The Secret to Relationship Satisfaction (That has nothing to do with your partner).

The Secret to Relationship Satisfaction (That Only You Control)

Several studies have explored the trajectory of relationship satisfaction. Some have suggested that relationships follow a U-curve, with satisfaction decreasing in the earlier years and increasing later on. Others have been a bit more pessimistic, finding a continuous decrease over the years. According to others, satisfaction remains fairly stable.

Clearly, the results are mixed. Not a lot of help for those who adore the black and white for its classic, no-nonsense simplicity, but think the grey is a fence-sitting pony. The good news though, is that wherever your relationship satisfaction is at, there are always ways to make it better.

There is plenty of research that has tried to find the secret to a lasting relationship. Explanations are as varied as the research and include low relationship-related anxiety, fewer premarital doubts, lower psychological distress, less stressful events, better communication, less verbal and physical aggression and greater love, trust and cohesion. And then there’s self-esteem. 

The direction of the relationship between relationship satisfaction and self-esteem has been the subject of lively debate. First, there are those who suggest that relationship satisfaction enhances self-esteem. Intuitively this makes sense, as relationships are an important source of self-esteem.

On the other hand, evidence from long-term studies suggests that the reverse effect is true, namely that self-esteem increases relationship satisfaction, rather than the other way around. This also makes sense, given the effect of self-esteem on satisfaction and success in other areas.

[irp posts=”1256″ name=”17 Things That People Who Are Great in Relationships Do Differently (That Anyone Can Do)”]

So how does self-esteem change throughout our lifetime? Longitudinal research suggests that self-esteem tends to increase throughout young and middle adulthood, peaking around age 60, and declining into old age.

In a recent study, researchers looked at the role of self-esteem in relationship satisfaction, tracking over 885 couples over 12 years in the first study and 6,116 couples over 15 years in the second study.

Initial relationship satisfaction was related to the initial levels of self-esteem of each individual partner. As the self-esteem of each partner changed, so too did the couple’s assessment of relationship satisfaction.

Interestingly, the effect of self-esteem on relationship satisfaction was the same for both men and women.

The exact mechanism underlying the effect of self-esteem on relationship satisfaction is unclear, though there are a few theories.

The first is that people with low self-esteem might tend to think their partners see them as negatively as they see themselves. In response to this, they may attempt to avoid disappointment by distancing themselves or by making a defensive attack upon their partner. Whether fight or flight, either response would diminish relationship satisfaction for both parties.

On the other hand, partners who feel secure in a relationship are more likely to experience lower levels of relationship-related anxiety and avoidance, something that would enhance relationship satisfaction.

Those who experience more relationship-related avoidance are more likely to pay less attention to emotional cues provided by the partner, thereby missing opportunities to connect and respond to emotional needs within the relationship.

Partners who experience more relationship-related anxiety are also more likely to seek excessive reassurance. This may be experienced as neediness from the sought after partner, which can be a killer for desire and intimacy.

[irp posts=”981″ name=”Desire in Long Term Relationships: Keeping it and Finding it When It’s Gone.”]

The take-away from this research is the importance of protecting your self-esteem as a protective measure for your relationship. It can be hard to steal time to put yourself at the top of the list, but it’s important for so many reasons.

Anything you can do to increase your self-esteem, whether that’s doing more of what you’re good at, looking after yourself by exercising, meditating and spending time with friends, or learning a new language, skill, sport or activity will be an investment in your relationship.

Relationships are an important buffer, offering protection and support when the outside world takes a swipe. It’s the people we love, and who love us back, who are critical in offering us a hand up when we’re ready to walk out the cramp. But they are not a remedy to a broken spirit, something that, as we know, can only be fixed with tenderness and grace from the inside.

6 Comments

Sarah

I loved reading this, well done. I’ve found that this principle applies to all the relationships of my life, not only my significant other. As I treat myself with more acceptance and am gentler with my own weakness I find it easier to accept others, not be intimidated by their accomplishments and give them the benefit of the doubt.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Thank you Sarah. This is such a wise comment that you have left. You’re so right – self esteem is important for all of our relationships!

Reply
faby

Very interesting article. I totally agree on the idea of self-esteem being the very core and essence of relationship satisfaction. The satisfaction starts with oneself, as much if not more important is the issue of self-forgiveness. We can be our worst enemy and we should be taught ‘real’ self-indulgence and common sense from an early age. It would be an easy more enjoyable life Journey from then onwards….sure, there are big traumas that do need a bit more work.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Yes! Your point about self-forgiveness is such an important one. Mistakes are such an important part of growth and learning, and it’s self-forgiveness that makes that possible. Thank you for sharing your insight.

Reply
Celine

Amen, sister! I learned this lesson the hard way over many years of clinging and patching. Now I find that self-care has increased my self-esteem and vice versa. Curating my “life worth living” means I’m ok with or without an SO, and (kind of ironically) confers greater love and respect within my new relationship

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This