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Fountain of Life with Taiwo Odukoya: Low Self-Esteem Can Hurt Your Marriage



Self-esteem is defined as a reflection of a person’s overall self-appraisal of his or her own worth. According Trisha Macnair, it is a powerful human need and without a good dose of it, we become vulnerable to all sort of problems, from failure at school and work, disaster in relationships to health problems such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

The truth is, we all lack confidence occasionally but those with low self-esteem are unhappy or unsatisfied with themselves most of the time.

Now, low self-esteem can be caused, among other things, by circumstances in a person’s past like unhappy childhood where parents (or other important people in one’s life, such as teachers) were extremely critical;absence of praise, warmth, affection or interest;or poor academic performance in school resulting in lack of self-confidence. Some other causes are on-going stressful life events such as relationship breakdown or serious financial problem; poor treatment from a spouse, parent or carer (abusive relationship); chronic medical condition or physical disability; and mental illness such as anxiety disorder or depression.

Generally, people with low self-esteem:

  • Are extremely critical of themselves
  • Downplay or ignore their positive qualities
  • Judge themselves to be inferior to their peers
  • Use negative words to describe themselves
  • Have discussions with themselves that are always negative, critical and self-blaming
  • Downplay their role in their own achievements and never take credit for noble acts
  • Always blame themselves when things go wrong instead of taking into account other things over which they have no control such as the actions of other people or economic forces
  • Take compliments from others with a pinch of salt.

Unfortunately, some get into marriage with a bad case of low self-esteem.In an interesting series of studies by Murray, Holmes, MacDonald and Ellsworth (1998) using Rosenberg’s Self-Esteem Scale to differentiate groups, researchers found that no matter how they adjusted variables, self-esteem colours not only a person’s perception of self but impacts expectations of the partner and the tenor of the relationship. The implication is that, although a spouse may not in any way be at fault, he or she often ends up bearing the brunt of the low self-esteem problems of the other half. It is therefore no wonder that self-esteem is a major factor in the success or otherwise of marital relationships.

Now, those with low self-esteem will question their adequacy, even in a marriage setting. They question whether they are desirable and whether their partner really loves them. What is more, they question whether or not they would still be loved if their partner knew everything about them.

You will understand that marriage thrives on openness and vulnerability, but low self-esteem often prevents people from being open and vulnerable. The more they try to conceal what they think is most unpleasant about themselves, the more they give room to suspicion and jeopardise the trust in their marriage.

At the core of low self-esteem is ‘self’. Those who have low self-esteem are therefore always too wrapped up in their own heads to really be available to their partner. They may be good in certain areas of life, but on a more intimate level, they are not really there.

The truth is, in a marital relationship, constructive criticism can help the parties get better. However, low self-esteem can prevent some from receiving constructive criticism in good faith. A spouse who is unable to admit flaws because of a negative self-image will often have difficulty feeling safe during marital conflicts. This of course will often escalate issues that could otherwise be easily resolved or brought under control.

Low self-esteem can also lead to perfectionism, which often makes people expect too much from themselves as well as their spouse. Unfortunately, this can make such people and those around them miserable or frustrated.

In addition, people with low self-esteem often struggle in their sex life. This is because great sex happens mainly when two people make themselves wholly available to each other. But when people have low self-esteem, it is difficult to really be present in the bedroom during sexual intercourse.

Now, as terrible as its effects are on marriage, the irony is that a lot of people suffer from low self-esteem without even knowing it. Some try to suppress their low self-esteem while others live in total denial. If you are one of such, it will help to remember that a problem correctly identified is half solved. The following questions may help point your attention to an obvious problem which, without your knowing it, may be tearing your marriage (and even other relationships) apart:

  • Do you only view or think of what goes on around you on the basis of your own needs and wants?
  • Are you overly submissive to—and blindly follow others without sizing up the situation on your own?
  • Do you spend too much time reflecting on past mistakes, with little thought for the present?
  • When someone corrects you, are you always unnecessarily defensive?
  • Do you always feel that you fall short of your own and others’ expectations?
  • Do you feel you have to prove yourself worthy of your spouse’s love?
  • Do you always feel inferior to other people?

Whatever the cause of low self-esteem, it is important to recognise it as a major problem and begin to deliberately change what you believe about yourself. This may of course involve seeking professional help. Without any doubt, it will involve gaining insights into how God sees you because, in spite of your past, you are special to Him.

And do not forget that healing from low self-esteem takes time. A poor self-image that has developed over a lifetime will not, in all likelihood, disappear overnight. So you have to keep at it until your self-image improves considerably.It may be a difficult task, but it is not impossible.

If you are the spouse of someone with low self-esteem, you have a lot to do to help your partner overcome the problem; you have to be lovingly part of the recovery process. So instead of assuming that he or she is cruel or insensitive, you can try to understand his or her negative feelings and help overcome them as much as you can. The result at the end is deeper intimacy between you two.

Taiwo Odukoya is the senior pastor of The Fountain of Life Church. He is an avid believer in the role of the Church in the social and economic life of the nation. He is the host of The Discovery for Men, The Discovery for Women, The Woman Leader, and Ruth and Boaz, quarterly meetings that reach out to thousands of men and women from all works of life and denominations. He lives in Lagos with his wife, Nomthi, and children. He can be reached at [email protected]