“I am now in a wonderful romantic relationship with a divorcee with a child, but I cannot stand the thought that her ex-husband is a senior manager, while I am merely a low-ranking manager.” —Abraham
“My two husbands had low self-esteem; they were jealous of my previous lovers. My next three lovers had high self-esteem and did not ask me about it.” —Raya
Thriving in romantic relationships, which expresses not merely feeling good, but also the feeling of growth and development within that relationship, is more than merely surviving—it involves implementing and nurturing our values and capacities.
Romantic thriving is influenced by self-focused attitudes, including self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-fulfillment. Self-esteem is our subjective overall evaluation of our worth as a person; self-confidence expresses our ability to successfully perform various tasks; and self-fulfillment involves the implementation of our values and capacities.
“My self-esteem does not depend on my lover:” Self-esteem and romantic thriving
“I wanted my lover very much, but I knew that my self-esteem would be destroyed if he ever slept with another woman. He had low self-esteem and was constantly looking for the next conquest.” —Rose
“I have high self-esteem, and I am attracted to my lover because of his achievements. My self-esteem does not depend on him, but is enhanced by him.” —Ruby
“My self-esteem increased when knowing that my lovers had been with many women.” —Robin
Self-esteem is measured by one’s level of agreement with statements like: “I like myself just the way I am”; “On the whole, I am satisfied with myself,” and “I feel worthless at times.” High self-esteem is not based on constant comparison with others—it includes self-acceptance, calmness, humility, generosity, gratitude and a lack of feeling superior to others. Although partners with such self-esteem are less dependent on each other, the bond between them is deeper, since it is based on more fundamental and stable aspects. Low self-esteem creates low quality relationships, a tendency towards pessimism, jealousy, insecurity, hostility, conflict and fear of rejection.
Romantic thriving can be seen in high quality relationships which hold a high degree of satisfaction, commitment and intimate connection, as well as fewer conflicts. High self-esteem improves the quality of the romantic relationships, personal satisfaction and happiness as well as leading to success and satisfaction in other realms, such as work and health. High-quality relationships typically do not improve self–esteem, which is relatively stable. The average level of self-esteem increases until the age of 60, remains constant until the age of 70, after which it continues to decline (Erol & Orth, 2016; Orth et al, 2018).
Self-esteem partly depends on the way others, including romantic partners, evaluate us. However, it is unhealthy for our self-esteem to depend solely on our partner. Indeed, it has been found that relationship-contingent self-esteem is an unhealthy form of self-esteem, whereby the partner’s minor negative deeds are exaggerated through being considered as relevant to our own self-esteem. In these circumstances, self-esteem is low and often is connected to dependency on our partner, feeling incompetent, lacking care and love from one’s partner, and is associated with an emotional roller-coaster. If relationship-contingent self-esteem is present in both partners, they feel more committed to each other but not more satisfied or close (Knee et. al, 2008).
High self-esteem is the opposite of narcissism, in which people have an inflated sense of self-importance and constantly need attention, confirmation and excessive admiration, while lacking empathy. The narcissist is like a bucket of water or an inflated balloon, where every minor stabbing (such as a negative comment about them) causes water to leak or the balloon to burst.
Self-esteem is central in polyamory. There is a stigma suggesting that polyamorous relations must involve low self-esteem. However, this seems only to be the case of the partner who hesitates in embarking on a new relationship, not the one initiating it. Being in a polyamorous relationship requires high self-esteem since comparison to other people (i.e., sharing your partner) is more natural and frequent.
“Please do not turn on the light:" Self-confidence and romantic thriving
“A genuine self-confidence involves calmness; extravagant, excessive self-confidence tries to hide a lack of self-confidence. Those with genuine self-confidence do not hide their vulnerability and are able to cope with it.” —Dina
“On a first date, I express great self-confidence and am not nice. Men with low self-confidence cannot cope with it. Those who handle my antipathy in the first evening win big in the following evenings.” —Helen
“When meeting men, they are attracted to my high self-confidence. Indeed, as long as I am not emotionally involved, I can be cool and unreachable. When a relationship becomes more serious, I lose my initial self-confidence. Was my initial self-confidence deceptive?” —Orit
Self-confidence refers to our trust in our ability to successfully perform various tasks, including those that lead to romantic thriving. While we can have overall positive self-esteem, we cannot excel in all areas of life; hence, self-confidence is not always associated with self-esteem. Sports-people, movie stars and physicians have profound self-confidence in their expertise, but may have low self-esteem, making them miserable.
High self-esteem and high self-confidence in a specific realm do not necessarily generate high self-confidence in romantic and sexual relationships. A lack of self-confidence in sex is common, since good sex does not merely require a learned set of skills but also compatibility, where characteristics such as smell and appearance are important, though also cannot be changed. A lack of self-confidence in sex may also relate to poor body-image and can be one reason that some people wish to undress only in the dark.
“You are not everything to me:” Self-fulfillment and romantic thriving
“You mean everything to me.”—Neil Sedaka
“In the beginning, I was enthusiastic to meet new romantic partners. Today I need calmness—a situation free of background noise where I can focus on what is important to me. So recently, I decided to decrease my polyamorous activities in order to have more time to work, and I broke off a meaningful romantic relationship that I had.” —Shai-Li, a polyamorous married woman (cited in Carmi & Sade-Saadon, 2021).
Romantic relationships do not considerably change self-esteem but they can improve the partner’s behavior. Close partners sculpt one another in a manner that brings individuals closer to their ideal self, thus bringing out the best in each other. Statements like “I’m a better person when being with her,” are natural in such relationships (Drigotas, 2002).
A sense of high self-esteem, which improves the quality of a relationship, is associated with an increasing importance of self-fulfillment within marriages (and other committed relationships) (Finkel, 2017). Marriage is not merely about love and meeting one’s partner’s material and sexual needs, but also about fulfilling our own needs, some of which are fulfilled without our partner. The importance of self-fulfillment indicates that relationship-contingent self-esteem is problematic, not merely because of our dependency on our partner, but also since it ignores the core of self-esteem: self-fulfillment, which underlies our happiness and meaningfulness in life (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019).
The importance of self-fulfillment alters the nature of our ideal partner. On the one hand, we now demand less from our partner—who is not everything to us, since our meaningful world is based also on our personal wishes and activities, carried out with other people. On the other hand, the requirements from our partner are more qualitative—our partner does not merely need to help us with our practical and romantic needs, but also in nurturing our (and their) self-fulfillment, simultaneously bringing out the best in each other. This type of relationship is of higher quality, but its implementation is less frequent.
The importance of self-esteem, self-confidence and self-fulfillment in the creation of romantic thriving indicates that our happiness greatly depends, among other things, on ourselves.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.
Carmi, Z. & Sade-Saadon, L. (2021). Relationships wide open (forthcoming).
Drigotas, S. M. (2002). The Michelangelo phenomenon and personal well-being. Journal of Personality, 70, 59–77.
Erol, R. Y., & Orth, U. (2016). Self-esteem and the quality of romantic relationships. European Psychologist, 21, 274-283.
Finkel, E. J. (2017). The all-or-nothing marriage. Penguin.
Knee, C. R., Canevello, A., Bush, A. L., & Cook, A. (2008). Relationship-contingent self-esteem and the ups and downs of romantic relationships. Journal of personality and social psychology, 95, 608-627.
Orth, U., Erol, R. Y., & Luciano, E. C. (2018). Development of self-esteem from age 4 to 94 years. Psychological Bulletin, 144, 1045-1080.