- People who are constantly seeking approval may find that they suppress their genuine thoughts and feelings.
- New relationship research shows that the costs to the intimacy of being driven by your partner's approval.
- Challenge your need for approval and build your sense of self to improve your relationship's resilience.
It’s natural to wish that your partner would approve of what you do, think, and say. No one wants to feel that their partner doesn’t value them.
The search for self-respect, both from one’s partner and from people in general, can be carried too far, however.
Perhaps you’ve just finished a project around the house that you’ve worked on for weeks. Up until the last minute, the project was looking great and your partner seemed impressed by your ability to pull it off.
At that last minute, though, you decided to make what you thought would be a slight improvement, adding some extra decorative details. Rather than applaud your efforts, your partner now says the whole thing is ruined. Deflated, you retreat to a corner of your home for a few hours of self-soothing.
What if, instead of taking this criticism to heart, you decided that it’s your partner whose taste is to be questioned? After all, the project was your own brainchild and you are happy with it. Your partner will just have to deal and, more than likely, will come around to your point of view and regard it with appreciation.
The Need for Approval and Emotional Intimacy
According to Brigham Young University’s Amber Price and colleagues (2023), people are driven by a strong desire for belonging that, “may at times lead them to seek others’ approval in ways that, though well-intentioned, may weaken their sense of self."
This, in turn, can lead to “self-silencing” in which an individual stifles the expression of “personal thoughts and feelings in hopes of winning another person’s favor." It’s no surprise that the dilemma created when you’re constantly seeking approval would therefore limit your capacity for intimacy. If you can’t express your true self with the person who is supposed to be closest to you, the relationship is bound to suffer.
Returning to the home project situation, that last decorative detail you added may indeed have been a reflection of your own creativity in choosing a particular color or little flourish. If you feel that you’ve now lost your partner’s approval of you, though, the next time you set about on a similar enterprise, you’ll feel that you’ll need to check with your partner every step of the way.
An “externalized self-perception,” as the BYU researchers propose, weakens an individual’s identity and, by extension, the individual’s ability to develop deep emotional intimacy. Fearful of disapproval, you’ll keep your thoughts and feelings to yourself. In the case of the home project, not only may you feel crushed by your partner’s reaction, but you’ll also keep your frustration and disappointment to yourself.
Testing the Links Between Fear of Disapproval and Emotional Intimacy
Following along this line of reasoning, Price and her fellow researchers proposed that people scoring high on a measure of externalized self-perception would be lower in their capacity for intimacy. The underlying mechanism, they further proposed, is a weak sense of self.
It’s not just the need for approval that limits intimacy, then. A high need for approval characterizes those with low self-esteem who, in turn, find it difficult to feel they can share their deepest feelings with their partner.
The 420 online participants in the BYU study averaged 37 years old (ranging from 20-72 years old), and all were in a committed sexual relationship. The need for external approval was broadened in this study from just seeking approval from the partner to seeking external approval from people in general.
Sample items on the “silencing the self scale” were:
- “I tend to judge myself by how I think others see me"
- “I spend a lot of time thinking about how other people are feeling”
People scoring low on the “sense of self” scale agreed with items such as, “It’s hard for me to figure out my own personality, interests, and opinions.”
Finally, to assess emotional intimacy, participants rated themselves on items such as, “I can openly share my deepest thoughts and feelings with this person.”
As predicted, high scores on the externalized self-perception scale were strongly related to a lower sense of self which, in turn, predicted lower emotional intimacy. Because this was a correlational study, the usual “correlation does not equal causation” qualification is important to keep in mind.
However, by setting the statistical model up as they did, the authors were nevertheless able to provide support for their overall theoretical argument.
Strengthening Your Own Internal Resolve
Now that you can see the cost to the intimacy of being overly reliant on the opinions of others, including your partner, the question becomes how to move on to be able to avoid the drumbeat in your head created by a constant need for approval. Although it may seem to be easy enough to tell yourself that their opinions don’t matter to you, in reality, this can be hard to accomplish.
After all, your partner is the most important person in your social world. Shouldn’t you base your behavior on what you think will please them?
As Price and her fellow authors recommend, you don’t have to stop wanting your partner to approve of what you do. You just need to do so “from a place of comfort with the self, rather than trying to extract validation from the other through an externalized self-perception."
This idea of a “place of comfort” means that you can feel secure in your own mind about who you are and what you value. You don’t need to have every move you make dependent on whether your partner gives you an up or down vote.
Challenging the belief that you need your partner’s approval is a process that you can extend to your relationships with others. When you stop and think about it, do you feel afraid to express yourself with others in your life whose opinions you value? Doesn’t this weigh you down emotionally and make it difficult to be close to them as well?
To sum up, a strong internal sense of identity can be the best way both to avoid constantly seeking approval and to allow yourself to form a close and resilient bond with your partner. Feeling fulfilled in a relationship can come from many sources, and believing in yourself can be one of the most important.
Facebook image: MAYA LAB/Shutterstock
Price, A. A., Leavitt, C. E., Gibby, A. L., & Holmes, E. K. (2023). “What do you think of me?”: How externalized self-perception and sense of self are associated with emotional intimacy. Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal. doi: 10.1007/s10591-023-09673-w