Self-esteem isn't something you gain or lose overnight. It can take years to build it, but only days to destroy it. That's why it's important to make sure you're not hurting your partner's self-esteem in ways you didn't know about. Sure, it's your partner's responsibility to work on their own issues with low self-esteem, but it's also your job as a caring partner to make that process as easy as possible.
There are a lot of simple, everyday things we do and say that can have a negative impact on your partner's self-esteem, and many of them are things that are so common and seemingly benign that our minds are blown when we realize we're hurting them. And then there are the common sense things, like name-calling, or refusing to support their interests. When I worked with couples as a Domestic Violence Victim Advocate, and as a Planned Parenthood Certified Responsible Sexuality Educator, I saw a lot of people hold in all these little things their partners did that made them feel less than. Holding those feelings in not only negatively impacted self-esteem, but littered their relationship with resentments.
I also saw partners who didn't really care how their actions affected self-esteem, too. You don't want to be that partner. Scan this checklist to make sure your snark isn't too snarky and your guidance isn't too patronizing. Your partner's self-esteem will thank you.
1. Eye Rolling
Body language is powerful. Often, it's more powerful than words when it comes to healthy communication. Your eye rolls might just mean "I think what you just said is ridiculous," but it's easy to take it as "you're an idiot and I'm judging you in my head." While we're on the subject, crossing your arms, looking at your phone when your partner is talking, and generally looking disinterested are also ways you could be subtly sending signals that come across as "I don't care" or "stop talking" or worse. Be mindful of your body language.
2. Re-Doing Things
If you go behind your partner and re-check or re-do everything they just did, you're sending the message that they don't ever do things right .Yeah, it's cool to double check things once in a while, especially if there's a safety issue at hand, but for the most part, if the job is good enough, there's no need to undermine your partner's efforts. And if you just can't help yourself, at least wait until they can't see you re-washing that dish or re-making the bed.
3. Constant Suggestions
I always thought constant suggestions were a sign that I was paying attention, caring about what was happening, and being helpful. It wasn't until a friend told me that they felt like they never got anything right because I was always making suggestions that I realized this approach wasn't right for every situation. Good intentions, negative consequences. Now I wait until my suggestions are specifically asked for and otherwise just remain supportive and encouraging. Good communication will help you know what kind of feedback is helpful and what kind makes your partner question their abilities.
4. Questioning Choices
Sometimes it's the littlest things. Like my wife thinking she's being helpful, always questioning the weather-appropriateness of my outfits. "You sure you don't need a jacket?" No, I don't need a jacket. "Babe, you definitely don't want to wear flip flops. It's colder than it looks outside." I mean, yeah, on the surface it's sweet and she totally means well, but after the millionth time, it's like "does she think I'm a child who doesn't know how to dress myself?" This is, of course, a tiny example, but when one partner always questions the choices of the other, that partner can start to think that they're not capable of making good choices. Apply this to bigger decisions, like jobs, schools, parenting, and where to live, and you could be doing real damage to someone's confidence.
5. Taking Over
Maybe your partner is cooking dinner and you come in and take over. Or they're trying to fix something and you're like "give it here, I'll do it." In your head, you could just be trying to help. In your partner's head, you could be sending a powerful message that you think they're incapable, doing a bad job, or always in need of your help. Keep it up, and eventually they'll stop trying altogether. Better to ask if they want help in the spirit of teamwork than to take over.
6. Poorly-Timed Or Unfunny Jokes
We all know there's a little truth in every joke. How many times has your partner said something that hurt your feelings or made you mad, and then they were like "I was totally just kidding." It happens in every relationship, but when it happens all the time, it crosses the line from misunderstanding to bullying. If you need to use a bad joke that insults your partner to get your message across, then you need to work on your communication skills because when it happens too often, it starts to negatively impact your partner's self-esteem.
7. Public Call-Outs
You might think it's funny to post something embarrassing your partner did on Facebook, or find catharsis is discussing your partner's bad habits with their family and friends, but you could actually be making your partner feel terrible. Your partner could be totally fine with both of the above scenarios, but they could also be hurt or shamed by them. You want to be a cheerleader to your partner, and to discuss issues you have with them in private before you air them to the masses. Not only is it better for self-esteem, it's just respectful in general.
There's a certain point (and it's different for everyone) where laziness goes beyond needing to rest, or not feeling like doing something, and enters into insulting territory. Being lazy about things that matter to your partner (whether it's about chores when you promised you'd help or about being a more affectionate, attentive partner) sends the message that your partner and their needs are not worth your effort. It can be a big blow to self-esteem.
Selfishness and laziness kind of go hand-in-hand. When you won't compromise, do something your partner wants to do, put your relationship first sometimes, and so on, you're sending that same message that your partner isn't worth your effort. It makes your partner feel like they're low on your priority list. Sure, your partner could just feel like your selfish and lazy behavior means you are the problem, but they could also think it's because you don't care.
10. Refusing To Argue
It sounds like some kind of cheesy Instagram quote, but it can be true that refusing to fight means you don't think something is worth fighting for. If you always shut down debate, or saying things like "I'm not arguing about this with you" you're sending the message that you're always right, or that you don't care what your partner has to say. That can fuel a sense of worthlessness in your partner. You don't have to fight, but you should let your partner have their say, too.
11. Misplacing Your Feels
If you're stressed from life, upset about work, or worried about something, it's not cool to take it out on your partner. When you're always sad, snappy, or impatient, you could be making your partner feel like it's their fault, or that you don't like them very much, or that they can't make you happy. Granted, your happiness isn't your partner's responsibility, and you should express your feelings, but you need to communicate in a way that doesn't encourage each other to internalize your negativity.
12. Saying No
Saying no is awesome, and I believe people should do it more. But if you're saying "no" to every idea your partner has, you're not being encouraging or supportive, and that can damage self-esteem. Months and years of hearing "no" every time you suggest anything, think about making a change, get an idea to do something cool, or consider making a life change makes it hard to feel like you have good idea, contribute positively yo your relationship, and have the freedom to seek your own happiness.
13. Making All The Decisions
Even if you have a partner who doesn't like to make decisions, I strongly encourage you both participate in the decision making. If you make all the decisions, just because that's what you do, you could be sending the message that your partner doesn't make good decisions, isn't smart enough to make the right decisions, or has opinions that don't matter. It doesn't hurt to ask your partner's opinion once in a while.
Patronizing is something a lot of people do sarcastically, or as a joke, and sometimes it's funny. But sometimes it makes your partner feel like they suck at life. If you ever get the urge to say "oh, honey," and pat your partner on the head, just fight that urge, because you could be subtly etching away at their self-esteem. There are better ways to communicate.
15. Not Sharing Your Feelings
If you're the strong, silent type, and you show your love more than you speak it, you'll need to make sure your partner is totally aware of the things you do to express your feelings. Otherwise, they might think you don't feel them. If it's important to your partner's self-esteem that you give compliments, say "I love you" and tell them you're still attracted to them, and you don't make an effort to ever do that, you could be putting a crimp in their self-esteem. Everyone needs to feel loved and appreciated.
16. Withholding Information
If bad stuff happens to you, and you keep it from your partner because you don't want to upset them or hurt their feelings, what you could be actually doing is making them feel like you didn't trust them, think they could handle it, or respect them enough to be honest. Those types of feelings can negatively impact self worth in a big way. Relationships are a team effort.
17. Skipping Things That Don't Interest You
Maybe your partner is an athlete or an artist, and they really want you to come support them at a game or show. But you hate art or sports like you hate genocide, so you're gut instinct is to be like "I'd rather die than go to your thing." You should suck it up and make an effort to go and be supportive. Otherwise you're sending the signal that you don't care about what your partner cares about, and maybe that their happiness isn't enough of a priority to you. That lack of support can hurt someone's confidence.
Interrupting is rude. Sometimes you don't mean anything by it; you're just excited or you don't want to forget what you have to say. But most of the time, interrupting someone makes that person feel like you weren't listening, and that what they have to say isn't important. Is there anything worse than that moment where you realize nobody cares about what you're saying? If it happens enough, your partner could just stop talking, because what's the point?
19. Picking Out Clothes
I know a lot of people who think it's cute to dress their partners. That's fine, if their partners want the help. But if you're always making your partner change and giving unsolicited wardrobe advice, eventually they're going to feel like you don't like their taste, you don't like the way they look, or that you want to change them. Little things like this can do a lot to make a person feel like they're not good enough.
20. Complaining About Money
Sometimes you need to watch how you talk about money, because you might not know that you're chipping away at your partner's self-esteem. Make sure when you complain about the finances, you're not making your partner feel shame for not making more money, or guilty for buying something they needed. Some partners take money issues personally, and interpret them as a sign that they're not good enough providers.
I'm not talking about name-calling that equates to abuse. I'm talking about that everyday name calling that you drop in conversation because you think it's funny, or because you assume your partner knows you're joking. Like "stop forgetting your wallet, dork." Some people roll with this kind of talk and it's no big deal. Some people internalize it, and it leads to a lessened self image. Check in with your partner and make sure you're not calling them anything that upsets them.
22. Not Asking Questions
If you don't ask questions or show an interest in your partner's life, they could think it's because you don't care, or that their life isn't interesting or important enough to talk about. Make sure to remember to ask about important events, and also to just say "how was your day?"
23. Forgetting Special Days
Nothing says "I'm not important" than having a partner that forgets your birthday. Just don't do it. Enough said.
24. Not Being Body Positive
If you have a partner who struggles with body image or confidence, and you never give compliments or express love for their body, they might think you don't have any love for their body. Make an effort to be flirty, complimentary, and sweet in all matters of your partner's appearance. It matters.
If you do any of these things, they might not have that big of an impact on your partner's self-esteem. But then again, they might. Have a little communication about these habits and just make sure you're a person who only improves, not diminishes, their self-esteem.
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