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.

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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.

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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

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Faces so often say so more than our words ever could. Even more than words and behaviour, faces tell the story of where we (and our nervous systems) are right now. Receive their joyful faces and their brave faces. Their scared faces and their sad faces. When their words are spicy and big their behaviour is bigger, receive their faces. Their faces won’t lie. And neither do ours. By receiving their faces it will open the way to show them, ‘I see you. I feel you. I’m with you.’♥️
Parenting was never meant to be about perfection. Neither was growing up. The messy times are so often where the growth happens - theirs and ours - but this can only happen if we can be with ourselves through the mess, with an open heart and an open mind. But this can be so hard some days! 

Let’s start by shoving the idea of perfect parenting out the door and let’s do that with full force. Perfection. Ugh. Let’s not do that to ourselves and let’s not do that to our young loves. It’s okay for them to see our imperfections, and it’s okay for them to lay theirs bare in front of us. We won’t break them if we yell sometimes. They will learn from our mistakes, and we will learn from theirs.♥️
If the feelings that send them ‘small’ don’t feel safe or supported, the ‘big’ of anger will step in. This doesn’t mean they aren’t actually safe or supported - it’s about what the brain perceives. 

Let them see that you can handle them in all their feelings. Breathe and be with - through their tears, or confusion, or lostness. Just let their feelings come, and let them be. Feelings heal when they’re felt. Big feelings don’t hurt children. What hurts is being alone in the feelings. Your strong, loving presence, your willingness to be with without needing them to be different, and certainty that they’ll get through this will hold them steady through the storm. If they don’t want you near them, that’s okay too. Let them know you’re they’re if they need.♥️
Brains love keeping us alive. They adore it actually. Their most important job is to keep us safe. This is above behaviour, relationships, and learning - except as these relate to safety. 

Safety isn’t about what is actually safe, but about what the brain perceives. Unless a brain feels safe, it won’t be as able to learn, connect, regulate, make good decisions, think through consequences. 

Young brains (all brains actually) feel safest when they feel connected to, and cared about by, their important adults.  This means that for us to have any influence on our kids and teens, we first need to make sure they feel safe and connected to us. 

This goes for any adult who wants to lead, guide or teach a young person - parents, teachers, grandparents, coaches. Children or teens can only learn from us if they feel connected to us. They’re no different to us. If we feel as though someone is angry or indifferent with us we’re more focused on that, and what needs to happen to avoid humiliation or judgement, or how to feel loved and connected again, than anything else. 

We won’t have influence if we don’t have connection. Connection let’s us do our job - whether that’s the job of parenting, teaching - anything. It helps the brain feel safe, so it will then be free to learn.♥️
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#parenting #parentingforward #parentingtips #mindfulparenting
The stories we tell ourselves influence how we feel and what we do. This happens to all of us. These stories can be influenced by our mood, history, stress - so many things that are outside of what’s actually happening. 

When our children are in distress, this will start to create distress in us. The idea of this is to mobilise us to protect, but when that distress happens in the absence of a ‘real’ threat, it can throw us into fight or flight. This can influence the story we tell ourselves. This is really normal.

Whenever you can, pause, and be open to a different story. It won’t necessarily make the behaviour okay, but it will make it easier to give your child or teen what they need in that moment - an anchor - a strong, steady, loving presence to guide them back to calm. 

When their brains and bodies are back to calm, then you can have the conversations that will grow them: what happened, what can you do differently, what can I do differently that would help?

The truth is that they are no different to us. In that moment they don’t want to be fixed. They want to feel seen, safe, and heard.♥️
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#parenting #parenthood #mindfulparenting

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