../Morning Post
Posted May 21 , 2010

Psychological technique improves romantic relationships for people with low self-esteem

WATERLOO - Romantic relationships involving low self-esteem individuals can be strengthened by using a psychological intervention technique, says a new University of Waterloo study.

The technique enables low self-esteem individuals to help themselves by thoroughly reviewing and taking to heart any compliments from loved ones. Typically, they question their partner’s sincerity and dismiss compliments as concrete, isolated incidents. Making more abstract meaning of the compliments, however, allows them to deal with inevitable difficulties that occur in most relationships.

Without the technique, individuals with low self-esteem are quick to suppose that a partner's irritation or disappointment means that their partner sees critical faults in them, which leads them to question their partner's love and acceptance of them.

"Even in the most satisfying relationships, partners will inevitably irritate, upset or disappoint each other on occasion," said Denise Marigold, a professor of psychology at Renison University College on the Waterloo campus. "One of the major challenges of relationship life is to be able to absorb the impact of relatively minor slights and prevent them from shaking one's core sense of relationship security. Low self-esteem individuals have relatively more trouble rising to this challenge."

She conducted the study with John Holmes and Michael Ross, both professors of psychology at the University of Waterloo.

"On the basis of our research, we suggest that low-esteem individuals should be encouraged to abstractly frame and generalize from their partner's positive behaviour on a regular basis. This may help them to develop resilience for the occasional negative experiences that are just as much a part of relationship life," Marigold said.

When feeling acutely insecure, low-esteem individuals protect themselves from further psychological hurt by derogating their partner and distancing themselves from the relationship. In other words, a less important relationship is less painful to lose. Over time, these defensive behaviours undermine the well-being of the relationship.

People with high self-esteem, on the other hand, tend to respond more resiliently to threats - they actually embellish their partner's acceptance and draw closer to the relationship.

One way to counter the destructive behaviour of low self-esteem individuals is to have them describe or reframe praise from their partners in an abstract manner, explaining why their partners admired them and what the compliments meant to them. This technique is known as the abstract reframing intervention.

In previous research, the Waterloo researchers asked participants to recall a compliment that they had recently received from their current romantic partner. In the critical condition in each study, researchers used the abstract reframing intervention. Participants were asked to explain why their partner admired them, what the compliment meant to them and what significance it had for their relationship.

When low-esteem individuals described a past compliment from their partner in this abstract manner, compared with low-esteem individuals who were not asked to use an abstract description, they reported greater feelings of security in their partner's acceptance and more satisfaction with their relationship. These effects still held when re-measured two to three weeks later.

The abstract reframing intervention had no effect for people with high self-esteem, who already felt very secure and satisfied with their relationships in the absence of any intervention.

The new research study extends the previous work in two ways.

In one study, involving 21 male and 55 female undergraduate students, researchers showed that after receiving the abstract reframing intervention, low-esteem individuals responded resiliently to salient concerns about their partner's acceptance. They did not derogate their partner as threatened low-esteem individuals typically do.

In a second study, involving 20 male and 67 female undergraduate students, they showed that low-esteem individuals who received the abstract reframing intervention exhibited less cold and critical behaviour toward their partner over a two-week period.

Thus, the abstract reframing intervention seems to prevent low-esteem individuals from turning their anxiety about an isolated relationship incident into more general concerns about their partner's acceptance of them. This protects their relationships by decreasing their defensive behaviour toward their partner.

The study, entitled Fostering Relationship Resilience: An Intervention for Low Self-Esteem Individuals, was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

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