When a Wife/Partner Succeeds, Men Lose Self-Esteem

Not long ago a friend’s first book was published, so when I arrived at her home for a visit I eagerly voiced my enthusiasm and congratulations for her accomplishment. Moments into the interaction, her husband strode across the living room to a bookcase and returned with a copy of a book he authored 15 years ago. I thought it odd that he turned attention away from her achievement toward his long-past one, but now I understand why.

A new study finds that men feel worse—deep down in the subconscious—when their romantic partners succeed. Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the research shows this effect even when the pair are not competing in the same line of work . The authors of the study expected that “a man might feel threatened if his girlfriend outperforms him in something they’re doing together, such as trying to lose weight.” But they were surprised to find evidence that the subconscious self-esteem of, say, a male poet, would fall significantly following the success of his wife in a completely different domain, such as investment banking or party hosting.

The researchers conducted five experiments with 896 people in heterosexual relationships. In one, 32 couples took a “test of problem-solving and social intelligence” and then were told by the researcher whether their partner had scored in the top or bottom 12 percent. Hearing how their partner scored did not affect how men said they felt, but their scores on a test to see how they felt subconsciously (called “implicit self-esteem”) revealed a different picture:

Men who believed their partner scored in the top 12 percent demonstrated significantly lower implicit self-esteem than men who believed their partner scored in the bottom 12 percent.

A man’s implicit self-esteem is hurt by a romantic partner’s success, the authors propose, because he automatically interprets her success as his own failure—a byproduct of men’s competitiveness. Another possibility: Her success challenges the gender stereotype that he should be relatively more competent, strong and intelligent than his female partner. A third explanation offered is that the man’s thoughts about his partner’s success trigger a fear that he is not good enough for her and might lose her.

Additional experiments conducted in the Netherlands yielded the same result: Men said they felt fine about a partner’s success, but their implicit self-esteem showed the opposite. Further, two more studies conducted online of 284 men and 373 women in the U.S. found, again, that “men subconsciously felt worse about themselves when their partner succeeded than when she failed.” And it gets worse: the men’s self-concept plummeted even more when they thought their partners had succeeded at something at which they had failed.

It’s a depressing trajectory: When she fails, he feels best; when she succeeds, he feels bad, but not as bad as when she succeeds at something at which he’s failed. Amanda Marcotte thinks these findings should trouble men:

Feeling insecure and competitive with your partner is no way to live. 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.

It’s a good thing my friend’s husband authored a book 15 years ago to cushion his falling self-esteem. Unfortunately, a final experiment in this research finds evidence that he also probably feels worse about the relationship as a result of her success writing a book. But luckily for him, the research finds that his wife won’t reciprocate the negativity and instead feels good about the marriage when he succeeds.

Drawing by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner from Wikimedia Commons


Nanette Fondas is co-author of The Custom-Fit Workplace and former professor of business. Nanette writes, blogs, and curates issues on work-life fit and parenting in a globalized economy. Her award-winning research on the economics and sociology of work, organizations, and management appears in scholarly journals and newspapers, magazines, and blogs including The Atlantic, Psychology Today, Huffington Post, and MomsRising. Follow her @NanetteFondas on Twitter.