having a gas tank: when it's completely empty, your partner or friends have to fill it up. This is certainly problematic, because then you make yourself very dependent on the confirmation of others, and possibly develop a strong fear of loss or jealousy in relationships. Still, I think it's wrong that you have to completely value and accept yourself before someone else can. Because the tank doesn't have to be completely full either. Rather, you are allowed to experience affirmation and appreciation in relationships, and thus improve your self-esteem and fill the tank. After all, everyone has phases in which you are dissatisfied with yourself and doubt. And maybe you don't like some things or qualities about yourself. No one should claim to always and completely value and feel good about themselves, because we're all just human!
Research results on self-esteem & relationship
The three-year study of the University of Bern with 9000 test persons confirms the positive influence of the partner on self-esteem: it shows that a partnership has a positive influence on self-esteem after at least one year. But the influence of self-esteem starts earlier: people with high self-esteem started relationships more often than people with low self-esteem. And people with low self-esteem ended relationships more often. High self-esteem was good for the relationship, and low self-esteem led to lower relationship quality because there was more frequent and intense conflict.
Reasons for the connection between self-esteem & relationship.
Another study attempted to understand why higher self-esteem was positively related to relationship satisfaction. It was reasoned that partners with high self-esteem acknowledge and value positive feedback from their partner. In addition, they might be more able to provide emotional support to their partner.
People with lower self-esteem might be convinced that the partner perceives them as negatively as they do. This may then lead to distancing out of fear of rejection. In addition, such partners may excessively seek validation from their partner. They may also be less likely to accept positive feedback from their partner, such as compliments, because they are not convinced of it themselves. This in turn leads to frustration with the other partner. The other partner is also less likely to share positive experiences with a partner who has low self-esteem out of a presumption that they will receive less positive feedback.
Here's how you can work with your partner to boost your self-esteem
The good news is that you can work on your self-esteem alone and with your partner. To do this, you can share with your partner the issues that make you feel very insecure. For example, if you think that you are incompetent at work and not very intelligent, then your partner can support you by telling you whenever they perceive you as competent and intelligent. If your partner knows your insecurities, then he can best support you there.
Also, your partner can help you to have a self-compassionate and accepting view of yourself. He can do this by modeling a self-compassionate response to you in situations where you criticize or are unhappy with yourself.
Here's how you can work on increasing your self-esteem on your own
There are several exercises you can implement to boost your self-esteem. It is important to get to know and understand your critical voice in order to invalidate it. After that, you can get to know your strengths. You can also look at your values and practice self-compassion. You can learn how to demand what you want by talking about your needs with the method of non-violent communication (article about this here). You can also learn about, understand and change your inner beliefs. As you can see, there are many areas you can target to increase your self-esteem.
Anna's progress in valuing herself
Anna has since learned in her counseling with me the extent to which her family history is related to her self-esteem. She has also trained her self-compassion, and discovered and changed her core beliefs. She has learned how to figure out and communicate her needs. She has also learned how to value herself and clearly express her boundaries. This has led to her communicating her boundaries and needs more in the relationship. Since then, her boyfriend now sticks to agreements more. If he doesn't in the future, she now sees the possibility of breaking up more than before. After all, she has learned that she deserves someone who will respond to her and support her. She is worth that to herself.
Conclusion on Self-Esteem & Relationship
Having very low self-esteem can be difficult for you because it can result in you becoming dependent on your partner, feeling a strong fear of loss or jealousy, and staying in unhealthy relationships. You can work on your self-esteem, though: Alone and with your partner. Ultimately, the healthy balance is important: that you value yourself, but also let your partner support you.
Would you like to work on your self-esteem? I am happy to accompany you!
Erol, R. Y., & Orth, U. (2016). Self-esteem and the quality of romantic relationships. European Psychologist, 21, 274-283. http://dx.doi.org/10.1027/1016-9040/a000259.
Hemschemeier, C. (2021, 22. Oktober). Paartherapeut erklärt: Was der Selbstwert mit toxischen Beziehungen zu tun hat. [Couples therapist explains: what self-esteem has to do with toxic relationships]. Redaktions Netzwerk Deutschland. https://www.rnd.de/liebe-und-partnerschaft/toxische-beziehungen-was-der-selbstwert-damit-zu-tun-hat-46RAEBDWQJCZVLI45L2T34TZMQ.html.
Kendal, B. (2019, 11. November). Warum es so wichtig ist, sich selbst zu lieben. [Why it is so important to love yourself]. Redaktions Netzwerk Deutschland. https://www.rnd.de/liebe-und-partnerschaft/selbstliebe-warum-es-so-wichtig-ist-sich-selbst-zu-lieben-KP72K33WBBHK7DQJ5OY52Q7KVA.html.
Luciano, E. C., & Orth, U. (2017). Transitions in romantic relationships and development of self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112(2), 307–328. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000109.
McKay, M., & Fanning, P. (2016). Self-esteem: A proven program of cognitive techniques for assessing, improving, and maintaining your self-esteem. New Harbinger Publications.
*Annas is a changed name to maintain confidentiality.