A female partner’s success bruises men’s egos—and they might not even know it

He’s hoping her next album flops.
He’s hoping her next album flops.
Image: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer
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A woman’s success can lower her male partner’s sense of self-worth, according to psychologists at the University of Virginia and University of Florida who concluded a series of experiments measuring how the successes and failures of a romantic partner affected their mate’s self-esteem.

In the experiment, which was conducted on romantic couples at UVA and in the Netherlands, researchers separated the pairs and gave everyone a “problem solving and social intelligence” test. They then told each participant that their partner had either flubbed or aced the test, recording how the subject’s self-esteem changed in reaction to the score. (The researchers defined self-esteem as “an overall sense of personal worth.”)

The experiment measured  the subjects’ conscious, or “explicit,” reactions in a written questionnaire, but also their unconscious, or “implicit,” self-esteem through computer-administered word-association exercises.

When it came to explicit responses, both men and women’s sense of self-worth remained unchanged, regardless of whether their partner succeeded or failed. A woman’s implicit self-worth was also unaffected by her partner’s performance. However, men who were told their partner had succeeded registered significantly lower implicit self-esteem scores than did those told their partner had failed. The authors concluded that “there is some evidence that men automatically interpret a partner’s success as their own (relative) failure.”

Since their work focused on young subjects in the US and the Netherlands, the researchers warn that their results don’t apply to nations that aren’t WEIRD—that is, “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic.” It’s striking that the subjects came from countries that have made substantial gains in gender equality, and that the men were either unaware of their deflated self-esteem, or knew better than to admit to it.