Orthodoxy Today
Good Marriage XI. The Game Of Relationship Self-Esteem

Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it" (1 Corinthians 9:24).

The prize to be obtained in a blessed Christian marriage is that the husband and wife, united in one flesh in Christ, achieve the indwelling of God in them. All Christians are to "...become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). The couple bonded in holy marriage is to do this as one in Christ. One problem is that instead of running a race (game) as a couple in order to win the prize, as in St. Paul's metaphor, they may play a different game: one more like that of tennis or ping-pong wherein they let the evaluations of either their spouse or others influence their self-esteem, changing their esteem much like that of the ball being hit back and forth across the net. This race-losing notion of self-esteem is based on the proneness to gauge esteem by the approval or disapproval of one's spouse or others.

Good vs. Bad Self-Esteem

In a previous paper (Morelli, 2006a) I distinguished between good and bad self-esteem. I pointed out that bad self-esteem is a type of narcissism (or self worship). St. Paul told the Philippians: "Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Philippians 2:3-4). The Church Fathers warn against the bad self-esteem using the Greek term kenodoxia where keno means esteem that is empty, vain, hollow, groundless, deluded and doxa means glory, praise.

In current usage "self-esteem" means a true and honest appraisal of both one's strengths and weaknesses, particularly in reality-based therapies. We see here an inversion of meaning where good self-esteem is close to the patristic definition of humility. St. Peter of Damaskos taught that, "The humble person must possess every virtue...the signs of humility: when one possessing every virtue of body and soul, to consider oneself to be the more a debtor to God ... because one has received so much by grace" (Philokalia III). Centuries earlier, St. Isaac the Syrian wrote: "The person who has attained to knowledge of his own weakness has reached the summit of humility" (Brock, 1997).

The Psychological Problem

In terms of the marital (or any) relationship, continuously changing one's self-appraisal (whether virtuous or weak) based on the opinion of others leads to grave instability. It leaves a person with so sense of grounding and stability and makes him vulnerable to manipulation by others. It can lead to a subservience to others that allow a person to be controlled in ways that lead to inappropriate and even sinful behaviors. When a person has a recurring pattern of adopting the opinions of others in their evaluation of himself, depression and loss of self-respect are frequently the result.

A Clinical Example

A couple once came to me for marital counseling because of a quarrel they had recently been having about money. The wife had a penchant for putting together financial projects that required considerable investment. The husband, against his better judgment but desiring approval from his wife, initially acted as if he was favorably disposed to her plans. After a few years of marriage and financial loss however, he became anxious and displayed anger. She could not understand his newly developed resistance and emotional outbursts. They both desired counseling to resolve this problem.

Clinical intervention involved having both spouses learn to judge the suitability of a project objectively and to agree to communicate together based on the facts of any project and their feelings about it. One of my favorite clinical (and pastoral) recommendations in discussions such as these is the phrase: "Let the facts do the dirty work for you." A typical dialogue between husband and wife on such a topic may go like this:

Wife: "Jack, I just heard about a great investment in Las Vegas. It only requires $950,000.00."

Husband: "Great Jill, let's look into it. How much is the down payment?"

Wife: "$290,000."

Husband: "Ok, how much cash do we have on hand?"

Wife: "About $50,000.00."

Husband: "Any other way of raising the money?" Etc.

Wife: "No way of funding the project." Etc.

Husband: "Do you think we can really put the deal together?"

Wife: "It seems we really cannot put it together! What a shame! Oh, well!"

This dialogue is simplified but it illustrates how facts can clarify and direct the encounter. To many readers the example may appear innocuous. Unfortunately, in both my pastoral and clinical experience, I have encountered cases where one spouse who had a desperate need for approval from the other engaged in egregiously sinful and even criminal behaviors initiated by the dominating spouse. Examples include: child abuse, drug use and distribution, prostitution, robbery, sexual promiscuousness, and shoplifting, etc. In a significant number of these cases a common motivation for the acquiescence of the non-initiating spouse is that they had a desperate "need for approval" from their partner.

Evaluation Sensitivity

One characteristic of individuals who have an exaggerated need for approval is evaluation sensitivity. They are constantly monitoring the speech, speech pragmatics and body language of their spouses (or others around them) for either their approval or disapproval. Evaluation sensitivity is an exaggerated version of a hypothetical personality construct described by Murray as "the need for affiliation or recognition." (To his credit, Murray considered such a "need" as hypothetical and concluded that the personality system he developed did not meet the standards of science [see Morelli, 2006a, b, c]. Nevertheless, his observations remain valuable because they conceptualize the dynamic of potential human motivation and its consequences.) Another psychologist, Karen Horney (1945, 1950), based on her clinical observations, likewise discussed the neurotic "need for approval."

Cognitive clinical-psychologist Albert Ellis (1962), considered this need so important he listed it as number one in his list of "irrational beliefs." He defined this irrational cognition as: "The idea that it is a dire necessity for an adult human being to be loved or approved by virtually every significant other person in his community." Ellis points out that while it is humanly desirable to have the approval of others, it is hardly an absolute necessity.

The irrationality of the cognition "that one must be accepted by (all) significant others" is based on several factors. First, demanding approval from all people is a perfectionistic and unattainable goal. I remember a number of years ago I read an article on Mother (now Blessed) Teresa and her work. I was shocked when about a month later, I read a scathing letter excoriating her and her work by linking the holy religious sister to the Latin Rite Roman Catholic Church and its teachings. The Church was accused of being the cause of all the modern evils of the world by its condemnation of abortion and birth control and thereby responsible for the increase in world population and ensuing poverty and other world problems, and so forth. In my own naiveté, I asked myself (in mental disbelief): "There is someone who does not consider Mother Teresa a saint?" Of course there is. Some do not consider her a saint, just as some wanted to torture and kill Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ -- which they did at his crucifixion. At even his own disciples and apostles rejected Him. As Jesus told us: "A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master; as they persecuted me, so will they persecute you" (Mattew 10: 24). Many times I have mentioned in homilies and in counseling individuals and couples that God, not to mention his saints, incurs the disapproval os some.

Ellis further pointed out that because of the intrinsic partialities of others, our own efforts and/or the desire for approval from valued others, some significant others will dislike and/or be indifferent to whatever we do. Applying this to expectations in marriage, a spouse may simply be detached, unconcerned or apathetic to what their spouse values and is doing. Continuing to attempt to bolster self-esteem by seeking approval from one's spouse consumes efforts and energy that can be used for more productive goals. Such futile self-esteem building efforts could also be viewed as being obsequious, annoying and broadcasting insecurity, thereby inviting even less approval from one's loved one

The second unfortunate consequence of the need for approval found by Ellis, is that the "dire need" for approval triggers anxiety. The constant monitoring of the signs of approval or disapproval by others keeps the individual in a heightened state of arousal. The deleterious physical effects of such stress are well known (Morelli, 2006e; McEwen & Lasley, 2002).

A Psychological Alternative

One can commence a questioning process as to whether the approval of one's spouse is of absolute necessity (Ellis, 1962, Morelli, 2005, 2006d). This is an important question. It really means asking if it is necessary for life itself, like the critical necessity of air to sustain life. One way of preparing an answer is to pose the question: “How did you think and feel about yourself before you knew your spouse?” Most individuals would answer that they did at some point not see the approval of their significant other as critical in this sense. They were living life without spousal approval. On the other hand, at no point were they living without breathing air. Thus, while spousal approval may be desirable, it is not absolutely necessary. This is an important psychological restructuring insight. It can lead to less anxiety and more focus on self-chosen practical attainments such as marital and family activities, occupational and avocational goals, and most importantly, spiritual advancement.

The Spiritual Problem: Philodoxia or Love of Praise

It is important to recall our Lord's words: "How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?" (John 5: 44). Our holy spiritual fathers of the Church did not use the words "approval" or "recognition" but rather termed it philodoxia or love of praise, warning against it as a spiritual danger. St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic taught: "...love of praise banish[es] remembrance of God from the soul. ..And when remembrance of God is absent, there is a tumult of the passions within us" (Philokalia II). The good saint said that from love of praise would arise a "great swarm of all manner of evil." It it influences our moral judgment which involves "scrupulous discrimination between good and evil; and this involves sound moral judgment."

St. John of Damaskos, said that love of praise is one of the main origins of every other evil (Philokalia II). He cited the insight of St. Mark the Ascetic who termed "love of men's esteem" as one of the "birth-givers of forgetfulness, laziness and ignorance; the three powerful giants that overpower those who sin" (Philokalia I, II).

A Spiritual Alternative

We must continually reorient our life goals in terms of the one and only real necessity. St. Paul told the Romans what this is: "To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace" (Romans 8:6). It is the Spirit that is necessary for life, not approval from others, not even from one’s spouse. Rather, the spouses must seek the Spirit together as one flesh. To accomplish this they have to adopt the mind of doing things as "as one flesh;" so that by glorifying and praising God together, in turn His grace will fall on them as "united in one flesh," not in competition with each other, but in blessed union. The good race St. Paul spoke of is not only a sprint run by the solitary runner, but also the relay race of marriage. In this way both, in union with each other, achieve esteem in Christ

The Heart Must Fuel the Race

One important caveat: This is a race that must first be run from the heart. Our Holy Spiritual Fathers gave counsel on the means of acquiring the Spirit: obeying the commandments, prayer, scripture reading and meditation, spiritual reading, performing the corporal and spiritual words of mercy in remembrance and consideration that we will all one day go before the "dread judgment seat of Christ" (Romans 14:10), partaking of the Holy Church Mysteries (Confession, Eucharist, etc.). But these means must be enlivened by Christ in the depths of the heart. St. Theophan the Recluse emphasized that these worthy pursuits are merely means, and warns of the danger of mere external practice: "(W)hen they pay attention only to the external practice of those virtues and leave their hearts to be moved by their own volitions and the devil" (Kadloubovsky & Palmer, 1952). One of the signs that Christ is working in our hearts is when we are not bothered by the evaluations of others, not upset when we are not preferred above others, or not upset when we have our wills or our actions thwarted. Rather, as St. Dorotheos of Gaza taught: " ... do not ponder what you should do if you have no one to ask. If anyone really in truth desires the will of God with all his heart, God never leaves him (to himself) but always guides him according to His [Divine] will" (Wheeler, 1977).

Oneness of the Spouses in "Blessed Marriage" by Divine Imperative

The oneness of the married couple is a recurring theme in the Orthodox Marriage Service. In the Betrothal Ektenia (litany) is the prayer, "That He (God) will preserve them in oneness of mind, and steadfastness of faith..." This theme is even more strongly stressed in the prayer after the exchange of rings: "...establish their betrothal in faith and in oneness of mind, in truth and in love." How this union is to be performed reaches its summit in the prayer during the Order of Crowning: " ... that they may live according to thy will."

The prize of winning the race of sanctification is to be conferred not by human approval, but by sanctification that comes only from God and is thus Divine. This is made clear by the final prayer as a couple before the scriptural readings in the Marriage Service: "O Lord our God, crown them with glory and honor."


Brock, S. (1997). (Trans.). The Wisdom of Saint Isaac the Syrian. Fairacres Oxford, England: SLG Press, Convent of the Incarnation.

Horney, K. (1945). Our Inner Conflicts. NY: Norton .

Horney, K. (1950). Neurosis and Human Growth. NY: Norton.

Kadloubovsky, E., & Palmer, G.E.H. (trans.)(1952). Unseen Warfare. Faber & Faber: London.

McEwen, B.S. & Lasley, E.N. (2002). The End of Stress As We Know It. Washington DC: National Academies Press.

Morelli, G. (2005, October 14). The Beast of Anger. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliAnger.php.

Morelli, G. (2006a, January 06). Self Esteem: From, Through, and Toward Christ.https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliSelfEsteem.php.

Morelli, G. (2006b, February 04). Smart Parenting Part II. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting2.php.

Morelli, G. (2006c, May 08). Orthodoxy and the Science of Psychology. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliOrthodoxPsychology.php.

Morelli, G (2006d). Healing: Orthodox Christianity and Scientific Psychology. Fairfax VA: Eastern Christian Publications.

Morelli, G. (2006e, December 05). Understanding Clergy Stress: A Psychospiritual Response. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliClergyStress.php.

Murray, H.A. (1938). Explorations in Personality. NY: Oxford.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds). (1979). The Philokalia, Volume 1: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Markarios of Corinth. London: Faber and Faber.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (1981). The Philokalia, Volume 2: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Markarios of Corinth. London: Faber and Faber.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds.). (1986). The Philokalia, Volume 3: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Markarios of Corinth. London: Faber and Faber.

Wheeler, E.P. (1977). (ed., trans.), Dorotheos of Gaza: Discourses and Sayings. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications.

i. The Works of Mercy are listed in A Pocket Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians compiled by Archpriest Stephen Upson and Archimandrite Dimitri Nicholas and published by the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, in Englewood, NJ.

The Chief Corporal Works of Mercy

These bodily works of mercy originate from the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46):

  1. To feed the hungry.
  2. To give drink to the thirsty.
  3. To clothe the naked.
  4. To ransom captives (tend to the imprisoned).
  5. To shelter the homeless.
  6. To visit the sick.
  7. To bury the dead.

The Chief Spiritual Works of Mercy

These spiritual labors of mercy are acts of love providing for others spiritual welfare:

  1. To admonish sinners.
  2. To instruct the ignorant.
  3. To counsel the doubtful.
  4. To comfort the sorrowful.
  5. To suffer wrongs patiently.
  6. To forgive injuries.
  7. To pray for the living and the dead.
Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: January 9, 2008

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