Self-esteem and problem-solving behaviour in close relationships


Department of Psychology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC 27514, USA


Three studies examined the relationship between self-esteem and responses to periodic decline in close relationships. A four-category typology of responses to dissatisfaction was utilized: exit — actively destroying the relationship; voice — actively and constructively attempting to improve conditions; loyalty — passively but optimistically waiting for conditions to improve; and neglect — passively allowing the relationship to deteriorate. It was hypothesized that individuals with stronger self-esteem would attempt to solve problems in a more active fashion — with exit and voice — whereas those with weaker self-esteem would react to problems in their relationships in a more passive manner — with loyalty and neglect. The relationship between self-esteem and generalized problem-solving styles was explored among university students in study 1, and among adults residing in the local community in study 2. Study 3 explored the relationship between self-esteem and actual problem-solving behaviour in the relationships of lesbians, gay males and heterosexual women and men. Consistent with predictions, a meta-analysis of the results of the three studies revealed that individuals with stronger self-esteem were more likely to engage in active exit behaviours and were less likely to react with passive neglect. However, self-esteem was only weakly promotive of loyalty and was unrelated to voice behaviours. Thus, self-esteem is an effective predictor of negative problem-solving behaviours in close relationships.