How low self-esteem affects relationships

Low self-esteem is one of the most significant factors affecting the success or otherwise of romantic relationships. Men and women both suffer from low self- esteem, and both genders are equally sensitive to esteem issues in their partnerships. Partners who seek couples counseling struggle to manage issues around low self-esteem, longing to feel valued and worthwhile and most fail in that quest, feeling hopeless and devalued.

Failure to cure low self-esteem

The reason so many people dont succeed in getting their partners to raise their low self-esteem is that they dont work on the core fears around losing connection if they pursue their personal paths. They give up self-enhancement for connection and end up with low self-esteem.

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Low self-esteem interfered in Wendys romantic relationships

Low self-esteem had dogged 40 year-old Wendy all her life. Mocked by her brothers, and shunned by her mother for being weak, Wendy graduated from high school with no particular passion or skill. She had such low self-esteem that she didnt feel she could dare choose a career path. She made a disastrous marriage that mimicked the abusiveness of her brothers the teasing, taunting, tearing down of her self-worth, until she became the sacrificial lamb of her family. Her mother scorned her and told her she brought on herself.

Wendy married the man who fathered her child. At first he seemed like her dad who had a kinder gentler connection with her, but it was just a veneer. Her dad never stood up to her mother, bowing to her condemnatory stance to their only daughter. He was weak, and Wendy took on his meek role to make sure the family boat was not rocked. The only thing good to come out of her marriage was her son Paul. Being a mom unlike her own was the only thing that made her feel half way decent.

Low self-esteem dogged Wendy in her future romantic relationships after she divorced her husband. There was a pattern in her next four liaisons she did whatever her partners wanted, hoping they would find her attractive and valuable. But in every case, Wendy felt depleted, empty and terrified that she would end up alone. She was afraid to trust anyone to be there for her unless she bowed to their every whim.


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Low self-esteem drove Wendy to a Spiritual Healer

Wendy’s wounds reduced her to a pulp so much so that she went to a spiritual for support and care. For a while she felt that she had a champion that she badly needed, someone who spoke for her when she didn’t have a voice. But her self-esteem remained low and dismal outside of their meetings. In effect Wendy found herself a caring mother like figure whom she depended on just as she wished for as a child. But it was a band aid that didn’t clean or heal the wound.

Low self-esteem in her relationship with Mario brought things to a head

It wasnt until much later in life, when her son was 14 years old that she met Mario, a divorcee with a 16 year daughter. Wendy thought she had finally found a secure and stable relationship where they had common interests of walking, traveling and seeing live performances. She was wanted, encouraged and cared for. He was excited about life, engaged in his own business and emitted a vibrancy that was catching.

Wendy let him take the lead and felt cared for when he made decisions for them. She felt protected and in return she kept silent when he got angry that the house wasnt perfectly tidy when he got home late at night, or when she didnt respond immediately to his suggestions. Other times he encouraged her to do something outside the house and supported her application for an MBA program.

She thrived and flourished at school. It was stimulating and made her want to study more thoroughly. Making friends with colleagues and faculty gave Wendy a whole new world to explore. She found that she was liked, her mind was valued and her enthusiasm valued. However, as Wendy grew in her personal accomplishment, Mario complained that she had abandoned the relationship and wasn’t cool with her spending so much time on her studies.

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Low self-esteem stirred up a conflict ridden with guilt

Wendy was consumed with anxiety and guilt about her relationship with Mario. One part of her felt diminished by his complaints and increasing demands for her to be available when he needed her. Another part of her felt scared. Was she putting her security on the line? Was she driving him away by focusing on her personal growth? Was she being ungrateful to this man who had made had made her feel so good and encouraged her to have her own life and career?

Guilt became the mediating factor in dealing with the terrible conflict that presented itself to Wendy. The part of her that was strong and confident in wanting to build her own business with an MBA in the offing was determined to go ahead and make it happen. But another part of her felt unsteady and terrified of being rejected and alone. The familiar threats of being discarded and demeaned engulfed her whole being. She went into protection mode, shutting down her personal side, and focused entirely on being emotionally present and responsive to Mario.

Low self-esteem involves all-or-nothing thinking

Pleasing Mario relieved her anxiety about the viability of the relationship, but made her angry and sad that she had to do so at the expense of her own bright and smart mind. Wendys low self-esteem forced her to operate in an all-or-nothing way. Either she was with Mario in a connected and safe bubble, OR she had to be alone on the outside with her own mind that she didnt feel was sufficient for her to feel wanted, loved and worthy.


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Low self-esteem is boosted in individual counseling and psychotherapy

Wendy reached a crisis point when her anger at having to give up her mind/personal career prospects/friends outside the relationship became too much. In Marios presence she found herself making herself small to please him, resenting it and then doing her own thing which would evoke arguments and disturb the connection between them.

In individual psychotherapy Wendy discovered that her typical way of coping with two competing needs was to discard one and make it non-existent. Then she could focus entirely on the one choice, feel good about it and feel safe in that place just like she did when she went to her dad for comfort as a little girl, expelling her mother from her mind, so that she didnt have to feel the sadness of her mothers rejection she could just enjoy the comfort and protection of her fathers hug.

During her individual counseling for low self-esteem Wendy gradually felt safe enough to allow conflicting emotions to sit with her simultaneously. It was very scary and she needed the support, understanding, empathy, and insight offered by a nurturing therapeutic relationship. It took quite some time for Wendy to be comfortable having dual needs and emotions without having to choose one or the other in order to survive and feel safe. She learned to value her own mind AND stay in a romantic relationship. Low self-esteem melted into a realistic sense of self and self-worth that actually enhanced her connection with Mario. She got her business going as her individual counseling promoted a more integrated sense of self; she also got Mario to acknowledge that her business self wasn’t a threat to her being a committed couple.


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copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2017