Study: Boyfriends Insecure, Wish to Hoard Success for Themselves

Men felt worse about themselves and the future of their relationships in the face of a female partner’s success.

Problem: It’s hard to remember that other peoples’ successes do not diminish your own, to choke down the bile of jealousy that rises in your throat whenever anyone in your peripheral vision is doing a better job of being a person than you are.  But you’d think you could swallow the evil green demon that lives inside your unhappy heart long enough to muster up a little genuine pleasure when the person succeeding is your partner, whom you claim to love. Or, at least not let it make you think worse of yourself. A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology tested that ability in men and women.

Methodology: Researchers studied a total of 896 people in heterosexual relationships over the course of five experiments, testing the theory that men’s implicit self-esteem would be affected more by the success of their partners than women’s would.

In the first experiment, participants completed a social intelligence test and then were told their partners performed either in the top or bottom 12 percent. They didn’t find out their own scores. Then they measured their own self-esteem, both implicit and explicit—the test for implicit, or subconscious, self-esteem involved measuring how quickly they associated positive or negative words with the word “me.”

Other studies asked people to write about a time their partner either succeeded or failed (sometimes generally, sometimes within a specific category such as intellectual or social successes/failures), then measure their self-esteem, their predictions about the future of their relationships, and their relationship satisfaction. The final experiment rubbed a little more salt in the wound, asking them to think about a time when their partner succeeded, and they failed (or vice versa).

Results: 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.

“The lack of difference lends some support to the idea that men interpret ‘my partner is successful’ as ‘my partner is more successful than me,’” the study reads.

In the face of a partner’s success, women felt better about the future of their relationship, and men felt worse. Men felt better about the future of their relationship when their partner had just failed.

Implications: The researchers bandy about some theories as to why men were made more insecure by female partners’ successes, but women didn’t feel the same about their male partners’ successes. One is that studies have shown that women care more about communal behavior. Another is the idea that men are more competitive than women, and therefore more likely to see a partner’s success as a sign that they are not as good as their partner. Because behind every great relationship is a scoreboard.

The study, Gender Differences in Implicit Self-Esteem Following a Romantic Partner’s Success or Failure, appears in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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