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The Trouble With Our First Relationships

Remaining single, though, seems to have no negative effect.

Tita Gonzalez Aviles and three of her German colleagues thought they knew just what would happen when adolescents or very young adults entered their first romantic relationship: Their self-esteem would increase. They described that as their key prediction, and they had great data to analyze to see whether they were right.

They weren’t. Just the opposite occurred: For both women and men, self-esteem decreased after they started their first romantic relationship (though not by a lot). Gonzalez Aviles and her colleagues reported their findings in “Not all flowers bloom in April: Self-esteem development surrounding the first romantic relationship during adolescence and emerging adulthood,” published in the European Journal of Personality.

In an 11-year study that started in 2008, nearly 1,400 German participants were asked every year about their romantic relationship status, their self-esteem, and their satisfaction with being single or their satisfaction with their romantic relationship. They were typically 16 years old at the start of the study. Although not everyone answered the questions in all 11 of the years, about 90 percent participated in at least four of the years.

The Hit to Self-Esteem of a First Romantic Relationship

Having some romantic relationship experience during adolescence and young adulthood is normative in Germany. Over the course of the 11-year study, more than three-quarters of the participants (78 percent) were in a romantic relationship at some point. That’s one of the reasons the authors thought that the longer the participants stayed single before starting their first romantic relationship, the more their self-esteem would suffer. They would feel that they were missing out. But that didn’t happen. On average, their self-esteem remained stable up until they started their first romantic relationship. Then their self-esteem slipped.

Averaging across all of the participants in the study, regardless of their romantic relationship experience, their self-esteem decreased over the course of the 11 years. Generally, the participants felt less good about themselves as they aged from 16 to 26. The only hint of any risk to the self-esteem of young single people was that those who stayed single the whole time experienced a greater drop in self-esteem than those who had some relationship experience by the time they reached the age of about 26. Maybe, in that way, they did feel that they were missing out. Maybe they thought that if they got into a romantic relationship, like so many of their peers had already done, they would feel better about themselves. It would be no wonder if they thought that – after all, even the authors expected that to happen. Instead, young people felt a bit worse about themselves after starting their first romantic relationship.

What Matters Most May Be Living Authentically

Of course, romantic relationship experiences vary a lot. The participants in romantic relationships who said they were more satisfied with their relationships had higher self-esteem than those who were less satisfied. The same kind of psychological dynamic was true for the single people: Those who were more satisfied with being single had higher self-esteem than those who where less satisfied.

Those results were just correlational, so we can’t know for sure how to explain them. One possibility is that people who like being single, such as the single at heart, and people who like being in romantic relationships (and have more satisfying romantic relationships) both enjoy greater self-esteem because they are living the life they want to live – they are living authentically. Being single makes the single people who want to be single feel good about themselves, just as being in a romantic relationship (but only if it is a satisfying one) can make young people who want to be coupled feel good about themselves.

Other psychological dynamics are possible, too. For example, maybe young people with high self-esteem are especially likely to choose the life that suits them best, whether that is single life or coupled life or some other variation over time.

The authors close the summary of their findings with this statement: “Being single during late adolescence and emerging adulthood does not seem to pose a risk for youth’s self-esteem development.” Based on their data, I’d go a step further: For single people who like being single, living single may be the key to robust self-esteem.

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