Narcissism

Narcissistic Strategies for Attaining Power in Relationships

New research sheds light on strategies narcissists use for massaging their egos.

Posted Sep 28, 2020

Holbox/Shutterbox
Source: Holbox/Shutterbox

Have you ever felt that you lacked power in a romantic relationship? Do you often feel this way in your romantic relationships? If so, you may have a tendency to fall for people with narcissistic tendencies. But another possibility is that your perceived lack of power is a reflection of your own narcissistic tendencies.

This is one of the implications of a new study published in the January 2020 issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. The study, which was conducted by Jennifer K. Vrabel and colleagues, examined the relationship between narcissism and the perception of power in romantic relationships. 

Previous studies have shown that narcissists tend to behave in ways that are hurtful to their romantic partners and are likely, or guaranteed, to spell trouble for the relationship. For example, narcissists are likely to

  • have a need for having power over their partner.
  • play mind games.
  • report a lack of commitment to their partner.
  • make their partners jealous.
  • devalue their partner.
  • cheat on their partner.
  • be overtly hostile toward their partner.
  • suddenly abandon their current relationship for a new one.

But which of these troublesome behaviors narcissists tend to engage in depends in part on what subtype they fall under. Vulnerable narcissists, who are introverted, have low self-esteem, and high levels of neuroticism, are less likely to engage in overt animosity than grandiose narcissists, who are extraverted, have high self-esteem, and low levels of neuroticism.

But even if we limit our scope to grandiose narcissists, what kinds of troublesome relationship behaviors they tend to engage in depends on their subtype of grandiosity. According to an influential model of grandiose narcissism (the NARC model), grandiose narcissists deploy two strategies for maintaining or massaging their grandiose self-image

One strategy used by grandiose narcissists is narcissistic admiration. This strategy helps the narcissist preserve their grandiose sense of self by engaging in behaviors that make other people admire them. For example, they may brag about their achievements or compare themselves favorably to others, using charm or flattery to avoid pushing people away. 

The other strategy used by grandiose narcissists to boost their ego is narcissistic rivalry. This strategy helps them preserve their grandiose sense of self by engaging in self-defense and hostility to protect their self-image against potential threats, for example, they may attempt to make their critics look untrustworthy. 

Although grandiose narcissists could deploy both strategies to the same extent, most rely on one strategy to a much greater extent than they rely on the other. Narcissists who rely mostly on the narcissistic admiration strategy get their ego-boost by using charm, flattery, or other lighthearted maneuvers. Narcissists who rely on the narcissistic rivalry strategy protect their grandiose self-image by engaging in animosity, aggression, and interpersonal conflict.

In their study, Vrabel and colleagues (2020) first looked at whether the narcissistic admiration and narcissistic rivalry strategies were associated with how powerful the narcissists took themselves to be in their romantic relationships. Based on previous findings, they hypothesized that narcissists relying on the narcissistic admiration strategy would perceive themselves as holding most of the power in their relationships, whereas narcissists relying on narcissistic rivalry would perceive themselves as not holding enough power in their relationships.

The results confirmed that narcissists relying on narcissistic admiration perceived themselves as holding most of the power in their relationships. Surprisingly, however, the researchers didn’t find any statistically significant association between narcissistic rivalry and perception of power. One reason for this, they argue, may be that narcissists relying on narcissistic rivalry vary to a greater degree in whether they perceive themselves as holding most of the power in their romantic relationship or not having enough power. 

Vrabel and colleagues then examined the connection between narcissists’ perception of power and their perception of how functional their romantic relationships were. They hypothesized that individuals relying on narcissistic admiration would view their relationships as more functional, the greater power they perceived themselves as having, whereas individuals relying on narcissistic rivalry would take their relationships to be less functional, the lower level of power they perceived themselves to have. 

Here, the results confirmed their hypothesis about narcissists relying on narcissistic rivalry. The latter were found to experience more difficulties in their relationships, the lower levels of power they perceived themselves as having.

One explanation of these findings is that a perception of lower levels of power in a romantic relationship activates their antagonistic self-protective strategies, which in turn is a surefire way to relationship trouble. Another explanation is that narcissists who rely on narcissistic rivalry view their perceived lower levels of power in their romantic relationship as unfair, thus making them view their relationship as dysfunctional.

Vrabel and colleagues‘ study also sheds light on which behaviors the different subtypes of grandiose narcissism are more likely to engage in. Both subtypes have a high need for power over their partner and tend to play mind games. But the grandiose narcissists relying on narcissistic rivalry are more likely to engage in overtly hostile behaviors such as making their partners jealous, devaluing them, or exhibiting over aggression toward them. Grandiose narcissists relying on narcissistic admiration, by contrast, are more likely to report a lack of commitment to their partner, cheat on them, or suddenly leave them.