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Do Narcissists Tear Down or Build Up Their Partners?

The answer depends on two separate facets of narcissism.

C_Scott via pixabay | CC License
Source: C_Scott via pixabay | CC License

Narcissists tend to have inflated views of themselves, and they are highly protective of that image. Much of what narcissists do is in service of boosting and protecting their egos. They show off their wealth and brag on social media.1,2 They lash out at those who dare to reject them.3 And they blame other people for their failures.4

They also have two seemingly contradictory tendencies in how they perceive their romantic partners. On the one hand, they tend to prefer physically attractive and high-status partners to boost their egos by association.5,6 On the other hand, they tend to denigrate others, including their romantic partners, as a way to feel superior.7

So how can narcissists simultaneously see their partners as valuable trophies while also seeing those same partners negatively? The answer may lie in making a distinction between two aspects of narcissism: narcissistic admiration and narcissistic rivalry.8 New research by Virgil Zeigler-Hill and David Trombly, just published in Personality and Individual Differences, shows how these two kinds of narcissism relate to the way people see their partners.9

The Narcissistic Admiration Rivalry Concept

According to the Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Concept model, narcissism has two dimensions:8

  1. Narcissistic admiration involves trying to impress others and be unique and can lead narcissists to have social successes by charming others.
  2. Narcissistic rivalry involves devaluing other people and trying to be superior to them, which can lead to aggressive behavior that creates social difficulties.

Narcissistic admiration involves pulling yourself up by enhancing yourself, while rivalry involves pulling yourself up by putting others down. So the extent to which someone's narcissism is characterized by rivalry or admiration can explain how they perceive themselves and their romantic partners.

The Research

In a recent study, Zeigler-Hill and Trombly surveyed over 1,000 undergraduate students, assessing their narcissistic tendencies and perceptions of themselves and their romantic partners.9 They measured both narcissistic admiration and narcissistic rivalry, using a questionnaire designed to separate these two dimensions of narcissism.8

Those who score high on admiration are likely to agree with statements such as "I show others how special I am," "Most of the time I am able to draw people’s attention to myself in conversations," and "I deserve to be seen as a great personality." Those who score high on rivalry tend to agree with statements like "Most people are somehow losers," "I want my rivals to fail," and "I often get annoyed when I am criticized."

Participants also completed questionnaires to measure their own perceived mate value (rating themselves on traits involving physical attractiveness, status, and positive personality characteristics). They also completed the same measure of their partners' mate value.

The Results

So how did narcissistic rivalry and admiration relate to how people saw themselves and their partners?

Those who had high levels of narcissistic admiration tended to view both themselves and their partners more positively than those who scored lower on this trait. In addition, part of the reason that people with high levels of narcissistic admiration viewed themselves positively was that they saw their partners positively. Thus, they used positive perceptions of their partners to enhance themselves. They felt better about themselves because they were able to obtain partners they perceived as good catches.

On the other hand, high levels of narcissistic rivalry were related to having more negative views of oneself and one's partner. In addition, as with narcissistic admiration, these perceptions of one's partner contributed to narcissists' perceptions of their own self-worth. However, this time the effects were the opposite. Surprisingly, negative evaluations of their mates fueled negative evaluations of themselves. Rather than negative perceptions of their partners boosting their own self-worth, as would be expected, viewing their partners negatively made them think less of themselves.

Why might narcissistic rivalry have these effects? Narcissistic rivalry is less correlated with overall narcissism scores (the Narcissistic Personality Inventory; NPI) than is narcissistic admiration.8 However, it is modestly correlated with a particular subscale of the NPI: Entitlement/Exploitativeness which involves expecting a lot from others and a tendency to manipulate others. This particular aspect of narcissism is less related to thinking highly of oneself and more about other people. So this provides more support for the idea that narcissistic rivalry stems from feelings of insecurity, whereas narcissistic admiration may not.

Another possibility is that the way that rivalry and admiration relate to people's perceptions of themselves and their partners may depend on the specific traits that are being assessed. Narcissists have a tendency to see themselves more positively on "agentic" traits such as assertiveness, intelligence, and extraversion, but they do not necessarily rate themselves especially highly on communal traits like warmth and morality.7 Narcissists also tend to value these kinds of agentic traits more than communal traits in romantic partners.5,6 In addition, narcissists who score especially high in entitlement/exploitativeness (the facet of narcissism most closely linked to rivalry) are especially unlikely to value communal traits in their partners.6

In Sum

These results suggest that whether or narcissists build their partners up or tear them down depends on what kind of narcissist they are. While admiration and rivalry are modestly correlated with each other, they are separate kinds of narcissistic traits.8 People whose narcissism involves trying to convince everyone how great they are tend to perceive their partners positively, perhaps seeing them as trophies that help make them look good in the eyes of others. On the other hand, for people whose narcissism involves denigrating others to feel superior to them, their partners are likely to fall victim to this bias and be perceived in an overly negative manner. Despite the fact that narcissistic admiration is associated with perceiving one's partner positively, that does not mean that people high in narcissistic admiration make good partners. In fact, research suggests that such individuals can make good partners in the short-term, but are especially bad partners in the long-term,10 and that they tend to value their partners more for their superficial traits, than their character.


1. Piff, P. K. (2014). Wealth and the inflated self: Class, entitlement, and narcissism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40, 34-43.

2. Buffardi, L. E., & Campbell, W. K. (2008). Narcissism and social networking websites. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1303-1314.

3. Twenge, J. M. & Campbell, W. K. (2003). “Isn’t it fun to get the respect that we’re going to deserve?” Narcissism, social rejection, and aggression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 261-272. doi: 10.1177/0146167202239051

4. Stucke, T. S. (2003). Who’s to blame? Narcissism and self-serving attributions following feedback. European Journal of Personality, 17, 465-478.

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

6. Seidman, G. (2016). Narcissism, intrinsic and extrinsic romantic ideals, and relationship satisfaction. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33, 1018-1030.

7. Campbell, W. K., Rudich, E. A., Sedikides, C. (2002). Narcissism, self-esteem, and the positivity of self-views: Two portraits of self-love. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 358-368.

8. 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, 1013-1037.

9. Ziegler-Hill, V., & Trombly, D. R. C. (2018). Narcissism and mate value: Is beauty in the eye of the narcissistic beholder? Personality and Individual Differences, 122, 115-119. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2017.10.021

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

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