I came across an article today that summarized a study stating that men feel worse about themselves when their female partners are more successful. I’ve long suspected this was the case but never had any evidence, other than anecdotal, to validate this suspicion.
During my college years, many of my girlfriends at school insisted that they would never date a man who hadn’t gone to college. They justified their position by assuming the men were “not ambitious enough,” “not smart enough,” or simply weren’t compatible based on what these women perceived as the life goals, or lack thereof, of these men. No one listed as a reason that she may intimidate the man. My opinion was a little different. I grew up in a small, working-class town outside of Detroit. My family is made up of a mixture of white collar, blue collar and, quite frankly, a few “no collar” workers. Part of my family graduated from college, part didn’t. Because of the diversity in the educational and professional backgrounds of my family and my community, I had absolutely no qualms about dating someone who hadn’t gone to college. Maybe it’s because of where I’m from that I understood that college isn’t for everyone, nor is it accessible to everyone. And because of the people I knew, I also understood that a college degree was a poor indicator of a person’s character, ambition or intellect.
My first relationship after college was with a man who had taken some college courses, but had never earned a degree. He was an ambitious, young, middle manager in Corporate America. In addition to being ambitious, he was smart and charismatic. He was one of those guys who would have been successful no matter what. I didn’t see his lack of a college degree as an issue. Early in the relationship, he shared with me that he’d applied to the University of Michigan and was rejected. At the time he shared this information, I didn’t think much of it. I certainly didn’t expect it to impact our relationship. It wasn’t until later that I realized that he was resentful of the fact that not only did I have a college degree and he didn’t, but I’d earned my degree from the college that had rejected him.
His resentment manifested itself in his need to always be right. I thought he suffered from “Smartest Kid in the Class Syndrome.” This is when someone has to have all of the answers. He can’t be wrong, ever, and will grasp at straws and search and search for some minor detail that will render his argument, technically, correct. It was annoying. And it didn’t help that I refused to let him think he was right when I knew he was wrong. I simply wasn’t willing to allow him to ‘state facts’ or ‘school me’ when I knew that he was flat out wrong. The thought of playing dumb to stroke his ego turned my stomach. To him it probably seemed as if I was always trying to show him up. That wasn’t the case, but perception becomes reality.
We eventually broke up (for other reasons) but the relationship made me question my position on dating men who didn’t have a degree. I still believed that it wasn’t an indictment of one’s character to skip college. However, I was starting to think that maybe, just maybe, men without degrees couldn’t handle dating women who had degrees. It made me wonder if men needed to feel like they were smarter than their partners. I understood that men needed to be the dragon slayers. I just didn’t realize they had to slay all of the dragons. Over the years, I’ve seen similar relationship challenges. When the woman makes more money, has a more prestigious title, is more educated, the man in the relationship often seems to be a bit resentful of, or intimidated by, her success and tries to find ways to downplay it. I will admit that I know more than one woman who makes more money than her partner and treats him as a subordinate as a result. I’m not sure if she does it consciously or not. I also don’t know if he’s conscious of her behavior or his resentment of it. What I do know is that relationships are difficult enough without having to deal with one party’s insecurity. I would never recommend that a woman avoid a potential partner who makes less money or has less formal education. I would, however, tell her to go into the relationship aware of the potential pitfall. I would also tell her to be aware of her own actions and how her partner could perceive them. In many ways a degree is just a piece of paper. However, it can look like the Great Wall of China when it becomes a barrier in a relationship.