New research suggests why your partner might not always be there to support you.
You’ve just received the news that you’re being considered for a promotion, and the chances are good that it will go through. Your partner is out of work, however, despite having pounded the virtual pavement for any and all possible positions during the past difficult few months. Rather than let your partner know about this potential improvement in your own job situation, you keep it to yourself.
Why wouldn’t you share your happiness with your partner? Shouldn’t your partner want what’s best for you? Unfortunately, past experience teaches you that this isn’t the way things go in your relationship. Your partner easily becomes envious and has even gone so far as to spoil things so you can’t enjoy your past successes. For example, at the wedding of your best friend, your partner became enraged when your toast to the happy couple didn’t make any mention of your partner. Everyone else found the speech to be the right combination of funny and poignant. However, instead of being able to take pride in your contribution to the celebration, you ended up being distracted and annoyed by your partner’s having made you feel so terrible. Or, is it possible that you actually were in the wrong?
According to a new study by the University of Chicago’s Annabelle Roberts and colleagues (2020), close relationships are indeed marked by the ability of partners to share in, and enjoy, each other’s successes. Ordinarily, people have a strong desire to receive recognition for their competence. They don’t worry that their partners will feel envious or that their partners will do something to undermine the boost to their self-confidence that comes from a victory.
As Roberts et al. note, if you feel your partner doesn’t want what’s best for you, this is a signal that there’s a fundamental problem in your relationship. Luckily, there may be a simple way to test this before you jump to the conclusion that your partner is trying to undermine you. Across a series of studies, the University of Chicago research team set up experimental scenarios in which they asked participants to rate how they would feel if their partners hid success stories from them. Is it possible that you’ve misjudged your partner? Rather than feeling better when you keep quiet about good news, might your partner feel miffed?
Of the seven studies conducted by the authors, one comes closest to the equivalent of hiding good news from someone to whom you are close. An online sample of 403 adults (53 percent female, average age 36 years old) responded to one of two scenarios in which the participant’s “brother” receives a significant pay raise but the participant does not. They supposedly learned this news from their “mother.” However, the scenario went on to pose the situation in which the participants speak later in the day to their brother who either shares or hides his own good news. Surprisingly, rather than feeling better when their brothers kept quiet about their good news, participants reported feeling worse.
Now imagine yourself in this scenario with your own partner. You get a call from an in-law who informs you of the happy news that your partner finally got that long-awaited job offer. In fact, the job is a couple of notches higher up on the prestige and salary scale than yours. However, several days goes by before your partner shares this information with you. Based on the research from the University of Chicago, by hiding good news from you, especially if you were aware of it already, you react with dismay and disappointment. On top of that, based on further analyses in this study, you’d feel more emotionally distant, and maybe even a little insulted. Does your partner not have faith in you that you’d welcome this great news? Based on the premise that partners should want the best for each other, hiding the job offer would suggest that something is wrong with your relationship.
Roberts and her fellow researchers believe that part of the reason for the negative result of failure to disclose good news is that, by supposedly “protecting” you from whatever envy you might feel, your partner is driven by a form of what the authors call a “paternalistic” motive. In the words of the authors, “the target [you] may believe the communicator [your partner] assumes the target will be threatened by their success and is attempting to protect the target’s feelings” (p. 10). Perhaps, as in the often-quoted line from A Few Good Men, your partner believes “You can’t handle the truth!”
The other factor that could lead to an erosion of your relationship after a partner hides good news is a deterioration of a sense of mutual trust. In the next study, Roberts and her colleagues asked 106 participants at a large academic management conference, along with eight who worked on Google’s job market spreadsheet, to respond to a scenario in which they learn that a friend who’s applying for the same jobs as they are actually landed a position. Then, as in the previous study, the friend either shared or didn’t share the news.
Participants in this academic job market scenario rated the extent to which the friend was operating according to those paternalistic motives, such as thinking they couldn’t, in fact, “handle the truth,” or perhaps felt that the friend was being condescending. They also rated whether they felt they could now trust this friend (“I would feel comfortable relying on this person for support when I need it”). The factor of paternalistic motive indeed proved to be important, leading participants to feel insulted by the friend’s so-called protective behavior. Additionally, in terms of relationship quality, participants also felt that they couldn’t trust the friend to the same extent as before.
Subsequent studies in the series confirmed these initial findings adding the wrinkle that the closer you are to the person who hides the success, the greater the negative impact. Again, you expect someone close to you to feel that you will show genuine happiness at his or her good fortune. There should be no need to “protect” you from the truth, even if that truth would potentially put you in a more negative light by comparison. In fact, as the authors conclude, you can feel both envious and close to someone at the same time as long as the envy isn’t of the malicious variety.
Returning now to the question of whether your partner truly wants the best for you, yes, it is possible that your partner actually does feel threatened by your success, even to the point of wanting to thwart your future happiness. If so, then this is a good time to sit down and talk about where these feelings come from. However, you might also want to consider your own role in creating cracks in your relationship.
Have you inadvertently flaunted your own success when your partner was down? Or has your partner felt shut out when you didn’t share some other past success? When you gave that wedding toast, were you indeed being disrespectful of your partner’s feelings? The Roberts et al. findings suggest that examining the issue of success in the context of a close relationship seems to be an important step toward building, or rebuilding, feelings of trust.
To sum up, it’s reasonable to expect that partners even in the closest relationships should want to the best for each other, as well as for the collective good of the couple. If you can find ways to “handle” each other’s “truths,” there’s no reason that success has to stand in the way of your relationship’s fulfillment.
Roberts, A. R., Levine, E. E., & Sezer, O. (2020). Hiding success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. doi:10.1037/pspi0000322.supp (Supplemental)