When in a relationship, it goes without saying that you should be happy when your partner is successful. But according to a new study, when a spouse or girlfriend succeeds, a man is more likely to feel worse about himself.

The study, published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, consisted of a series of experiments designed to determine the link between romantic relationships and self-esteem.

In one of the experiments, 32 couples from the University of Virginia were required to take part in a “test of problem solving and intelligence.” The researchers told each partner that the other scored either in the top or bottom 12% of all university students.

The researchers say that when they asked the participants how they felt about their partners scoring higher, this did not affect their “explicit self-esteem,” which is how the participants said they felt.

The couples were then asked to carry out a test that determined their “implicit self-esteem” – how the participants subconsciously felt about their partners scoring higher.

This is a computer test that tracks how fast people link good and bad words with themselves. For example, the researchers say, a participant with implicit self-esteem would see the word “me” on the screen and link it to the word “excellent,” rather than “bad.”

The findings of this experiment revealed that men who believed their partner scored in the top 12% showed significantly lower implicit self-esteem compared with men who believed their partner scored in the bottom 12%. However, women’s implicit self-esteem was not affected.

Kate Ratliff of the University of Florida and lead study author, says:

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

Another two experiments were conducted online, which included 657 participants – of which 284 were men.

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Researchers found that men subconsciously feel worse about themselves if their partner succeeds at something they failed

In one experiment, the researchers asked the participants to think about a time when their partner had succeeded or failed in various situations. This varied from success or failure in intellectual achievements to being a good or bad host at a dinner party.

In the other experiment, the participants were asked to remember a time when their partner succeeded or failed at something in which they had succeeded or failed.

Findings from both experiments revealed that regardless of what area their partner succeeded in, whether it was intellectual or social, men subconsciously felt worse about themselves.

When men thought about a time their partner succeeded in something they failed, their implicit self-esteem was even lower.

The study authors note that there could be two potential explanations for the outcome of this study.

“One is a self-presentation explanation. Men might not want to admit that they feel bad about their own competence when their partner succeeds,” they say.

Another explanation is that men are simply unaware that their partner’s success or failure impacts their positivity toward the self. We are quite good at both protecting our sense of self and protecting our romantic relationships without conscious awareness that we are doing so.”

The researchers add that further research is needed to determine whether men may feel less optimistic about the future of a relationship after a partner’s success because they plan to end the relationship themselves, or because they believe their partner will end it.

They add:

“Because relationships are an important part of one’s overall well-being, and because commitment is one of the primary factors influencing whether a person stays in a relationship, understanding the influence of a partner’s success or failure on the self can be important for understanding what makes a successful relationship in the long run.”