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Home > Research Articles > Self-Doubt Creates Spouse Problems

United Press International

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

United Press International - February 10, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb 10, 2003 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- People with low self-esteem who are vigilant for signs of rejection from their partners create the rejection they fear, says a researcher who has published a new study.

Sandra Murray, a social psychologist at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said the ability of couples to weather a marriage's inevitable squalls depends largely on each partner's sense of "felt security" within the union. Those who feel loved and valued tend to move closer to their partners during difficult times. Those who chronically feel less valued typically scrutinize their spouse's behavior for evidence that they are accepted.

But perceptions are not necessarily based on the reality of how one is actually treated.

Because of their acute self-doubt, Murray said, those who feel they are not valued protect themselves against the imagined eventuality of rejection by derogating their partner and behaving in angry ways that increase the likelihood of rejection.

"There can be low self-esteem people who do believe that their spouse sees them positively," Murray told United Press International. But generally, people with lower self-esteem feel less positively regarded by their spouses whether that's true or not.

"Insecure individuals approach day-to-day life with the chronic goal of getting their security goals met," she said, "only to trigger the exact kinds of inferential and behavioral dynamics likely to undermine the quality of the marriages they want to save and invite further rejection from the person they want to value them."

This process has the hallmarks of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"On the days these subjects experienced the greatest fear of rejection," Murray said, "their partners, in fact, tended to describe them as 'overly dependent,' 'selfish,' and 'needy.' "

Murray is principal investigator in the study "Once Hurt, Twice Hurtful: How Perceived Regard Regulates Daily Marital Interactions," which appears in the January issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Murray was asked if the "Once Hurt" in the title refers to being hurt in one's family of origin.

She replied that the investigators looked specifically at how positively the subjects believed their spouses saw them. "We know those types of specific relationship representations are related to more general features of a person's models of self," she said.

"People with low self-esteem, for instance, feel less valued in specific relationships. And some researchers would argue that people develop general expectations about themselves and others in the context of interactions with their parents as infants. But I can't say that the people who feel less valued in this study necessarily had bad relationships with their parents, or anything like that."


Murray said that research on "attachment processes" shows that one develops expectations about the self and others based on the care one gets. "Early interaction with caregivers that is more or less consistently responsive leads you to develop the expectation that others are responsive and caring and that you're worthy of being responded to favorably. If those experiences are less consistent or more rejecting, you develop different kinds of expectations about the self and others."

But just because you're paranoid doesn't mean nobody's out to get you. Is it possible that some people with low self-esteem actually attract hurtful spouses?

Murray replied that this objection was anticipated in the research design. "People who feel less valued are regarded less positively by their spouse, but you can control for how their spouse sees them -- and control for the spouse's behavior -- and you still get the exact same result," she said.

The study required its 308 subjects (154 married couples) to take a number of background personality measures and keep a daily diary for 21 days in which they described the positive and negative events that took place each day and rated their emotional reactions. Subjects' mean age was 34.4 years; average duration of marriage was 7.6 years.

The diaries contained two sections: a daily 103-item positive and negative event inventory (events included successes or failures at work; interactions with spouse, friends, children and extended families) and a daily 54-item inventory of feelings in which subjects rated how much of each emotion they experienced that day, with reactions centered around self-valuation, perceptions of partner's regard for the self, perceptions of partner and overall re-evaluations of the relationship.

The information gleaned from the tests and diaries then were analyzed using multi-level data analytic procedures to determine how the perception of a partner's regard affected the way individuals perceive one another and behave when there is conflict.

A study on which Murray was principal investigator published in the March 2000 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that individuals' level of self-esteem regulates the extent to which they idealize their partner and feel valued by him or her.

Because the potential for hurt is ever present, Murray says the challenge in maintaining a satisfying marriage is for individuals -- particularly those with low self-esteem -- to find some way of construing conflicts and slights in ways that protect the sense of security in their partner's love.

Copyright 2003 by United Press International.