It’s not all in their heads: people with low self-esteem really do have less responsive partners

GettyImages-157914805.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Compounding the difficulties they have liking themselves, people with low self-esteem also tend to have poorer relationships. Previous investigations into why this may be haven’t made easy reading for the self-doubters. For instance, while they tend to claim that their partners have more negative views of them and love them less (than do people with more typical self-esteem), studies of their partners simply haven’t backed this up. This suggests that the neurotic and needy are projecting their insecurities and imperilling their relationships in the process.

But that is not the end of the story. People with low self-esteem also tend to report that, when they need them most, their partners are poor at responding and being supportive. Is this all in their heads too? Not according to a series of studies in the Journal of Personality, by Kassandra Cortes and Joanne Wood at the University of Waterloo.

“Until this point, researchers have pointed the finger at LSEs [those with low self-esteem] as the likely cause for their lower quality relationships … However, our data suggest that LSEs may not be the only culprits,” Cortes and Wood conclude.

The researchers started by recruiting 122 romantic student couples and had everyone complete a self-esteem questionnaire. Next, the couples were divided in two. One partner from each pair was asked about times they’d disclosed bad news to their partner and how their partner had responded. The other partners – the “listeners” – were asked to recall times that they’d listened and responded to their partner’s bad news.

As expected, among the participants who recalled their past disclosures, those with low self-esteem tended to describe having less responsive partners. Crucially, this seemed to be corroborated by the participants in the listener role, who recalled times they’d listened. Those listeners with a lower self-esteem partner described themselves as having been less understanding and attentive.

There are many problems with that first study – not least the possibility that people with low self-esteem tend to share bad news that is harder to sympathise with. To get around this, Cortes and Wood next invited dozens more romantic couples to the psych lab, measured their self-esteem, and then contrived a situation whereby one partner in each couple had the same bad experience – they were excluded in a simple video game called cyber ball (no one passed the ball to them).

Afterwards, the rejected participants were reunited with their partners and secretly videoed telling them what had happened. When the researchers watched back the videos they found that the rejected participants with lower self-esteem received less support and understanding from their partners, again seeming to corroborate the claims of low self-esteem individuals that they don’t get much support or sympathy from their partners.

To get an idea of why this should be, the researchers surveyed 99 more people online. They were asked to rate their partners’ self-esteem, to imagine that their partner had had a big fall out with a friend, and then to say how much support their partner would typically want in this kind of situation, and how their partner would typically go about sharing their bad news. The researchers compared the participants’ answers depending on whether they rated their partner as low or higher self-esteem.

This study asks us to place a lot of trust in the memories and interpretations of these participants, but if we take their answers at face value, they suggest that partners with low self-esteem want as much support and understanding, but that they go about sharing their bad news and their distress in a rather counter-productive way – for instance, they’ll be inconsistent, sometimes downplaying their feelings, sometimes exaggerating them. Or they’ll be indirect, acting as if something is wrong, but not saying why, as if expecting their partner to be a mind reader.

In short, the findings from all three studies suggest that the consistent claim of people with low self-esteem that their partners are rather unresponsive has at least a grain of truth to it. However, it takes two to tango, and it seems those folk who are less assertive and self-confident probably don’t make it very easy for their partners to be responsive and supportive. Sometimes if you’re hurting and you want a shoulder to lean on, the best strategy is be transparent and to ask for help.

Cortes and Wood believe their findings may have some practical implications: “Perhaps this research could lead to dyadic level interventions,” they said, “in which LSEs [low self-esteem people] are trained to improve their expression (making it easier for their partners to be responsive), and partners of LSEs are trained to be more responsive (so that LSEs may feel more secure in expressing openly in the future)”.

Is it really “all in their heads”? How self-esteem predicts partner responsiveness

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest