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.
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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.
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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.