I’ve read in the popular press that before you can enter into a successful relationship, you have to love yourself. I have no idea if this is a fact or a myth, but I do know that I am not sure what it means to “love yourself.” I think about love as a passionate kind of caring we have for others, not a feeling we have for ourselves. Maybe this kind of self-love and its effects on relationships has been studied. Probably so; I’ll look up “self-love” in the literature when time permits. In the meantime, keep reading. I’ll let you know if I find anything that contradicts what’s below.
I think the “self-love” people argue is required is really a combination of two things: a strong sense of identity and a high level of self-esteem. By “identity” I mean that the people in the relationship have to know who they are and have a good sense of their basic goals. If one person in a relationship does not really understand him or herself, then the other person will not be able to know the person they love. The person who is unsure about her or himself could change considerably while he or she figures it out, leaving the other person to wonder what happened to the person they thought they loved.
People’s goals are important as well. Goals are closely tied to identity. Do both people in the relationship want children? Do they wish to be fully committed to their careers? Do they want to live in one place? Are they deeply committed to church or some other organization? Do they expect drugs to play a role in their future? How about prison? If the two people differ in their answers to these kinds of goal-related questions, the relationship can be severely stressed. True, people’s sense of identity will change over time, but a couple can adjust if both people have a good understanding of who they are and give an accurate projection of their identities from the start and while they both evolve.
Self-esteem may be a more complicated predictor of the longevity of relationships. People with low self-esteem may be likely to enter relationships with others having low self-esteem. Their expectations are low. Low self-esteem colors their perceptions of others. They do not see themselves as being worthy of love, so they may latch onto others who feel the same way. They may also be unlikely to leave a relationship, no mater how bad, because they do not believe that anyone else will care about them.
A person with high self-esteem may partner with someone with low self-esteem. Perhaps the person with high self-esteem maintains that level of self-esteem by being around someone with low self-esteem. But, I suspect that this unbalanced relationship will get old after a while for both parties.
Two people with high self-esteem is the ideal situation for long-term relationships. Their love comes from strength, not just need. The good news for those with low self-esteem is that one’s self-esteem can be improved. This may be challenging, and it may take some counseling to determine why one’s self-esteem is low. Once a person understands the reasons for low self-esteem, they can take steps to be happier about who they are. They can develop an identity they consider worthy of love from others.
Back to the original question…do you have to love yourself before you can love others? I don’t know, but if you want to have a deep, long-lasting relationship with someone else, it helps to know who you are, what you want, believe that you are worthy of love, and find someone else who has the same confidence and well-defined goals.