Self-esteem is a bit of an issue for men dating successful women, according to research published by the American Psychological Association. On the other hand, women’s self-esteem is unaffected by the success or failure of their male partners.

“It makes sense that a man might feel threatened if his girlfriend outperforms him in something they’re doing together, such as trying to lose weight,” said the study’s lead author, Kate Ratliff, Ph.D. “But this research found evidence that men automatically interpret a partner’s success as their own failure, even when they’re not in direct competition.”

Ratliff, along with her colleague Shigehiro Oishi, Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, conducted five experiments involving 896 heterosexual participants. In the first experiment, 32 couples were given a “test of problem solving and social intelligence.” At the end of the test, respondents were either told that their partner scored in the top or bottom 12 percent.

The research team gauged participants' explicit self-esteem by how they said they felt, and implicit self-esteem by having them use a computer that tracked word association. Although men who were told their significant other scored in the top 12 percent showed no difference in explicit self-esteem, their implicit self-esteem was significantly lower than men who were told their partner scored in the bottom 12 percent.

Two more experiments involved online surveys given to 657 participants in the United States, including 284 men. Some of the men were asked to think about a time when their spouse was successful at something that they failed at, whether in a social, economic, or intellectual setting. Results showed that no matter what the setting was, men were subconsciously inclined to feel worse when their female partner excelled at something.

When researchers asked women about satisfaction in their relationship, the majority of female participants reported feeling better about the relationship when their male partners succeeded.

Source: Ratliff K, Oishi S. Gender Differences in Implicit Self-Esteem Following a Romantic Partner’s Success or Failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2013.