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Online Dating Magazine > Columns > Office Hours with Dr. Jim > Loving Yourself then Others

Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.

Love Yourself Before You Love Others

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Love Yourself, Love Others

I think people must love themselves before they can love others. Isn’t this true?

I wrote about this topic a while back. However, let me expand on my original answer by discussing some research that highlights how aspects of self-efficacy shape a person’s search for relationships and the satisfaction they feel after they are in a relationship.

The topic of self-efficacy is very complex, and it impacts dating and relationship satisfaction on many levels. Some of these influences are obvious – such as a person’s need for personal space (i.e. having a life separate from partner), need for privacy (i.e. understanding and respecting each other’s domain), expectations in terms of the amount of social life of the couple (couple friendships) and the need to maintain one’s individual friendships (socializing with others without the partner present).

People with problematic attachment styles frequently have dysfunctional ideas or beliefs about relationships, which in turn are linked to relationship dissatisfaction. Unrealistic expectations and idealistic assumptions about how relationships should work set the stage for disappointment and a sense of failure when things don’t go as smoothly as one wishes.  For example, people with dysfunctional relationship ideas or beliefs think that successful couples should never have any disagreements, should want to spend all their free time together or should never be attracted to another person.  They also feel that people who love each other should not have any secrets, should not need any personal space, should share anything and everything and should not need any friends other than their partner. In other words, they want to be “one body, one soul.” Once they realize that this isn’t the case in their relationship, they may panic and overreact to minor problems. A person’s stress reaction compounds these feelings.

Stress Reaction. A relationship has the potential to be a great source of support in stressful time – yet, for those people that deal poorly with stress the potential deterioration of the relationship can only add more stress. The relationships of couples that have less productive reactions to stressful life events may suffer when such events occur.  In addition, negative stressful events during the workday contribute to angry marital behavior in women and withdrawal in men and in general to negative marital interactions. According to research, minor daily stressors, such as chores, childcare and errands have a major effect on the emotional lives of the partners and the nature of the family relationship.  While some experts argue that gender differences are somewhat overrated when it comes to dealing with stress, several studies have demonstrated that men tend to use withdrawal (both emotional and behavioral) as a coping mechanism, women are more likely to be critical, verbally confront their partners and initiate conflict. These gender differences appear to be more pronounced under stress. In addition to attachment style and stress reaction, self-efficacy also involves a person’s inherent psychological strength.

Psychological Strength includes security in a relationship, dependency, need for control, self-esteem and self-confidence, mood stability (including anxiety, depression, anger control and moodiness), optimism and positive attitude.   This variable is similar to the notion of neuroticism.  There is a consensus in the academic literature that neuroticism is a negative predictor of relationship satisfaction. 

There’s no doubt that dealing with unstable emotions in a partner is difficult, often leading to relationship problems.  However, the relationship between depression and relationship distress is bi-directional.  For example, 50% of women who are experiencing relationship problems report significant depressive symptoms.  In fact, studies have shown that emotional distance and alienation predict depression for both sexes.  In addition, neuroticism in one of the partners has been shown to be one of the best predictors of marital distress and dissolution of the couple.  Moreover, negative emotional behavior (e.g., expressed anger, sadness, or contempt) has also been shown to differentiate satisfied from dissatisfied couples.  Likwise, self-esteem has been shown to be a good predictor of relationship satisfaction, especially in men. 

What this all means is that a person is considerably influenced by one’s partner and the health of the relationship and vice versa. An individual who doesn’t love or accept him/herself is not precluded from loving another person or even from participating in a relationship, but these circumstances will definitely impact the quality of the relationship. Of course, the opposite is also true. A person with poor self-efficacy can be transformed positively by the love of another person and the influence of a healthy, supportive relationship. Perhaps it’s best to say, “Relationships are what you make of them.”   And it takes two people to make or break a relationship.

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