More Successful Than Your Significant Other? Here's How to Cope

Clinically Reviewed by Steven Melendy, PsyD. on April 11, 2016

Most of us strive to be the best person we can possibly be, especially when it comes to our career. But if you are more successful than your partner, you can probably expect there to be some tension in your relationship. Even if you are not competing in the same challenge or line of work, living with your success, day after day, can eat away at your partner's self-esteem.

The problem appears to be worse for men. A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that men feel deeply uncomfortable when their romantic partners do better in a joint endeavor. According to the authors, "a man might feel threatened if his girlfriend outperforms him in something they're doing together, such as trying to lose weight."

Even when the partners are not in direct competition, a man's self-esteem tends to drop when his romantic partner is perceived to be more successful than he is. The researchers call this the "zero-sum game hypothesis." It occurs when one partner compares themselves unfavorably with the other partner, with disastrous consequences for their confidence.

If your partner has the nagging feeling that they are falling short of your success, it's important to address the source of tension. Here's how to stay in tune with your partner so you can both benefit from your achievements.

Open the Lines of Communication

A woman's self-esteem is closely linked to her feelings of adequacy in relationships. Statistically, she is less likely to feel threatened by direct competition but more likely to feel inadequate if she does not receive expressions of appreciation for her efforts.

Men, by contrast, are more invested in competition. They prefer to be recognized for their relative performance - their performance compared to other people - than the contribution they make on specific tasks. But, every person is different and your partner may not fit the stereotype.

The first step, then, is to consider things from your partner's point of view. How do they feel about your success? Is jealousy a factor? If so, why? Are you unwittingly lauding your success over your partner? Most of the time, when tension sets in, an honest conversation is enough to show you where the pressure points lie. Avoid being defensive when you talk about achievements and remember it's not a battle about which one of you is more accomplished. If you want to work this out, then both of you should be ready to listen without judgment and respect what the other person has to say.

Become your Partner's Biggest Cheerleader

The key to helping your partner accept your success is by making them feel secure about what they do. When your partner has faith in their own talents and contributions, they are less likely to resent your achievements.

One way to do this is by becoming your partner's biggest fan. Everyone needs to be admired and appreciated, but taking the time to champion your mate often falls behind other critical tasks such as looking after children. Why not make a special effort to encourage your significant other and treat them as the special person they are? Your feelings for each other can only grow stronger when you offer a good level of support. Plus, it will help your dearest to extend the same courtesy to you.

Figure Out the Finances

Money should not be the root of all evil, but if you have disparate incomes, it can be. Arguing about money is the top predictor of divorce, research shows, so make sure you have the difficult conversations up front.

How you split the cash is entirely up to you and different couples will handle the finances in different ways. The key is to arrange the money in a way that allows both partners to have independence and a fair share of financial responsibility, regardless of their career success. Finance guru Suze Orman has some good advice around the subject, so do your homework and find a solution that works for you both. Oh, and keep the money out of chore talk. It doesn't matter who earns the most or who has the most impressive job title. If you are both working or looking after children, then it is likely that neither one of you has more free time than the other.

Keep an Eye On the Power Dynamic

All relationships have a power dynamic, and it's usually evident who holds the reins. If you are more successful than your partner in a way that impacts the relationship, it is easy for you to assume that you should have the upper hand. For example, if you earn more than your partner, you might fall into a pattern of holding the purse strings and making all the financial decisions. Humans are embarrassingly simple in the way that we associate power and success.

Unless you are both comfortable with the power imbalance, it pays to make sure that the scales are even. Take regular health checks so you know when you are pushing boundaries or being out of line. Make sure you are giving your significant other the space and support they need to grow, rather than simply maintaining the status quo. Just because you are unequal in some areas of your life does not stop you from being equal partners in your relationship.

What are some other ways to handle being more successful than your partner? Comment below!

Jayne Thompson

Jayne is a B2B tech copywriter and the editorial director here at Truity. When she’s not writing to a deadline, she’s geeking out about personality psychology and conspiracy theories. Jayne is a true ambivert, barely an INTJ, and an Enneagram One. She lives with her husband and daughters in the UK. Find Jayne at White Rose Copywriting.

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About the Clinical Reviewer

Steven Melendy, PsyD., is a Clinical Psychologist who received his doctorate from The Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. He specializes in using evidence-based approaches in his work with individuals and groups. Steve has worked with diverse populations and in variety of a settings, from community clinics to SF General Hospital. He believes strongly in the importance of self-care, good friendships, and humor whenever possible.


ameliaruby says...

I can see this as being mostly helpful. The only thing I didn't agree with is when you said that woman are less competitive in a relationship. I think woman and men can both be extremely competitive, or not competitive at all. I've also noticed, that men arent as good as hiding how hurt they are when they lose. Woman often say "Oh well," or "maybe next time" when they often have a plan in mind on how to win next time. This is not all woman!!!!!!!! As a woman, I'm just saying that me and many of the other woman I know do the same.

janyaadi says...

The study is using general findings. But I do agree with you that both can be competitive. I believe that it's the self-fulfilling prophecy- women are encouraged to be less competitive and more feminine over things like sports, arguments, and work. Dual standards are probably what led to this.

But without adequate evidence you can't claim that women and men are equally competitive. I congratulate you with surrounding yourself with competitive and strong women, but it's too small a sample size to be conclusive.

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