06/09/2013 12:44 BST | Updated 06/11/2013 05:12 GMT

Psychologists Find Female Success Is Bad for Romantic Relationships

Your romantic partner experiences a huge success; a big pay rise or their first novel is accepted for publication - how does that make you feel?

If you are a man, you would be feeling worse about yourself, according to the latest psychological research.

Psychologists now believe that a companion's success can threaten us, leading to a feeling of distance in intimate relationships. Achievements can corrode closeness.

Gender stereotypes could mean that it is more acceptable for a woman to have a flourishing male partner, than it is for a man to have a thriving female companion. Male self-esteem might then be threatened by a female partner's success.

These results were confirmed in a series of five new studies, where Kate Ratliff from the University of Florida, and Shigehiro Oishi from the University of Virginia, examined how self-esteem is influenced by the success or failure of romantic partners.

Their startling results could for the first time give clues as to why high-achievement may lead to relationship breakdown - could this explain why successful couples frequently appear to fracture? Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones are this week reported to be in difficulty.

The 'Oscar Love Curse' phenomenon could also now be explained, whereby women who win Oscars subsequently see their marriages end (eg Hilary Swank, Kate Winslet, Reese Witherspoon, Sandra Bullock and Halle Berry are just a few from a very long list).

While it makes sense you might feel threatened if a romantic partner outperforms you in some endeavour you share (ie if you are both pursuing careers in acting, entertainment or both training for the marathon), how do we feel if our partners succeed, when we are not in direct competition with one another?

A partner's success could lead to decreasing self-esteem if we interpret "my partner is successful" as "my partner is more successful than me."

Men tend to be more competitive, while women define themselves more in terms of their relationships with close others. A romantic partner is more part of who women see themselves as. That is, their identity, so a close other's success, should not pose such a threat to their sense of self-worth as it might do with men.

This new study was entitled 'Gender Differences in Implicit Self-Esteem Following a Romantic Partner's Success or Failure' and in the first experiment each participant was given a test that was described as a "test of problem solving and social intelligence". After taking a short break, to "score" the tests, the experimenter went to each subject individually and told them that their romantic partner had scored in either the top 12% of University of Virginia students or the bottom 12%. No information was given to the participants about their own performance.

Self-esteem above and below conscious awareness was then measured. A particular technique was deployed which meant the participants didn't know it was their self-esteem below conscious awareness which was also being probed. Participants might be inclined to give socially desirable answers if merely asked directly about how self-esteem has been affected.

Receiving positive or negative feedback about one's romantic partner's performance on a test of intelligence did not affect the self-reported, or conscious awareness of self-esteem, for men or women.

But men who believed that their partner scored well, had lower self-esteem below conscious awareness, than men who believed that their partner performed badly. Women's self-esteem, even below conscious awareness, was not affected by the success or failure of their partner.

Further experiments found this effect on self-esteem below conscious awareness is similar for men who thought about a time that their partner succeeded, and men who thought about an occasion that their partner succeeded, while they personally failed. Perhaps men interpret "my partner is successful" as "my partner is more successful than me", and men automatically interpret a partner's success as their own (relative) failure.

One explanation for why women's self-esteem is not affected by the success or failure of their male partners, but men's self-esteem is lowered by female partner success, is strong gender stereotypes. Men present themselves as strong and competent, so a partner's success, especially if it is construed as an own failure, is not compatible with the stereotype. This could negatively impact self-esteem.

But another result from these experiments is women's success could even endanger the relationship.

When asked to make predictions about the future of the relationship, these were pushed in opposite directions for men and women. When women thought about a time that their partner succeeded, there was a trend in the direction of being more optimistic, than when they thought about a time that their companion failed. On the other hand, when men thought about a time that their partner succeeded, there was a trend in the direction of being less optimistic about the future of the relationship, than when they thought about when their companion failed.

This new pessimism from men about the relationship if the woman is successful might be because they think they'll leave their partner, or it could be they now think their (successful) partner will leave them.

Women report higher levels of relationship satisfaction when they think about their partner succeeding relative to their partner failing; but men do not.

Previous research finds men portray themselves as being more competent than they really are, so being reminded of a time that their partner had been successful might pose a threat to their own view of themselves.

Perhaps women are allowed to bask in the reflected glory of her male partner, and to be the "woman behind the successful man," but the reverse is not true for men.

Men's consciously aware self-esteem was unaffected by partner outcome in all this current research, just published in the 'Journal of Personality and Social Psychology'; only self-esteem as measured below conscious awareness was affected by a partner's success or failure.

So men might not want to admit that they feel bad about their own competence, when their partner succeeds. Men may also be simply not consciously be aware that their partner's success or failure negatively impacts on them.

The authors of the study conclude that with all this going on below conscious understanding, we might be protecting our sense of self and safeguarding our romantic relationships, without much self awareness of what we are really doing.

In an era where women are breaking glass ceilings and being recognized for accomplishments in domains that have been typically male-dominated, perhaps it's time for their partners to 'man-up' and realize that a woman's success is not a blow to the male ego.