"you're just saying that to be nice": how individuals with low self-esteem can learn to accept compliments as truth

For those of you involved in a relationship where one person has low self-esteem, compliments can have a significant, positive impact on the connection that you share with your mate. You see, individuals with lower self-esteem tend to underestimate how much their partners love and care for them, even though research shows that individuals with low self-esteem are loved just as much by their partners as individuals with high self-esteem are loved by their partners. Psychologists at the University of Waterloo (Drs. Denise Marigold, John Holmes, and Michael Ross) conducted three studies to investigate how low self-esteem individuals could increase their own relationship satisfaction and feelings of relationship security after receiving compliments from their partners. After an extensive review of past literature, the researchers decided that in order for low self-esteem individuals to truly “believe” the compliments given to them by their partners (because remember, low self-esteem individuals tend to not believe that their partners love them as much as they actually do), they had to reframe how they viewed and understood the compliment. And, it worked. In general, the researchers had some low self-esteem individuals discuss a compliment from their partner more concretely (“Describe exactly what your partner said to you. Include any details you can recall about where you two were at the time, what you were doing, what you were both wearing, etc.”) and had other low self-esteem individuals discuss a compliment from their partner more abstractly (“Explain why your partner admired you. Describe what it meant to you and its significance to you relationship.”). They also examined individuals with high self-esteem and had them do the same thing. Results showed that individuals with low self-esteem benefitted from describing the meaning and significance of the compliment as opposed to describing every little detail. In particular, low self-esteem individuals “can reframe affirmations from their partners to be as meaningful as [high self-esteem individuals] generally believe them to be and, consequently, can feel just as secure and satisfied with their romantic relationships.”

In sum, when low self-esteem individuals receive compliments from their partners, they tend to brush them off as their partners “just being nice,” “not telling them the whole truth,” or even “fibbing just to make them feel good.” But, when these same individuals are asked to think more deeply about the meaning and intention behind the compliment, they feel more loved and secure and they actually value their relationships more than when they don’t engage in any reflection about the praise. So next time your partner throws a compliment your way, think about it for a little while before you simply chalk it up to partner politeness.

  • Marigold, D. C., Holmes, J. G., & Ross, M. (2007). More than words: Reframing compliments from romantic partners fosters security in low self-esteem individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 232-248.

quick love tip: de-escalate your arguments

While most arguments don't usually begin as a screaming match, many end up that way. In fact, many disagreements (but certainly not all) start off about seemingly insignificant topics or at the least begin with partners behaving in a civil manner- speaking calmly, at an average rate and volume, and using acceptable language. Unfortunately however, arguments can quickly escalate and turn into larger-than-life wars between romantic partners where yelling, name-calling, insulting, and criticism are common. The fact of the matter is that any argument where escalation takes place is considered destructive.

If you're in an argument with your mate and you can see that things are getting out of hand, there's still hope. You can easily turn conflict around by learning how to de-escalate the conversation. Below are a few statements that you can make to attempt to de-escalate your feud.

"Okay, let's take a 10 minute (or 10 hour) break, cool down, and then work towards actually solving this problem."
Stepping away from a disagreement, taking a break, and coming back to the issue at a later date (fyi: you have to come back to it) allows people to calm down and think about what they really want to talk about. Many times, people are able to better organize their thoughts and express their feelings more effectively after taking a break. But beware, continuously tabling a discussion is not a good idea. You have to eventually work it out. And, sooner is better than later.

"Wait a minute. What are we really fighting about?"
At times, it's vital that you ask yourself (and your partner) this exact question. Couples have a tendency to engage in what I like to call cryptic arguing where they seem to be arguing about one topic when in fact, they are really upset about something totally unrelated. For instance, you might be angry at your partner about a comment made by him or her a week earlier. Instead of talking about how that comment made you feel, you become easily agitated when your mate leaves his or her dirty clothes on the floor. You erupt in anger about the clothes when it's really about the comment made a week earlier. Or, you might not be mad at your mate at all. Maybe you're stressed out at work or with the kids and you take it out on your partner for something rather trivial. I think that this happens a lot with couples who have children. For instance, when our twins were infants, Hus and I would argue about the most ridiculous things. "Don't put your soda on the f-ing table! You're going to leave a stain! You always do shit like that!" And that wasn't all. "Why can't you figure this out? It's like you're not even trying." At a certain point during these conflicts, one of us would sometimes ask, "What the hell are we really fighting about? Why are we so upset about this?" Saying something like this in a light-hearted tone can easily break the tension during a impassioned quarrel. In fact, research has argued that utilizing a little affiliative humor during conflict is actually quite effective at resolving issues in many marriages.

"I love you and you love me. Why are we talking to each other like this?"
Insults, name-calling, negative sarcasm, and other forms of contempt are commonplace in many disagreements between romantic partners. Reiterating your love for one another can put your conversation in perspective. I know when Hus and I have used this strategy, one of the next sentences is something like, "You're right. I don't want to fight with you. I'm sorry." And then we're able to think  more rationally and work through the issue. If you really love someone, that kind of hurtful language should not be part of your relationship vocabulary to begin with. But if it sneaks in somehow, you can quickly nip those detrimental conversations in the bud (and de-escalate your conflict) by shifting the focus of your discussion. Emphasizing your love can cause you and your partner to quit using cruel language, remember that you actually care for one another, and maybe even help you solve your problems.

media love: how will we love?

I watched this documentary a couple of weeks ago and then showed portions of it to my students. It's great. You'll love it.

Check out the website for this documentary HERE.
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