Partner Appraisal and Marital Satisfaction: The Role of Self-Esteem and Depression

By Sacco, William P.; Phares, Vicky | Journal of Marriage and Family, May 2001 | Go to article overview

Partner Appraisal and Marital Satisfaction: The Role of Self-Esteem and Depression


Sacco, William P., Phares, Vicky, Journal of Marriage and Family


This study examined whether people are more maritally satisfied when the valence of their partner's view of them is congruent with the valence of their self-view. In doing so, competing hypotheses derived from self-verification theory and selfesteem enhancement theory were examined. Married couples, recruited from the community and mental health facilities, completed measures of marital satisfaction, self-esteem, depression, and rated their spouse on a wide array of personality traits, both depressionrelated and depressionneutral. Regardless of self-esteem and depression level, and across trait categories, targets were more maritally satisfied when their partners viewed them positively and less satisfied when their partners viewed them negatively. Thus, findings were inconsistent with self-verification theory and consistent with a self-esteem enhancement model.

Key Words: marital satisfaction, partner appraisal, depression, self-esteem.

Marital satisfaction appears to be an important determinant of psychological well-being. Marital distress has been associated with a host of psychological difficulties, particularly depression (Beach, Whisman, & O'Leary, 1994), and marital problems are the most common complaints of those seeking help from mental health clinics (O'Leary & Smith, 1991). Though the factors influencing marital satisfaction are likely to be complex, the literature on self-relevant motivational processes offers relevant but competing viewpoints on the role that partner appraisal and the self-concept play in marital satisfaction. These competing viewpoints are represented in the following questions addressed by the present study: Are people more maritally satisfied when their partner's view of them is positive, regardless of how positively they view themselves? Or are they more satisfied when their partner's view is consistent with their self-view, even when their selfview is negative?

These research questions have clinical and theoretical implications. Clinically, it is important to know whether low self-esteem and depressed persons gravitate toward and endure intimate relationships with partners who view them negatively while shunning those who view them positively, and whether they will resist therapeutic efforts to induce their partner to view them more favorably. In addition, interactional family systems models of depression posit that the interpersonal environment plays a critical role in the development, maintenance, and worsening of depression (Feldman, 1976; Sacco, 1999). Research based on this theoretical perspective has amply demonstrated that others, including spouses, react more negatively to depressed persons (Sacco, 1999). Although most theorists have assumed that these negative reactions are largely attributable to the depressed person's aversive social behaviors (e.g., Coyne, 1976), it is also possible that depressionprone persons are attracted to those who respond to them negatively.

According to self-verification theory, people seek and accept information that confirms their self-concept because doing so maintains a consistent and familiar view of the self and the world (Swann, Wenzlaff, Krull, & Pelham, 1992). The motive to self-verify is particularly relevant to dysphoric and low self-esteem individuals. When confronted with favorable self-relevant information that is incongruent with their self-concept, the desire to view the self positively may compete with the desire for feedback that confirms the extant negative self-view. Self-verification theory proposes that, ultimately, self-confirming evaluations will be sought, attended to, and believed because doing so promotes "perceptions of prediction and control by fostering intrapsychic and interpersonal coherence" (Giesler, Josephs, & Swann, 1996, p. 358). Consistent with this theory, various studies have found evidence that low selfesteem persons seek, prefer, and solicit negative interpersonal feedback, and gravitate toward those whose view of them is consistent with their negative self-view (Swann, 1990).

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