Men’s self esteem may suffer when their female partner succeeds, study suggests

In her best-selling book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, who’s number two at Facebook, writes that without fear of over-reaching or being judged, “women can pursue professional success and personal fulfillment--and freely choose one, or the other, or both.” All it takes to successfully juggle work and family, she says later in the book, is having a real partner, like she has, to shoulder half of the household responsibilities.

In her case, a good nanny and housekeeper also help.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Sandberg admits that people frequently pull her aside to ask how her husband is coping with her success. (She recently cashed in on $90 million of Facebook stock.) While her husband laughs off concerns about “his supposedly fragile ego,” Sandberg acknowledges that husbands who object to their wives’ career achievements present a real barrier to women’s ambitions.

New research, in fact, suggests that, for some men, self esteem slides a little when their female romantic partner succeeds in academic or social settings. In a series of experiments involving nearly 900 volunteers, couples were asked to describe a time when their partner succeeded or were informed that their partner scored very high on problem-solving or social intelligence tests.

When the couples were then given word association tests to measure how they felt about themselves, the men used more negative words in association with the word “me” right after considering their partner’s success compared to when they were told to think about their partner’s failure on a task. The women, on the other hand, didn’t differ in the words they used to associate with themselves regardless of whether their partner succeeded or failed, according to the results published online last month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“We found a subtle decline in self esteem in men related to their partner’s success,” said study leader Kate Ratliff, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida. This was likely a subconscious shift, she added, because men didn’t show any changes when asked direct questions about their self esteem.

In other words, Sandberg’s husband may have a more fragile ego than he realizes.

The reasons behind the gender differences aren’t fully known, Ratliff said, but it could be that men are more naturally competitive and think in terms of a zero-sum game: If my partner is up, I must be down. Men may also feel threatened when their wives advance in social status or in their professional lives because they worry that they might be traded in for someone better.

Women, on the other hand, might have different expectations about their relationship, believing in the old-school traditions of men being the primary wage earners. When a man provides more by being successful in his career, that could actually boost, rather than lower, a woman’s self esteem, said Sharon-based therapist Karen Ruskin, author of Dr. Karen’s Marriage Manual,

As more women “lean in” to their careers, do they need to worry that it will harm their romantic relationships?

“I hesitate to say this because I know it will sound insensitive but I think it’s okay to let his self esteem be a little hurt,” Ratliff said. The small shifts detected in the study shouldn’t be enough to tear a committed couple apart.

But Ruskin said she often sees more serious conflicts in her marriage counseling sessions. “As women get super busy with their careers and families, their spouse may become lower on their list of priorities,” she said. “But men still expect that intimacy, the need to feel special, valued, and loved.”

That diminished lack of attention could be a driving force behind a man’s lower self esteem when his wife moves into the executive suite. Rather than opting out of a high-power position, Ruskin advises women in such marital conflicts to lean in to their relationship along with their jobs.

“Sometimes it’s a matter of wives needing to be loving, compassionate or more attentive to their spouses,” Ruskin said. They’ll have the time to devote to this if men place more value on other aspects of their lives participating more in child-raising. supermarket shopping, or cooking family dinners.

Sandberg’s husband relocated for his wife’s job, and she said they divide household responsibilities equally.

Ruskin said she could not have established a busy private practice, written a book, and raised her son without extensive help from her husband. “He’s my biggest fan,” she told me.

I told her my spouse was mine too.

Ratliff said she wishes she had comparison data from a generation ago to see whether men back then had more dramatic drops in their self esteem associated with their partner’s successes than they had in the current study. “My guess is that 20 or 30 years ago, they would have noticed that they felt worse about themselves when their spouse did well,” she said, rather than just experiencing small shifts below their level of awareness.

Perhaps as attitudes continue to change, we’ll get to a point where a new generation of women will expect to earn more than their husbands—and where men won’t mind subconsciously or otherwise.