Personality and Social
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Empirical Research Paper
Healthy social support among intimate relationship part-
ners is crucial for coping with stress, facilitating personal
growth and promoting relationship well-being (Feeney,
2004; Overall, Fletcher, & Simpson, 2010; Sullivan, Pasch,
Johnson, & Bradbury, 2010; Uchino, Cacioppo, & Kiecolt-
Glaser, 1996). The majority of prior research examining
support interactions has investigated ways in which people
provide support to individuals who require help or comfort,
with less attention focused on how individuals seek support
from close others (Feeney & Collins, 2015). More specifi-
cally, researchers have frequently described, but scarcely
empirically examined, indirect support seeking, which
involves sulking, whining, fidgeting, and/or displaying
sadness without disclosing the source of the problem.
Theoretical perspectives suggest that indirect support seek-
ing is utilized with the intention of garnering support from
close others (Barbee & Cunningham, 1995; Barbee, Rowatt,
& Cunningham, 1998); yet, empirical research suggests
that indirect support seeking ironically elicits blame, rejec-
tion, and withdrawal from the partner—the opposite of
what the support seeker desires (Collins & Feeney, 2000;
Don, Mickelson, & Barbee, 2013). This negative response
to indirect support seeking tends to further exacerbate the
support seeker’s distress, and undermine relationship well-
being (Collins & Feeney, 2000; Don et al., 2013).
Given that prior research demonstrates indirect support
seeking tends to backfire and elicit worse support from close
others, an important question remains unexamined: Why do
people use this support seeking strategy? In the current study,
we argue one reason that support seekers use indirect support
seeking is because they fear the possible rejection associated
with full and open self-disclosure to their partner (Barbee &
Cunningham, 1995; Barbee et al., 1998). Accordingly, we
focused on self-esteem—an individual difference that encap-
sulates fears over social rejection, and concerns with making
oneself emotionally vulnerable in social relationships (Leary
& Baumeister, 2000; Leary, Tambor, Terdal, & Downs, 1995;
Murray, Holmes, & Collins, 2006)—as a useful predictor of
(a) whether individuals would utilize indirect support seeking
and (b) the relational outcomes of the use of indirect support
seeking. To do so, we drew upon data from two observational
studies of intimate couples’ support-relevant interactions.
802837PSPXXX10.1177/0146167218802837Personality and Social Psychology BulletinDon et al.
1Clackamas Community College, Oregon City, OR, USA
2Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada
3Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
*Both authors shared first-authorship on this research.
Brian P. Don, Department of Social Sciences, Clackamas Community
College, 19600 Molalla Avenue, Oregon City, OR 97045, USA.
Low Self-Esteem Predicts Indirect
Support Seeking and Its Relationship
Consequences in Intimate Relationships
Brian P. Don1*, Yuthika U. Girme2*, and Matthew D. Hammond3
Indirect support seeking involves sulking, whining, and/or displaying sadness to elicit social support. Ironically, this strategy
tends to backfire by prompting rejection from close others. The current research examines how low self-esteem contributes
to the use and relational consequences of indirect support seeking during couples’ interactions. Results across two dyadic,
observational studies (Study 1 = 76 couples, Study 2 = 100 couples) demonstrated that support seekers with lower self-
esteem engaged in greater indirect support seeking, and seekers’ greater indirect support seeking was associated with greater
negative support from partners. Furthermore, partners’ negative support was associated with lower seeker perceptions of
partner responsiveness, but only when support seekers were low in self-esteem. These results demonstrate how low self-
esteem individuals’ attempts to protect themselves from social rejection by utilizing indirect support seeking may ironically
elicit negative partner support, and undermine the feelings of acceptance that low self-esteem individuals crave.
support seeking, self-esteem, perceived partner responsiveness, negative support
Received February 16, 2018; revision accepted August 22, 2018
2 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 00(0)
Relational Costs of Indirect Support
The manner in which people seek support from their intimate
relationship partner is important, because it can determine
the success of support interactions (Barbee & Cunningham,
1995; Cutrona, 1996; Feeney & Collins, 2015). For instance,
when individuals seek support openly and directly by asking
partners for help, requesting advice, and/or clearly disclosing
the nature of the problem, partners tend to respond by pro-
viding greater and better quality support (Collins & Feeney,
2000; Don & Hammond, 2017; Overall et al., 2010; Simpson,
Rholes, Oriña, & Grich, 2002). High-quality support by the
provider means that support-relevant interactions tend to be
more successful at comforting the distressed seeker, and/or
facilitating the seeker’s personal goals, which, in turn, have
positive consequences for relational well-being (Collins &
Feeney, 2000; Overall et al., 2010).
When individuals seek support indirectly, it tends to have
a detrimental influence on the overall support interaction and
broader relationship outcomes. Indirect support seeking
involves whining, fidgeting, and/or displaying sadness with-
out disclosing the source of the problem (Barbee &
Cunningham, 1995; Barbee et al., 1998). From a theoretical
perspective, these indirect strategies do not give the support
provider enough information to adequately respond to the
seeker’s concerns, which leads to provider frustration, with-
drawal, and rejection (Barbee & Cunningham, 1995). Indeed,
research demonstrates greater use of indirect support seeking
predicts a particularly detrimental partner response: negative
support provision (Collins & Feeney, 2000; Don et al., 2013).
Negative support provision refers to when partners respond
to requests for support with criticism, invalidation, blaming,
and withdrawal. Negative support provision represents the
opposite of the caring and comfort that support seekers desire
when requesting support, and a number of studies demon-
strate that it is associated with host of negative consequences
for seeker and relationship well-being (e.g., Collins &
Feeney, 2000; Don et al., 2013; Overall et al., 2010).
Indirect support seeking is conceptually unique compared
with other support-seeking strategies because it tends to
elicit an ironic outcome. Theoretically, individuals use indi-
rect support seeking to gain attention, care, and comfort from
their partner without having to risk the potential vulnerabil-
ity of full and open self-disclosure (Barbee & Cunningham,
1995; Barbee et al., 1998). Yet, the use of indirect support
seeking tends to be associated with a negative response from
the partner, thus evoking an ironic response (Collins &
Feeney, 2000; Don et al., 2013). By contrast, other forms of
support seeking are associated with the appropriate and/or
expected reactions. For instance, positive direct support
seeking, which involves clearly explaining the source of the
problem, searching for solutions, and clarifying the situation,
elicits positive support responses from the partner (Collins &
Feeney, 2000; Overall et al., 2010). Similarly, negative direct
support seeking involves more overt attempts to undermine
the support partner, such as criticizing, blaming, or derogat-
ing the support provider. As would be expected, negative
direct support seeking evokes lower levels of emotional sup-
port and responsiveness, and greater negative support from
providers (Collins & Feeney, 2000; Overall et al., 2010).
The Use and Consequences of Indirect
It is important to understand why people utilize indirect support
seeking because of its unique and detrimental influence on
social support interactions. Theorists argue that the use of indi-
rect support seeking stems from support seekers’ fear of fully
disclosing oneself to close others due to the vulnerability of
possible rejection (Barbee & Cunningham, 1995). Indeed,
research demonstrates that when a partner is not responsive to
the needs of a support seeker, it has severe and detrimental con-
sequences to the well-being of the seeker (Collins & Feeney,
2000; Girme, Overall, & Simpson, 2013; Neff & Karney,
2005). Thus, seeking support in a subtle and indirect way seem-
ingly allows the seeker to bypass full and open disclosure, and
avoid any potential rejection from the partner (Barbee &
Cunningham, 1995; Barbee et al., 1998; Cutrona, 1996). As
such, factors that make people especially wary of social rejec-
tion are likely to increase the use of indirect support seeking.
Low Self-Esteem and Indirect Support Seeking
According the risk regulation model, one individual differ-
ence that highlights peoples’ struggle with balancing the
need to develop social connectedness with concerns over
social rejection is self-esteem (Murray et al., 2006).
Individuals with low self-esteem tend to emphasize self-pro-
tection in their relationships (at the expense of developing
connectedness) because their negative self-views mean they
doubt their partner’s regard, are wary of vulnerability, and
fear rejection (Cameron, Stinson, Gaetz, & Balchen, 2010;
Murray et al., 2006; Murray, Holmes, & Griffin, 2000;
Murray, Rose, Bellavia, Holmes, & Kusche, 2002). For
instance, individuals with low self-esteem tend to report that
their intimate partner views them more negatively than their
partner actually does, and assume quotidian disturbances in
their relationships (such as minor conflicts or their partner’s
negative mood) are signs of rejection (Murray et al., 2000;
Murray et al., 2002). Because these individuals are hyper-
vigilant for signs of rejection, they also tend to create situa-
tions in which rejection actually occurs, which has negative
consequences for the overall quality of the relationship
(Luerssen, Jhita, & Ayduk, 2017; Murray et al., 2000).
It is precisely because people with low self-esteem fear
rejection in their relationships that we hypothesize they are
particularly likely to engage in indirect support seeking
(Figure 1, Path A). During potentially vulnerable situations
(such as conflicts or support interactions), individuals low in
Don et al. 3
self-esteem are likely to adopt a “prevention-oriented sys-
tem,” whereby their behavior in relationships is largely aimed
at protection from rejection, at the expense of openness, self-
disclosure, and intimacy with their partner (Murray et al.,
2006). Importantly, people low in self-esteem are highly
motivated to establish connections with others; however, they
tend to do so in ways that feel self-protective (Cameron et al.,
2010; Forest & Wood, 2011; Marigold, Holmes, & Ross,
2007). People with low self-esteem should, therefore, view
indirect support seeking as an appealing strategy, which
seemingly enables them to garner support and enhance social
connectedness without the vulnerability of directly and
openly stating how they feel (Barbee & Cunningham, 1995).
Low Self-Esteem, Indirect Support Seeking, and
Partners’ Negative Support
Unfortunately, as discussed above, indirect support seeking
strategies tend to elicit greater negative support from support
providers (Collins & Feeney, 2000; Don et al., 2013). As
such, we attempted to replicate the prior research demon-
strating that indirect support seeking is associated with nega-
tive support responses from the partner (Figure 1, Path B).
In light of our predictions that (a) low self-esteem would
be associated with greater indirect support seeking and (b)
greater indirect support seeking would be associated with
greater partner negative support, we also wanted to test the
possibility that individuals with low self-esteem tend to
engage in behavior that ironically creates the very rejection
they fear. That is, we predicted an indirect effect from low
seeker self-esteem to greater provider negative support
through greater indirect support seeking (Figure 1, Path C).
Low Self-Esteem and the Relational Costs of
Partners’ Negative Support
Negative support from the partner has been linked to a host
of detrimental relational outcomes, including perceiving the
support provider as less caring and responsive immediately
following support-relevant discussions (Collins & Feeney,
2000; Overall et al., 2010). Perceived partner responsiveness
involves believing the partner recognizes, acknowledges,
and values core components of the self, as well as needs and
concerns, and research demonstrates it is crucial for fostering
relationship well-being (Holmes, Clark, & Reis, 2004).
Indeed, one reason that negative support has such wide-
spread effects is because it undermines the extent to which
the seeker perceives that the partner is being responsive to
his or her needs and concerns (Collins & Feeney, 2000;
Overall et al., 2010). Thus, negative support from partners
should be associated with support seekers perceiving the
partner to be less responsive during such interactions, which
involves individuals’ belief that their partner recognizes,
acknowledges, and values core components of the self and
their needs (Holmes et al., 2004).
Although negative support is likely to have an overall
negative influence on perceptions of partners’ responsive-
ness, we expect this association will be moderated by sup-
port seekers’ self-esteem. Low self-esteem represents
sensitivity to rejection in relationships, even when the rejec-
tion may be small, or the result of a misperception (Murray
et al., 2000; Murray et al., 2002). Because of this sensitivity
to rejection, negative support from the provider—which
involves direct and overt displays of criticism, blame, or
withdrawal—is likely to be particularly threatening for sup-
port seekers who are low in self-esteem. Importantly, this
pattern may be different for people who are high in self-
esteem. According to the risk regulation model, people with
high self-esteem tend to respond to rejection in a fundamen-
tally different manner than people with low self-esteem
(Murray et al., 2006; Murray et al., 2002). Because people
high in self-esteem feel generally secure in their partner’s
positive regard, they tend to resolve signs of rejection by pro-
moting the relationship and enhancing closeness (Murray
et al., 2006). Indeed, empirical research suggests that indi-
viduals with high self-esteem tend to respond to signs of
Figure 1. Conceptual model illustrating the flow on relational consequences of support seekers’ self-esteem and indirect support seeking.
Note. This figure is intended to provide a visual depiction of our hypotheses only, and is not intended to provide an overview of our analytic strategy.
The dashed line for Path C indicates this hypothesized path is an indirect effect from self-esteem to partners’ negative support provision through support
seekers’ indirect support seeking.
4 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 00(0)
rejection by reaffirming the value of their relationship and
the sense that their partner is responsive (Ford & Collins,
2010; Murray et al., 2002). In light of the above research and
theory, we predict that support seekers will respond to their
partners’ provision of negative support in different ways,
depending on their self-esteem: Seekers with low self-esteem
will experience decrements in perceptions of their partner’s
responsiveness, whereas seekers with high self-esteem will
experience no change (or even an increase) in perceptions of
their partner’s responsiveness as they reaffirm the value of
their relationship in the face of rejection (Figure 1, Path D).
The Current Study
The way individuals seek support from their intimate part-
ners is a surprisingly understudied aspect of social support,
but one that is crucial to the overall success of support inter-
actions (Feeney & Collins, 2015). The current study expands
on prior research by examining the role of self-esteem in the
use and consequences of indirect support seeking. Figure 1
presents a conceptual model, which organizes our four
hypotheses based on the risk regulation model (Murray et al.,
2006).1 We predicted the following:
Hypothesis 1: Individuals with low self-esteem—who
seek social acceptance, but are simultaneously wary of
making themselves vulnerable to close others—are espe-
cially likely to utilize indirect support seeking (Path A).
Hypothesis 2: We predicted that indirect support-seeking
behaviors would be associated with greater negative sup-
port from partners (Path B).
Hypothesis 3: There would be a significant indirect effect
of self-esteem on negative support, through indirect sup-
port seeking (Path C).
Hypothesis 4: Finally, we predicted that negative support
would be associated with lower perceptions of partners’
responsiveness, but that this association would be particu-
larly strong for support seekers with low self-esteem, and
attenuated or even positive for those with high self-esteem
We tested these hypotheses across two dyadic observational
studies that involved couples engaging in video-recorded dis-
cussions with their partner about an important personal goal.
Prior to the discussions, individuals completed questionnaires
assessing their self-esteem and baseline perceptions of related-
ness (Study 1) or partner responsiveness (Study 2). Following
the support-relevant discussions, support seekers reported on
their perceptions of their partner’s responsiveness. Across both
studies, coders observed the video-recorded discussions, and
provided ratings for support seekers’ indirect support-seeking
strategies (e.g., sulking, whining, fidgeting, and/or displaying
sadness without disclosing the source of the problem), and
support providers’ negative support behavior (e.g., greater
criticism, invalidation, and derogation). Finally, in ancillary
analyses, we tested for gender differences between men and
women, and controlled for support seekers’ attachment anxiety
and avoidance, given that prior research has linked attachment
insecurity to related support-seeking behaviors (Collins &
Feeney, 2000; Girme, Molloy, & Overall, 2016; Girme,
Overall, Simpson, & Fletcher, 2015; Mikulincer & Shaver,
2009; Simpson, Rholes, & Nelligan, 1992).
Participants. Participants were drawn from the research par-
ticipation pool of a large university in the Midwest of the
United States. To be eligible for the study, the couples were
required to be least 18 years of age, English speaking, and in
a committed, monogamous relationship for at least 3 months
prior. At least one member of each couple was enrolled in a
psychology course, and both members were eligible to
receive course credit in exchange for their participation.
Although 80 couples were initially included in the study,
data from four couples were unusable for various reasons
(three due to technical problems in the laboratory and one
couple did not speak English during the observational ses-
sion). Thus, the final sample consisted of 76 couples. Partici-
pants were a mean age of 20.12 years (SD = 3.93 years), and
had an average relationship length of 1.53 years (SD = 1.80
years). The majority of the sample identified as White
(82.8%, African American = 10.5%, Latino/Hispanic =
1.3%, Asian = 2.6%, Other ethnicity = 2.6%).
Procedure and materials. On arrival to the lab, participants
were separated to complete a series of initial questionnaires.
Self-esteem. Participants completed the Rosenberg Self-
Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1965). Participants completed 10
items (e.g., “I feel like a person who has a number of good
qualities”; 1 = strongly disagree, 4 = strongly agree; α = .88).
Attachment insecurity. Support seekers’ attachment anxi-
ety and avoidance were used in ancillary covariate analyses,
and were assessed using the Revised Adult Attachment Scale
(Collins, 1996). This scale has been frequently utilized in
prior research examining social support in intimate relation-
ships, and demonstrated excellent reliability and validity in
these studies (e.g., Collins & Feeney, 2000, 2004; Davila
& Kashy, 2009). Twelve items assessed attachment avoid-
ance (e.g., “I find it difficult to allow myself to depend on
others”; α = .80) and six items assessed attachment anxiety
(e.g., “I often worry that romantic partners don’t really love
me”; 1 = not at all characteristic of me, 5 = very charac-
teristic of me; α = .82).
Prediscussion relatedness. Support seekers’ prediscussion
feelings of relatedness to their intimate partner were assessed
Don et al. 5
using the Relatedness Need Satisfaction subscale (La Guar-
dia, Ryan, Couchman, & Deci, 2000). Three items assessed
the extent to which individuals felt a sense of closeness and
connection in their intimate relationship (e.g., “When I am
with my romantic partner, I feel a lot of closeness and inti-
macy”; 1 = not at all true, 7 = very true; α = .78).
Following this, participants were asked to list one thing
about themselves that they would like to change. Participants
were then reunited to complete a video-recorded support-
relevant discussion. One member of the couple was ran-
domly assigned to share his or her self-improvement goal
with his or her partner (the support seeker refers to the indi-
vidual discussing his or her self-improvement goal, and his
or her partner could choose to provide support). The couple
was then directed to discuss this goal for the next 7 minutes.
Postdiscussion perceived partner responsiveness. After par-
ticipants completed the support-relevant discussion task,
they complete the Perceived Partner Responsiveness Scale
(Reis & Carmichael, 2006). Support seekers completed 18
items assessing the extent to which they felt their partner
was understanding, valuing, and caring (e.g., “My partner is
aware of what I am thinking and feeling”; 1 = not at all true,
9 = completely true; α = .95).
Observational coding procedure
Indirect support seeking. The videotaped support interactions
were first coded for indirect support seeking using a scheme
developed by Overall et al. (2010). In this coding scheme, indi-
rect support seeking includes behaviors such as acting weak,
expressing negative affect to make the partner feel guilty,
whining, and debasing the self to elicit sympathy. Coders were
asked to rate the extent to which they observed the use of these
behaviors across the 7-min interaction on a scale of 1 = low to
7 = high. The ratings by the four observational coders were
adequately consistent and so were averaged to index indirect
support seeking (intraclass correlation coefficients [ICCs] con-
sistency = .79).
Negative support. In a second wave of coding, coders
again drew on the coding schedule developed by Overall and
colleagues (2010) to code support providers’ negative sup-
port. Coders rated behaviors such as criticizing, blaming, and
expressing disapproval for the support seeker, and coders
were again asked to rate the extent to which they observed
these behaviors across the entire interaction on a scale of 1 =
low to 7 = high. The ratings by the four observational coders
were adequately consistent and so were averaged to index
overall negative support (ICC = .78).
Descriptive statistics and bivariate correlations across all
measures are presented in Table 1. We tested Paths A and B
using multiple linear regression. To test Path C, we con-
ducted bootstrapped mediation analyses using the PROCESS
macro (Hayes, 2017), according to the recommendations of
Preacher and Hayes (2008). In this analysis, partner negative
support provision was specified as the outcome, self-esteem
was specified as the independent variable, and indirect sup-
port seeking was specified as the mediator. To test Path D,
we conducted a moderation analysis using multiple linear
regression. In all models, we coded the gender of the support
seeker (coded -1 = female, 1 = male).
Power analyses. We examined power for each of these analy-
ses based on the effect sizes reported in Table 2. First, we
examined power for the regressions examining Paths A, B,
and D using Monte Carlo simulations in MPlus (Muthén &
Muthén, 2012). With a sample of 76 people, and based on
10,000 simulations per model, we estimated observed power
for Path A = .74, Path B = .76, and Path D = .62. Second,
we examined power for the bootstrapped mediation model
according to the recommendations of Schoemann, Boulton,
and Short (2017), who suggest using Monte Carlo simula-
tions to accurately assess power when utilizing bootstrap-
ping to examine indirect effects. With a sample size of 76
Table 1. Descriptive Statistics (Means and Standard Deviations) and Correlations Across All Measures (Studies 1 and 2).
Study 1 Study 2
1234567 M (SD)M (SD)
1. Self-esteem 3.19 (0.55) 4.91 (1.09) — −.39** −.26* .16 .25* −.31** −.04
2. Attachment anxiety 2.59 (0.88) 3.07 (1.05) −.36** — .35** −.21 −.17 .22 .24*
3. Attachment avoidance 2.69 (0.63) 2.86 (1.02) −.29** .13 — −.38** −.39** .26* .13
4. Prediscussion relatedness or PPRa6.41 (0.81) 5.54 (1.09) .12 −.16* −.21** — .62** .13 −.11
5. Postdiscussion PPR 7.65 (1.26) 5.61 (1.15) .21* −.13 −.19** .62** — −.23 −.15
6. Indirect support seeking 2.24 (0.98) 2.63 (1.33) −.38** .16* .05 .01 −.15* — .25*
7. Partners’ negative support provision 1.83 (0.82) 2.06 (1.43) −.11 .11 .02 −.22** −.32** .12 —
Note. PPR = perceptions of partners’ responsiveness; OSM = online supplementary material.
aPrediscussion measures were assessed using a relatedness scale in Study 1, and a PPR scale in Study 2. Correlations for Study 1 (N = 76) variables appear
above the diagonal line. Correlations for Study 2 (N = 100 dyads, 200 individuals) appear below the diagonal line. We provide an additional correlation
matrix for Study 2 with correlations for male and female dyad members separately in the OSM.
*p < .05. **p < .01.
6 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 00(0)
people, and based on 20,000 Monte Carlo draws per replica-
tion, power for Path C was calculated to be .54. Thus, power
was adequate in our test of Paths A and B, but was low in our
test of Paths C and D.
Path A. We regressed support seekers’ indirect support
seeking on support seekers’ self-esteem. Supporting our
hypothesis, the results presented in Table 2 (top section)
indicate that individuals with lower self-esteem tended to
engage in greater indirect support seeking during the support
Path B. Next, we regressed partners’ negative support
provision on support seekers’ indirect support seeking,
controlling for the downstream effects of support seekers’
self-esteem. Consistent with prior research, the results in
Table 2 (middle section) indicate that greater indirect sup-
port seeking was associated with greater negative support
from the partner.
Path C. To assess the significance of Path C, we examined
the results of the bootstrapped test of the indirect effect of
self-esteem on negative support provision through indirect
support seeking. The results, based on 10,000 bootstrapped
subsamples, indicated a significant indirect effect of self-
esteem on negative support through indirect support seeking,
estimate = −0.17, 95% confidence interval (CI) = [−0.36,
−0.05], SE = 0.08, p < .01, such that individuals with lower
self-esteem tended to utilize greater indirect support seek-
ing, which was then associated with greater negative support
from the partner.
Path D. Finally, we examined whether negative support
from the provider predicted lower perceived partner respon-
siveness for the seeker, and whether this association was
moderated by the support seeker’s self-esteem. We regressed
seekers’ perceived partner responsiveness on (a) seekers’
prediscussion levels of relatedness in the relationship (to
ensure that any significant associations from this analysis
were not confounded by preexisting associations between
individuals’ low self-esteem and a lack of relatedness in their
relationships), (b) seekers’ self-esteem, (c) providers’ nega-
tive support, and (d) the interaction between seekers’ self-
esteem and partners’ negative support.
The results presented in Table 2 (bottom section) demon-
strate that there was a significant interaction between seeker
self-esteem and partners’ negative support. Probing the sim-
ple slopes of the interaction (see Figure 2, Panel A) demon-
strated that when support seekers had high self-esteem (1 SD
above the mean), partners’ negative support provision was
not associated with changes in seeker-perceived partner
responsiveness (slope = 0.23, SE = 0.18, t = 1.28, p = .20,
r = .15). However, when support seekers had low self-
esteem (1 SD below the mean), greater levels of partners’
negative support provision during support-relevant discus-
sions were marginally associated with declines in percep-
tions of partners’ responsiveness (slope = −0.32, SE = 0.17,
t = −1.92, p = .06, r = .23). Examining perceived partner
responsiveness at different levels of negative support dem-
onstrated that when partners’ negative support provision was
low, there were no differences between high and low self-
esteem support seekers’ perceptions of partners’ responsive-
ness (B = −0.01, SE = 0.27, t = −0.04, p = .96, r = .01).
Table 2. The Associations Between Seekers’ Self-Esteem, Seekers’ Indirect Support Seeking, Partners’ Negative Support Provision, and
Perceptions of Partners’ Responsiveness (Studies 1 and 2).
Study 1 Study 2
B SE t
r B SE t
r Low High Low High
Path A: Self-esteem → Indirect support seeking
Self-esteem −0.61 0.23 −2.68** −1.07 −0.16 0.30 −0.42 0.08 −5.32** −0.57 −0.26 0.36
Gender −0.27 0.12 −2.20* −0.52 −0.03 0.25 −0.17 0.08 −2.18* −0.32 −0.02 0.21
Path B: Indirect support seeking → Partners’ negative support
Indirect support seeking 0.28 0.10 2.82** 0.08 0.48 0.31 0.06 0.08 0.76 −0.10 0.22 0.05
Self-esteem 0.07 0.20 0.34 −0.34 0.48 0.04 −0.12 0.09 −1.24 −0.30 0.07 0.09
Gender 0.15 0.11 1.34 −0.07 0.37 0.15 0.25 0.08 2.99** 0.08 0.41 0.29
Path D: Partners’ negative support × Self-esteem → Perceived partner responsiveness
Prediscussion relatedness 0.90 0.14 6.33** 0.61 1.18 0.61 0.59 0.06 10.33** 0.48 0.71 0.60
Self-esteem −0.54 0.47 −1.13 −1.48 0.41 0.14 0.10 0.06 1.81 −0.01 0.22 0.13
Partners’ negative support −1.66 0.74 −2.30** −3.14 −0.18 0.27 −0.14 0.04 −3.09** −0.23 −0.05 0.23
Partners’ negative support ×
0.51 0.23 2.18* 0.04 0.97 0.26 0.11 0.03 3.08** 0.04 0.17 0.23
Gender −0.13 0.11 −1.15 −0.36 0.10 0.14 0.06 0.06 0.98 −0.06 0.19 0.10
Note. Effect sizes (r) were computed using Rosenthal and Rosnow’s (2007) formula: r = √(t2 / t2 + df). CI = confidence interval.
*p < .05. **p < .01.
Don et al. 7
When partners’ negative support provision was high, support
seekers with low self-esteem had significantly lower per-
ceived partner responsiveness than seekers with high self-
esteem (B = 0.95, SE = 0.33, t = 2.86, p = .006, r = .33).
Ancillary analyses. We conducted two sets of ancillary analy-
ses. First, given some of the significant main effects of gen-
der (see Table 2), we wanted to explore whether our focal
results may have revealed differences between men and
women. Thus, we reran our analyses in Table 2 and included
the main and interaction effects of gender to test for differ-
ences between men and women. Results demonstrated that
gender did not moderate any of the focal associations dis-
played in Table 2 (ts = 0.12-0.61, ps = .90-.53).
Second, given the known associations between attach-
ment insecurity and indirect support-seeking strategies
(Collins & Feeney, 2000; Girme et al., 2016; Girme et al.,
2015; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2009; Simpson et al., 1992), we
also wanted to ensure that the role of self-esteem in the use
and consequences of indirect support was independent to
attachment insecurity. Thus, we reran all the previous analy-
ses controlling for support seekers’ attachment anxiety and
avoidance. In all analyses tested, the results in Table 2
remained nearly identical to those tested in our primary anal-
yses. Thus, our findings appear to be unique to the influence
of predictor variables we tested. For specific information,
please refer to the online supplementary material (OSM).
Study 1 largely supported our hypotheses and conceptual
model displayed in Figure 1. Support seekers who were low
in self-esteem were more likely to use indirect support seek-
ing during support-relevant discussions with their intimate
partners (Path A). Indirect support seeking was associated
with greater negative support from the support provider
(Path B), and mediation analyses were consistent with the
expectation that people who are low in self-esteem tend to
create the very rejection they fear, through the use of greater
indirect support seeking (Path C). Moreover, a significant
interaction between negative support provision and seeker
self-esteem revealed that when partners provided greater
negative support provision, seekers with low self-esteem
reported considerably lower perceived partner responsive-
ness than seekers with high self-esteem (Path D). These
results provide evidence for our hypotheses that low self-
esteem not only contributes to the use of indirect support
seeking but also makes people especially vulnerable to its
detrimental relational outcomes.
In Study 2, we aimed to replicate the findings of Study 1.
Although our test of Paths A and B were adequately powered
in Study 1, our tests of Paths C and D were underpowered. We
extended Study 1 by testing our effects in a larger sample of
intimate couples, allowing both couple members to engage in
support-relevant discussions to increase the number of obser-
vations (i.e., 100 dyads, 200 support-relevant discussions).
Participants. A sample size of 100 couples was determined a
priori to ensure ample power to detect the typical size of dyadic
support effects shown in prior research (Kenny, Kashy, & Cook,
2006). Data collection stopped once we reached 100 heterosex-
ual couples. Participants were recruited via electronic and hard-
copy advertisements distributed across a city university campus.
Figure 2. The association between partners’ negative support provision and seekers’ perceptions of partners’ responsiveness during
support-relevant discussions, moderated by seekers’ self-esteem in Study 1 (Panel A) and Study 2 (Panel B).
Note. Perceived partner responsiveness was assessed on a scale from 1 to 9 in Study 1, and on a scale from 1 to 7 in Study 2. Analyses controlled for
prediscussion feelings of relatedness in Study 1 and perceived partner responsiveness in Study 2.
8 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 00(0)
To be eligible for the study, the couples had to be involved in a
committed, monogamous relationship for at least a year prior.
Participants were a mean age of 22.64 years (SD = 6.51 years),
involved in serious (13% married, 36% cohabiting, 47% seri-
ous, 4% steady dating), long-term (M = 3.28 years, SD = 4.16
years) relationships, and were paid NZ$80 for the in-lab ses-
sion. The majority of the sample identified as New Zealand
European (58%, Asian = 10%, non-New Zealand European =
10%, Other = 8%, Māori = 5.5%, Indian = 4.5%, Pacific
Island = 2%, did not disclose = 2%).
Procedure and materials. During a laboratory session, partici-
pants first completed baseline questionnaires.
Self-esteem. As in Study 1, participants completed the
Rosenberg (1965) Self-Esteem Scale (e.g., “On the whole,
I am satisfied with myself”; 1 = strongly disagree, 7 =
strongly agree; α = .87).
Attachment insecurity. Participants completed the Adult
Attachment Questionnaire (Simpson, Rholes, & Phillips,
1996), which has also been frequently used in prior obser-
vational social support research, and demonstrated excel-
lent reliability and validity (Girme et al., 2016; Girme et al.,
2015; Jayamaha, Girme, & Overall, 2017; Rholes, Simpson,
& Oriña, 1999; Simpson et al., 2002). Eight items assessed
attachment avoidance (e.g., “I’m not very comfortable hav-
ing to depend on romantic partners”; α = .76) and nine
items assessed anxiety (e.g., “I often worry that my romantic
partners don’t really love me”; 1 = strongly disagree, 7 =
strongly agree; α = .78).
Participants then identified and ranked in order of impor-
tance three current personal goals they had been trying to
achieve, which they were told they might discuss with their
romantic partners. The top-ranked personal goal was selected
for discussion. Then, thinking about their chosen goal, indi-
viduals reported the extent to which their partner’s thoughts,
feelings, and behavior was responsive with regard to the
individuals’ goal. After a short warm-up discussion, each
couple was video recorded engaging in two 7-min discus-
sions about each person’s personal goal (the support seeker
refers to the individual discussing his or her personal goal,
and the partner could choose to provide support). Half of the
couples discussed the woman’s goal first, and half discussed
the man’s goal first. Immediately after the discussion about
their personal goals, support seekers again reported on their
perceptions of their partner’s responsiveness with regard to
the discussion they just had with their partner.
Pre- and postdiscussion perceptions of partners’ responsive-
ness. Both prior to and after the support-relevant discussions,
participants were asked about how their partner’s feelings,
thoughts, and behaviors with regard to their personal goal
made them feel. Perceptions of partner’s responsiveness
were assessed with three items: “I feel close/intimate,” “I
feel understood/validated,” and “I feel accepted/valued” (1
= not at all, 7 = very). Items were averaged to index pre- (α
= .78) and postdiscussion (α = .81) perceptions of partner’s
responsiveness with regard to their personal goal.
Observational coding procedure. The same coding scheme
outlined in Study 1 was used. Coders were blind to the study
aims and all participant data. Four coders independently
rated the degree to which support seekers discussing their
personal goal exhibited indirect support seeking, including
two coders who rated all videos and two senior coders who
rated 8% and 16% of the videos to ensure better reliability
and accuracy of ratings, given the complexity of rating indi-
rect support-seeking behaviors (average ICC across all four
coders = .94). In a separate wave of coding, the two coders
who rated indirect support-seeking behavior for all videos
also rated the degree to which support providers exhibited
negative support provision (ICC = .97).
Table 1 displays descriptive statistics and bivariate correla-
tions across all measures. To account for the inherent depen-
dence of dyadic data, we followed the guidelines by Kenny
et al. (2006) to run a dyadic analysis using the MIXED pro-
cedure in SPSS 24, cross classifying partners with dyad.2 As
in Study 1, we also controlled for the main effect of gender
(coded −1 = woman, 1 = man) in all analyses.
Power analyses. In addition to determining a priori that 100
couples would provide adequate power, we also conducted
post hoc power analyses using Monte Carlo simulations
according to recommendations for conducting power analy-
ses for dyadic data (Bolger & Laurenceau, 2013; Lane &
Hennes, 2018). With a sample size of 100 dyads with equal-
ity constraints for the paths modeling effects of each dyad
member, and based on 20,000 Monte Carlo draws per repli-
cation, Monte Carlo simulations based on our hypothesized
models (see Figure 1) revealed that power for main effects
with an effect size of .36 was calculated to be .99 (Path A),
and power for moderation effects with an effect size of .23
was calculated to be .92 (Path D), suggesting ample power to
Path A. We regressed support seekers’ indirect support
seeking on support seekers’ self-esteem. The results pre-
sented in Table 2 (top section, right-hand side of the table)
demonstrated that individuals lower in self-esteem were
more likely to utilize indirect support seeking.
Path B. Next, we ran an analogous model and regressed
partners’ negative support provision on support seekers’
indirect support seeking. We also included support seekers’
self-esteem to control for downstream effects. The results are
presented in Table 2 (middle section, right-hand side of the
Don et al. 9
table). Although trending in the right direction, indirect sup-
port seeking was not significantly associated with partners’
negative support provision.
Path C. To test whether low self-esteem indirectly pre-
dicted greater negative support from the partner through
greater indirect support seeking, we calculated the indirect
effect and associated CI by using the procedure recom-
mended by Tofighi and MacKinnon (2011) using the RMe-
diation Package (also see MacKinnon, Fritz, Williams, &
Lockwood, 2007). The CI overlapped zero (indirect effect
= −.025, 95% CI = [−0.098, 0.042]), thus demonstrating
the indirect effect of self-esteem on negative partner support
through indirect support seeking was not significant.
Path D. Finally, we ran an analogous model and regressed
seekers’ postdiscussion perceptions of partners’ responsive-
ness on (a) seekers’ prediscussion perceptions of partners’
responsiveness to capture residual changes in the outcome,
(b) seekers’ self-esteem, (c) partners’ negative support provi-
sion, and (d) the interaction between partners’ negative sup-
port provision and support seekers’ self-esteem.
The results presented in Table 2 (bottom section, right-hand
side of the table) show that a significant interaction between
support seekers’ self-esteem and partners’ negative support
provision emerged. This interaction (see Figure 2, Panel B)
indicated that when support seekers had high self-esteem,
partners’ negative support provision was not associated with
changes in perceptions of partners’ responsiveness (slope =
−0.02, SE = 0.06, t = −0.35, p = .73, r = .03). However,
when support seekers had low self-esteem, greater levels of
partners’ negative support provision was associated with mod-
erate declines in perceptions of partners’ responsiveness (slope
= −0.26, SE = 0.06, t = −4.67, p < .001, r = .33). Furthermore,
when partners’ negative support provision was low, there were
no significant differences between high and low self-esteem
support seekers’ perceptions of partners’ responsiveness (B =
−0.05, SE = 0.08, t = −0.59, p = .55, r = .04). However,
when partners’ negative support provision was high, low self-
esteem support seekers had significantly lower perceived part-
ner responsiveness compared with seekers high in self-esteem
(B = 0.26, SE = 0.07, t = 3.63, p < .001, r = .26).
Ancillary analyses. As in Study 1, we conducted two sets
of ancillary analyses. First, we reran our focal analyses and
included the main and all interaction effects of gender to test
for differences between men and women. Gender did not sig-
nificantly moderate any of the focal effects (ts = 0.41-1.80,
ps = .69-.073). Second, as in Study 1, we reran all the pre-
vious analyses controlling for support seekers’ attachment
anxiety and avoidance. In all analyses tested, the results in
Table 2 remained nearly identical to those tested in our pri-
mary analyses. Thus, our findings appear to be unique to the
influence of predictor variables we tested. For specific infor-
mation, please refer to the OSM.
Study 2 partially replicated the effects in Study 1, although
there were also some inconsistencies. As in Study 1, support
seekers with low self-esteem tended to use greater indirect
support seeking during support-relevant discussions with
their partners (Path A). Although greater indirect support
seeking did not significantly predict partners’ provision of
negative support directly (Path B), which rendered the indi-
rect effect of self-esteem on partner negative support nonsig-
nificant (Path C), partners’ greater negative support provision
was associated with decreases in seekers’ perceptions of
partner responsiveness when seekers had low (but not high)
self-esteem (Path D). Taken together, these results suggest
that individuals with low self-esteem are more likely to use
indirect support seeking, but are also more heavily influ-
enced by partners’ negative support.
Meta-Analysis of Effects Across Studies
1 and 2
Although Studies 1 and 2 provided some support for our con-
ceptual model (Figure 1), there were a few inconsistencies
across studies. In particular, Path B did not replicate in Study
2 (although the effect was trending in the right direction).
Moreover, although Path D was significant in both studies,
our test of this association suffered from low power in Study
1. Thus, to test the reliability of the predicted effects across
studies, we conducted a meta-analysis of effects (Goh, Hall,
& Rosenthal, 2016). We followed meta-analytic procedures
for estimated weighted r values assuming random compo-
nent models as outlined by Lipsey and Wilson (2001). The
results of these meta-analyses are reported in Table 3. The
meta-analysis pooling across both studies revealed that Path
A was statistically significant: Individuals with lower self-
esteem were more likely to engage in indirect support seek-
ing. Path B was also significant: Greater indirect support
seeking predicted greater negative support from the provider.
Finally, Path D was significant when pooling across studies,
and a meta-analysis of the simple effects for seekers, low
versus high in self-esteem, revealed that support providers’
negative support predicted lower perceived partner respon-
siveness when support seekers had low self-esteem, but not
when seekers had high self-esteem.3
Indirect support seeking has negative consequences for rela-
tionship outcomes; yet, prior research had not examined why
people use indirect support seeking, or the relational conse-
quences associated with its use. Focusing on the significant
results from a meta-analysis across two observational dyadic
studies of intimate couples’ support-relevant interactions, we
demonstrated that people with low self-esteem were more
likely to utilize indirect support seeking, that indirect support
10 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 00(0)
seeking was associated with greater negative support from
the partner, and that when partners responded in this negative
manner, people with low self-esteem (and not people with
high self-esteem) reported lower perceived partner respon-
siveness after support-relevant discussions. Our findings
suggest that although people with low self-esteem likely
engage in indirect support seeking to protect themselves
from potential rejection, they are also particularly sensitive
to the rejection associated with the use of indirect support
seeking, which undermines their feelings of being accepted
by their partner. The following sections discuss the theoreti-
cal and practical implications of these results.
Self-Esteem Contributes to Indirect Support
Seeking and Relational Outcomes in Support
The risk regulation model purports that when people are
uncertain of their partner’s positive regard (i.e., when people
are low in self-esteem), they will tend toward self-protection
in their close relationships at the expense of openness, self-
disclosure, and vulnerability (Murray et al., 2006). Although
other studies have demonstrated the pitfalls of this self-pro-
tective motive in other relationship contexts (Luerssen et al.,
2017; Murray et al., 2000; Murray et al., 2002), no prior
studies had examined risk regulation in the context of sup-
port seeking. Given that support seeking requires self-disclo-
sure and dependence on one’s intimate partner, we argued
individuals with low self-esteem would be especially likely
to behave in self-protective ways by utilizing indirect sup-
port seeking. Consistent with this theorizing, results across
both studies demonstrate that individuals with lower self-
esteem are more likely to use indirect support seeking during
support interactions, likely because it allows the individual
to garner social support without openly making oneself vul-
nerable (Barbee & Cunningham, 1995). These findings rep-
resent a novel and important contribution to the literature
because no studies have examined the predictors of indirect
support seeking, and few studies have examined the predic-
tors of individual differences in the use of various support-
seeking strategies more generally (Feeney & Collins, 2015).
Given that support seeking plays a crucial role in the overall
success of social support interactions, our research suggests
that self-esteem plays an important role in how people
attempt to garner the support they need in their intimate
Ironically, although people with low self-esteem engage
in indirect support seeking out of self-protection, our results
suggest the use of indirect support seeking is associated with
the type of rejection they fear. Consistent with prior research
(Collins & Feeney, 2000; Don et al., 2013), our meta-ana-
lytic results demonstrate that indirect support seeking is
associated with greater levels of partners’ negative support.
Furthermore, our results demonstrate that partner negative
support is uniquely damaging to the people who most want
to avoid it—people low in self-esteem. Individuals with low
self-esteem tend to have heightened sensitively to social
rejection, which raises the stakes of their social support
Table 3. Meta-Analyses of the Effects and Simple Effects Across Studies 1 and 2.
Average effect size
z p Low High
Path A: Self-esteem → Indirect support seeking
Self-esteem −.34 −.20 −.46 −4.54 <.001
Gender .23 .08 .36 3.02 .003
Path B: Indirect support seeking → Partners’ negative support
Indirect support seeking .17 .01 .31 2.13 .03
Self-esteem .07 −.08 .22 0.90 .37
Gender .23 .08 .37 3.07 .002
Path D: Partners’ negative support × Self-esteem → Perceptions of partners’ responsiveness
Meta-analyses of effects
Prediscussion relatedness or PPR .60 .50 .69 9.13 <.001
Self-esteem −.13 −.02 .28 1.76 .08
Partners’ negative support −.25 −.10 −.38 −3.29 <.001
Partners’ negative support ×
.24 .10 .38 3.23 <.001
Gender −.12 −.03 .26 1.54 .26
Meta-analyses of simple effects
High self-esteem .08 −.07 .23 1.07 .29
Low self-esteem −.29 −.15 −.42 −3.86 <.001
Note. Effect sizes (r) were computed using Rosenthal and Rosnow’s (2007) formula: r = √(t2 / t2 + df). Significant hypothesized effects are highlighted in
bold. CI = confidence interval; PPR = perceptions of partners’ responsiveness.
Don et al. 11
interactions (Murray et al., 2006; Murray et al., 2000). Thus,
one reason that support seekers who are low (but not high) in
self-esteem perceive lower partner responsiveness when
receiving negative support is because they are more closely
attuned to their partners negativity, and when detecting nega-
tivity, find it more threating.
It is also particularly noteworthy that—in accordance
with our hypotheses—people with high self-esteem did not
experience decrements in perceived partner responsiveness
when (according to objective coders) their partners responded
to their requests for support with behaviors such as criticiz-
ing, blaming, and expressing disapproval. The social support
literature tends to portray negative support as universally
detrimental, given that it represents the opposite of what a
support seeker desires, and more broadly communicates a
lack of willingness to meet the needs of the individual
requesting support (Collins & Feeney, 2000; Overall et al.,
2010). Despite this, the risk regulation model suggests that
people with high self-esteem may respond to signs of partner
rejection by reaffirming the relationship, and our results
demonstrate this even applies to when support seekers with
high self-esteem receive negative support from their partner.
Although individuals with high self-esteem did not demon-
strate increases in perceived partner responsiveness in the
face of rejection (as prior research has tended to show; Ford
& Collins, 2010; Murray et al., 2002), they did retain their
relatively positive perceptions of partner responsiveness
even in the face of partner rejection. As such, our study
uniquely demonstrates that self-esteem is an important indi-
vidual difference influencing how people respond to (the
lack of) social support from intimate partners.
Although our findings were largely consistent across
studies, there were two associations that did not replicate
across studies. The indirect effect of low self-esteem increas-
ing partners’ negative support via indirect support seeking
was significant in Study 1, but not in Study 2, likely because
indirect support seeking was robustly associated with nega-
tive partner behavior in Study 1, but not in Study 2. Why was
indirect support seeking inconsistently associated with part-
ners’ negative behavior, despite previous research demon-
strating evidence for this association (Collins & Feeney,
2000; Don et al., 2013?)? One possibility, highlighted by
recent theoretical perspectives, is that the impact of relation-
ship behaviors depends on important contextual factors (see
McNulty, 2016; McNulty & Fincham, 2012; Overall &
McNulty, 2017). For example, during couples’ conflict inter-
actions, the success of seemingly negative communication
strategies depends on a host of other factors, including the
seriousness of the relationship problem, whether the prob-
lems are minor, or whether partners are insecure (see Overall
& McNulty, 2017). Similarly, the impact of maladaptive
support-seeking behaviors (such as indirect support seeking)
can also depend on important contextual factors (Cavallo &
Hirniak, 2017; Girme et al., 2013). Exploring how these con-
textual factors influence precisely when indirect support
seeking tends to elicit negative support is an important ave-
nue for future research.
Strengths, Caveats, and Future Directions
The current research has several strengths. We assessed the
impact of observer-rated indirect support seeking across two
dyadic studies of support-relevant interactions. By bridging
theories on self-esteem (Murray et al., 2000; Murray et al.,
2002) and social support (Barbee & Cunningham, 1995;
Barbee et al., 1998), we were able to highlight important
characteristics of support seekers that undermine effective
support-seeking and relational outcomes. Nonetheless, the
current study is not without limitations. Our data are correla-
tional, so it is possible that partners’ negative behaviors may
elicit the use of indirect support seeking. However, the timing
of assessment for other elements of our model is unlikely to
represent a different direction of processes. For example, our
results demonstrate that self-esteem assessed prior to the dis-
cussion leads to indirect support seeking during discussions.
Similarly, partners’ negative support during the discussion
was associated with perceptions of partners’ responsiveness
assessed after the discussion. Regardless, it is important to
supplement these results with longitudinal evidence, or with
experimental manipulations of the processes we examined.
Although we utilized a well-validated, observational
social support interaction task, the interactional outcomes of
indirect support seeking are likely to differ across contexts.
For instance, research suggests that social support processes
in the context of daily life—where dealing with daily hassles
and stressors may elicit more responsive help in the moment
(Iida, Seidman, Shrout, Fujita, & Bolger, 2008; Wang &
Repetti, 2014, 2016)—may not have as strong an impact on
perceptions of partners’ responsiveness. As such, future
research should explore how the antecedents and conse-
quences of indirect support seeking change when people are
attending to immediate stressors (e.g., managing child care).
Our results provided consistent support for a risk regula-
tion theoretical interpretation for the use and consequences
of indirect support seeking. However, other motivations to
use indirect support seeking may also exist, such as a lack of
social competence, perceptions of the providers’ competence
to provide adequate support (Cavallo & Hirniak, 2017), or a
desire not to burden one’s partner with requests for social
support (Taylor et al., 2004). Indeed, although we statisti-
cally explained a portion of the variance in the use of indirect
support seeking, future research should continue to explore
other factors that contribute to the use and consequences of
this support-seeking strategy.
Finally, we were unable to test all our hypotheses simulta-
neously, such as in a structural path model. Ideally, we would
have tested all our hypotheses simultaneously, however, this
was not possible given power considerations. As such, we
settled on an analytic strategy that provided a reasonable test
of each of our crucial hypotheses, while balancing analytic
12 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 00(0)
complexity and power considerations. Even so, two of our
paths tested in Study 1 (Figure 1, Paths C and D) suffered
from low power, which is another important limitation of
these analyses, and future research should continue to explore
these processes with larger samples.
Indirect support seeking is a unique support-seeking strategy,
because it is utilized with the intention of garnering support
from the partner, yet is also associated with a negative
response from close others. By drawing on the risk regula-
tion model, the current research demonstrates that people
with low self-esteem—who try to protect themselves from
rejection—are more likely to utilize indirect support seeking.
Ironically, this form of support seeking is associated with the
type of rejection that people who are low in self-esteem tend
to fear—negative support from their partner. Moreover, only
individuals with low self-esteem tend to experience the neg-
ative consequences of indirect support seeking: Partners’
negative support behaviors undermined perceptions of part-
ners’ responsiveness when seekers were low (but not high) in
self-esteem. Taken together, these results bridge theories in
the social support and self-esteem literatures to demonstrate
that indirect support seeking appeals to individuals con-
cerned with social rejection, but that its use can ironically
undermine the very acceptance and validation that people
with low self-esteem crave.
Brian P. Don and Yuthika U. Girme have shared first-authorship on
this research. They each contributed to the paper equally. We thank
John Updegraff and Manfred van Dulmen for use of their laboratory
space and their help with data collection. We thank Adrian
Castellon, Jesse Coon, Laura Eisenbrei, Felicity Frost, Jessica
Gordon, Elena Hood, Madison Jaramillo, Courtney McLaughlin,
and Brad Stewart for their assistance with data collection and obser-
vational coding. Finally, we thank Nickola Overall for her assis-
tance with the observational coding scheme.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect
to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support
for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This
research was supported by a grant from the International Association
of Relationships research to Brian P. Don, as part of the 2014 Steve
Duck New Scholar Award.
1. This figure is intended to provide a visual depiction our hypoth-
eses only, and is not intended to provide an overview of our
2. It is possible that support recipients’ and providers’ reactions
might depend on behavior in the prior discussion. Thus, we
wanted to ensure that our hypothesized effects were not influ-
enced by the order of the couples’ discussions. First, controlling
for discussion order did not alter the effect of self-esteem on
indirect support seeking (t = −5.28, p < .001) or the interaction
between partners’ negative support and recipients’ self-esteem
on perceptions of partners’ responsiveness (t = 3.10, p = .002).
Second, we re-ran all our analyses and included the main and
interaction effects of discussion order. Discussion order did not
moderate any of our predicted effects (ts < 0.72, ps > .48).
3. As far as we are aware, it is not possible to meta-analyze indirect
effects across two different tests of mediation. We note this as a
limitation of our analyses.
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