(This column was coauthored with W. Keith Campbell.)
A recent blog post by Anne Ishikawa asked "Can celebrity relationships really survive?"
She listed several factors that weaken celebrity marriages, such as publicity and temptation. These are good insights. But psychology has another to contribute: narcissism.
Narcissism is a personality trait that involves regarding yourself as a superior being. It brings with it a sense of entitlement ("I deserve the best"), a tendency to put self first and disregard the needs and wants of others, and an overabundance of self-esteem.
Celebrities have high levels of the trait of narcissism. Researchers Mark Young and Drew Pinsky conducted a remarkable study in which they gave the narcissistic personality inventory to 200 celebrities who appeared on Dr. Pinsky's radio program.
They found that celebrities had higher narcissism scores than the average population. This was especially true for female celebrities and reality TV stars. These researchers did not find that narcissism was related to how long someone had been a celebrity, which might suggest that narcissistic individuals are drawn to the celebrity lifestyle (rather than the celebrity lifestyle gradually turning celebrities into narcissists). Other experts, however, have argued that celebrity status also increases narcissism. Psychiatrist Robert Millman, for example, has used the label acquired situational narcissism to describe an inflated sense of entitlement and superiority that comes from being a celebrity. Very possibly the causal arrow points both ways: Narcissists strive to become celebrities, and the lifestyle increases their narcissism. Whatever the case, the data point to high levels of narcissism in celebrities.
So, assuming celebrities have higher levels of narcissism, what does that mean for their romantic relationships? In general, narcissism is good for starting relationships. Narcissistic individuals can be charming, exciting and socially confident.
But narcissism is not so good for making relationships work in the long term. We know from a large body of research that narcissism leads to a range of problems in relationships, including infidelity, game-playing, materialism, overcontrol, dishonesty, conflict and even aggression (see the book When You Love a Man Who Loves Himself for an in-depth treatment of this issue.
A particular problem for narcissists is that they tend always to be looking to upgrade their partners. To a narcissist, a relationship is a way of glorifying the self. They may like to show off their partners, but if a new partner becomes available, especially an even more glamorous one, narcissists are tempted to go after the new one. Plus, to a narcissist, more is generally better, so new partners (even if they aren't necessarily better than the current partner) offer yet another stroke to the ego and another sign of how wonderful they are.
What makes the trait of narcissism even more potentially damaging for celebrity relationships is that celebrities are constantly surrounded by available partners. Celebrities are, on average, more attractive, higher in status, more wealthy, and lead more exciting lives than the average person - people are lining up to become romantic involved with them. Basically, being a celebrity leaves you in a sea of temptation, and, if you happen to be of a more narcissistic type, you have a high probability of hooking up with someone other than your actual partner.
Being a celebrity goes with thinking you are a superior being. When two such big egos fall in love with each other, it may be great at first, because they congratulate themselves and each other on such a star-studded match. But as weeks turn into years and maintaining a relationship starts to require accommodation, compromise, and occasional self-sacrifice, narcissists start to see other options as more appealing.