When your romantic partner experiences success, do you celebrate it or do you feel diminished by it?
According to a new study published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, your answer may depend on whether you’re a man or a woman.
After conducting a series of surveys and computer tests on heterosexual couples in the U.S. and the Netherlands, researchers concluded that men’s self-esteem was lower when a partner succeeded than when a partner failed, whereas women’s implicit self-esteem was not.
“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,” wrote lead author Kate Ratliff, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida.
In fact, researchers concluded that men automatically interpreted a partner’s success as their own failure, even when they were not in direct competition.
The study relied on five experiments involving roughly 900 men and women on college campuses and websites. In some experiments, couples were asked to write about episodes in which their romantic partner succeeded or failed. Afterward, they completed a computerized word association test that was intended to gauge their level of self-esteem.
Dutch students were included in experiments to counterbalance potential American cultural and gender biases.
But Ratliff and coauthor Shigehiro Oishi, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, acknowledged that their findings were limited by the relatively young age of the study participants. Most were college undergraduates.
The study authors offer a number of possible reasons for the loss of male self-esteem.
“From a very young age, boys’ playtime interaction tends to be marked by dominance-striving,” authors wrote. “Young girls also pursue individual goals within social groups, but tend to do so while simultaneously striving to maintain group harmony.”
The authors cited prior research that suggested men generally portrayed themselves as being more competent than they actually were. Being reminded of a time that their partner was successful might pose a threat to their own view of themselves.
Authors also suggested that men may feel a threat to the relationship itself if they feel they have been outperformed.
“Having a partner who experiences 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 authors wrote. “So thinking of themselves as unsuccessful might trigger men’s fear that their partner will ultimately leave them.”