You might think it’s bad enough for one narcissist to become involved in a romantic relationship, so what happens when two narcissists become attracted to each other? Can they ever really overcome their selfishness and egocentrism so that they can learn to love each other? Perhaps you know two people who both seem to be highly narcissistic, in your opinion. They each clamor for attention, not only from each other, but from the world at large. They constantly think they’re better than everyone else, and expect that as soon as they walk into a room, they’ll be greeted as heroes. You can hardly imagine the two of them together without stepping all over each other in their search for being number one.
Not all people high in narcissism are quite this grandiose and entitled. For some, that constant attention-seeking is a cover for deep-seated feelings of inadequacy. As difficult as it might be to imagine two of the more self-aggrandizing type of narcissists together, it may seem even more improbable that two deeply insecure, or vulnerable, narcissists would be able to form and then maintain a relationship. Each would constantly demand reassurance from the other, but neither would be able to provide it.
The theory of relationship attraction known as assortative mating proposes that like does attract like, and that similarity in basic qualities would lead people to bond with those they regard as most like them. Assortative mating works with regard to many of the obvious qualities of age and social class, and it’s also thought to account for the attraction that people with similar personalities have toward each other. When the personality traits are those that would seem antithetical to forming close and trusting bonds, as in the case of narcissism, would that same principle apply? To investigate this question, University of Rijeka (Croatia) psychologist Igor Kardum and colleagues (2017) recently examined whether assortative mating would apply to the so-called “dark triad” traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. These three qualities would all seem to be anathema to any kind of close relationship, much less mutual attraction between people having similarly dark personalities. However, the Croatian psychologist and his colleagues believed it possible for the “nonrandom coupling” (p. 75) implied by this principle to operate with the dark triad combination, just as it has for other personality traits with less ominous connotations.
For the Kardum et al. study, 100 young adult couples, all in heterosexual relationships, were recruited from the same Croatian town. They had been together from 6 months to 11 years, averaging 3.5 years, and ranged from 18 to 31 in age. The in-person questionnaires were completed at the university by both members of the couple. Dark triad traits were measured with standard assessment instruments, which were then standardized and summed to provide one overall measure, although analyses were conducted for the individual scales as well.
As is observed in other studies on assortative mating, members of the couples were very similar in age, but less so in education. Across all 3 dark triad scales, the correlations between male and female couple members were high and positive. Only one correlation for different traits within the dark triad was significant, and that was of Machiavellianism in women and psychopathy in men.
Rather than showing support for assortative pairing, these correlations between partners within couples could have supported an alternative model in which partners become more alike over time. The convergence hypothesis was tested by controlling length of relationship. Other controls were added, including similarities in age and education, and these, too, didn’t alter the basic like-attracts-like hypothesis.
These findings led the authors to conclude that "in mate selection, similarity in personality is clearly more important than complementarity, even when undesirable traits are concerned” (p. 80). Expanding beyond narcissism to these two other related, but independent traits that form the dark triad, this similarity effect becomes particularly impressive. This “Bonnie and Clyde” effect suggests that people who tend to be exploitative, antisocial, and impulsive seem to seek out and then cling to their soulmates, even if they most likely don’t find those soulmates all that trustworthy. It was interesting, further, that the more exploitative of the women (those high in Machiavellianism) were partnered with the more antisocial of the men.
Another possibility offered by the authors is that those high in the dark triad traits are the dating game’s leftovers. By the time everyone else has found partners who are trustworthy, honest, and willing to make sacrifices on behalf of their loved ones, the only people left are these less desirable long-term romantic partners. It’s also possible, though not suggested by the authors, that other partners of those high in dark triad traits became disenchanted with them as lovers, because of their tendency to abuse, twist, and scam.
The Croatian study doesn’t completely provide an answer to the original question of how narcissists fare when paired with other narcissists. When narcissism turns dark, it takes on a different character than when people are simply exploitative and grandiose. Nevertheless, narcissism on its own also showed the assortative mating pattern, as the correlation between partners on this trait alone was positive. In one final test, the scores between members of randomly generated couples did not correspond as highly as the scores between members of real couples across all dark triad traits, including narcissism. It’s important to point out that none of the correlations were close to one, but they did remain statistically significant, even after other controls were entered into the equation.
The upshot of the study is that it is not only possible for those high in narcissism to become and stay a couple, but that they do so. We tend to think of fulfilling long-term relationships as requiring a willingness to put the partner first, but for those unable to do so, this study’s findings show that there are partners for even the seemingly least lovable.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Kardum, I., Hudek-Knezevic, J., Schmitt, D. P., & Covic, M. (2017). Assortative mating for dark triad: Evidence of positive, initial, and active assortment. Personal Relationships, 24(1), 75-83. doi:10.1111/pere.12168