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Relationships

Navigating Feelings of Romantic Inferiority

When you envy your successful spouse.

Key points

  • One partner's ongoing success can sometimes damage the quality of the relationship. Occasional accomplishments don't have the same effect.
  • Successful men often choose to marry women who are marginally more successful than they are, but not significantly more successful.
  • People can try to find joy in their partners' happiness and maintain equal decision-making power as the relationship progresses.

“I married beneath me, all women do.” —Lady Nancy Astor

“I have always preferred a partner whom I consider superior to me in various ways. The gap motivates me to enhance my strongest characteristics. I can’t respect women who choose men inferior to them.” —Iris

Envy, at its core, is the experience of feeling undeservedly inferior. Feelings of inequality and inferiority are particularly damaging in enduring romantic relationships, as any shared experiences between the couple can be impacted (Ben-Ze’ev, 2000; 2019). According to John Gottman’s studies, unequal relationships are laced with contempt, which significantly correlates with divorce. Other research suggests that unequal relationships generate more extramarital affairs for both partners (Prins et al., 1993).

Romantic partners are of course, not one person, and differences are inevitable. Different traits are not necessarily harmful and indeed are useful in promoting a thriving romantic relationship. Take the example of a shy partner with his easygoing counterpart or an absent-minded partner, whose lover is organized. Of course, taken to the extreme, differences can be harmful, especially if they expose considerable gaps in essential aspects of life, such as intelligence or the ability for personal growth. In the latter examples, envy is more likely to arise.

At the beginning of a relationship, where partners are in the initial stages of infatuation, envy is less problematic. As the old love song goes, “when your heart's on fire, smoke gets in your eyes” and new lovers tend not to see reality clearly. Inequality is exciting in a short-term love affair and even increases sexual desire, like many differences often do. However, in the long-term, it may become an obstacle to experiencing enduring meaningful, shared activities (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019).

Why Competition Is Harmful in Relationships

The biblical claim that “writers’ envy increases wisdom” assumes that competition makes people learn and improve. In romantic relationships, the situation is more complex and in most instances, competition is fatal.

Take, for example, the story of the esteemed novelist Jonathan Franzen and his younger partner, the writer, Kathryn Chetkovich. Franzen’s novel “The Corrections” quickly became a best seller and was widely praised, a meteoric success that Chetkovich could not cope with. In her essay “Envy,” Chetkovich describes the intense envy she had for her partner’s success, which included the punishment of refusing to have sex with him. Chetkovich was saddened by the positive reviews of his book, and wrote that “if I could not be happy, I was ready to make us both miserable”. In other words, she was miserable that the world loved him and not her.

Profound love involves kindness, generosity and sympathetic joy for the beloved’s success. Thus, people do not envy their children’s success – rather, they are happy and even consider themselves part of that success. A sympathetic joy in your partner’s happiness is also possible in romantic love when you are not part of such happiness. This is the case in the emotion of compersion, more common in polyamory, and expresses joy in your partner’s happiness with another lover.

Development and Self-Fulfillment in Romantic Relationships

“Be with someone who wants to see you grow.” —Tony Payne

Throughout history, the purpose of marriage has been pragmatic and it is only within the last 200 years that love has been viewed as a necessary part of the equation. It is only within the last five decades, that development and self-fulfillment have become important as well (Finkel, 2017).

A new study by Kathleen Carswell and colleagues (2021) examined the relationship between personal development and romantic passion. As in other studies, they found that shared personal development significantly increases the passion of both partners and the relationship’s quality. A topic which has been less studied is whether positive personal development, which is not associated with one’s partner, and is indeed a major part of our personal development, also enhances passion in the relationship. It has been also found that in the case of people experiencing personal development in a given day, passion towards their partner is also enhanced in that day. These two findings indicate that when we feel good in one realm, the positive feeling is transferred to other parts of our lives, as is the case, for instance, in transferring sexual arousal.

An interesting finding by Carswell and colleagues reveals that a growing and enduring personal development of only one partner reduces their passion and level of satisfaction, as well as the intimacy and closeness between the partners. Thus, a one-off success is gladly accepted by the other partner in long term relationships, but enduring success that is not shared by the two, and is not associated with parallel success of the other, may be problematic. In this case, instead of growing together, one’s thriving actually increases the gap between the two. Carswell and colleagues claim that chronic personal self-expansion may be a double-edged sword for individual wellbeing, simultaneously associated with decreasing passion but greater fulfillment of a partner’s needs. This may generate envy and decrease happiness (see also Lauden, 2021).

Inequality in Romantic Relationships

“We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person.” —Somerset Maugham

Profound love, in which shared activities are central, requires an autonomy and equal status of each partner, despite their differences. Seeing the partner as “above” or “beneath” themselves is problematic, since this necessarily requires comparison, a type of poison to romantic relationships. Those who are looking for a partner who is superior or inferior to them may suffer from low self-esteem and the need to glorify themselves either through a partner adoring them or through being associated with an adorable partner.

Romantic relationships are dynamic. As on a swing, you may sometimes find yourself up and sometimes down. While chronic inequality is harmful for the relationships, dynamic power changes can maintain equality. Complete symmetry does not exist in reality. Two people, even those quite similar, will change throughout their lives, and this is fine as long as an equality in status and in decision-making is kept. Those with high self-esteem may prefer being with a partner who is slightly superior or more accomplished than them in certain realms (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019).

For example, in one study, 89% of high-achieving men report that they would like to marry or have already married a woman who is as intelligent as they are, or who is more so. These men believe that in marrying such a woman they have made the better deal. However, there is some limit to the desirable gap. Thus, it was found that both men and women pursue partners who are on average about 25% more desirable than themselves. People are aware of their own position in the hierarchy and adjust their seeking behavior accordingly, while competing modestly for more desirable mates (Bruch & Newman, 2018; Smith & Kim, 2007).

In the case of Franzen and Chetkovich, the gap was probably much higher than 25%, thereby creating an irredeemable feeling of humiliation. In profound love, such a gap would create admiration and thereby eliminate negatively comparing one partner’s success to the other’s. Nevertheless, the couple still lived together for over 20 years. It seems that envy is not always a sufficient reason for a romantic separation.

References

Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2000). The subtlety of emotions. MIT Press.

Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.

Bruch, E. E., & Newman, M. E. J. (2018). Aspirational pursuit of mates in online dating markets. Science Advances, 4, eaap9815.

Carswell, K. L., Muise, A., Harasymchuk, C., Horne, R. M., Visserman, M. L., & Impett, E. A. (2021). Growing desire or growing apart? Consequences of personal self-expansion for romantic passion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Finkel, E. J. (2017). The all-or-nothing marriage. Penguin.

Gottman, J. (1995). Why marriages succeed or fail. Bloomsbury.

Lauden, D. (March 20, 2021). Does personal growth benefit a relationship? Psychology Today.

Prins, K. S., Buunk, B. P. & Van Yperen, N. W. (1993). Equity, normative disapproval and extramarital relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 10, 39-53.

Smith, R. H., & Kim, S. H. (2007). Comprehending envy. Psychological Bulletin, 133, 46–64.

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