Popular wisdom tells us that healthy self-esteem is a prerequisite for a healthy relationship—that without sufficient self-love, we’re not capable of truly loving others. Research suggests, however, that while our feelings about ourselves can certainly influence our feelings about others (and vice versa), the connection is more complicated than it may seem.
There is actually ample evidence that feelings of worthlessness and self-hatred can interfere with relationships. People with low self-esteem tend to underestimate their partner’s love and view their partners in more negative terms, perhaps because they don’t believe that “a good person” could love them. As a result, they tend to also report less satisfaction with their relationship and less optimism about its future. Further, those who question their own self-worth are more likely to anxiously expect rejection and vigilantly monitor their partners’ behavior for signs of it, at times mistakenly interpreting benign acts as hostile and rejecting.
It’s not just that people lacking in self-love view their relationships more negatively—they may also enter more negative relationships in the first place, selecting and staying with partners who don’t treat them well.
According to research on self-verification, people with negative self-views are sometimes drawn to those who see them as they see themselves—that is, negatively. Low self-esteem is also linked with feeling less deserving of happiness, which could lead people to tolerate poor treatment.
Does this mean that high self-esteem is better for relationships? Not necessarily. At the higher extreme, self-esteem can move toward narcissism, which involves self-centeredness and inflated self-views. In relationships, those with narcissistic traits are often interested in partners who enhance their own self-image in some way—for example, those they perceive as especially attractive or successful. What may seem on the surface to be love and admiration may turn out to be more about exploitation and game-playing. A narcissist’s interest may also be fleeting. (Narcissism may be one reason why celebrity couples’ relationships rarely seem to last.)
Even when high self-esteem doesn’t reach narcissistic extremes, it’s not necessarily an asset in relationships. Research suggests that people with high self-esteem are more likely than others to use “exit” strategies when problems arise rather than taking more constructive approaches. And people with high self-esteem that is fragile and contingent on external validation (as self-esteem often is) are more likely to become defensive or blame others when facing their own transgressions.
Self-love, then, may not be as essential to relationships as we sometimes make it out to be. What seems to be more healthy is self-acceptance—that is, viewing yourself as a basically good person who is worthy of love, without needing to prove yourself or outshine others. A self-accepting person is less likely to burden a partner with either excessive reassurance-seeking or excessive criticism.
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