A new study, published in February 2017 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, offers fresh insights into the role of self-esteem in romantic relationships. Eva Luciano and Ulrich Orth of the University of Bern analyzed data from more than 9,000 young adults in Germany who were studied for three years. The authors described several reasons for believing that entering a new romantic relationship would be good for self-esteem. Instead, whether a romantic relationship provided a boost to self-esteem depended on how long the relationship lasted and whether it was a high-quality relationship. And people in the study who got married had levels of self-esteem that were no better than those who stayed in romantic relationships without marrying.
On average, the participants were either 17, 27, or 37 years old at the start of the study. Their self-esteem, romantic relationship status, and (if they were in a romantic relationship) the quality of their relationship were assessed four times — at the start of the study and then again at the end of each of the three years. The authors tried to match the different groups (e.g., those who started romantic relationships and those who stayed single) on many different characteristics (such as personality, age, gender, and education) to increase the chances that what really mattered was their relationship status.
Self-esteem was measured by participants’ degree of agreement with three statements: “I like myself just the way I am”; “On the whole, I am satisfied with myself”; and “I feel worthless at times” (reverse scored).
So are romantic relationships good for your self-esteem? The results of the study offered answers to that question and other related questions.
If you start a new romantic relationship, does your self-esteem increase?
At first, the answer to that question seemed to be yes. People who started a new romantic relationship in the first year of the study enjoyed a greater increase in self-esteem by the end of that year than those who stayed single. By the end of the second and third years, though, that benefit had vanished. People who had started a new romantic relationship were no longer enjoying higher self-esteem than the people who stayed single.
Then the authors asked an important question: Did it matter whether the romantic relationship lasted?
Some of the adults who started a new romantic relationship in the first year of the study had already broken up by the end of that year. Those short-lived romantic relationships offered no boost at all to their self-esteem. At the end of the first year, their self-esteem had not improved any more than the self-esteem of the people who had stayed single. And by the end of the second year — after the breakup — the people who had started a romantic relationship had lower self-esteem than the people who had stayed single.
It was different for the people who stayed in their romantic relationships at least through the end of the second year of the study. Their self-esteem did increase, at least at first (by the end of the first year). It was also higher than the self-esteem of the people who stayed single at the end of the third year. In between (at the end of the second year), it was only a little higher — a difference that was not quite significant, statistically.
The Summary So Far
People who get into new romantic relationships that last less than a year do not enjoy any increase in their self-esteem, relative to people who stay single. In fact, after they break up, their self-esteem goes down, and they end up feeling worse about themselves than the people who stay single. The people who get into new romantic relationships that last longer do better — their self-esteem increases, at least at first.
Does it help to take the romantic relationship to the next level and get married?
When the authors compared the people who got married during the first year of the study to those who stayed in a romantic relationship without marrying, here’s what they found: Nothing. The people who got married did not get rewarded with higher self-esteem — not at the end of the first year, or the second, or the third. The authors also tried comparing those people who got married and stayed married at least through the end of the second year, to those who stayed in their romantic relationship without marrying. Again, they found nothing. Getting married just did not add anything to people’s self-esteem.
Wait a minute: Did the people who started new romantic relationships have higher self-esteem to begin with?
If you have high self-esteem, are you more likely to get into a new romantic relationship? It depends on how long that relationship ends up lasting.
People with higher self-esteem are no more likely than people with lower self-esteem to start a new relationship that doesn’t last very long. People who started romantic relationships that lasted longer — at least a year — did have higher self-esteem to begin with.
Did the people who got married have higher self-esteem to begin with than those who stayed in their romantic relationship without marrying?
Again, self-esteem had nothing to do with getting married. The people who got married did not have any higher self-esteem to begin with than the people who stayed in their romantic relationships without marrying.
What does a breakup do to your self-esteem?
Breakups are not good for your self-esteem. People who experienced a breakup in the first year of the study had lower self-esteem by the end of that year than the people who stayed in a romantic relationship. (The authors did not compare the people who broke up to those who stayed single the whole time.) That plunge in self-esteem was especially big if the relationship had lasted a year or longer. By the end of the second and third years, though, the difference in self-esteem between those who had broken up and those who had stayed in their romantic relationships was no longer statistically significant.
Low self-esteem seems to be implicated in romantic relationships from start to finish. People who have lower self-esteem to begin with are more likely to get into romantic relationships that don’t last. And when those relationships don’t last, their self-esteem declines even more.
Relationships and self-esteem: Are the results different for women than for men?
The entanglements of self-esteem with starting a relationship, getting married, or ending a relationship were no different for women than they were for men. They also weren’t any different for the younger adults than for the somewhat older ones. (Remember that the participants ranged from about 17-years-old to about 37-years-old at the start of the study.)
Did the quality of the romantic relationship matter?
Higher quality romantic relationships, in this study, were defined as relationships in which the couples were more satisfied, committed, and intimate, and experienced less conflict. The quality of the romantic relationships did matter. People who started new romantic relationships that were higher in quality were more likely to enjoy an increase in their self-esteem than people who started romantic relationships of lower quality.
Did the people who started high-quality romantic relationships have higher self-esteem to begin with?
Yes, the people who started higher-quality romantic relationships had higher self-esteem to begin with than those who started lower-quality relationships. The people who started lower-quality relationships had no higher self-esteem than those who stayed single.
So are romantic relationships good for your self-esteem? Here’s the authors’ summary: “…beginning a relationship improves self-esteem if and only if the relationship is well-functioning, stable, and holds at least for a certain period (in the present research…one year or longer).” As for the people who get into new romantic relationships that are over before a year is up, they end up with lower self-esteem than the people who stayed single.
The authors described several reasons for believing that romantic relationships would be good for people’s self-esteem.
1. Based on “sociometer” theory, they suggested that people in romantic relationships see themselves as having higher “relational value.” Their need for social inclusion is satisfied.
2. A romantic relationship provides a person with a new social role, and that can lead to changes in personality, including increases in self-esteem.
3. Finding a partner may be an important life goal, so people in romantic relationships may feel better about themselves, because they are closer to their ideal self.
But all these supposed benefits of starting a romantic relationship did not pan out if the relationship was short-lived or not very good.
There’s another important reason (that the authors did not mention) for why people in romantic relationships should have enjoyed higher self-esteem: They are viewed more positively by other people. Studies from countries such as the United States and Germany have shown that people who are single are judged more harshly than people who are married or in romantic relationships. Studies focusing specifically on young adults have shown that their romantic relationship status matters to their social status. Those who were currently in a romantic relationship were regarded more positively than those who were not, and those who had previous romantic relationship experience were evaluated in more flattering ways than those who had no previous romantic relationship experience.
People in romantic relationships are getting social affirmation. They have their social inclusion, their new role, and their progress toward what may be an important life goal. But none of that is enough to enhance their self-esteem if the relationship doesn’t last very long, or if it is a lousy relationship. In fact, people who get into a new romantic relationship, only to experience a breakup before a year is over, end up with worse self-esteem than those who stay single.
If there are lots of reasons why people should, in theory, enjoy higher self-esteem if they get into a romantic relationship, then there should be even more reasons why they should get a boost to their self-esteem if they get married. Marriage is even more respected and celebrated than garden-variety romantic relationships are. And married people are not just admired more — they are also rewarded in very concrete ways. For example, many laws provide financial benefits only to people who are legally married. They get those benefits regardless of whether their marriage is a wonderful one or a terrible one, and they get those benefits for however long their marriage lasts (and sometimes longer). But in this study, getting married did not add anything to people’s self-esteem, relative to staying in a romantic relationship without marrying.
This was not the first study to show that getting married does nothing for a person’s self-esteem. In a previous study (that was not limited to young adults), people who got married enjoyed no greater self-esteem than those who stayed single. When the married people were divided into those who had been married for less than four years and those who had been married for at least four years, there was still no self-esteem boost for either group.
So why don’t people feel better about themselves when they get married? Perhaps we have been too focused on what is supposedly good about married life and bad about single life. Maybe we need to take more seriously the converse: what is not so great about married life, and what is meaningful and rewarding about living single.
Luciano, E. C., & Orth, U. (2017). Transitions in romantic relationships and development of self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112, 307-328.