A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology is giving credence to what successful, single women have been saying for decades: men are intimidated by their female partners’ achievements.
The study, “Gender Differences in Implicit Self-Esteem Following a Romantic Partner’s Success or Failure,” was co-authored by University of Florida psychology professor Kate A. Ratliff and University of Virginia psychology professor Shigehiro Oishi.
While intended to collect data regarding how those in heterosexual relationships view one another’s success, Ratliff and Oishi discovered that men’s self-worth — or self-esteem — disproportionately suffered when they perceived their female partners to be successful.
“The original goal of the research was to better understand how one partner’s success or failure influences the other partner and the other partner’s view of the relationship,” Ratliff told Mint Press News by email. “It turns out that men and women’s responses are different, with men feeling more subconsciously negative about themselves when their female partner succeeds.”
In addition, the study indicates men may see a female partner’s success as a precursor to the relationship’s end, prompting either behaviors or attitudes not necessarily reciprocated by women.
“[Men] also feel less optimistic about the future of the relationship, though it’s unclear whether that is because they think they will leave their partner or because they think their partner will leave them,” Ratliff said. “Women, on the other hand, show no subconscious effects of a partner’s success, though they do report being more optimistic about the future of the relationship when their male partner succeeds. That’s an important point that I think has gotten pushed aside.”
The study comes on the heels of a groundbreaking Pew Research Center poll, which showed for the first time that women are America’s primary breadwinners.
A look at the research
The study included five different test groups, ranging in ages from college to older adults. While findings varied slightly from group to group, a common theme among men surveyed indicated that when identifying their female partner’s success stories, their implicit and explicit self-esteem measurements dropped.
Women surveyed didn’t show the same results, and instead tended to celebrate the accomplishments of their male partners.
The five experiments varied in subject groups and questions asked, yet they shared commonalities, including a combination of men and women involved in long-term relationships.
In one group consisting of 32 heterosexual couples attending the University of Virginia, couples were separated in two groups. Each person involved in the study was given a test on problem solving and social intelligence. After being separated, each partner was told how their significant other did. After learning their partner’s score, individuals were asked to assess their own personal implicit and explicit self-esteem.
“In sum, receiving positive or negative feedback about one’s romantic partner’s performance on a test of intelligence did not affect the self-reported self-esteem of men or women,” the study states. “On the other hand, men who believed that their partner scored in the top percentile of participants had marginally lower implicit self-esteem than men who believed that their partner scored in the bottom percentile of participants.”
The other study groups echoed the discovery seen among University of Virginia students. In an effort to broaden the cultural scope of the study, researchers traveled to the Netherlands to conduct a similar survey.
According to the study, the Netherlands is more progressive than the U.S. in terms of gender equality. According to the Gender Equality Index, which ranks nearly 200 nations on a smallest-to-greatest scale, the Netherlands sits at number 2, while the U.S. is ranked at 47.
What makes a man’s insecurity tick?
The study confirms the long-standing suspicion women have had for quite some time, yet also raises the question: why?
The study addresses the possible reasons for the male population’s insecurities toward female success, one being a deep-rooted societal structure that has for generations exalted the male as the breadwinner — the member of the relationship whose worth is based on providing for and superseding the woman’s success.
The study identified women as more likely to “see themselves in terms of their relationships with close others to a greater degree than men do,” largely because women are generally able to view the accomplishments of a partner as a shared accomplishment.
Men, on the other hand, based on the assessments, tend to view their personal accomplishments as key to self-esteem — and when compared to a woman’s, their value is based on a comparison that leaves them on the winning end.
“We only documented the effect; we did not try to test why it occurs. But, I think there are two possibilities. One is that men are simply more competitive than women, and would feel subconsciously negative about themselves when thinking about anyone’s success,” Ratliff said. “The other is that gender stereotypes and role expectations are very ingrained, and that it really does have to do with a successful woman. This is something for future research to work out.”
While the feminist movement of the 1970s shifted empowerment to women, aiming to create a society that not only allows but accepts women who rise to the top in their career fields, it seems men, whether recognizing it or not, are having a hard time adjusting.
In May, the Pew Research Center released a report with new groundbreaking data: for the first time ever in the U.S., women were more likely to be the primary breadwinners.
While the report acknowledged single mothers who are the sole breadwinners, it showed the rise in the female-empowerment trend, with 40 percent of households consisting of what the report referred to as “breadwinning moms.” That equates to 5.1 million married women who are bringing in more than men and single mothers accounting for 8.6 million, according to the report.
At the time of its release, the Pew report was met with controversy, particularly among those on the conservative right. As noted by Emily Arrowood of Media Matters, Erick Erickson, a FOX News contributor, lambasted the report as one that demonstrated the decline of the natural order.
“When you look at biology, look at the natural world, the roles of a male and female in society, and the other animals, the male typically is the dominant role,” he said. “The female, it’s not antithesis, or it’s not competing, it’s a complementary role. We as people in a smart society have lost the ability to have complementary relationships in nuclear families, and it’s tearing us apart.”
Moving ahead, changing perceptions?
As more women do take over households as breadwinners, there is also a question as to whether men will change their perceptions in general toward female success, particularly as younger generations are increasingly raised in households demonstrating that scenario.
“The balance between breadwinning and caring has changed; it can no longer be assumed that the dad is the primary breadwinner in a couple,” Dalia Ben-Galim, associate director at the Institute for Public Policy Research, told The Guardian. “As women’s employment outside the home rises, dual-earner couples are more common.”
Ratliff doesn’t believe the study’s findings that men in general are having a hard time are any cause for societal panic. Instead, she said insecurities could vary based on personal situations.
“I don’t think that this is a big societal crisis,” Ratliff told Mint Press News in an email. “Lots of things influence our subconscious feelings and there’s no reason to expect that we should all feel good about ourselves all the time. It’s possible that the subconscious negativity is adaptive in some way, we just don’t know.”
For psychologists, however, it’s also an issue that manifests itself in relationships — and divorces.
“Maybe the guy’s industry changed and he lost his job,” psychologist and divorce mediator Ken Neumann told New York magazine. “Or the wife steps into the right place — something she couldn’t fully have anticipated. The question is, how secure does the guy feel? When the woman earns more, we can’t assume in our culture it’s a nonevent. We’re a long way off from a world where it doesn’t affect the relationship.”
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