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Why Narcissists Collect Relationship Trophies

Narcissists collect trophies from their exes, not romantic keepsakes.

Key points

  • People keep memorabilia from failed relationships for many reasons, ranging from simple nostalgia to a broken heart.
  • Narcissists tend to hold onto objects that remind them of their exes as "trophies" — a way to brag about the relationship to others.
  • A narcissist will often keep souvenirs from an old relationship because they have objectified their ex.

A couple of decades ago, scrapbooking was all the rage. People would painstakingly curate photographs, compose witty or emotion-packed captions, and then artfully arrange the photo and appropriate stickers, cut-outs, and decorations on the page of a scrapbook as a way of marking the importance or the meaning of the person or event captured in the photo. Before “scrapbooking” became a major pastime that involved time, money, and creative effort, people were collecting matchbooks, nightclub napkins, ticket stubs, or flowers that dried to a crumble but were received at a special event or received from a special someone.

This desire to keep “souvenirs” of important events in life is definitely a normal human trait. However, the reasons behind the souvenir collecting can be very different for those who are narcissists compared to those who are not.

There are two major categories of narcissists. Grandiose narcissists feed on praise and have remarkably high levels of self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-promotion. They basically believe all the overweening praise that they encourage others to offer up to them. They cannot see their faults, and even if one cracked the surface, they have the self-preservation skills to cover up the crack and never acknowledge a weakness.

There are also vulnerable narcissists who lack the sense of self-confidence and agency that grandiose narcissists carry. In fact, the self-esteem of a vulnerable narcissist is already pretty shaky and while they build up grand expectations of what they can accomplish or have outsized expectations about entitlement and what others owe to them, they have a hard time managing their reactions and responses when reality crashes down on their false beliefs.

Narcissists crave partners who reflect their imagined glory as well as believe all the fantasies that narcissists believe about themselves. Relationships end, though, and how they handle the remains of a relationship are a bit different than the average person.

Souvenirs of Failed Relationships

What do you do with the photos, gifts, and memorabilia of your failed romantic relationships? Do you rip up the photos of your ex? Do you cut your ex out of photos of the two of you? Did you create a “burn pile” for all the mementos, love letters, or funny cards you received during your time together? Or do you hang onto everything — the framed photos on your mantle, the gifts your ex gifted you with, the cards or Post-it notes that they left for you on the fridge?

Who, What, When, Where, and Why Did the Relationship End?

For many of us, the answers to the questions above really determine how we decide to deal with the “detritus” of the relationship. If it were an amicable end, we may hang on to some of the photos or gifts we had received — these souvenirs become keepsakes that carry meaning and positive memories. If a relationship ended abruptly in a storm of drama or a broken heart, we may be very willing to place everything the ex left behind in a “box to the left, to the left, to the left.” Some of us may ditch everything post-break-up, but some of us may hold onto something that was super special, meaningful, or that we just liked — the borrowed sweater that we “forget” to return, the baseball cap that we thought looked better on you than your ex, or maybe something that your ex valued but that you kept out of spite. A CD, a book — it could be any of a million different things depending on the couple.

Narcissists Don’t “Remember Fondly,” They “Display Trophies”

Memory Captures and Nostalgia Generators: Among the most commonplace reasons for holding on to keepsakes of past relationships is simply using the object as a reminder of the happy moments spent with the ex. Skiing together last winter, the amazing trip to the tropics, the double college graduation and the party that followed, the walks in the forest preserves and the leaves and stones you picked up along the way. Seeing these items may bring back positive feelings about the parts of your life that you shared with someone you once cared deeply about. This may also offer evidence that you are able to value that aspect of the relationship in itself and your ability to accept that loss and joy can be intermingled in life.

Partner Stand-Ins: If you are holding on to that soft sweater that your ex left behind and cuddling up in it when you are feeling down, this reflects the use of the “relationship souvenir” as something of a substitute for your ex. Or if you are yelling at a photo of your ex because you are still not ready to let go of the anger or the hurt you felt at the break-up, that photo is serving as a stand-in for your ex.

Some narcissists might actually hold onto keepsakes for this reason. As narcissists objectify other people, partners, children, family members, and so on, it is not unlikely to find a narcissist holding on desperately to a keepsake from a failed relationship to use it as a target for disapprobation and vitriol when the narcissist is longing for the companionship the ex once provided. Depriving the narcissist of the attention they crave for survival of their ego is one of the deepest wounds an ex can visit upon a narcissist.

Trophy Display: This is where the narcissist really shines in their ability to use their exes for continued self-enhancement and self-aggrandizement. They will hold onto objects from their relationships with high status partners as a means of proving their self-worth, attractiveness, power, and sexual prowess. They seek out high status partners, in terms of position, physical appearance, role, and so on, and when these relationships naturally come to an end, as narcissists are unable to successfully maintain long-term relationships for any great length of time, they will display their relationship keepsakes as a big game hunter displays his trophies from hunts. It is the same level of objectification of a partner just as a big game hunter objectifies their quarry.

Vulnerable or Grandiose: Trophy Hunting Happens Across the Board

When a narcissist experiences a failed relationship, their ego takes a blow that can be temporarily debilitating. Not only does a break-up leave narcissists stranded and alone, it is more likely to leave a narcissist with a broken ego rather than a broken heart. Holding on to any keepsake from the failed relationship is a way of maintaining possession of the ex, further objectifying the ex, and providing a trophy of their prior conquests. It is seldom a “romantic nature” that leads a narcissist to display romantic keepsakes, but a “cold heart and tender ego.”

When a new romantic interest brags about their success in prior relationships or the status and superiority of prior lovers, that is a cue that you are just one more creature of prey in their crosshairs. And, after the likely inevitable break-up, you will be merely one more notch on their belt to proudly display to the next target they have in their sights.

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References

Aleksandra Niemyjska, Róża Bazińska, Krystyna Drat-Ruszczak. Hunting lovers: Narcissists keep trophies from their past relationships, Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 163, 2020, 110060, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110060.

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