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He could achieve this, she says, by taking pride in his partner’s abilities and being happy for her successes—an attitude known as the “empathy response.” He could think of their skills as complementary: “She excels in domain A, whereas I excel in domain B.” Or he could focus on how his partner’s intelligence might benefit him or their life together in a variety of ways, like a better job that boosts them financially.
The bottom line, Pinkus stressed, is the perception of a shared fate, an overlapping of identities, a sense of “we.” But how does a brainy woman get from “me” to “we”?
He might fear that a woman who outperforms him is out of his league, or that she’ll leave him for a sharper go-getter.
If a man reacts negatively to the perceived superiority of a woman, he’s probably unaware of it.
For those who were close to their lovers, the news of that person’s superior test results appeared to actually activate feelings of connectedness and an affirmation of the relationship’s value. “The more the male partner can focus his thoughts on the ‘team’ aspect of the relationship, the better he copes,” says Rebecca Pinkus, a psychologist at Western Sydney University who researches strategies that couples use to overcome divisive comparison.
It’s when men have the sense of being outperformed, she says, that “things get tricky in real life.” The finding jibes with previous research, including a Columbia University speed-dating experiment in which single guys valued female smarts—but only up to a point.
If a woman they met seemed smarter or more ambitious than they believed themselves to be, they dialed down their romantic interest.
If such a pair actually go out, the man’s mindset isn’t guaranteed to be very different.
Kate Ratliff, a psychologist at the University of Florida, led a recent study in which men in a dating relationship were asked to reflect on a time when their partner was successful in an intellectual or academic domain.