Are you really happy for me? UWS explores our emotional responses when a romantic partner succeeds

Couples are competitive when it comes to holding the remote control, however, when it comes to life outside of the lounge room, research from the University of Western Sydney suggests people may prefer to be outperformed by their partner.

Dr Rebecca Pinkus, from the UWS School of Social Sciences and Psychology, has conducted three separate studies to explore people’s feelings about making comparisons with their significant other and potentially being the least accomplished of the pairing.

The studies required individuals in relationships to remember scenarios in which their partner had excelled in either a personal or professional domain.

“This included everyday scenarios where the skills of one person within the relationship could exceed the other, such as making new friends at a party or earning a pay rise at work,” says Dr Pinkus.

“The results indicated that, overall, the participants’ emotional responses were more functional and positive when their romantic partner’s performance was superior to their own.”

In romantic relationships, Dr Pinkus says individuals often take on their partner’s perspectives and consider their fates as shared.

“In situations where their partner was more successful, the majority of participants reported feeling pleased and looked forward to enjoying the mutual benefits of the success,” says Dr Pinkus.

“In contrast, when they were the one succeeding, the majority of participants felt worried that their spouse would feel bad and considered ways that they could help their spouse improve in future.”

Dr Pinkus’ findings are consistent with a growing body of international research evidence which shows that people experience more positive moods following upward comparisons, where their partner is more successful, compared with downward comparisons where they are the high achiever.

Dr Pinkus says these findings are useful in understanding the dynamics of human relationships and the capacity for people to put the needs of others before their own.

“People in romantic relationships are able to feel proud and happy when their partner achieves success that rivals their own, because they are so closely connected to the person that they feel boosted by association,” says Dr Pinkus.

“This type of response is very constructive, because it shields individuals from the potentially negative response of feeling that they are inferior to their significant other – which may have a detrimental effect upon the relationship.”


19 March 2012

Contact: Danielle Roddick, Senior Media Officer