I know a number of men who seemed to make a point of marrying women who posed no threat of outshining their achievements—or even matching them. This viewpoint is no surprise in light of research by psychologists Kate Ratliff of the University of Florida and Shigehiro Oishi of the University of Virginia reported in a recent issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In one experiment conducted with 32 male/female dating couples, the participants were given a test they were told measured their intelligence. The test was not graded, but each participant was informed that his or her partner scored in either the top 12% or bottom 12%. The men who had been told they had high-scoring partners measured lower on a self-esteem test than the men who thought their female partners scored low.
Other studies have also shown that men often regard their female partners’ success as a reflection on them; if she succeeds more, it means he has failed. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to see the man’s success as good for the relationship overall.[/pullquote]In another experiment with 122 men and women who were involved in heterosexual relationships but weren’t couples, the males scored higher on a measure of self-esteem when recalling a time when their partner had failed at an intellectual or social endeavor. The result was quite different for women. “Unlike men, even when women were explicitly asked to think of [a] time when their partner succeeded and they themselves failed, their implicit self-esteem was not decreased,” stated the researchers.
Other studies have also shown that men often regard their female partners’ success as a reflection on them; if she succeeds more, it means he has failed. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to see the man’s success as good for the relationship overall. They also tend to view their own success in terms of its value for the relationship, rather than just being about “me.” These differences in perspective are not surprising, considering traditional gender roles. “Because men and women have different social roles, different expectations for their close relationships, and different responses to competition, it is likely that men and women’s self-esteem is differentially impacted by a romantic partner’s success or failure,” Drs. Ratliff and Oishi wrote in their published report.
One explanation for men’s reaction is that they fear their mate might seek out a more appealing man, according to Mark White, Ph.D., chair of the philosophy department at the College of Staten Island/CUNY. “[The man’s] loss of self-esteem may be based on comparing himself to the better men he now feels he has to compete with, as well as comparing himself to his increasingly successful girlfriend or wife,” he wrote in Psychology Today. Traditional attitudes of both men and women are at play here. As Drs. Ratliff and Oishi said, “a success might hurt men’s implicit self-esteem because ambition and success are qualities that are generally important to women when selecting a mate.” The man in this scenario is hit with the double whammy of being jealous of a more successful mate and envious of a higher-achieving male who might steal her away.
In Slate, Amanda Marcotte offers an important call to action for couples based on the research findings. “Feeling insecure and competitive with your partner is no way to live,” she says. “The researchers suggest that these kinds of feelings might be mediated by relearning how to think about gender roles, i.e., becoming more feminist. So add one more study to a growing pile that shows that feminism, despite conservative claims to the contrary, is actually good for couples and for harmony between the sexes.”
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