A new study suggests that previous research may have overestimated the influence of self-esteem on changes in wellbeing following a breakup. The research found that most people felt less satisfied with life in the wake of their romantic relationship ending, but there was only a small difference between those with low and those with high self-esteem.
The results have been published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
“Breakups are hard, and can be harder for some more than others. People often assume those with low self-esteem experience large drops in well-being following a romantic breakup. But there have been problems with how we scientifically study this,” said study author Emily Cross, a postdoctoral fellow at York University.
For their new study, the researchers examined data collected during the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study, a longitudinal study that has surveyed tens of thousands of participants annually since 2009. The study includes a large range of measures, including assessments of self-esteem, subjective wellbeing, and relationship status.
“We used a statistical technique (called propensity score matching) that overcomes past limitations by matching people who are similar on several demographics, qualities, and characteristics (e.g., gender, ethnicity, relationship length, personality) but differ in whether they experienced a breakup (versus stayed in their relationship). Simply put, this technique makes groups more comparable, so we can better isolate, and study, the effect of breakups,” Cross explained.
“Using this technique, we matched adults from New Zealand who experienced a breakup over one year (N = 1,333) versus remained in a relationship (N = 1,333) and we examined their self-reported wellbeing.”
The researchers found that romantic breakups were associated with subsequent reductions in wellbeing one year later. For those with low-to-average self-esteem, the effect of a breakup was small-to-medium. For those with high self-esteem, the effect was very small.
“Breakups are challenging for everyone, but especially for people with low self-esteem. We found that, on average, people who experienced a breakup (versus those who stayed together) reported lower wellbeing, and this pattern was stronger for people lower in self-esteem,” Cross told PsyPost.
“But people are resilient. We found the above effects were small. And people high in self-esteem appear especially resilient to lower wellbeing after a breakup. This aligns with resilience perspectives that highlight most people can adapt successfully to significant challenges (see Masten, 2018) and recover quickly from stressful events, including rejection and social loss (Bonanno et al., 2011).”
The study used a large nationally representative sample of participants and controlled for several important factors. But the findings still include a few caveats.
“The methods we used mean we could not assess why people who have lower (versus higher) self-esteem are more vulnerable (versus resilient) after breakups,” Cross said. “We also had no information regarding why people’s relationships ended, which past work shows contributes to how people respond to breakups.”
“Self-esteem is an important individual difference that is well studied, but there is still lots to learn,” Cross added. “Using improved statistical techniques is one way that scientists and researchers can update and improve their understanding. The current work adds to several recent studies examining taken-for-granted assumptions regarding self-esteem.”
For example, research published in 2020 that examined data from 47,000 participants found a reciprocal link between self-esteem and social relationships. That is, people’s self-esteem influenced the quality of their social relationships but the quality of their social relationships also influenced the development of their self-esteem.
“But, currently, there is no consensus regarding which strategies best promote self-esteem,” Cross said. “Breakups are challenging but also very common. Hence, checking in on loved ones and offering support when they are experiencing relationship dissolution may be helpful.”
“A special thank you to the whole NZAVS team for allowing us to use this data and the Kate Edgar Charitable Trust for helping to fund this research,” she added.
The study, “Does low self-esteem predict lower wellbeing following relationship dissolution?” was authored by Emily J. Cross, Nickola C. Overall, Shanuki D. Jayamaha, and Chris G. Sibley.