What Partners Would Make Narcissists Happy?

Is it someone who makes them feel good, or someone who makes them look good?

Posted Nov 20, 2015

Maksym Poriechkin/Shutterstock
Source: Maksym Poriechkin/Shutterstock

Recently, I wrote about a study finding that people were more satisfied with romantic partners and relationships that met their intrinsic, rather than extrinsic ideals.

Intrinsic qualities are those that promote connection with others and personal growth, while extrinsic qualities have more to do with how others see you. In evaluating partners, the study considered traits involving warmth and loyalty intrinsic, while traits involving attractiveness, status, and vitality were extrinsic. That study showed that having a partner who meets your ideal standards for intrinsic qualities was associated with greater relationship satisfaction, whereas extrinsic qualities like physical attractiveness, status, and an exciting personality mattered much less, especially if the partner met your intrinsic ideals.1

After reading about that research, I wondered if the same results would apply to narcissists (for more on narcissists, see this review by Keith Campbell). Narcissists tend to have different values in terms of what they seek in a mate. Compared to non-narcissists, they attach more importance to the physical attractiveness and status of potential mates than to whether or not that partner is warm and caring.2 But are narcissists really happier when they find that trophy partner? Theories on narcissism would suggest that the answer is likely to be yes.

According to the Agency Model of narcissism, narcissists work very hard to maintain their inflated self-views, and many aspects of their lives and their daily behavior are in service of that goal.3,4Romantic relationships thus represent one arena in which they can pad their egos. Associating with people who are high-status can make narcissists feel more important. This explains why they value looks and status in a partner: Such qualities will impress others. In addition, if the goal of their relationships is to foster self-enhancement, then they should be happier with relationships that help them achieve that goal. While others are likely to use their relationships primarily to fulfill their need for connection, narcissists use relationships to fulfill their need for self-enhancement.

In a study just published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, I tested this hypothesis by surveying 206 adults, primarily college students, 143 of whom were currently involved in a romantic relationship.5 All participants completed the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI).6 [Note: The NPI is used to measure narcissistic tendencies in the general population. Classifying as highly narcissistic on the NPI does not necessarily mean that you have narcissistic personality disorder, which is fairly uncommon.] Participants also rated their ideal relationship partner on a series of traits, some of which were intrinsic (kind, honest, committed) and some extrinsic (physically attractive, successful, exciting). In addition, the 143 coupled participants rated their current partner on the same list of traits and completed a measure of relationship satisfaction.

First, I confirmed past research showing that narcissists attach more value to extrinsic than intrinsic traits. Narcissism did significantly correlate with higher ideal-partner ratings on extrinsic, but not intrinsic, traits.

For the rest of my analyses, I focused only on the 143 coupled participants. I found that while everyone was more satisfied with a relationship when it met intrinsic ideals, this was especially true for non-narcissists. In addition, for those low in narcissism, having a partner who met extrinsic ideals wasn’t associated with relationship satisfaction. But this was not the case for narcissists—they were significantly more satisfied with partners who met their ideals for attractiveness, status, and vitality. This shows that not only do narcissists value “trophy” traits in a partner, but they are happier with their relationships when they obtain those traits.

These findings may have implications for narcissists’ partners. Other research has shown that partners of narcissists typically show especially steep declines in relationship satisfaction.7 Perhaps narcissists push their partners to change their extrinsic traits, which may be especially maladaptive for them. Other research has shown that people tend to be happier with their lives when they pursue intrinsic rather than extrinsic goals.8 Therefore, pressure to pursue extrinsic goals, like having an appealing appearance and being financially successful, may contribute to the unhappiness of narcissists’ partners. This is something I’d like to explore in future research.

The results show that what makes people happy in their relationships depends on what they’re trying to achieve when they seek romantic partnerships. We may like to think that everyone pursues romance with the goal of forming a connected, intimate bond with another person. However, narcissists may be happier with trophy partners who make them look good because their relationships are just one more thing that can fuel their egos.

 angrylambie1|/Flickr, CC license
Source: angrylambie1|/Flickr, CC license

I am an associate professor of psychology at Albright College who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow me on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior. Read more articles on Close Encounters.


1 Rodriguez, L. M. Hadden, B. W., & Knee, C. R. (2015). Not all ideals are equal: Intrinsic and extrinsic ideals in relationships. Personal Relationships, published online before print. doi: 10.1111/pere.12068

2 Campbell, W. K. (1999). Narcissism and romantic attraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1254–1270.

3 Brunell, A. B., & Campbell, W. K. (2011). Narcissism and romantic relationships: Understanding the paradox. In W. K. Campbell and J. D. Miller (Eds), The handbook of narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder: Theoretical approaches, empirical findings, and treatments (pp. 344-350). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

4 Campbell, W. K., Brunell, A. B., & Finkel, E. J. (2006). Narcissism, interpersonal self-regulation, and romantic relationships: An agency model approach. In E. J. Finkel & K. D. Vohs (Eds), Self and relationships: Connecting intrapersonal and interpersonal processes (pp. 57-83). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

5 Seidman, G. (2015). Narcissism, intrinsic and extrinsic romantic ideals, and relationship satisfaction. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, published online before print. doi: 10.1177/0265407515615693

6 Raskin, R. N., & Hall, C. S. (1979). A narcissistic personality inventory. Psychological Reports, 45, 590.

7 Brunell, A. B., Campbell, W. K., Smith, L., & Krusemark, E. A. (2004, February). Why do people date narcissists? A narrative study. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Austin, TX (as cited in Brunell & Campbell, 2011).

8 Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (1996). Further examining the American dream: Differential correlates of intrinsic and extrinsic goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 280–287.