Trait self-esteem moderates the effect of initiator status on emotional and cognitive responses to romantic relationship dissolution

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Waller, Katherine L., 1978-
Self-esteem , Break-up , Rejection , Initiator status
Romantic relationship dissolution has been implicated in the onset of mood disorders (Monroe et al.,1999; Overbeek et al., 2003). It is therefore imperative that researchers and mental health professionals have an understanding of the factors that contribute to dysfunctional responses so as to assist vulnerable individuals with developing healthy strategies for coping with relationship dissolution. Prior research on the relationship between initiator status (i.e., who ended the relationship) and subsequent emotional distress has been mixed, with multiple researchers finding that a person's level of distress was unrelated to whether he or she ended the relationship. I hypothesized that the effect of initiator status on post-break-up distress would vary as a function of trait self-esteem such that individuals with low self-esteem would experience more distress after being rejected by their partners, whereas individuals with high self-esteem would be no more distressed after a rejection than after acting as the rejecter. I tested this hypothesis using two designs. First, I used a prospective, naturalistic design in which university students were assessed for emotional responses following the dissolution of their romantic relationships. Those who had self-reported lower trait self esteem at the outset of the study experienced higher levels of break-up-specific distress. On the other hand, those who had reported higher trait self-esteem did not exhibit differing distress levels as a function of who ended the relationship. This pattern was replicated in a laboratory design in which university students imagined breaking up with their partners. Participants with low trait self-esteem experienced more negative mood, reported lower state self-esteem, and evaluated themselves more negatively after a scenario in which they were rejected as compared to a scenario in which they rejected their partners. Participants with high self-esteem did not differ on any of these variables as a function of rejection condition. Results are discussed in terms of the theoretical implications for understanding self-esteem processes and the effects of romantic rejection. Implications for interventions for individuals with low self-esteem who are coping with romantic rejection are also explored.
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