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Lovers Who Lower Our Self-Esteem

Sometimes we are drawn to people who make us feel bad about who we are.

Key points

  • People may be attracted to someone who makes them feel deficient because they find other desirable qualities in the person.
  • Sometimes, enamoredness motivates people to try and appear to be the person the other wants them to be, forgetting themselves in the process.
  • Some think they don't deserve happiness and fear something bad will happen if they get something they don't deserve.

Love is not only about what we feel for the object of our affection but also about how the other makes us feel. A healthy love generates positive feelings about the self–we come to see ourselves as lovable–and those feelings do not come at the expense of the other person.

Love becomes unhealthy when it lifts us by lowering the other, as when some look for a partner who would glorify them and offer unconditional praise, in a way that turns the relationship into a two-person cult. (If it has to be a cult, it should at least be a mutual admiration society.) Or, when others, doubting they could be loved for who they are, seek a partner whom they can ensnare in a web of dependence, whereby the object of love becomes a patient, a child, and a beggar. Or when, finally, recognizing one sole basis of self-esteem–control over other people–still others want a partner who is utterly passive and would bend to their own psychological needs. In cases of the latter sort, I suspect, it is not so much the satisfaction of those needs as the sense of domination, of being the one whose convenience matters that seems to please those so inclined.

At other times, however, attraction is unhealthy in quite a different way: we are drawn not to those who would lower themselves to boost our self-esteem but to those who, on the contrary, hurt our self-image, possibly deliberately. One can, of course, look at this as the same type of situation described from a different point of view–the perspective of the one whose partner undermines them and erodes their sense of self-respect and self-worth.

It is, perhaps, not difficult to see what motivates those who wish to control or make others dependent on them. While attraction with these features may be flawed, it is what one may expect from human beings with particular flaws (our dreams and ideals, after all, carry the stamp of our characters).

But what is going on when we are drawn to those who lower our self-esteem? This is the question I wish to discuss here.

Attraction and Wishful Thinking

I begin with what I consider the most obvious reason for the phenomenon: people may be attracted to someone who makes them feel deficient because they find other desirable qualities in the person. They may accept the effect on their self-image as a cost to be paid, in much the way someone who engages in a pleasurable but unhealthy behavior accepts the negative effects on health of what feels good. They’d rather get the pleasure without the cost, but that package is not on offer.

Frequently, people in this situation hope that with time, the other person will come to love them in the way they wish to be loved. This type of hope is usually wishful. While it is not impossible, it is unlikely that genuine reciprocal affection will blossom from such a seed. It is true that the power of mutual love can hardly be overestimated–it can lift, nourish, and heal–but nothing follows from here as to the power of mostly unilateral love.

That, in my experience, is overestimated quite frequently by those whose love it is. Our ability to transform another who does not wish to be transformed by us is quite limited, whatever our imagination, desires, and fantasy may suggest.

Still, as long as we hope the relationship will eventually turn into something wonderful, the attraction retains a healthy core. The person paying the price in self-esteem recognizes the cost for what it is. This may not be so in other cases.

Actress smoking a cigarette
Source: Cottonbro/Pexels

False Standards

In the novel Sunflower, Rebecca West describes an actress, Sybil Fassendyll, who is in a difficult relationship with a man named Lord Essington. Essington has persuaded Sybil Fassendyll that she is stupid. He has convinced her also that she has no true acting talent. In fact, neither of these is true. Sybil is very observant (she reflects thoughtfully on various aspects of her interactions with other people–friends, casual acquaintances, the chauffeur), and she is capable of both recognizing talent in other actresses and of delivering powerful performances herself. However, she does not realize her true artistic potential while fully in Essington’s shadow. In other words, Sybil's boyfriend and lover does not make her happy. Nonetheless, she stays with him for 10 years.

One can see what Essington gets out of the relationship–convincing Sybil that she is silly confirms his view of his own brilliance, and having a beautiful woman completely in his power is flattering as well–but what of Sybil?

There is more than one possible explanation in cases such as this. Sometimes, enamoredness so strongly motivates people to try and appear to be the person the other wants them to be, that they forget who they really are, a phenomenon I elsewhere dub “identity amnesia.”

There is another aspect that's crucial in Sybil Fassendyll's case: Essington sees her as and wants her to be a much less interesting person–less intelligent, less talented–than she is, and she appears to be that way with him, meeting his expectations, so the false standard he imposes on her is also bad. Sybil is, thus, a bit like people with Stockholm syndrome who not simply forget their actual interests and preferences but who come to espouse a deficient view of things and to strive for what is not desirable.

Occasionally, however, the false standard is not so much misguided considered in itself as inauthentic. In one case I know of, both partners have been undermining each other by imposing on each other inauthentic standards. In the course of the relationship, one person came to feel insufficiently well-educated while the other felt insufficiently "fun to be with."

The self-esteem of both suffered, and the damage was reciprocal, because both accepted as well as imposed demands neither could fully embrace. The relationship became one in which two people in love with their own fictions grew resentful of the real other who inspired their visions of love.

Importantly, in this case, the mistakes the two made, much more so than those of the person with Stockholm syndrome or West's Sybil, were understandable. The inauthentic goals were not so utterly misguided that a reasonable person cannot see them as worth pursuing. In fact, they were not misguided at all, objectively speaking. One can, after all, always be more educated, funnier, more spontaneous, a better dancer, and so on.

The problem was not that those were bad goals to adopt but that they didn’t spring from the depths of the psyche, so there was no reason for the lovers to feel bad about failing to achieve them. (If you have no interest in being able to dance or play chess, you wouldn't normally care a bit that you cannot do those things.) The question, then, is not simply whether the standard another wishes to impose on us is good or bad but also whether it is one we would choose if not for the relationship.

The Wish to Be Brought Down

At other times, however, something different is going on: People find themselves drawn to a lover who undermines them precisely because of the negative effect on their self-image. Unlike the wishful thinkers who hope to transform the other with their love or those who, like Sybil, forget who they truly are, those drawn to the experience of small insults to their self-image may actually see their attraction evaporate if the other begins to treat them well and boost their self-confidence. Why?

Some people who match this description appear to be afraid of happiness, as though they don’t think they deserve it and fear that if they got what they didn’t deserve, something bad would happen. They are less afraid of ill luck if their situation is already frustrating and uncomfortable, so they preemptively choose frustration.

Others seem unable to appreciate freely offered kindness from a romantic partner. They could very well cherish the kindness of friends and strangers, but when it comes to romantic partners, they do not value affection that comes easily, as though they need to regulate the currency of love and prevent inflation.

The problem with this last tendency is that it is based on a misleading intuition. While things that are more difficult to obtain are often more valuable, nothing becomes more valuable simply on account of being costlier and more difficult to secure. Material goods do not acquire value this way, and neither does affection, though clever merchants may raise the price of merchandise to exploit the intuition in question, and so may merchants of romance. Freely offered love can be wonderful while love more often withheld than given is generally not. The pain may be real but not at all worth it as on the upside, there may be no real happiness. Much like certain kinds of wine, then, some gestures of affection can be overpriced.

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