I’m sure you’ve heard the idea that the “male ego” is fragile. From Sigmund Freud to Steve Harvey, tons of people have written and spoken about the ego—how a man’s identity and self-worth develops over time; the various constructions of masculinity and manhood; and how all of these things can have an impact on relationships (and even sexual performance). There are also the conversations in barbershops, at family gatherings, and on social media about what it means to be a “man” and how “manhood” is supposed to manifest itself.
It’s all pretty subjective, but some interesting patterns have been discovered about the connection between ego and men’s feelings about their own worth. A recent study suggests men unconsciously experience lowered self-esteem when their female partners are successful, and I thought about how that might play out for people in romantic relationships with African-American men.
The primary finding of the study was that a female partner’s success is more likely to make a man feel worse than her failure does. This isn’t exactly a new idea, it just hasn’t been studied in this way before with this diverse a group.
In five different studies of about 900 women and men from the United States and the Netherlands (ranging from young, college-aged adults those in their late 20s, early 30s), participants were provided with information either about their partner’s extremely high achievement or extremely poor showing. They then had their self-esteem levels measured based on answers they provided to a series of questions that allowed men to self-report their feelings about themselves. To control for emotional variations, the participants reported feeling quite satisfied with their current relationships.
The study found that while men reported feeling starkly different when their female partners exceled versus when they failed, women showed little change in their own self-esteem. The study also showed that while men expressed happiness and support for their partners’ achievements, how they felt about themselves plummeted, suggesting that the impact on their ego and self-esteem is experienced unconsciously for many. This explains why, when asked questions about ego or when facing charges of having fragile egos, many men deny that they experience anything like this. Many are simply unconscious of the effects.
What does this mean for us? It’s been widely documented that African-American men experience disproportionate rates of unemployment and are outperformed by African-American women when it comes to college attendance and graduation. And while Black men are still likely to earn more than Black women (especially in middle and upper classes), there are still significant disparities in achievement between the sexes.
In New York City, for example, one in four young Black men (18-24) is unemployed, and nationwide, only 33% of Black men enrolled in college graduate compared to 44.8% of Black women. These statistics make for interesting relationship dynamics, particularly when male ego is so closely tied to achievement and success. Our society bases “manhood” on a man’s ability to provide for his woman and his family. And as Black men continue to strive towards achieving their own success, some may feel as if their manhood is being called into question when they’re unable to do so.
Psychologists have written about the impact of self-esteem on dating and sex, and found that lowered esteem hurts relationships and hinders sexual performance. Researchers suggested that men might show less interest in going on dates or may avoid communication if they feel their female partners are doing “better” than they are. Some men even experience erectile dysfunction.
It all comes down to not wanting to face rejection; the assumption is often that if a woman is so successful, she eventually won’t need to keep the man around. This isn’t true in most cases, but it’s very difficult for women to prove it, and many find themselves in painful relationships trying to show loyalty and support.
Desiree* says, “My ex-husband and I fought all of the time over money. He struggled with keeping a steady job, and whenever he wasn’t working, our relationship suffered. He just couldn’t accept me handling the bills.” I can relate, as I’ve dated men who became verbally or even physically abusive with me when money was the topic of discussion. I also found that while I was open to dating men who didn’t have college degrees or made less money, I hated seeing the look of defeat in men’s eyes when I had to pay for things more often. I’d want to be intimate and find that sometimes they weren’t “in the mood,” only to later discover they felt some kind of way about being unable to afford our date.
Gerald* says he “admit[s] that [he gets] jealous when [his] wife gets promotions or bonuses at work,” but he’s overall proud of her “because she worked her ass off to get to where she is” and reminds him of his hard-working mother. Men like Gerald work to find ways to move away from the ego stuff that can unnecessarily hinder enjoyment of their partners and relationships.
The findings of this and other studies are troubling for many reasons, but mostly because there seems to be little we can do to change how men process the success of female partners. Partners should encourage each other regardless, and no one partner should have to hold back from sharing achievements to protect the other’s ego; that’s unfair and unhealthy.
What might help is if we accept that for thousands of years, men and women have been socialized to believe that men are supposed to do better than women, and that this belief heavily informs our views on sex and relationships. From there, we can work on deconstructing some of the ways these constructs impact our lives. We’re working against societal norms that have barely shifted a few inches in the past couple of decades.
I discourage women from throwing their income and success in their partners’ faces in ways that humiliate or degrade them. But I encourage women to feel confident in their success, and seek partners with whom they feel comfortable sharing and with whom they’ll face little backlash just for being successful. I discourage men from taking their partners’ success as a detraction from their self-worth, and I encourage them to become comfortable with celebrating in their partners’ achievements. A win for one is a win for both. Rather than let ego get in the way, push it aside and focus on building a strong future together.
*Names have been changed to protect the guilty.
Feminista Jones is a sex-positive Black feminist, social worker and blogger from New York City. She writes about gender, race, politics, mental health and sexuality at FeministaJones.com. Follow her on Twitter at @FeministaJones.