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Is It True Love, or Low Self-Esteem?

The unhealthy attachment of relationship-contingent self-esteem.

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

Losing yourself in a relationship, becoming “we” instead of “me,” can feel like the ultimate expression of romantic love. But it’s not always the sign of a happily committed couple. Sometimes such intensity signals an unhealthy form of attachment, fueled by what researchers label RCSE, or Relationship-Contingent Self-Esteem.

What this means, as the name implies, is that someone depends on the positive reactions from that “one special person” for their feelings of self-worth. And, as with any expectation that other people or things will fill the voids in your life, it can lead to problems. Among them:

  • RCSE can spark an obsessive preoccupation with your relationship in which you analyze every utterance, action, and look from a partner for deeper meaning. And why not? If your sense of self depends on your relationship, you become hypervigilant in your attempts to keep it alive.
  • It can make you overly sensitive to every negative event in the relationship, no matter the cause, and more likely to experience issues such as stress, anxiety, and depression as a result. A 2008 study by University of Houston researchers likened having high levels of RCSE to being tied to the bow of a ship. Even the smallest ripples can seem like tidal waves.
  • It can lead you to default to a defensive mode rather than seeing any criticisms or problems as things you can learn from. As a result, you and your relationship stop growing, which lowers your self-esteem further.
  • When RCSE pairs with jealousy, as it so often does, research shows that it can increase the likelihood of turning to alcohol to deal with the unpleasant feelings— and that ups one's risk for drinking problems.
  • It can damage your ability to see yourself as separate from the relationship, which can lead to emotional devastation if or when the relationship ends.
  • It can cause you to put your needs or wants last in order to stay on your partner’s good side. Paradoxically, it can also cause you to forget the other person’s needs as you focus on feeding your own self-esteem.

Hurting What You Love

Why do some people develop RCSE while others don’t? There’s no single reason, but researchers believe it has to do with three basic needs that together help provide self-esteem:

  • Autonomy—feeling as though you are directing your own behaviors;
  • Competence—feeling effective at what you do; and
  • Relatedness—that sense of belonging and attachment.

When these needs are met, you set the stage to create authentic intimacy with others. When they are thwarted, however, you may look to other sources, such as a romantic relationship, to provide them.

The irony of RCSE, of course, is that you end up working so hard to wring validation from a relationship that you end up hurting it and yourself. You may tell yourself you are simply deeply committed to your partner—and indeed you are committed—but it’s the type of commitment that research shows doesn’t promote happiness, satisfaction, or true intimacy.

Even when both partners in a relationship have high levels of RCSE, the result isn’t positive. Both feel more committed to the relationship, the University of Houston study confirmed, but not more close or satisfied. Instead, they cling to each other out of a sense of shared desperation.

Toward Healthy Intimacy

Emerging from RCSE and embracing a healthier form of commitment begins with acknowledging its existence in your life.

Consider these questions:

  • If your relationship suddenly ended, how would it affect how you feel about yourself?
  • Do you feel less significant when you are between relationships?
  • Is your radar always up for signs of rejection?
  • If there is trouble in your relationship, does it negate all the other sources of joy in your life?
  • Do you feel as though you can never get enough reassurance and closeness from your partner?

If you’re constantly looking to others to determine how you feel about yourself, it’s time for change. Therapy can help by focusing on the distortions in your thinking and helping you work toward establishing an independent identity from which you can pursue dreams, goals, and relationships. In that way, you are no longer expecting others to create your happiness—you are inviting them to share yours.

David Sack, M.D., is board certified in addiction medicine and addiction psychiatry. As CMO of Elements Behavioral Health, he oversees a number of love, relationship and sex addiction treatment centers including men’s and women’s sexual recovery programs at The Ranch in Tennessee.