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Why Men's Self-Esteem Drops When Their Romantic Partners Succeed

October 3, 2013
Douglas LaBier

One of the writer Gore Vidal's famous quotes was, "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies."

Some recent research gives credence to that, at least where men in relationships are concerned. It found that men feel bad about themselves without realizing it when their romantic partner succeeds or excels at something. Even worse, if the man fails or performs less than his partner on the same task or goal, his self-esteem drops even lower. Yet women feel no worse about themselves in the reverse situation.

I was reflecting on this and a couple of other seemingly unrelated research studies, that strike me as illuminating hidden themes. One theme is that higher status and material success are associated with attitudes of entitlement and narcissism, but with a positive caveat. The other theme is that couples who drift into power struggles secretly long for mutuality and collaboration.

Taken together, I think these findings indirectly reveal a significant upheaval and transformation underway, regarding what men have traditionally learned to define as "manhood" and "success" in our culture. In effect, their implications constitute a harbinger to us males -- an unraveling of the traditional definition of "maleness," or the values and behavior that have defined being a successful male at work, in intimate relationships and in society.

That is, I think we're experiencing more than just conventional gender conflicts and differences or the familiar products of male power in our culture. Those old conventions and conflicts are rooted in socialization into men's identities, which is now steadily crumbling in the face of major cultural and social shifts. And those force men to reformulate what leads to positive, intimate relationships or a successful life as a man in today's world.

To explain, first consider the initial finding. Through a series of experiments, researchers in the U.S. and the Netherlands found that when a man's intimate partner succeeds at something, he's likely to feel worse about himself. However, he may not be consciously aware of (or acknowledge) his diminished self-esteem. The study found that men devalued themselves unconsciously following their partner's success. Moreover, the men's self-esteem took a bigger hit after being asked to envision an occasion when their partner succeeded or thrived at something they had failed at themselves.

The study's lead author, Kate Ratliff, Ph.D., of the University of Florida said, "This research found evidence that men automatically interpret a partner's success as their own failure, even when they're not in direct competition." The research findings were with heterosexual couples. A description of how they were conducted was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and summarized in this American Psychological Association report.

Interestingly, the study found that women did not feel diminished self-esteem in the reverse situation -- when they thought about a time their partner succeeded at something they had not achieved. I have questions about how the researchers defined "success," as well as whether the participants' unconscious feelings were accurately obtained by a laboratory test. But to the extent the findings tapped into a real phenomena, I think they reflect something deeper than the residue of traditional gender roles: that men hold the power and women tend to accommodate, as Barnard College president Debora Spar recently commented when discussing her new book, Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection.

Unfortunately, researchers are at a loss to uncover the meanings of their own findings. They tend to overlook or discount the powerful role of socially conditioned values, ambitions and the rewards that men absorb as part of their self-definition. Yet, those have profound effects on one's entire mentality and behavior. Unsurprisingly, the researchers were quoted offering weak explanations of the findings. According to the the study authors, "Men might not want to admit that they feel bad about their own competence when their partner succeeds." But that begs the question, why? And the other, equally lame response, that "Men are simply unaware that their partner's success of failure impacts their positivity toward the self."

In my view, this and other recent findings highlight that many men are experiencing a loss of mooring regarding their identity, purpose and place in the world -- a world that's evolving rapidly in significant and threatening directions. Men who hold or cling to traditional positions of power in society (including in their intimate relationships) and who define their self-worth that way may feel terrified about losing that which they've always assumed "manhood" and a stable, successful life consists of. In other words, they fear losing domination in their relationships and material measures of prestige and success.

For men, it can feel like one's stable world is under siege, especially when one has absorbed, profited from or otherwise bought into an ideology about manhood identity that includes holding and using personal power for material ends, elite status and social recognition. It may feel inconceivable that society would be anything other than stable and supportive of who they are and their secure place in the world and that they would be the perpetual beneficiaries of that stability.

But in fact, our culture is evolving towards greater interdependency, collaboration and equality at all levels, along with shifts away from ego-dominated self-interest and towards serving the larger social good. The traditional definition of male power and "manhood," along with attempts to maintain the vested interests in it, can feel like standing on crumbling ground when faced with large-scale social change and transformations. Consider a few:

  • America's racial and ethnic minorities now make up about half of the under-five age group as we head towards a non-white majority.
  • Young people express progressive, positive views about the role of government.
  • Gay marriage now accepted by more than half the population and has become a human rights issue.
  • Defining success is trending toward wanting impact on something larger than just personal gain and toward opportunities to innovate and collaborate.
  • Growing consciousness that we're citizens of an interconnected world in which nearly one billion people are starving; there are at least 32 active armed conflicts worldwide; and 10 percent of the population is disabled.

Positive Signs for Men
The two other recent studies I mentioned suggest how men may learn and grow from the transformations underway. One found that higher social class -- borne of traditional measures of "success" grounded in traditional male power and values, is associated with an increased sense of entitlement and narcissism. However, the same study found that conscious efforts to promote a sense of equality with others have a diminishing affect on narcissism. That's encouraging, because it links with other studies finding that empathy and compassion are innate. We're "hardwired" that way to begin with, as this recent study finds.

Another study found that men and women who drift into adversarial conflict and power struggles in their long-term relationships actually seek greater mutuality, collaboration and intimate connection -- not ongoing struggle for domination or control. Both men and women seek greater transparency. The desire for mutuality is also innate, along with empathy and compassion. But men especially, struggle with how to expose their inner lives to their partners in ways that enable their growth beyond old notions of being "the man" in their relationships.

All capacities for greater "evolution" may be dulled or diminished by socially conditioned values and external rewards that warp or pervert them. Our conscious sense of self can be shaped and distorted by these values. And then we define ourselves narrowly, in ways that limit and constrict our sense of who we're capable of being, which is especially damaging for men in today's transforming world.