Much of my clinical work over the years has been with individuals and couples who experience a diminished sense of self-worth; low self-esteem. When they find that their relationships have entered the dead zone, they often feel stuck within them -- troubled and frustrated. They're unable to push for revitalizing them, if that's possible, or leaving, if that would be healthier. And even as they uncover the roots of their low self-worth through therapy, they often remain frozen in a bad, even destructive relationship.
Some recent research provides some empirical confirmation and information about that clinical picture. It found that the partner with diminished self-esteem tends to avoid confronting problems or conflicts to begin with. That avoidance often reflects feelings of insecurity about the partner's feelings for them. That, in turn, leads to hunkering down and withdrawing from the conflict, which might be resolved through more open, transparent communication.
The research, conducted by the University of Waterloo, confirmed in essence that partners with low self-esteem tend not to voice relationship complaints with their partner because they fear rejection. "There is a perception that people with low self-esteem tend to be more negative and complain a lot more," says Megan McCarthy, the study's lead author. "While that may be the case in some social situations, our study suggests that in romantic relationships, the partner with low self-esteem resists addressing problems."
And, "If your significant other is not engaging in open and honest conversation about the relationship," says McCarthy, "it may not be that they don't care, but rather that they feel insecure and are afraid of being hurt. We've found that people with a more negative self-concept often have doubts and anxieties about the extent to which other people care about them," she says. "This can drive low self-esteem people toward defensive, self-protective behavior, such as avoiding confrontation."
A summary of the research also points out that people with low self-esteem's resistance to address concerns may stem from a fear of negative outcomes. That is, they may believe that if they speak up and confront what troubles them, they risk rejection from their partner; and that, in turn, will damage their relationship. Consequently, that tends to lead to greater mutual dissatisfaction in the relationship.
"We may think that staying quiet, in a 'forgive and forget' kind of way, is constructive, and certainly it can be when we feel minor annoyances," says McCarthy. "But when we have a serious issue in a relationship, failing to address those issues directly can actually be destructive."
It's good to see empirical support for familiar patterns that men and women often bring to psychotherapy. This can help them clarify how and why they perpetuate the negative relationships that they hope to heal; and what they need to deal with to bring about some positive movement.
dlabier@CenterProgressive.org Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Progressive Development, and writes its blog, Progressive Impact. For more about him on The Huffington Post, click here.