No matter who you are, dating can be a rough ordeal. We all try our best to be the most attractive version of ourselves, glossing over our faults and unpleasant memories, stressing whatever traits we think will win us brownie points with the person across the table. But what if the feeling of wanting to get your date's approval never goes away? Yes, most people put on a bit of a facade as they're getting to know someone, but real intimacy starts to blossom when both people in an early relationship start letting each other in.
If you find yourself writhing with stress a few months into a relationship, constantly feeling like you're going to be "found out," you may be struggling with a pervasive need for external approval. Here, signs your need for approval is sabotaging your love life.
You think you're doomed to fail, and you're trying to self-sabotage.
You've probably heard the cliché that we accept the love we think we deserve. The sentiment has a basis in social science, however. According to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, individuals with low self-esteem (called LSEs) tend to react to conflict in romantic relationships by self-sabotaging or nose-diving the situation. They start fights, becoming increasingly cold and critical of their partner, almost daring them to walk away (because they assume this is inevitable).
In most of these cases, researchers found that LSEs were often so preoccupied with their volatile self-image that they misinterpreted positive affirmations from their partners. A person with low self-esteem and a deep need for approval, for instance, might hear their partner say, "I love you," but they'll find a way to rationalize the sentiment. They don't really love me, the mind of an LSE will conclude. They're mistaken, and I'll speed things along by provoking them.
You're probably not being honest about your desires and needs.
Even if things in your dating life haven't gotten as dire as nose-diving a good thing, your need for approval can create a self-protective mask that's very difficult to remove. Remember that halting dance of white lies from the first few dates you went on? As your partner becomes more comfortable in a relationship with you, you'll start to watch as they relax and act like themselves. They'll stop fussing with their hair or outfit when you're around, and instead of taking you out to dinner, they might suggest a few nights sprawled on the couch with Netflix.
If you're even subconsciously afraid of rejection, and you find yourself needing constant approval from your partner, you may start to suppress your natural urges and desires in order to seem less "difficult." You'll swallow, for instance, the desire to go out more often, telling yourself that you're just being a chill partner, but in time, you'll start to resent both yourself and your partner for letting the relationship fall into place the way it has. And things will snowball.
In fact, a study published in the Journal of Social Psychology found a correlation between dishonesty and low self-esteem1, specifically in romantic relationships between men and women. Another study even linked low self-esteem to a toxic pattern of conflict and a demand for approval; in other words, if a person's self-image is volatile, they're likely to act out in ambivalent ways while trying to keep their partner around.
You're subconsciously telling dates how you want to be treated.
If you're approaching romantic relationships with a pervasive belief that you are not enough, you're going to attract particular sorts of people on dates. That's not to say that everyone interested in you will be manipulative, though that's definitely a risk. Your need for approval might come off in the early stages of dating as extreme emotional intensity, and potential partners who can't define healthy boundaries might find themselves wrapped up in your insistent energy. Before long, the two of you will have chased the high of romantic approval and attraction into a long-term relationship that neither of you have the skills to deepen and maintain.
Keep in mind that if you have a deep need for external approval, you're probably not announcing it on first or second dates. On the contrary, you may be over compensating, or "playing games" in order to emotionally manipulate potential partners into staying interested. Though socially acceptable as a way to play the field, this sort of tactic is at its core just a form of dishonesty, and that, of course, has no place in a healthy relationship.
It's impossible to create true intimacy without honesty.
If you are entering the dating world with this particular type of emotional baggage, you will discover that it's extremely difficult to move past the "honeymoon" stage in any relationship. You'll feel the highs and lows of any relationship you manage to enter, and then as time progresses, you and your partner will begin to feel a chasm separating you. After all, even if your partner doesn't struggle with self-esteem issues, in this scenario, you do. Which means, although it appears they're in a relationship with you, your partner is actually in a relationship with the constructed version of you that you've worked so hard to invent and maintain.
Try as you might, in this state you will never reach the emotional equilibrium of a long-term, supportive relationship, even if it's not marred by infidelity. Because the core of every healthy relationship is honesty and compromise, and if you're so uncomfortable with your true self that you don't believe anyone could love you, you'll never be able to let your partner see it.
The symptoms of a need for approval are scientifically unattractive.
This is the toughest bit of love in this article, but it's still worth hearing. A 2018 study found that several behaviors define those in romantic relationships who have a need for external validation2: sulking, whining, and displaying/performing sadness in order to elicit emotional support. If you've got self-esteem issues, you're likely addicted to the affirmation your partner so liberally doled out early in your courting. And once your partner settles into what they think will be a happy relationship with you, they'll naturally dial down the effusive praise and glowing expressions of lust and affection. That's where the trouble starts.
It's a vicious cycle that statistically happens to most couples in which one person has an unstable self-image. The person needing validation amps up their sulking tactics, trying to wrench out the last little bit of complimentary praise their partner can muster, and this unattractive behavior only drives the partner further away. Once the person with self-esteem issues realizes this is happening, they often switch gears and employ the tactics we discussed in our earlier point about self-sabotage. "Fine," the approval-seeker says to themselves. "If you won't give me the love I need, then I'll rot this relationship out from the inside and chase you away."
The bottom line:
Whew. There you have it: the worst case scenario for those of us who struggle with self-image. Don't fret too much, though; many of the studies cited in this article also found that an intervention with the partner who needs validation can actually work, but that person needs to be truly dedicated to the emotional work of getting their affairs in order. This can look like individual talk therapy, research, or simply the implementation of a new hobby, job, or circle of friends. You'll find as you diversify the ways in which you get approval and affirmation, you'll be less tempted to rely solely on your partner. And that can act as a pressure valve, leaving room between you and your partner to find an honest and healthy balance.
Emily Gaudette is a freelance writer and editor who has a literature and film studies degree from Bryn Mawr College. She has covered entertainment, sexuality, and relationships for Newsweek, SYFY, Glamour, Inverse, SELF, TV Guide, and more. She lives in Brooklyn.