- Feeling respected is important in relationships.
- New research examines the link between narcissism and respecting one's partner.
- Narcissists who inflate their own self-view by enjoying others' failures tend not to give their partners enough respect.
- Not all narcissistic self-inflation strategies are associated with less respect for a partner.
When it comes to romantic relationships, we want — no, we need — to feel valued and appreciated. We deeply desire our partners to recognize our efforts, to hold us in esteem, and to see us as important and worthy of their time and attention. We want R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Indeed, seeking and indulging in your partner's respect for you is normal and appropriate when you're in love. But what if you're in a relationship with a narcissist?
Narcissists are intense in the pursuit of respect
If nearly all partners want respect, this desire reaches impossible heights for people who have a set of personality traits captured by the term narcissism. Narcissists — who tend to have grandiose, inflated self-images — thrive on seeking out social interactions that can enhance their own feelings of being valued and appreciated by others. Seeing an opportunity, narcissists often use their romantic partners to boost their feeling of being respected; they might selectively date high-status, beautiful partners or they might strategically link themselves with partners they know will idealize and flatter them (Campbell, 1999).
Wanting respect, however, doesn't always translate into giving respect. If narcissists are so focused on garnering others' respect, do they have the space to devote energy to giving other people respect?
Self-inflation strategies within relationships
If you know what it's like to love a narcissist, then you might be familiar with the idea that they can use different approaches to promote their inflated sense of self (Back et al., 2013). They can, for example, adopt:
- Narcissistic admiration strategies. These strategies involve directly trying to promote their own self-enhancement. For example, they might cater to their beliefs that they're super interesting, incredibly charismatic, and wonderfully exciting.
- Narcissistic rivalry strategies. These strategies involve taking pleasure from others' failures. They reveal fundamental insecurity and are judged as aggressive or hostile approaches to protect their view of the self.
So what about respect? A team of researchers (Vrabel et al., 2021) recently examined whether narcissists, who we know want to feel respected, are or are not oriented toward respecting their partners.
Narcissistic rivalry is associated with low levels of respect-giving
In their first study, the researchers discovered that the tendency to use narcissistic rivalry strategies was associated with giving partners less respect (Vrabel et al., 2021). In other words, romantic partners who feel compelled to maintain a grandiose perception of themselves through disparaging others are less likely to respect, honor, approve of, or show interest in the person they're dating or the person they have married.
Interestingly, individuals' tendencies toward using narcissistic admiration strategies were not linked to giving their partners respect (i.e., no zero-order correlation), with other analyses (using multiple regression with narcissistic rivalry also as a predictor) showing that narcissistic admiration was positively associated with giving respect. In other words, narcissists who tend to build themselves up to feel respected are inclined to show respect to their partners.
A second study, focused on different-sex romantic dyads, reinforced these findings, emphasizing how the partners of individuals who engage in more narcissistic rivalry tended to feel less respected. It also suggested that women who engage in more narcissistic admiration may enjoy feeling more respected and may give more respect to their partners.
How respected you feel may be tied to your partner's personality
It's easy to assume that we're responsible for our relationship dynamics. If we feel disrespected in our closest relationship, we might assume we don't deserve our partner's esteem. We might believe that their feelings about us are because of something we've done or who we are. This research, however, offers a different perspective. Some people fail to respect their partners because of an aspect of their narcissistic personality and the strategies they use to maintain their inflated self-view.
Thus, dating a narcissistic person can come with a variety of challenges, and adding to this list is the potential for feelings of low respect. The evidence that not all narcissists treat their partners with low levels of respect may have muddied our sense of whether it's "them" or "us" when it comes to feelings of disrespect, but now we know that respect is linked to how some narcissists promote their inflated sense of self. Those narcissists who feed off others' failures are particularly inclined to have partners who feel like they're disrespected.
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Back, M. D., Küfner, A. C., Dufner, M., Gerlach, T. M., Rauthmann, J. F., & Denissen, J. J. (2013). Narcissistic admiration and rivalry: disentangling the bright and dark sides of narcissism. Journal of personality and social psychology, 105(6), 1013 - 1037.
Campbell, W. K. (1999). Narcissism and romantic attraction. Journal of Personality and social Psychology, 77(6), 1254 - 1270.
Vrabel, J., Zeigler-Hill, V., Sauls, D., & McCabe, G. (2021). Narcissism and respect in romantic relationships. Self and Identity, 20(2), 216-234.