New Research Shows That Men Feel Insecure When Their Partners Succeed, But Women Don’t

What Women Really Think
Aug. 30 2013 1:15 PM

New Research Shows That Men Feel Insecure When Their Partners Succeed, But Women Don’t

57008757
Reese Witherspoon poses with her Oscar and then-husband Ryan Phillippe after the 2006 Academy Awards. Just sayin.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

From the annals of how sexist stereotypes hurt men, too: New research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that heterosexual men are more threatened by their partner's success than women are. In fact, "more threatened" is underselling the findings, as it turns out that women's self-esteem isn't hurt at all by knowing their partner is good at something when they're not. The researchers ran a bunch of different studies to measure explicit and implicit self-esteem and how it was affected by a partner's successes and failures. As Julie Beck at the Atlantic explains, the results are downright depressing:

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.
Advertisement

The study is blessedly free of speculation about how this must be a hard-wired trait developed in our hunter-gatherer days, and instead floats the far more likely suggestion that men have absorbed gender stereotypes that portray men as inherently smarter and more capable than women:

There are at least two other reasons why thinking about a partner’s success might lead to decreased implicit self-esteem for men. One is that positive self-evaluation derives in part from fulfilling roles typically ascribed to one’s gender (Josephs et al., 1992). There are strong gender stereotypes where men are typically associated with strength, competence, and intelligence; a partner’s success, especially if it is construed as an own failure, is not compatible with the stereotype and could negatively impact self-esteem. Men portray themselves as being more competent than they actually are (Paulhus & John, 1998); being reminded of a time that their partner was successful might pose a threat to their own view of themselves, thus lowering their implicit self-esteem. 

The researchers also found that women felt optimistic about the future of their relationships when a partner had a success, and men felt pessimistic. This, the authors of the study speculate, is related to the sexist belief that a man must always be the stronger partner, leading men to possibly fear that their female partners will want to trade up for someone better. (It would be interesting to see a similar study of gay couples.)

It's obvious why these findings are troubling for women, and not just because women don't want to worry that their partners are secretly begrudging them professional successes, poker winnings, and accomplishments in pub trivia. The results also might speak to the roots of some domestic abuse, as men who have the greatest need to "win" the relationship could be more motivated to undermine and control their partners. (The study isn't suggesting this—I am.) But these findings should also be troubling to 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.

Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based writer and DoubleX contributor. She also writes regularly for the Daily Beast, AlterNet, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.