How much effort you put forth in your dating relationships may have more to say about how much you like yourself rather than how much you like your partner. A recent study out of the UK suggests that self-esteem (or the lack thereof) may play a large role in how hard we work to maintain and enhance our relationships.
The study considered whether different levels of self-esteem could affect women’s behaviors towards their partners. Using a series of rating scales, the researchers had the female participants rate how they felt about themselves, their current partner and the things that they did to maintain their relationships.
Researchers found that women who felt more desirable than their partners had higher levels of self-esteem and engaged in fewer behaviors designed to maintain and enhance their relationships (aka: activities intended to prevent their partner from becoming involved with someone else).
On the other hand, women with lower levels of self-esteem reported putting more effort into these relationship maintenance behaviors. In other words, women who felt less desirable or attractive than their partners compensated for this imbalance by investing more time, effort, and economic resources in their relationships.
So does that mean that if you’re the type who often puts forth more time and effort in your relationships that you automatically have low self-esteem? Not exactly. Here are a few important questions to consider before picking up a self-help book:
Am I denying, delaying, or minimizing the things I need for the sake of the relationship or my partner’s needs? While it’s normal (and nice!) to go out of your way for your partner every once in awhile, if you’re regularly putting off your needs (adequate sleep, gym time, studying, laundry, spending time with your friends, etc.) for the sake of being there for and/or with your partner, this can be indicative of valuing your partner’s needs over your own. And while time with him or his appreciation may be enough to sustain your efforts for now, keeping yourself low on your list of priorities will begin to wear on you and can breed resentment or dissatisfaction with your relationship.
Do I feel like my partner does his fair share and reciprocates my efforts? A relationship between two people should be just that — between two people, averaging out to an even 50/50 split of invested effort. Sure, some days we have to give more than our half, but if you feel like you’re consistently giving 75% to only get 25% in return, you may be compensating for an underlying insecurity. There’s always vulnerability in asking for what we need because someone can always say ‘no’. “No, I don’t care/I’m not willing/That’s not important to me.” If you’re not comfortable voicing your own needs or saying ‘no,’ it may be because you’re not sure your partner will actually care about or be willing to say ‘yes’ to help meet your needs.
Why am I motivated to do these things? If you often find yourself doing nice things for him “because that’s what a good girlfriend does” or apologizing first after he got mad at you because you “know it’s hard for him to apologize first,” it’s important to consider your motivation. Do you worry that if you didn’t do these things (or if you voiced your own needs) that your partner would leave? Conforming to your partner’s interests or catering to his whims for fear that he might not stick around otherwise may be an issue of low self-esteem, as you’re accepting less than you’re giving (see: fair share).
“What about me?” If you find you are asking yourself (or your friends) this question on a regular basis, this is likely a strong indicator that this relationship is predominantly one-sided. But before you let your friends trash talk him for not caring about you enough, it’s important to remember: you teach people how to treat you. If you don’t assert your needs or ask for what you want, no one is going to read you and just do it anyway. And if you act as if your needs are less important or can be sidelined, you’re teaching your partner to do the same. If you don’t ask and never speak up for yourself, no one can say, “Yes.” Knowing what your needs and boundaries are as an individual is essential to any balanced and mutually fulfilling relationship.
Sarah Schmermund specializes in marriage and family therapy, working with couples, individuals, and families via her private practice in Washington, D.C.