And the two shall become one. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Put others’ needs before your own. And so the song of self-surrender is sung…while the task of maintaining self-esteem in relationships is left to the self-help DIYers.
The irony of relationships, and especially marriage, is that they are so reflective. That life-size pane of glass you look into together is as much a mirror as it is a window.
In the course of looking forward together, you find that you keep bumping into the same person. And it’s not your partner.
Ready or not, like it or not, a relationship is about each of you as much as it is about the two of you. And self-esteem, in relationships or in solitude, is a critical player.
Being in a relationship can be like walking a tightrope. It’s a constant balancing act of assertiveness and compromise, needs and wants, giving and receiving. And knowing where you end and your partner and relationship begin (and vice versa) isn’t always so clear-cut.
Unfortunately, it’s easy (and common) for all three entities — the partners and the relationship itself — to have an identity crisis. Who am I now? I used to be (fill in the blank), and now I’m (fill in the blank). Who is this person I married? What’s happening to our relationship?
The loss of self-esteem in relationships carries over into the “esteem” of the relationship, and often of the other person. What sounds so personal and isolated in effect is actually foundational to the success — or failure — of a relationship.
Before discussing how to maintain your self-esteem in relationships, let’s look at some of the ways a low self-esteem can harm a relationship.
A healthy relationship is grounded in equality. No person is better or more worthy than the other. No person’s needs and wants are more important than those of the other.
The person with low self-esteem, however, doesn’t buy into that equality. S/he doesn’t feel worthy to ask for help, for example, and automatically sets up a dynamic of inequality. I will lay down my life for you, but I would never ask you to do anything for me.
Lack of self-esteem, with its low self-confidence, naturally leads to insecurity and lack of trust. If everyone else is better than you, then surely your spouse is always looking elsewhere.
Imagine being on the receiving end of that distrust and jealousy on a daily basis!
If you entered into your relationship with low self-esteem, you may have even selected a partner who will help you maintain it. I don’t deserve nice things or nice treatment, so I will find someone who will treat me the way I feel about myself.
How you feel about yourself is critical to any relationship (especially marriage) you enter. It defines what you expect and accept from both your partner and yourself.
In this regard, your self-esteem is the basis for the self-fulfilling prophecy of your relationships.
Whether you’re trying to regain or maintain your self-esteem in relationships, you will be pulled outside your comfort zone.
One of the tell-tale signs of low self-esteem is self-criticism. You “should on yourself.” I should be/do more (whatever).
You also give free reign to the negative voices that wreak subconscious havoc with your sense of worth. You suck. You look old. The women in his office always look nicer than you. You’re not successful. You’re not good in the bedroom.
The negativity is like a rat in the woodpile. You recognize one self-deprecation and realize there are a lot more where it came from.
Turning that negativity into positivity isn’t an overnight process. But catching yourself and reversing the habit is an important start.
Remind yourself throughout the day of your good qualities, your contributions to your marriage/family/profession/community. Self-value and -appreciation aren’t arrogance when they reflect an honest appraisal of the gifts you bring to the table.
And, by all means, never dismiss or diminish a compliment. Make (or polish up on) the habit of simply saying, “Thank you. That means a lot.” People can tell when you’re being sincere.
Another tell-tale sign of low self-esteem is an inability or refusal to ask for help. It is a direct extension of undervaluing your own needs in relation to those of others.
Ironically, this pattern can lead to a passive-aggressive martyr complex. In your effort to relieve your partner and the world of any responsibility to you, you end up irritating the hell out of them.
Learning to ask for what you need is essential to creating a healthy, balanced relationship. Marriage in particular is an exclusive, sacred place where two people should feel safe in believing that they can get their needs met.
If asking for help or for personal needs and wants is difficult for you, start small and practice regularly. Honey, would you take care of the grocery shopping while I prepare the house for the party? Would you please hold me for a minute? Will you please show me how to load this new software onto the computer?
Asking for what you need isn’t just about your being on the receiving end of a relationship. It’s about the other person feeling wanted, needed, trusted, and valued, as well. Your partner or spouse gets to learn one more thing about how to be there for you and how to make your life better.
Another important practice for maintaining your self-esteem in relationships is monitoring your apologies.
Don’t get me wrong. The ability to extend a sincere apology when warranted is critical to the health of a relationship. Genuine remorse is especially important when there has been a violation and trust needs to be restored.
I’m talking about the knee-jerk “I’m sorry” that constantly dribbles out of the mouths of those with low self-esteem.
Recognizing and acknowledging a breach of your own morals and a partner’s trust is one thing. It’s a form of owning your role in both the good and bad in your relationship.
But saying you’re sorry as a way to deflect a disagreement or appease your partner is another thing altogether. It’s an expression of an intrinsic insecurity about who you are and what you think/say/want/need.
And that is a form of taking ownership of things that don’t belong to you. At its core is a dishonesty that can’t help but tear at the very fabric of your relationship.
It’s also a boundary issue.
Self-esteem is rooted in a lot of factors — upbringing, education, profession, finances, physical appearance, social norms, etc.
One of the simplest ways to boost your self-esteem — at any time, in any context — is to take care of yourself.
If you have to think of yourself in the third person in order to acknowledge your worth, do so. But start adding daily self-care to your calendar — exercise, nutrition, meditation, hobbies.
Martyrdom is truly overrated. Prioritizing yourself is the first step in being prioritized by others.
Finally, if you haven’t thought about couples therapy as a means of helping with self-esteem, you’ve been missing out.
The therapy we do in the course of our intensive marriage retreats takes into account all influences on the relationship. So your self-esteem is relevant — not only for your own well-being, but in the context of your spouse’s response to (and influence on) it, too.
Healthy relationships rely upon healthy components.
Bringing your unique gifts to the table gives your relationship more reason to thrive.
Likewise, withholding, denying, or disparaging them sucks energy out of the relationship and throws it into a state of imbalance.
Relationships are a ton of work. But they exist to connect you to your intrinsic joy and the path to your best self.
Maintaining and cherishing your self-esteem in relationships is an essential step on that journey.
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, schedule a ½ hour complimentary consultation.