It is well-documented that narcissists often make lousy relationship partners. Narcissistic people have a grandiose view of themselves that they work hard to maintain, and that makes them extremely self-focused. In their relationships with other people, they seek to be admired, more so than to be loved.
One defining feature of their romantic relationships is a reluctance to commit to their partners. So why are narcissists so unwilling to settle down? In a series of recently published studies conducted by Virgil Zeigler-Hill of Oakland University, myself, and three of our former students, we examined several explanations for narcissists' lack of commitment.
The explanation may lie partly in narcissists' goals for their relationships. Narcissists may use their relationships as a way to gain admiration from others. Narcissists prefer romantic partners that are physically attractive and high status, and are less concerned with how warm or caring those partners are. Their tendency to view partners as trophies to show off, rather than as companions with whom to build a relationship, may explain their lack of commitment. If the partner is a status symbol, there is a temptation to trade up for a better status symbol, just like trading in your car for a newer, sleeker model.
The answer may also lie in how narcissists perceive both themselves and other people. Narcissists tend to view themselves very positively, so they assume they're desirable and can attract alternative partners fairly easily. They also have a tendency to view other people, including their romantic partners, more negatively. In fact, one framework for studying narcissism, the Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Concept, posits that narcissists have two methods of maintaining their grandiose self-concept: raising themselves up (narcissistic admiration) and putting others down (narcissistic rivalry). So a tendency to overvalue oneself and devalue one's partner is likely to lead to the perception that there are plenty of other fish in the sea — fish who would be happy to date you and who are better than your current partner.
We conducted four surveys of individuals who were currently involved in romantic relationships, two studies involving undergraduate students and two studies involving samples of adults from a wider age range. We asked participants about their level of commitment, attitudes toward alternative romantic partners, and perceptions of themselves and their partners. In all four studies, we used the Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Questionnaire to assess two dimensions of narcissism:
- Narcissistic admiration, which involves trying to impress others and be unique, and leads narcissists to be socially successful by charming others.
- Narcissistic rivalry, which involves devaluing others and trying to be superior to them, which leads to aggressive behavior that creates social problems, including long-term relationship difficulties.
In the first three studies, we found that both narcissistic admiration and narcissistic rivalry were associated with the way people thought about potential alternative partners. Narcissism was associated with a tendency to:
- Pay more attention to alternative partners (e.g., "I am distracted by other people that I find attractive").
- Actively search for alternative partners (e.g., "I constantly compare my current relationship to other potential relationships").
- Believe one had high quality of alternative partners available to them (e.g., "If I weren’t dating my partner, I would do fine — I would find another appealing person to date").
We found that these attitudes toward alternative partners largely explained why narcissism was related to lower commitment. We also found that narcissistic admiration, but not rivalry, was associated with having higher standards for who they're willing to date. This is consistent with the idea that those who think highly of themselves think they deserve the best when it comes to romantic relationships.
In the final study, we tested to see if perceptions of oneself and one's current partner might explain those attitudes toward alternative partners. You might believe that you have a lot of great alternative partners out there because you're so great that you can get whoever you want. Or you might think you can do better than your current partner because your partner is not that great. We found that narcissistic admiration was associated with perceptions that high-quality alternatives were available because those who score high on admiration rate themselves positively on various traits (e.g., attractive, outgoing). Narcissistic rivalry, on the other hand, was associated with perceptions that high-quality alternatives were available because those who score high on rivalry tended to rate their partners more negatively on various traits.
Taken together, these findings show that narcissists are less committed to their partners because they notice attractive potential partners, actively compare their current relationship to other possibilities, and perceive that there are desirable alternative partners available to them. All of this is consistent with the general idea that narcissists see their romantic partners as commodities to be traded in when something better comes along. And their tendency to think they can do better is driven by both an inflated sense of their own value and a devaluing of their current partner.