This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Low self-esteem can ruin a relationship

Published: August 28, 2003

Contributing Editor

Squeezing the toothpaste from the wrong end, sneering at her cat or putting the toilet paper roll on backwards can irk your partner no end, even after decades together.

But new or old relationships, says UB social psychologist Sandra Murray, are far more likely to be ruined by one partner's low self-esteem.

Murray's research into the attitudes and behaviors of married and single couples has found that partners with low self-esteem often sabotage their own relationships. In a sense, they "create" the very situations they fear most.

In a study of married couples, for instance, Murray found that individuals who scored low on measures of self-esteem tended to anticipate—incorrectly—rejection by their spouses and so preempted the spouse by derogating them first. The spouses in turn, registered negative feelings about their partners on the days after they were criticized—referring to them as "needy," "selfish" and "overly dependent."

In another study, Murray presented college students with situations in which their partners acted upset. Students who previously had scored low on measures of self-esteem were much more likely to feel rejected by or hostile toward their distraught mate, even when other factors could be read as the cause of the mate's moodiness.

Murray's research in the Journal of Personal Relationships and the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology warns that low self-esteem may cause a sensitive and insecure individual to read incorrect meanings into ambiguous cues given by their partners. The behavior that follows provokes the very relationship outcomes they want to avoid.

Unfortunately, such problems can be found not only in new relationships, but can extend into those that have continued for many years. Murray found that even after 10 years of marriage, people with low self-esteem tend to think their partners love them less than they really do.

The good news is that Murray also has found that when a person has high self-esteem, he or she idealizes their partner less and feels secure about the spouse's regard, which in turn strengthens their relationship.

A professor in the Department of Psychology, Murray is part of the intimate relationship research consortium. She is the recipient of the American Psychological Association's 2003 Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology in the area of social psychology.