Identifying Positives within a Negative Self-Image: What Might Low Self-Esteem Individuals Bring to Romantic Relationships?

J. Edwards

In this project, I investigate the question of what individuals with low self-esteem might believe they contribute to their intimate relationships. Traditionally, research has focused on the downsides of having low self-esteem – for example, its correlations with mental illness and negative behaviours in relationships. However, there is some evidence that people with low self-esteem do not have entirely negative views of themselves. They may have a positive self-image in specific areas (e.g., musical talent, athleticism, intelligence), or their general self-views might be moderate rather than overtly negative. In addition, although many interventions to increase self-esteem appear to backfire, partners in romantic relationships might be able positively influence each other’s self-esteem through idealization and positive social feedback. Through a close review of previous research, I develop four hypotheses concerning what people with low self-esteem might like about themselves in the context of an intimate relationship. These hypotheses suggest that low self-esteem individuals might appreciate (a) their perceived attentiveness to relationship obstacles, (b) their self-perceived avoidance of conflict, (c) specific actions they perform that make them invaluable to their partners, and (d) the qualities that they share with their partners. I also provide some suggestions for empirically testing these hypotheses and identifying other perceived strengths.

Conducting research in this area is valuable as it represents a new way of looking at the “challenge” of low self-esteem. Identifying areas of perceived strength for people with low self-esteem might inform more effective interventions that target what they already like about themselves and build on pre-existing beliefs. In addition, low self-esteem is associated with poor relationship quality and destructive behaviours. Therefore, understanding what people with low self-esteem think they contribute to relationships might help us to improve the quality of relationships where one or both partners suffers from low self-esteem.