Self esteem is one of the most important factors influencing human behavior. Despite what some people believe, self esteem can be a critical issue in marriage, where unresolved identity issues from childhood can place unwanted stress on a relationship.
Low self esteem can be very painful and difficult to overcome. Our sense of self is something we come into the world with and it follows us through life like a shadow. If we lose it, we are lost. If we have we it, we can face all of our trials and tribulations and maintain our sense of satisfaction and emotional well-being. Most parents understand the role self esteem plays in childhood. When children grow up, we teach them how to take losses in stride and how to win and lose with grace. We teach children that it’s them, and not just their grades, that matter.
Once childhood passes, unresolved self esteem issues can last for a lifetime. For example, in marriages where one person suffers from low self esteem, both parties may feel that their spouse never properly fulfills their emotional needs. And, where both suffer from feelings of low self esteem, there may be perpetual disappointment in the relationship.
Expectations make this issue even more complex. Couples tend to enter marriage with the belief that any hurt they may have experienced in the past will be healed by their spouse. They may also hope that their spouse will somehow make them feel good about themselves and nurture their self image.
A couple once came to talk with me about difficulties they were having in their marriage. The issue burning in their minds was the negative behavior of their teenage son. The father found it difficult to parent his rebellious teenager with confidence, and the wife had given up hope in her children and in her marriage as well. Overall, they were both visibly angry at one another, withdrawn and disappointed in their relationship.
I sensed there was more hiding below the surface. The husband, it turned out, had lost his mother at a young age and was raised by his father, who was too preoccupied with their financial survival to pay much attention to his son’s emotional needs. The wife had also had a very difficult childhood. She grew up with a father who had a temper and would often yell at her without reason. Early on, she had learned how to adapt and “disappear” from the house when he was around.
Years later, these two individuals would continue their childhood patterns and be caught in an endless cycle of emotional turmoil. Here is how the self esteem issues spiraled out of control: whenever he sensed that his wife was not responsive to his emotional needs, he would start yelling at her. His wife, who was mistreated by her father and had learned how to avoid conflict, would physically and emotionally withdraw from him and try to hide. This would intensify his feelings of rejection and make him even angrier.
To break the cycle, I suggested that both work on their self esteem. They could begin by exploring how their childhood traumas were now influencing their present-day behavior. Through becoming aware of these inner issues, they would be better equipped to respond to their deeper emotional wounds and start healing their feelings of rejection and neglect.
Here is a list of childhood family issues that may be interrupting your ability to have a happy marriage as an adult:
* Learning disabilities
* Lack of friendships
* Physical or emotional abuse
* A sick parent
* A death in the family
Children who are exposed to conflict at home (which tends to coincide with a negative and hostile relationship between the parents) are more at risk for aggression, internalizing by withdrawing, depressive symptoms, and feelings of low self esteem.
Also, an adult who lost a parent when he or she was a child may feel a sense of loss that can carry on for a lifetime. Losing someone at a young age can diminish self-confidence, create feelings of despair, and leave individuals with feelings of anxiety and uncertainty.
Part of the healing process is to become aware of these inner issues and to begin discussing them with one’s spouse. Talking about them in an honest and open way can help them become aware of each other’s feelings of abandonment. Here are some tips on how to nourish each other’s level of self esteem:
First Aid Relationship Tips
* Highlight positive aspects of his physical, mental, and emotional development, such as the way he looks, express thoughts and feelings, the skills he has or is developing.
* Focus on accomplishments. Congratulate her for achievements, however big or small. Remind her daily of the things she has done well or courage she has shown.
* Help him to be realistic and accept the fact that, while he isn’t perfect at everything, he doesn’t have to be.
* Teach her to laugh at past disappointments when she can. Use setbacks as opportunities for insight and growth.
* Help him develop a support system of people they trust who will listen when he needs to talk.
As the level of self esteem improves, many couples find their ability to have a successful marriage is greatly enhanced.
Relationship Test: Self Esteem
Do you take time to develop your spouse’s self esteem?
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About the Author: Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, Marriage and Family Therapy, is an expert in marriage counseling, pre-marital education, and helping teens in crisis with offices in Flatbush, Cedarhurst, and Crown Heights. He is a certified PAIRS instructor, and trained as a Level 1, Emotionally Focused Therapist at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, and is a member of AASECT. He is the author of At Risk – Never Beyond Reach and First Aid For Jewish Marriages. To watch his free videos on marriage and parenting and for appointments visit: www.JewishMarriageSupport.com or call 646-428-4723
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