Self-esteem spelled out in scrabble tiles.

Can Low Self-Esteem Ruin A Relationship?

It’s a powerful thing, this self-esteem stuff. You really can’t succeed in life without a healthy dose of it. Likewise, you need a balanced dose of it to keep yourself in check and open to the work of self-improvement. But how does it play into relationships? Can you have too much or too little for a healthy relationship? And, more specifically, can low self-esteem ruin a relationship?

When it comes to self-help and self-anything, there is a long list of descriptors that follow the “self hyphen”: esteem, awareness, confidence, worth, value, respect, accountability, love.

Things get a little confusing because the terms are not mutually exclusive.

While self-esteem isn’t specifically one of the 5 components of emotional intelligence, it is intimately connected with all of them. The parts affect the whole, the whole affects the parts. And ‘round and ‘round you go in the positive (and sometimes negative) feedback loops of being you.

Self-esteem is your subjective sense of worth. It is the lived expression of your sense of personal value and the confidence you have in your abilities and accomplishments.

And it affects every area of life…including personal relationships.

While your self-worth is an inherent, unconditional, birthright quality that doesn’t change, your sense of worth isn’t always so steady.

Enter self-esteem: that mutable characteristic vulnerable to childhood conditioning and the ebbs and flows of life that follow.

Even a healthy self-esteem can take a hit when life delivers a hard punch. Negativity and criticism in the workplace, loss of a job or relationship, rejection of an impassioned idea or creation. None of us is so stoic as to be immune to the emotional impact of conflict, loss, and rejection.

But someone with a healthy, well-balanced self-esteem is able to rebound. Episodic disappointments and failures don’t annihilate that essential, inherent sense of worth. And they don’t become permanent omens of a fruitless life.

So what does it look like if a person doesn’t rebound so predictably? If the neuro-pathways etched during the formative years were paved with question marks more than exclamation points? Or the consequences of failure in a highly competitive world were just too all-consuming for a confident comeback?

What does it look like if, say, a person enters a relationship with a low self-esteem intact, perhaps a remnant of past breakups or betrayals?

And how can low self-esteem ruin a relationship in which it has been the status quo for years?

Sometimes the best proverbs are boringly familiar for one good reason: they’re true.

And so it is when we talk about the need to love yourself before you can expect anyone else to love you.

Self-love – and, within that, self-esteem – is absolutely critical to a relationship’s success.

If you want more than the short, affirmative answer to Can a low self-esteem ruin a relationship? you need to first remember what makes relationships work. Some of the essentials that go without saying but aren’t necessarily easy include:

  • trust in yourself, in your partner, and in the relationship
  • vulnerability, both emotional and physical
  • healthy communication, both in speaking and listening
  • mutual respect
  • mutual admiration
  • self-accountability for “offenses of commission and omission” (i.e. What you don’t say and do matters as much as what you do say and do.)
  • establishing healthy boundaries
  • ability to express your needs in a confident, healthy way
  • concern for the other person’s needs and a loving willingness to help meet them
  • ability to maintain individual interests and pursuits while mutually building the collective vision of the relationship
  • ability to sincerely apologize
  • ability to forgive

The list, of course, could go on and on. But, if you’re thinking ahead to the effects of a low self-esteem on a relationship, you’re probably already connecting the dots.

So, the short and obvious answer is yes, a low self-esteem can ruin a relationship, regardless of the longevity of the relationship. And here are some of the reasons why:

  • At the core of self-esteem is self-trust. You trust your ability to make good decisions. You trust your ability to recover from disappointment. You trust yourself to handle whatever someone else says or does to hurt you.

    And you trust your ability to look out for yourself and your personal highest good.

    When your self-esteem is low, that self-trust is also low.

    You may not make healthy choices when searching for a partner. You may, for example, gravitate toward people whose treatment of you will perpetuate your low opinion of yourself.

    Or, if you are already in a relationship, you may question the choice you made.

    This inherent inability to trust will also carry over to your trust of your partner. You don’t trust yourself, so why should (and how can) you trust your partner?

    Perhaps s/he sees right through you and “knows” how “unworthy” you are – and is secretly looking for someone better.

    You don’t know what to believe…because you don’t know what (or how) to trust.

  • There can be no healthy communication because a low self-esteem prevents the ability to own your own contribution to it.

    You may feel more comfortable playing the victim. After all, if you don’t trust your own ability to accomplish anything worthwhile, then you won’t risk vulnerability in your relationship.

    Everything is either done to you or because of you.

    You become the antagonist or collateral damage in your own story – a story that isn’t even authentic.

    You also deny your partner the deserved opportunity for honesty, vulnerability, and growth.

  • You can’t be vulnerable because you don’t trust yourself to handle the outcome if it’s not what you want.

    You also may not feel good or worthy enough to speak your truth, let alone to take risks in the form of physical/sexual expression. Your body’s not good enough. Your technique’s not good enough. You’re not pretty enough. Your partner isn’t really happy with you and would rather be with someone else.

    You basically can’t risk being “seen” for who you are because, if all you see is what’s wrong, then that’s all your partner will see, too.

  • You can’t set healthy boundaries because you don’t truly know yourself. And boundaries are all about “where I end and you begin, and where you end and I begin.”

    They apply to every aspect of a healthy relationship by creating safety and establishing integritous rules of conduct.

  • The ability to apologize with sincerity will be thwarted because you assume you are to blame for everything…or nothing at all.

    Knee-jerk apologies used to avoid confrontation don’t accomplish the emotional intimacy that genuine apologies do.

    One is reflexive and avoidant.

    The other reflects self-awareness and commitment to growth.

Again, the list could go on and on. That’s how intertwined self-esteem is with every aspect of life.

There is, of course, a flip side to the question: Can low self-esteem ruin a relationship?

Learning how to maintain your self-esteem in relationships can give you a preventive edge in protecting your relationship.

Doing the work of developing self-awareness will naturally cultivate and nurture your self-esteem.

And your boosted self-esteem will, in turn, fuel your hunger for deeper awareness…while keeping your relationship open to its genuine possibilities.

Mary Ellen Goggin offers relationship coaching for individuals and collaborates with her partner Dr. Jerry Duberstein to offer private couples retreats. To learn more about working with Mary Ellen, contact her here.

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Mary Ellen Goggin

Mary Ellen is a highly skilled and intuitive relationship guide. She brings over 35 years’ experience with individuals and businesses as a lawyer, mediator, personal coach and educator. She received her J.D. at University of New Hampshire Law School and a Master’s Degree at Harvard University. Mary Ellen co-authored Relationship Transformation: How to Have Your Cake and Eat It Too with Jerry Duberstein — and they were married by chapter 3. Mary Ellen brings a unique blend of problem-solving, practicality, and warmth to her work. She’s a highly analytic person, with geeky and monkish tendencies. She’s a daredevil skydiver, a voracious seeker of knowledge, and an indulgent grandmother. Her revolution: helping people become the unapologetic rulers of their inner + outer realms. Read more about the retreats