Rebecca Kamm

Poking a stick at ladies' issues, pop culture, and other cutting-edge curiosities.

Rebecca Kamm: Do men resent their partner's success?

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Career envy is rumoured to have been behind the split of star couple Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Philippe. Photo / Creative Commons
Career envy is rumoured to have been behind the split of star couple Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Philippe. Photo / Creative Commons

"Anybody can sympathise with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathise with a friend's success."

Oscar Wilde had a knack for expressing human truths, and he hit the nail pretty squarely on the head with that one. People do often find it easier to deal with their friends' downfalls, and Schadenfreude is practically a scientific fact. (Humans are so great!)

But: can the same be said for romantic relationships?

Apparently, yes. According to a new study, heterosexual men secretly hate it when the woman they love succeeds. And a woman's success makes a man less interested in their relationship. Provocative statements, but one the paper - titled Gender Differences in Implicit Self-Esteem Following a Romantic Partner's Success or Failure - claims are true.

The research, which consisted of five separate experiments, observed the influence of a romantic partner's success or failure on "one's own" self-esteem. As Julie Beck at The Atlantic reports:

It didn't seem to matter to men what the circumstances of their girlfriends' success was. Whether the success was social or intellectual, whether it related to the boyfriend's failure or was just something the woman achieved independent of anything the boyfriend did, the men still tended to feel worse about themselves when their girlfriends succeeded. This only goes for implicit (subconscious) self-esteem, though-men didn't explicitly report feeling worse about themselves, whether because they didn't consciously notice or because they didn't want to portray themselves as insecure jerks, we cannot say.

Kate Ratliff, the study's co-author, says: "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."

Interestingly, the study also found that women's self-esteem wasn't affected one bit by their boyfriend or husband's success. On the contrary, women felt more positive about the future of their relationship when their partner achieved.

But why? Most men claim beauty is nothing without brains, and success is largely seen as the fruits of effective brains. The researchers offer a few theories for their findings:

1. Women see themselves more in terms of their relationships. i.e. they view people close to them as a part of who they are.

2. Men are more competitive than women, for various reasons including "patriarchal social structures".

3. Nasty, nasty stereotypes: Men's self-esteem is affected when they fail to fulfill the roles ascribed to the male gender, such as independence, autonomy, and generally being "better". The study says: "Men are typically associated with success and competence; women are largely assumed to be less competent and less achievement-oriented".

Looking at why men also felt less optimistic about the future of their relationship, the study's authors also suggested that men carry the sexist belief they should be the "stronger" partner, which then leads to the fear of being traded in for a more "successful" model.

On a personal note, I've known many men who seem to have the belief that success is a prerequisite for being worthy of love. Or that they have lesser value as men when they're not at the top of their game. Whether they've imbibed the notion men are the smartest and best, or they're driven by a sense of competition - or both - this is troubling.

(Of course, there will be scores of men out there who do genuinely revel in their partner's success, and it should be noted that these studies do always deal in overarching, bell-curve results. But clearly there are also many men who do not revel in said success, and a relationship in which one person's achievement becomes a negative is untenable.)

Women shouldn't have to deal with guilt when they come home to report a promotion, pay rise, or amazing new job - those things are hard-won enough as it is without the additional deadweight of a bruised male ego. As for the fact those egos are so bruise-able in the first place, that speaks clearly to one simple truth: Gender stereotypes hurt men, too.

Follow Rebecca Kamm on Twitter.

- NZ Herald

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