You’re tempted to check your partner’s phone while they’re in the bathroom. You text
back about Tuesday night cricket drinks with something like the Spanish inquisition. Soon enough your partner is indeed acting suspiciously, spending more time away from home, heightening your sense that they’ve lost interest or are being unfaithful. It’s a common scenario researchers have sought to unravel in a bid to help preserve relationships that become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Anxiety over whether or not your partner loves you and is committed to the relationship may be detrimental to the long-term success of a relationship, according to a study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. High levels of fluctuation in how secure an individual feels in his or her relationship may actually doom its success.
“For people anxious in their attachments, they have anxiety as to whether the person is going to be there for them and whether they are worthy of others,” says researcher Ashley Cooper. “I was interested in how attachment security impacted partners’ experiences in their relationship on a daily basis. Some couples experience instability from one day to the next in their relationship, so we sought out to explore what could increase or decrease this volatility.”
Cooper and her colleagues found that individuals who experience high levels of anxiety about their partner’s commitment were likely to experience more volatility in their feelings about the relationship from day to day. Furthermore, women’s relationship anxiety tended to incite reciprocal volatility in their partner’s feelings about the relationship. It caused the very response they feared.
Two types of insecure attachment behaviour known as attachment avoidance and anxious attachment – behaviours associated with distrust of relying on other people and behaviours associated with fears regarding consistent care and affection – were particularly detrimental.
When an individual reported high attachment avoidance, both the individual and partner reported generally low levels of relationship satisfaction or quality. When individuals reported high attachment anxiety, there tended to be increased volatility in relationship quality.
In cases where one or both partners was insecurely attached, Cooper recommended being aware of making assumptions that could escalate conflict. Couples’ counselling could also help to prevent ruptures due to attachment insecurity.
“Trusting in your partner and your relationship is important to daily interactions and stability for your relationship,” she says.
Conversely, low self-esteem can lead to staying in an unhappy relationship, according to research at the University of Waterloo.
Sufferers of 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 study author Megan McCarthy. “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.”
Communication was key to relationship satisfaction, she said.
“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 behaviour, such as avoiding confrontation.”
The research suggests that people with low self-esteem’s resistance to address concerns may stem from a fear of negative outcomes. Sufferers may believe that they cannot speak up without risking rejection from their partner and damage to their relationship, resulting in greater overall 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.”
“We all know that close relationships can sometimes be difficult. The key issue, then, is how we choose to deal with it when we feel dissatisfied with a partner.”
In a cruel self-perpetuating cycle, breaking up over low self-esteem may put you behind the eight ball for subsequent relationships. For those with attachment insecurity, the end of a relationship may jeopardise self-concept or a person’s sense of ‘me’, more than in peers with secure attachment styles.
“Not only may couples come to complete each others’ sentences, they may actually come to complete each others’ selves,” wrote authors Erica B. Slotter, Wendi L. Gardner, and Eli J. Finkel. “When the relationship ends, individuals experience not only pain over the loss of the partner, but also changes in their selves.”