Men Feel Threatened When Girlfriends Succeed

A depressed-looking man sits with his hands on his head.
Men's self-esteem takes a dive when they think about their girlfriends succeeding, research suggests. (Image credit: Depressed man photo via Shutterstock)

Men may subconsciously suffer a bruised ego when their wives or girlfriends excel, regardless of whether it's in the academic or social realm and regardless of whether the couple is in direct competition, a new study suggests.

Psychology researchers found that men had lower self-esteem when their romantic partner succeeded than when their partner failed. Women, meanwhile, were unruffled by the performance of their husbands or boyfriends, the study showed.

"It makes sense that a man might feel threatened if his girlfriend outperforms him in something they're doing together, such as trying to lose weight," lead study author Kate Ratliff, of the University of Florida, said in a statement. "But this research found evidence that men automatically interpret a partner's success as their own failure, even when they're not in direct competition." [Busted! 6 Gender Myths in the Bedroom & Beyond]

Ratliff and her colleague Shigehiro Oishi, of the University of Virginia, conducted a series of five experiments to look at how self-esteem may be affected by the success or failure of a romantic partner in heterosexual Americans and Dutch couples.

In one study, they recruited 32 undergraduate couples from the University of Virginia. Each participant was given a "test" of social intelligence. The participants read five different scenarios describing a problem someone was having at work or home and had to choose between two different pieces of advice to deal with that conundrum. The students were told there was a correct answer (determined by counselors) and their score on the test would measure their "problem-solving and social intelligence."

The researchers didn't actually grade the tests and the participants were not given their own "scores," but they were told their partner scored either in the top or bottom 12 percent of all university students.

Hearing their partners' scores generally didn't shake the participants' explicit self-esteem, or how they said they felt about themselves in a questionnaire.

But the researchers also measured the participants' subconscious self-esteem, by giving them an Implicit Association Test, which gauges attitudes and feelings that people may not want to report through rapid word associations on a computer screen. Those with high self-esteem, for example, are more likely to associate the word "me" with words like "excellent" or "good" than words such as "bad" or "dreadful." 

Compared with men who believed their partner scored in the bottom 12 percent, men who were told their partner had ranked in the top 12 percent showed lower implicit self-esteem. There was not much difference in the implicit self-esteem of women who thought their partner scored high and women who believed their partner scored low, the experiment found.

The researchers said that similar experiments held true in the Netherlands, which has one of the narrowest gender gaps in labor, education and politics.

Why the disparity? The researchers write that one possibility is that men are typically more competitive than women and thus may be more likely to see a partner's success as their own failure. Gender stereotypes may compound this effect.

"There is an idea that women are allowed to bask in the reflected glory of her male partner and to be the 'woman behind the successful man,' but the reverse is not true for men," the researchers write.

The researchers also point to previous studies showing that women tend to look for ambition and success when selecting a mate.

"So thinking of themselves as unsuccessful might trigger men's fear that their partner will ultimately leave them," Ratliff and Oishi wrote. They noted one of their experiments showed that men who were told to think about a time their partner was successful (in either the intellectual or interpersonal domain) were less optimistic about the future of their relationship than men who thought about their partner's failure.

The research was published online this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.