A series of social experiments recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has shown that men feel worse about themselves when their female partners succeed, even when they are not in direct competition. However, the success of the male partner had no effect at all on the women’s self-esteem.
I didn’t find this surprising, this has been something we have struggled with in our family. When I first made the decision to go back to work I think it was a huge relief for my husband. The pressure of being the sole support for your family is a tough one. Couple that with a very tight budget and it can feel quite oppressive. So when I returned to the workforce, initially part-time it was with a sense of relief on his part. It alleviated that sense of total responsibility as well as easing the budgetary pressures. We shared most of the running around, shopping and care responsibilities, although I still scored nearly all the housework.
As I returned to full-time work and began to establish myself in my new career, I decided to go back and get my Master’s degree and my husband also decided to return to study. A lot of people looked at us in horror, both working and studying with four children. In fact, I think the fact that we were both studying made it easier in many ways. Sure it was tough and you had to get inventive about where you found the time to study, but at least we both understood the commitment that was involved and we shared the childcare. My husband would often take the kids out to the movies or a park so I could study uninterrupted and I would reciprocate. When I look back at these times I remember them as being hard work but fundamentally happy times.
It was when I began to get promoted that the cracks started to set in, although I couldn’t recognize them then. My husband was happy and supportive of my success but I now realise my success impacted his self-esteem. He worked in an industry where time-served was the measure of advancement, whereas I worked in IT where promotion was more on potential and capability. The progression trajectories were completely different. Intellectually he supported my success; emotionally it was a lot tougher for him.
For both women and men emerging from traditional gender role-based upbringings, it is tough to cast off the stereotypes. I see many successful career women staying single because they only consider potential partners that a the level of education and career prospects that equal or exceed theirs. Whereas their male counterparts have a much wider selection but will often be intimidated by a woman more educated or earning more than them. I believe for women trying to find a partner, there is pressure to pretend to be less than you are, to act less intelligent, less capable in order to appear non-threatening to a man’s self-esteem. I think this is conditioned into women as they grow up and navigate life.
It is not easy to cast off societal expectations and stereotypes for men or women. I hope this will gradually change. As more male and female children grow up in families where success is not defined by the stereotype, hopefully women’s success can be achieved without causing emotional distress to their partner.
That’s what real love amounts to – letting a person be what he really is. Most people love you for who you pretend to be. To keep their love, you keep pretending – performing. You get to love your pretence. It’s true, we’re locked in an image, an act – and the sad thing is, people get so used to their image, they grow attached to their masks. They love their chains. They forget all about who they really are. And if you try to remind them, they hate you for it, they feel like you’re trying to steal their most precious possession. (Jim Morrison)