It’s good to have a strong, positive sense of self. But what happens when a person’s self-perception is an inflated, exaggerated version of reality? Hello, narcissism!
Narcissism encapsulates a love for admiration, a grandiose sense of self-worth, and a tendency to be critical, unempathetic, and manipulative. These latter characteristics would seem especially unappealing partner traits, so why would anyone begin a relationship with a highly narcissistic person?
During courtship, individuals high in narcissism are incredibly attractive. They are enchanting in their self-confidence, alluring in their ability to work a situation to their advantage. They’ll charm you with a charismatic magnetism that is hard to resist.
But be warned: The initial pleasure often wears off over time. Research into narcissists’ typical behaviors and motives in romantic relationship may explain why it can be terribly difficult to maintain relationships with them:
- They have trouble with commitment. Your narcissistic partner might be dating you, but at the same time be on the look out for a different, potentially more attractive partner. Research shows that the inverse relation between narcissism and commitment can be explained by narcissists’ interest in alternative partners (Campbell & Foster, 2002). In other words, narcissists’ tendency to avoid committing to their partners is promoted by a habit of checking out other men or women who could be preferable partners.
- They value being admired over emotional connection. Attempts to connect emotionally with narcissistic individuals can be unappealing to them. Evidence suggests that narcissists have an aversion to the caring and dependency that mark a close partnership, preferring instead partners who are highly positive and likely to provide self-enhancing admiration (Campbell, 1999).
- They are more aggressive. How couples manage conflict can influence the quality of their interactions. According to recent research (Keller et al., 2014), more narcissistic individuals tend to engage in more aggression, which can take many forms (verbal, physical, unprovoked, provoked, stonewalling). These patterns make it difficult to engage in accommodation and other healthy forms of conflict resolution.
- They are more open to cheating. When in a serious, monogamous relationship, narcissistic individuals are more willing to risk an extra-dyadic encounter, such as a one-night stand or "booty call" (Adams, Luevano, & Jonason, 2014). Further, the greater an individual's narcissism, the greater the willingness to tolerate a chance of discovery by their partner in order to participate in these affairs. This finding corresponds with the tendency to resist commitment (Campbell & Foster, 2002).
- They play games. When it comes to love, the greater the individual's narcissism, the less likely they are to selflessly care about a partner’s well-being and the more likely they are to reject "dependence" in favor of power and freedom (Campbell, Foster, & Finkel, 2002). Game playing, or ludos, is their preferred love style. They are more apt to lie, manipulate, and overcontrol their partners. They flirt with others and hide their real personality (Campbell et al., 2002), making it difficult to form a trusting partnership.
Where does this leave us? Narcissists make for difficult partners because they don’t usually want what being in a relationship is all about—intimacy, emotional connection, trust, and deep regard for another person. By becoming aware of such individuals’ typical relationship patterns, we can become better equipped to identify if we’re in a relationship with one; more prepared for the possible consequences of being in such a relationship; and better able to advocate for ourselves in any such relationship.
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Adams, H. A., Luevano, V. X. & Jonason, P. K. (2014). Risky business: Willingness to be caught in an extra-pair relationship, relationship experience, and the Dark Triad. Personality and Individual Differences, 66, 204-207.
Campbell, W. K. (1999). Narcissism and romantic attraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1254-1270.
Campbell, W. K., & Foster, C. A. (2002). Narcissism and commitment in romantic relationships: An investment model analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 484-495.
Campbell, W. K., Foster, C. A., & Finkel, E. J. (2002). Does self-love lead to love for others?: A story of narcissistic game playing. Journal of personality and social psychology, 83(2), 340-354.
Keller, P. S., Blicoe, S., Gilbert, L. R., DeWall, C. N., Haak, E. A., & Widiger, T. (2014). Narcissism in romantic relationships: A dyadic perspective. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 33, 25-50.