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How Do Narcissists React to Breakups?

A new study explored the link between narcissism and feelings about ex-partners.

Key points

  • Narcissists may respond either particularly well or particularly poorly to breakups.
  • Narcissistic admiration is about building oneself up impressing others; narcissistic rivalry is about building oneself up putting others down.
  • High levels of narcissistic admiration were linked to breaking up due to lack of interest in the ex and less sadness and anxiety after a breakup
  • High levels of narcissistic rivalry were linked to greater sadness and anxiety after breakup and more negative perceptions of ex-partners.
Mohamed Hassan from pixabay
Source: Mohamed Hassan from pixabay

Romantic breakups can be hard on anyone, but our reactions to breakups can vary quite a bit. If we're on the initiating end of the breakup, we're likely to get over it more quickly than if we're on the receiving end. And people can experience a variety of negative emotions, from anger to even grief-like sadness. But do narcissistic people respond to breakups differently than those who are less narcissistic? Being more focused on themselves, perhaps they will think "good riddance" and not react much to the end of a troubled partnership.

On the other hand, research shows that narcissists are especially likely to blame another person for a mutually caused failure and respond to social rejection with outsized anger and aggression. Narcissists also tend to see themselves as superior to other people, including their romantic partners. All of this suggests they may not take breakups that well. Breakups involve a mutual failure, potential rejection, and even more of a reason to perceive one's partner negatively. In a study published in Personality and Individual Differences, my student, Brooke Schlott, and I explored these questions.

Using the Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Concept to Understand Narcissism

One theoretical perspective has been especially useful in helping researchers understand how narcissists behave in their relationships: The Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Concept. According to this theory, narcissists have two separate strategies they can use to maintain their grandiose self-perceptions. They can boost themselves up, or they can bring other people down. Narcissistic admiration is the tendency to boost themselves. It involves showing off and behaving charmingly to gain the admiration of others. Narcissistic rivalry, on the other hand, is the tendency to put others down. It is a more hostile and defensive aspect of narcissism that involves denigrating other people.

While narcissistic admiration and rivalry tend to be correlated with each other, narcissistic individuals vary in the extent to which they are high in both of these dimensions. And in fact, narcissistic admiration is often associated with having better interactions in relationships, while narcissistic rivalry is associated with poorer interactions. It is also important to note that most of this research examines narcissistic traits within the normal population, not individuals diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder.

The Study

In this study, we surveyed 246 adults between 18 and 30 years old who had within the last five years experienced the breakup of a romance lasting at least three months. In addition to completing questionnaires assessing their levels of narcissism, we also asked them a series of questions about that recent breakup: How did the relationship end, how did they feel after the breakup, and how do they currently perceive their ex-partners?

Who Did Narcissists Blame for the Breakup?

Surprisingly, narcissism was not related to blaming ex-partners for the problems that led to the breakup. Perhaps this was due to us just asking about problems in general, as there might be certain problems, such as their infidelity, that narcissists would be happy to admit to, and other problems that they would not, such as their poor relationship skills.

We found that people who scored higher on narcissistic admiration — the charming, admiration-seeking side of narcissism — were more likely to have initiated the breakup and cite their lack of interest in the relationship as a cause for the breakup.

How Did Narcissists Feel About the Breakup?

Both narcissistic admiration and narcissistic rivalry were related to feeling more anger right after the breakup. This is consistent with the tendency for narcissists to be especially hostile when they're rejected. And even when they're not the person being rejected, they tend to experience more anger when they have conflicts with romantic partners.

Narcissistic admiration and narcissistic rivalry yielded different results regarding the internalized negative emotions of sadness and anxiety. Psychologists often refer to emotions like anger as externalized negative emotions. That is, the feelings are being projected outwardly onto other people or things.

Other negative emotions, like sadness and anxiety, are internalized because they involve directing the negative feelings inward toward oneself. Our results showed that people who scored high in narcissistic rivalry reported higher levels of sadness and anxiety than those who were low in narcissistic rivalry. Those high in narcissistic admiration, on the other hand, seemed to be buffered from experiencing these types of negative emotions. They actually reported less anxiety and sadness about the breakup.

How Did Narcissists Perceive Their Ex-Partners?

In addition to asking participants about their emotional experiences after the breakup, we also asked them to rate how many desirable traits, such as intelligence, physical attractiveness, and kindness, described their ex. We found that those high in narcissistic admiration had particularly positive views of their ex-partners. Other research has also shown that they perceive their current partners positively, so it seems that these positive perceptions don't fade after the relationship is over. Those in narcissistic rivalry, on the other hand, tended to view their ex-partners especially negatively.

In Sum

Our results suggest that having high levels of narcissistic admiration — A form of narcissism that is agentic and about actively seeking admiration through charm — makes breakups easier. People with high levels of narcissistic admiration experienced less anxiety and sadness after a breakup and maintained positive perceptions of their exes. They were also more likely to initiate a breakup and attribute it to their lack of interest in their ex. This tendency to lose interest in the partner also explained why they had less negative emotional reactions.

We also found that breakups may be tough for those who are high in narcissistic rivalry. They experienced higher levels of negative emotions and walked away with particularly negative views of their ex-partner. So if you're ending a relationship with a narcissist, you may find them either especially nonchalant about the breakup or especially upset.