Ashlie Roberson, a successful U.S. New York City-based real estate salesperson, was once broken up with by a man who said he had hoped her career would someday become a hobby. One night, after Roberson stepped out during dinner to take an emergency work call, he told Roberson that she wasn’t the woman he initially thought she was — a sweet Southern girl who he could make a home, get married, and have kids with. “He said he didn’t think that this was what he was signing up for,” Roberson told Refinery29. “Basically, he said ‘You’re not the product I originally thought.’”
Like many other successful, career-driven women who date men, Roberson has had a rough time in the dating world. But her situation has become increasing common as women’s roles in society, and the obligations that come with those roles, continue to evolve. While many men will say they want to date smart, driven, and ambitious women, in practice this does not always seem to be the case. In fact, a surprising number of men struggle to date successful women whose accomplishments might call their own into question.
Earlier this month, a Twitter thread on this topic went viral. The Twitter user, who is a lawyer, shared how she left her fiancé after he told her: "Sometimes I wish you were just a teacher or a nurse because you wouldn’t think so much, it’s intimidating.” The tweet prompted thousands of responses from women who had experienced issues with their career successes negatively impacting their ability to connect romantically with men.
Roberson, too, has noticed that her career success has had a considerable impact on her dating life. When asked on her dates where she sees herself in the future, Roberson is candid about the amount of work required of her as the co-founder of a successful real estate team. And yet, inevitably, it seems that the men she dates seem threatened by her career drive. “I’ve received the line ‘you seem too busy for me’ or ‘I don’t really see our futures aligning,’” Roberson said. “And maybe that is true.”
Roberson said that men she’s dated have straight up told her that gestures she made that exhibited her financial success — such as offering to pay for dinner — felt like she was “stepping on their manhood.” And, since studies have demonstrated that successful women can make men feel emasculated or inferior, these reactions aren’t exactly surprising. However, though these experiences have been discouraging, Roberson also expressed some gratitude for men who show their true colours early on in a relationship: “I guess if that then means I’m stepping on his manhood now I’ll probably be stepping on his manhood for a very long time.”
For Kristen Lueck, an Editorial Communications Director, navigating the dating world has also been a challenge. “Things start to feel like small instances and then they happen more and you start to notice a trend,” Lueck told Refinery29, recalling one particular ex-boyfriend who monitored how much she made and spent in a way that felt competitive. “If I moved to a new apartment he would ask me what my rent was and say how fancy it was. There’s a point when success can be threatening to people and [make them feel] like they’re not on the same level, which gets back to some deeply rooted insecurities.”
And while these insecurities can certainly be unpleasant and present challenges to successful romantic relationships, they can also veer into emotionally harmful territory. Erica Scott, an Operations Manager, still remembers the backlash she received on the day she closed on her first property. Scott asked her boyfriend at the time — who still lived at home — to come and support her on closing day, but he wasn’t able to show up for her emotionally. “He didn’t speak to me. He didn’t say congratulations, he just ignored me,” Scott told Refinery29. “He pretty much ruined the entire day.”
Scott feels that most of the men she has dated feel insecure about her successes as a property manager. Because of this, they often try to undermine other aspects of her life and make her feel like she’s not enough. "I actually cried about it all day yesterday,” Scott said. “It sucks because I feel like I’m going to end up one of those people who are successful monetarily but, with my love life, I feel like I just want to give up.”
The prevalence of dating challenges for successful, heterosexual women are well-documented. Earlier this year, writer Jenna Birch published a book called The Love Gap, which explored this topic in depth. Birch spoke to roughly 100 women and men about why finding fulfilling relationships can be so hard. In her research, Birch found that men's stubborn pressure to be providers are to blame. Further, she found that no matter how much men say they want a partner who is an equal, in reality successful women make them feel emasculated.
"At its worst, successful women often experience competition or resentment in their dating relationships, which is never healthy," Jenna Birch, author of The Love Gap and CEO of Plum, a new dating app aimed at creating better connections, told Refinery29. "We're seeing a huge influx of women outpacing their male peers in higher education, entering the workplace primed to advance faster than the guys they might date. And we're seeing a lot of successful women emerge, and more doors are opening as of the past several decades." These shifts, Birch notes, can often breed unhealthy competition and resentment in dating relationships.
While Roberson suspected that men's behavior could stem from their "primal instincts" to provide, feminist sex and dating coach Myisha Battle believes it has more to do with men's socialization. “Men are socialized to believe that if they aren’t good providers then they aren’t good partners. We don’t empower men to be in non-provider roles and we have a hard time accepting a woman who doesn’t need financial support,” Battle said, adding that she believes things are changing. “I have hope that some balance can be struck if people are capable of living outside of their expected gender roles.”
Battle often works with women dealing with similar dating challenges, on top of having her own personal experience as an "intimidating woman." Battle says her biggest recommendation is for career-driven women is to get clear about the type of experience they want in their dating lives and to clearly ask for it. Though Battle admits this seems obvious, she finds that a lot of women have trouble asking for what they want for fear of seeming too intimidating or demanding. “Your truth can filter out people who will be intimidated by a badass lady,” Battle added.
These dynamics are most commonly discussed in heterosexual relationships, but unhealthy competition can certainly emerge in any partnership, queer or straight. "Depending on how each person was raised and what gender messages have been internalized, same sex couples can also experience feelings of competition when it comes to who's the breadwinner," Battle said, noting that same sex couples are more likely to have better balance in relationships as looser gender expectations make space for greater flexibility.
Though it may seem obvious, women’s best bet is to get real and comfortable with stepping into their power. While it may be easier to do now than it was in the past, moving past stubborn gender roles in romantic settings can be surprisingly challenging. But, as Battle said, setting a clear intention and sticking to it is the best route. And, it seems, the women I spoke with have begun to learn this lesson on their own.
“I’m looking for somebody who supports my dreams and the things I want to do and brings positivity into my life while I do the same for them,” Scott said, though she is currently taking a break from the dating world. “I am waiting for the right man to lift me up, while I lift them up.”