An article entitled "Men Feel Threatened By Successful Girlfriends, Confirming What We Hoped Wasn't True" by Nina Bahadur at the Huffington Post has been making the rounds online recently. It summarizes the results from an academic paper by Kate A. Ratliff and Shigehiro Oishi that claims to show that men suffer a loss of self-esteem when they are told their girlfriends scored well on an intelligence test and when they were asked to recall an incident of their girlfriends' success.
I was originally going to respond to this from the perspective of self-loathing men who never feel good enough for the woman they're dating or married to, and for whom this feeling of inadequacy is likely to increase when the woman enjoyed additional success. (For my earlier blog posts on self-loathing, see the categorized list here.) On further reflection, however, I think this phenomenon makes sense for a lot of men in general—and a converse result would be expected for women as well.
It is widely maintained that, at a very primal unconscious level, men seek out physically attractive women while women seek out successful men with status. (This is a simplistic overgeneralization, I know, but bear with me.) It follows from this that women often worry that their male partners will leave them for more attractive women, and men often worry that their female partners will leave them for more successful men. (Again, overgeneralizing, and admittedly heteronormative.)
If this is true (broadly speaking), then when the woman in a relationship enjoys a period of success and achieves a higher level of status, we might expect her male partner to become reasonably concerned that, as a result, she might seek out a more successful and higher-status man. (Even if men would not see her as more attractive because of her success alone, the woman may feel that she deserves a more successful man and would therefore make more of an effort to find one.) The drop in the man's self-esteem may not be due simply to comparing himself to his partner (which may certaintly happen), but also to anticipating his partner seeking out a more appealing man. In this sense, his loss of self-esteem may be based on comparing himself to the better men he now feels he has to compete with, as well as from comparing himself to his increasingly successful girlfriend or wife. In simple terms, he suffers from jealousy in addition to envy.
Imagine the converse: it seems reasonable to me that a woman, upon seeing his husband get in shape after many hours at the gym, might be worried that he would leave her for a more attractive woman. Even if women do not as often compare themselves directly to their male partners (as the author of the Huffington Post piece implies), they may still compare themselves to the more attractive women they worry that their male partners may try to date, and suffer a loss in self-esteem based on this. In our simple terms, they would experience jealousy without the envy.
Focusing on the partners in committed relationships may gloss over the fact that each partner still faces potential competition from other people. (The academic paper does consider this—see the general discussion on pp. 11-12—though little of the online commentary does, focusing almost solely on the important implications for gender relations.) When we take this into account, a change in one partner's attractive qualities may be a wonderful thing for the other partner, but may also make them more attractive to other people outside the relationship, contributing to jealousy and eating away at self-esteem. Simple envy and resentment may be the obvious explanations from a static view of a relationships, but a more dynamic approach reveals the possibility of jealousy as well—and the anxiety that often accompanies it.
In practical terms, the envy and jealousy may be mutually reinforcing, and if allowed to go unchecked, may spell the end of the relationship. Partners need to see each other's successes or improvements as benefitting "us" rather than "you" versus "me." If you don't make sure to show your appreciation for the success of your partner, someone else might just do it for you.
For a select list of my previous Psychology Today posts on self-loathing, relationships, and other topics, see here.