Investigating the Relationship Between
Adolescent Self-Concept
and Romantic Relationship Satisfaction

Brianna J. Blanchard
Saint Anselm College
Department of Psychology
Class of 2004



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Thank you for showing interest in my senior thesis!
I hope you enjoy the areas of social psychology that I have explored.
Hopefully my research will inspire future studies in the areas of
adolescent romantic relationships and self-concept.

                        Special thanks to :


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           Poor relationship satisfaction and low self-concept are highly correlated in adult romantic relationships.  Early research on this topic suggests many relationships between these two factors, but fails to assess early adolescent romances.  Participants in this study were high school sophomores, juniors and seniors who are currently involved in a romantic relationship.  They were asked to complete several questionnaires pertaining to self concept, level of trust in the relationship, and relationship satisfaction. Relationship satisfaction was assessed using a trust scale and a general relationship assessment questionnaire; self-concept was assessed using a self-description questionnaire.              It was predicted that poor relationship satisfaction and low self-concept will be positively correlated. The results suggested a positive correlation between relationship satisfaction and trust in relationships as well as bewteen relationship satisfaction and emotional stability.  These findings may help us identify people who are at risk for relationship problems as well as reasons why they are unhappy in their current relationship; detecting these risks early may in turn help future relationships survive with proper support and treatment.

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“Of all the forms of caution, caution in love

is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness.” 

- Bertrand Russell

        According to the 2002 Marriage Project at Rutgers University, 40-50% of today’s marriages (contracted romantic relationships) are projected to end in divorce.  This statistic has improved since the 1980’s when the divorce rate was around 60%. (Popenoe 2002) Currently, one of the top reasons for divorce is “irreconcilable differences,” which has been interpreted in a number of ways. The Family Law Manual defines irreconcilable differences as “...serious, permanent differences between the spouses that have led to a breakdown in the marriage.” (1999) It implies a lack of cooperation and commitment in the partnership, as well as unwillingness to resolve the problem.  In other words, many married couples are not getting along. Happy partners who are satisfied in their relationships are much less likely to divorce (Popenoe 2002). Why are so many couples unhappy in their marriages?
       Young people, and especially young women, are not confident that they will marry and remain married for life. This lack of confidence may play a part in marital dissatisfaction (Popenoe 2002). 
The studies by Vaillant and Vaillant (1993) suggest that even though most couples struggle at some point in a marriage, prolonging satisfaction means being mutually dedicated to the marriage and commitment to “making it work” and not succumbing to the negativity of stressful times and disagreements.  However, sometimes no matter how dedicated the couple is, underlying factors may threaten relationship satisfaction from the beginning. Susan Hendrick developed an “RAS” Relationship Assessment Scale (1988) that specifically tests the level of satisfaction in relationships.  Within the scale are measurements of love, sexual attitudes, self-disclosure, commitment, and investment.  It was also found to be effective in discriminating couples who stayed together from couples who terminated their relationships.  From this study, Hendrick found evidence that couples who perceive high satisfaction in their romantic relationship are less likely to break up than couples who are unhappy or dissatisfied with their current relationship status.
       Trust is another important quality of a satisfactory relationship.  Presumably, without trust in a close romantic relationship, there can not be security.  Early research by Rempel, Holmes, and Zanna (1985) found validity in a theoretical model of interpersonal trust in close relationships with nearly 50 dating, cohabiting, or married couples. The study established three main stages of trust: dependability, predictability, and faith. To have dependability in a partner is to be able to rely on and count on the partner in good times and in bad times.  The predictability of a partner is based on past experiences and knowledge of one's partner and how he or she will act in different situations.  Finally, faith is most important because it assumes a level of risk; relying more on personal feelings about a partner helps the person move further into the relationship. It is believed that once a strong sense of trust is developed between partners in a relationship it enables a person to view their partner's motivations, in addition to their own.

        In today’s society it is important to understand the components of a satisfactory (and presumably successful) relationship because it may help psychologists and relationship counselors better understand the causes of unsatisfactory relationships and therefore be better prepared to advise couples.  Self-esteem is one important correlate of satisfaction in romantic relationships; similarly, positive models of self seem to play a critical role in sustaining relationship well-being (Hendrick, Hendrick & Adler 1988; Baldwin & Sinclair 1996). Since self-esteem has been associated with relationship well-being and overall satisfaction, it is important to explore the nature of self-esteem. 
        According to Leary, Tambor, Terdal, and Downs (1995), self-esteem is defined as an attitude -- specifically an attitude toward oneself -- that has cognitive and affective components.  People do not simply think favorable or unfavorable self-relevant thoughts; they feel good or bad about themselves. Self-concept has been confused with self-esteem, although their relationship is overlapping.  Self-concept is the belief about the self and self-esteem is evaluation of oneself in light of those beliefs.  Therefore, self-esteem is a small component of self-concept.  In other words, self-esteem is a fluctuating feeling or attitude while self-concept is more of a broad evaluation of different concepts including worth, success, motivation, achievement, and attractiveness. In much of the research done on relationships and self-concept, this is the most popular construct (Leary, Tambor, Terdal, & Downs, 1995).
       A study by Trzesniewski, Donnellan, and Robins (2003) looked at self-esteem across the life span from age six to 83 and found evidence that self-esteem stability was low during childhood, increased through adolescence and young adulthood, and declined during mid-life and old age.  If self-esteem indeed declines during mid-life, and divorces (which are most often terminated due to irreconcilable differences and overall marital dissatisfaction) often occur at this time, it is possible that there is a correlation with these two factors.  Furthermore, as childhood and adolescence is also characterized by “lower” self-esteem, it would be plausible to assume that poor romantic relationship satisfaction in adolescents may also be affected by lower self-esteem.
       Marsh and O’Neill (1984) tested a multidimensional self-concept and found the following components substantially correlated with measures of corresponding self-concepts: emotional stability, honesty and trustworthiness, spiritual values and religion, opposite and same sex relations, physical appearance and abilities, and academic efficacy. The Self-Description Questionnaires I, II, and III (Marsh, 1999) were designed to test all these aspects of self-concept.  For the purpose of this study, the concepts of emotional stability, physical appearance, opposite sex relations, and overall self-concept will be tested using the Self Description Questionnaire III. Along with these aforementioned correlates, evidence has been found supporting the theory that dating and married individuals with lower self-esteem perceive fewer virtues in their romantic partners. (Murray, Holmes, & Griffin 1996a) This low self-perception often reflects a low perception of the romantic partner, inevitably leading to deficiency and relationship dissatisfaction. Murray’s studies have shown that the partners of low-self-esteem individuals report less positive perceptions of their partners, less satisfaction, greater conflict, and greater ambivalence as their romance progresses (Murray, Holmes, & Griffin 1996b).

        Through the aforementioned studies, it has been implied that low self-concept may predict poor relationship satisfaction.  If an individual is found to have poor overall self-concept, it is possible that their relationship may also be unstable. However, although early research in this area suggests many relationships between these two factors, it only focuses on serious adult relationships and marriages and fails to assess early adolescent romances.  Since this prior research suggests a pattern in partner’s attitudes and self-perceptions in direct relationship with the couple’s overall satisfaction, there is reason to believe that this trend is also applicable in late adolescents in the beginning stages of “romantic” relationships, especially since the stability of self-esteem across the life span is said to be lower at this time (Trzesniewski, Donnellan, and Robins 2003).  The negative influence poor self-concept has on relationship satisfaction has been studied in marital and adult romances a great deal – but never in adolescents.
Finding the causal factors of unsatisfactory relationships has social and societal importance.  Lack of relationship satisfaction can lead to long-term depression, drug and alcohol use and abuse, or even suicide and may affect school performance as well.  The damage potential in a poor relationship is far reaching at all ages, especially adolescence. Adolescence is a time to seek acceptance and discover the self, and romantic relationships are central in most adolescents’ lives.  Between the ages of fourteen and nineteen relationships have the potential to affect development positively but also place adolescents at risk for problems.  Romantic experiences change substantially over the course of adolescence; the peer context plays a critical role as heterosexual adolescents initially interact with the other sex in a group context, then begin group dating, and finally have dyadic romantic relationships. (Furman 2002)
This study intends to support the theory that satisfaction in adolescent romantic relationships is affected by self-concept, just as in adult romantic relationships.  Affirmative findings will help encourage healthy solutions to individual insecurities, which may in turn reflect positively on that person’s romantic relationship satisfaction and promote healthy relationships in the future.

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Participants & Procedure
            Participants were 22 volunteer sophomores, juniors and seniors with parental consent. After IRB approval and written permission from the high school administration, I was able to gather participants for this study by handing out pretests to everyone in each study hall classroom. In order to participate, the invited students had to complete and return the form to the high school before the day of the study. Once a group of willing participants was identified and all forms were passed in, a schedule of test times was made and reviewed with the administration for approval.  All students were tested during a study hall or otherwise most convenient time. Each participant received a packet containing the SDQIII, Trust Scale and RAS.  Each packet was arranged in reversed orders to assure randomness and reduce biases. Participants were instructed to answer all questions to the best of their ability and to take as much time as necessary to do so.  Once all information had been collected from the participants, a debriefing form (Appendix C) was distributed for the participants to read at their seat, explaining the hypothesis of the study and thank them for participating. 
            An initial interview administered to all volunteer participants was designed by the author. (See Appendix A for sample pretest) The purpose of this interview was to determine the age of the students and identify who was currently involved in a romantic relationship. Five random questions were asked with only one relevant question, the romantic relationship question (#2). All students who answered “true” to question #2 were given an invitation (See Appendix B for sample invitation) to participate in the next phase of the study. The invitation was accompanied by an informed consent form for the parents to sign. 
Self-Concept. The Self-Description Questionnaire III (Marsh 1999) is used to determine the quality of self-concept in each participant. The original SDQIII is a 136-item inventory that measures self-concept in a series of areas using a five-point likert scale ranging from true to false. Internal consistency = .80 to .92.; test-retest reliability = .50 to .70;  convergent validity ranging in each subsection from .30 to .74; no discriminant validity (Robinson, Shaver & Wrightsman 1991).
Relationship Satisfaction. The Rempel and Holmes Trust Scale (1986) was used to assess the level of trust in a close or romantic relationship using three factors: predictability, dependability, and faith. It uses a seven-point likert scale ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (7); the higher the score on this test, the higher the level of trust.  The trust scale has high internal consistency: .81 for the total scale, .70 for predictability, .72 for dependability, and .80 for faith (Robinson, Shaver and Wrightsman 1991).  In addition, the Relationship Assessment Scale (RAS) created by Susan Hendrick (1988) was used as a basic overall test for quality of the relationship. The RAS uses a five-point likert scale and is only seven questions, minimizing test time.  Scores can range from seven (low satisfaction) to 35 (high satisfaction) and has a reliability of .86 (Hendrick 1988).


       A bivariate correlation was performed to assess the relationship between scores.  A composite score was obtained for the SDQ by averaging the scores of the four subscales of the questionnaire. Comparisons were made based on the total score of each scale.  As expected, results show a statistically significant positive correlation between the scores of the Trust Scale and the scores of the Relationship Assessment Scale. As a total score, the SDQ did not show significant correlation with either the RAS or the Trust Scale.  These results contradict the hypothesis. However, an unexpected significant correlation was found between the Emotional Stability subscale of the SDQ and the Relationship Assessment Scale.  Table 1 presents the significant correlations:

TABLE 1: correlational data showing significant findings

SDQ.ESemotional stability-RAS

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        It was proposed that low self-concept can predict low relationship satisfaction, as high self concept can predict high relationship satisfaction, regardless of the length of relationship, background information of the couple, family status, psychological profile, sexual orientation, and age. Findings did not show statistical significance to support this theory. However, a significant correlation between the Relationship Assessment Scale and the Emotional Stability portion of the Self-Description Questionnaire was found, suggesting that one's emotional state may affect the quality of one's romantic relationship.  If emotional stability represents one’s self-concept, then indeed this may be an interesting statistic that indirectly supports the hypothesis.
        The Rempel and Holmes Trust scale and the Relationship Assessment Scale were chosen because they have shown positive correlation in the aforementioned studies (Murray et al 1998, Murray et al 1996). This significance strengthens measurement validity and reliability.  As expected, the results of these two scales were significantly correlated in this study as well.  Therefore it is reinforced that high trust is an important component in satisfactory relationships. 
            Emotional stability was positively correlated with relationship satisfaction, and may imply that the other subscales of the SDQ correlate with relationship satisfaction as well. These subscales assessed general esteem, peer confidence, and physical esteem.  Since each subscale of the Self-Description Questionnaire correlate with each other and since emotional stability and the RAS were positively correlated, it is possible that these three subscales of the SDQ have potential to show significance in a study that controls for confounding variables.
        This study intended to further explore these findings with a young demographic. The questionnaires were selected based on this evidence, assuming that relationship satisfaction and trust in relationships was correlated (which was shown to be significant in this and other studies) as well as self-concept based on the four subscales of the Self-Description Questionnaire III.  It is possible the SDQ III did not measure the same aspects of self that Sandra Murray’s research (1996, 2001) more accurately represented in her research.
        Findings of this study follow the inconsistency of research done by Rempel, Holmes, and Ross (2001). Their findings found evidence that communicated attributions (views) of one’s partner were correlated with the level of trust in a relationship, but could not be predicted by the partner’s reported relationship satisfaction.  This is interesting because Downey, Freitas, Michaelis, and Khouri (1998) found evidence that an impoverished sense of self (or poor self-image) often fosters inaccurate views and doubts about a partner’s love.  From these studies it can be conjectured that these inaccurate views and doubts, what Rempel, Holmes and Ross consider “communicated attributions,” can not be predicted by relationship satisfaction. However, according to Downey and his colleagues, they do affect the sense of security in a relationship which may lead to relationship problems.
        The findings of no significance in this study could be due to methodological effects.  There may have been some confusion in the Rempel and Holmes Trust scale as many participants had inquiries regarding the meaning of several questions.  The wording was ambiguous and confusing with at least two questions, which could have thrown the scores off and consequently affect the mean score of the Trust Scale. As a measurement tool, the RAS provides reliability and validity, but is likely not specific enough for this type of study. The seven questions presented in the RAS are either too general or not specific enough to distinguish between participants. Strength was added by using it in conjunction with the Trust Scale in the scoring process, but with only twenty two participants, it still proved to be too weak to show statistical significance overall.
        The students who participated in the study were from the same rural high school in a conservative, close-knit community with mostly white, Christian, middle to lower class families.  No major environmental or natural cohort effects are known that may have influenced the emotional or mental state of the subjects. All participants were removed from their study halls to complete the questionnaires and it took less than twenty minutes for most to finish answering the questions when it was anticipated to take at least thirty minutes.  Some students may have been motivated to return to study halls to finish work or be with friends, making honesty and accuracy an area of potential error. Due to the nature of this study, participants were selected based on availability and relationship status only.  Future studies may have more success by using a reward system for volunteer participants or a larger demographic of students.
        Finding that self-concept did not predict relationship satisfaction may imply that these two variables are not as related as one may assume. The previous studies did not specifically test these two variables, but instead tested correlates or similar concepts and made assumptions based on these findings (Rempel et al 2001, Hendrick et al 1988, Baldwin & Sinclair 1996, Murray et al 1996a,b).
        The relationships found between emotional stability and relationship satisfaction may also be due to negative attributional styles, self-criticism, and low levels of self-worth.  By studying 247 young adults in college, Morrison et al (1998) found that self-criticism is associated with global relationship distress and sexual dissatisfaction. He used a Depressive Experiences Questionnaire to assess the levels of self-criticism in students. Likewise, Hagborg (1993) compared females and males in grades eight through twelve in their baselines for self-worth by using Harter’s Self-Perception Profile for Adolescents.  Interestingly enough, their perceptions did not differ as much as was predicted. It was found that scholastic achievement and physical appearance were the most important factors of self-worth in this age group.  Hagborg (1993) also found that overall, students were less self-assured in romantic relations and looks than the other factors tested.  This suggests that although physical appearance was not positively correlated with relationship satisfaction in the current study, it may in fact influence the overall quality of adolescent relationships.
    Still, it is difficult to disregard the hypothesis all together because of the confounding variables including relationship history, length of relationship, sexual orientation, family history, age of participant, time of day, and even psychological profile.  It would be beneficial to control for these variables in a future study and build on the significant relationship between emotional stability and relationship satisfaction

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        Baldwin, Mark & Sinclair, Lisa. (1996) Self-esteem and "if...then" contingencies of interpersonal acceptance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (71)6 1130-1141.
        Downey, G., Freitas, A. L., Michaelis, B. & Khouri, H. (1998) The self-fulfilling prophecy in close relationship: rejection sensitivity and rejection by romantic partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (75)2 545-560.
        Furman, W. (2002) The emerging field of adolescent romantic relationships. Current Directions in Psychological Science 11(5) 177-180.
        Galliher, R. V., Rostosky, S. S., Welsh, D. P. & Kawaguchi, M. C. (1999) Power and psychological well-being in late adolescent romantic relationships. Sex Roles (40)9-10 689-710.
        Hendrick, Susan S., Hendrick, Clyde & Adler, Nancy L. (1988) Romantic relationships: Love, satisfaction, and staying together. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (54)6 980-988.
        Hendrick, Susan S., Dicke, Amy, Hendrick, Clyde (1988) The relationship assessment scale. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. (15)1 137-142.
        Hendrick, Susan S. (1988) A generic measure of relationship satisfaction. Journal of marriage and the family. (50) 93-88.
        Leary, M. R., Tambor, E. S., Terdal, S. K. & Downs, D. L. (1995) Self-esteem as an interpersonal monitor: The sociometer hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. (68)3 518-530.
        Marsh, Herbert W. & O’Neill, Rosalie. (1984) Self Description Questionnaire III: The construct validity of multidimensional self-concept ratings by late adolescents. Journal of Educational Measurement, (21)2 153-174.
        Marsh, H. W. (1999). Self Description Questionnaire III (SDQ III). University of Western Sydney: Self-concept Enhancement and Learning Facilitation Research Center.
        Murray, S. L., Holmes, J. G., Griffin, D. W., Bellavia, G., & Rose, P. (2001) The mismeasure of love: how self-doubt contaminates relationship beliefs. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. (27)4 423-436.
        Murray, S. L., Rose, P., Bellavia, G. M., Kusche, A. G., & Holmes, J. G. (2002) When rejection stings: How self-esteem constrains relationship-enhancement processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  (83)3 556-573.
        Murray, Sandra L. & Holmes, John G. (1997) A leap of faith? Positive illusions in romantic relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. (23) 586-604.
        Murray, S. L. Holmes, J. G. & Griffin, D. W. (1996a) The benefits of positive illusions: Idealization and the construction of satisfaction in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. (70) 79-98.
        Murray, S. L. Holmes, J. G. & Griffin, D. W. (1996b) The self-fulfilling nature of positive illusions in romantic relationships: Love is not blind, but prescient. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (71) 1155-1180.
        Popenoe, D. (2002) Marriage decline in America: The national marriage project at Rutgers University. Retrieved Feb 2003, from
        Rempel, John K. & Holmes, John G. (1986) How do I trust thee? Psychology Today. (20)2 28-34.
        Rempel, J. K., Holmes, J. G., & Zanna, M. P. (1985) Trust in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. (49)1 95-112.
        Robinson, J.P., Shaver, P. R., Wrightsman, L.S. (1991) Measures of Personality and Social Psychological Attitudes 121-123, 144-147, 400-403.
        Samuels, Donald J. & Samuels, Muriel. (1974) Low self-concept as a cause of drug abuse. Journal of Drug Education. (4)4 421-438.    
        Trzesniewski, K. H., Donnellan, M. B. & Robins, R. W. (2003) Stability of self-esteem across the life span.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. (84)1 205-220.
        Vaillant, C. O. & Vaillant, G. E. (1993) Is the U-curve of marital satisfaction an illusion? A 40-year study of marriage. Journal of Marriage and the Family 55 230-239.



Appendix A: Pre-test interview

    Please answer the following questions honestly. Circle YES or NO.
        1. I listen to my favorite music on a daily basis.                                    YES             NO
        2. I am currently involved in a romantic relationship.                            YES            NO     
        3. I am currently a member of an athletics team.                                   YES            NO
        4. I have worked more than 6 hrs/wk at a regular job.                           YES            NO
        5. I have a religious affiliation.                                                                YES            NO

Appendix B: Invitation

        You have been invited to take part in a study pertaining to social psychology.  You will be asked to complete a few questionnaires regarding adolescent relationships and self perception. The entire process should take approximately 30-45 minutes. You will not be asked to write your name on any of the tests and you will not be identified as all questionnaires will be collected anonymously and processed as group-data. 
        The study will take place on                          .  Please be advised that participation in this study is completely voluntary and that you have the right to cease participation at any time.  All research conducted at Saint Anselm College is in accordance with the guidelines set forth by the American Psychological Association.  If you are satisfied with the above description of what is required of you in this study and understand the rights as a participant, please sign your name below and check the two best periods for you to participate.  Note:  Study halls are best.  If class time is the only option, it will need to be approved by the teacher and administration.  See me for details.  If no times are free for you, an after school or lunchtime arrangement can be made. The parental permission form must also be signed and returned with this invitation. Thank you for your participation!
        I ____________________________ certify that I have read the above description of the study which I will participate in and understand the requirements.  I am willing to act as a participant in this study and realize that if at any time I decide to withdraw from participation in the study, I have the right to do so as well as withdraw all information that I have provided.

Appendix C: Debriefing form

    Thank you for your participation in this study.  Past research has demonstrated a relationship between self-concept and romantic relationship satisfaction and this study is looking to investigate how adolescents are involved with this theory.  All of your information will be kept strictly confidential and the final group results will be made available to you upon request.  Your further participation is asked in that you will not discuss this study with anyone until it is completed in December, 2003.  If you have any questions about the study please ask me now or contact me at 

: relationship, self-concept, self-esteem, self-description, satisfaction, romance, correlation, adolescence, trust, social psychology, teens, emotional stability