Is a successful woman doomed in romantic relationships?

Have you ever felt threatened by your romantic partner’s successes? If you have, chances are you’re a man.

Traditional gender roles may play a bigger role in the demise of relationships than people want to believe. With more women rising to positions of power and becoming breadwinners, it is crucial to reevaluate gender stereotypes. It is generally more acceptable for a woman to have a successful male partner than a man to have a successful female partner. Men take pride in providing for their families. When a woman takes over that role, a man’s self-esteem can suffer.

Kate Ratliff and Shigehiro Oishi recently published a study in which they observed gender differences in implicit self-esteem when a partner succeeds and when a partner fails. A man’s implicit self-esteem is lower when their partner succeeds, but a woman’s implicit self-esteem does not change. It is important to note that although explicit self-esteem was also measured by self-reporting, it did not vary in the same way as implicit self-esteem. Male explicit self-esteem was similar across all groups. Men do not want to admit that female success makes them feel worse about themselves. To avoid getting socially desirable answers, it is important to measure implicit, or subconscious, self-esteem.

In the first of five related experiments, heterosexual couples from the University of Virginia were given a test described as a “test of problem solving and social intelligence.” They were then told their partner scored either in the top 12 percent of students or the bottom 12 percent of students. Their own results were not given to them. They were given a questionnaire about matters of self-worth to measure explicit self-esteem. Their partner’s score on the test did not affect explicit self-esteem. A computer test designed to measure participants’ response times in associating positive and negative words with themselves was used to measure implicit self-esteem. Men who were told their partner scored in the top 12 percent had much lower implicit self-esteem ratings than men who were told their partner scored in the bottom 12 percent.

To test whether or not these findings could be generalized to people outside of the United States, two experiments were conducted at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, a country which is known for a small gender gap. The second and third studies showed similar results as the first study: Dutch men subconsciously showed lower self-esteem when told of their girlfriends’ successes, even though they said the news had no effect on their self-esteem.

The last two studies were performed online to gather a larger demographic in terms of age and relationship status. The fourth experiment investigated whether the type of success influenced self-esteem. The subjects were either asked to think about a time when their partner had either an intellectual success or a social success. Men showed lower implicit self-esteem regardless of the type of success. The fifth experiment was designed for participants to directly compare themselves to their partners.  Participants were asked to think of an instance of when they failed at something while their partner succeeded and vice versa. Men who were asked to think of a time when they failed at something while their partner succeeded showed lower implicit self-esteem.

Even if they’re not in direct competition with their female partner, men seem to interpret her success in a way that implies she is more successful than him. A reason for this could be that men are more competitive than women. Therefore, any time someone does well, men tend to think they are worse than that successful person, even if their success is not directly linked to their own failure.

An additional portion of all of the experiments asked the participants to comment on the future of their romantic relationship. Women were more optimistic about the longevity of their relationship if their partner succeeded, but men were less optimistic if their partner succeeded.

Society is generally more accepting of women in positions of power. Evidence for this is shown in male explicit self-esteem: they stated their self-esteem was not affected by their partner’s success because they know that is the socially acceptable answer. However, men still subconsciously feel threatened by a woman’s success. As gender roles continue to become more blended, perhaps men will learn to embrace female success and not let it deflate their self-esteem.


Ratliff, K. A. & Oishi S. (2013). Gender differences in implicit self-esteem following a romantic partner’s success or failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 105(4), 688-702.

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