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Gender jealousy: A woman's success can eat away at her partner's self-esteem

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Does a woman's success damage the ego of her male partner? Perhaps we'd like to think we've evolved beyond that, but a recent study suggests otherwise. In fact, in the study, a woman's success made her partner feel worse about himself than her failure did. Women in the study were unaffected by their partners' successes (or failures).

"It's a problem that doesn't get spoken of very much. What man is going to say, 'Well, because you are successful, I feel less than'?" said Marion Solomon, a marital therapist in West Los Angeles and co-author of Love and War in Intimate Relationships.

In the privacy of the therapist's office, it's a different story, said Jill Weber, a clinical psychologist in Tysons Corner, Va. "It's... something that certainly clinicians and therapists see a lot."

What makes the new study so fascinating, Weber said, is the men who participated weren't even aware their self-esteem was affected by their partners' performance. This, she said, could cause problems later on. A man struggling on an unconscious level with a partner's success might suddenly act out -- distancing himself from his partner, becoming slow to return phone calls or being less attentive, said Weber, author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy: Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships.

"Maybe they do things that they don't understand themselves," she said. "The guy is giving the impression that he's not that into the relationship, when in reality he's just trying to protect himself from the fear of rejection."

The study's lead author, Kate A. Ratliff of the University of Florida, attributed the results to a difference in how men and women respond to competition.

"On average, men are more competitive than women," Ratliff said. "So it's definitely possible that men would respond in a self-negative way to anybody's success." While it might make sense for a competitive man to feel threatened by being outperformed by a woman, the men in this study felt their partner's success was their own failure, regardless of whether they were engaged in one-on-one competition.

The study, conducted in the United States and the Netherlands, involved five experiments in which a total of 896 men and women participated. In one, a person was told his or her romantic partner had scored in either the top 12 per cent or the bottom 12 per cent in a problem-solving test; then, the person's self-esteem, both explicit and implicit, was measured. In the other experiments, participants were asked to write about social or intellectual situations in which a partner had succeeded or failed. While all participants expressed positive feelings about a partner's success, the researchers determined on a more subtle level, a man's self-esteem actually fell after he acknowledged his partner had done well.

The results were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The findings make sense to Aaron Rochlen, a professor who studies the psychology of men and masculinity at the University of Texas at Austin. Traditionally, men have been expected to take the lead in a relationship, especially financially, and to be the front-runner, he said.

But increasingly, men are no longer the financial leaders in their relationships. Among married heterosexual couples, more women are out-earning their partners than ever. In dual-income families, 28 percent of American wives earn more than their husbands, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Many men struggle with that reality, even though they may not admit it.

Men who react negatively to a partner's success, Rochlen said, are probably hanging on to old-school ideas of what it means to be a man -- what Rochlen called "the John Wayne model of masculinity" a man should have control over a woman, restrict his emotions, avoid vulnerability and be in command at all times, attitudes that don't square with living in today's world or being psychologically healthy. Rochlen said such men are more likely than others to suffer broadly in relationships and beyond. He noted there's much research showing holding on to outdated male stereotypes and behaviour is a major predictor of high levels of substance abuse, acting out, depression, anxiety and other problems.

Solomon said longtime gender roles may also play a part in a woman's unfazed positive reaction to a male partner's success. "Women had been trained in our culture to see themselves as a support system for the husband. And if he is successful, they are successful. We've had 3,000 years of history saying you're supposed to be with a man who's a little taller, a little smarter and a little richer. And you can't change that in one generation."

Rochlen said as more women rise to power and success supported by husbands or partners whom people admire, this will help modify societal beliefs about men, women and success.


-- Washington Post-Bloomberg

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2013 A2

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