Guy Winch Ph.D.

The Squeaky Wheel


When You're OK With Yourself, You're Better Together

New research shows the connection between self-esteem and couples' satisfaction.

Posted Nov 04, 2014

Our self-esteem is not static. It fluctuates over the day, the week, and indeed, over our entire lifespan. I’ve previously written about how having higher self-esteem benefits our ability to manage stress and anxiety, as well as how it aids our recover from psychological injuries such as rejection and failure. (See "Does Your Self-Esteem Function as an Emotional Immune System?")

Now a new study demonstrates that boosting your self-esteem could also benefit your relationship—and your partner. The study, reported in the journal Developmental Psychology, examined how changes in self-esteem over time affected a couple’s satisfaction with their relationship. The study used two data sets that included hundreds of couples in one, and thousands in the other. The data sets included assessments of the individuals' self-esteem as well as their relationship satisfaction, taken several times over a period of 12 and 15 years, respectively. (Since life events can strongly influence both self-esteem and relationship satisfaction, the researchers used statistical methods to control for factors such as age, health, and employment status.)

The team reported that the higher a couple’s initial self-esteem was, the happier they tended to be in their relationship. They also found that changes in self-esteem over time were strongly related to changes in relationship satisfaction—specifically, increases in individual self-esteem heralded improvements in relationship satisfaction while drops in individual self-esteem predicted drops in the couple’s satisfaction.

Of note, there was no gender difference in how changes in self-esteem impacted relationship satisfaction for both members of the couple. That is, the self-esteem of women was no more "important" to relationship satisfaction that that of men in this study, and vice versa.

Another interesting finding was that self-esteem similarity between members of the couple (whether they both had high or low self-esteem, or whether one was high and the other low) did not influence the development of their relationship satisfaction.

These findings provide an interesting confirmation of a phenomenon observed by many psychotherapists—that when individual clients report improvements in self-esteem, they often report being happier in their relationship as well—and that their partner seems happier, too. Similarly, when life events conspire to decrease an individual's self-esteem, such changes are often accompanied by reports of experiencing their relationship as less satisfying.

This link between individual self-esteem and relationship satisfaction is an interesting one because it means couples therapy is not the only venue by which a couple might improve their relationship. As the study illustrates, if one member of a couple can improve his or her self-esteem, it is likely to benefit the couple as a unit.

In other words, individual psychotherapy and other self-improvement programs can benefit not just those individuals but their partners as well.

For those interested in learning more about science-based techniques for improving self-esteem, check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

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