How Narcissists Keep Their Partners From Leaving

New research explores mate retention behaviors in narcissists’ relationships.

Posted Dec 06, 2020

Source: Pixabay/TheDigitalWay

An article by Zeigler-Hill and coauthors, published in the November issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, examines how narcissists keep their romantic partners from breaking up with them or cheating on them.

Mate retention: Cost inflicting and benefit provisioning

Narcissistic people often have poor relationships, in part because they usually utilize relationships for self-serving purposes (e.g., to feel good about themselves, improve their social status).

Nevertheless, narcissists engage in some of the same behavioral strategies we all do to maintain romantic relationships and prevent breakup and cheating. These strategies are called mate retention behaviors.

Mate retention behaviors include benefit-provisioning and cost-inflicting tactics. Benefit provisioning behaviors refer to low-risk tactics that increase relationship satisfaction. Some examples are the giving of compliments or gifts.

Cost-inflicting behaviors, in contrast, are high-risk tactics that make infidelity or breakup very difficult or costly for one’s romantic partner. Though these behaviors may target potential rivals (e.g., making threats), they are often directed at one’s own partner. Some examples are punishing one’s romantic partner directly (e.g., inflicting financial hardships, limiting the person’s access to friends and family) or indirectly (e.g., using forms of psychological manipulation such as gaslighting).

Cost-inflicting approaches are considered high-risk because the victimized partner might respond by retaliating or leaving the relationship. Therefore, cost-inflicting behaviors are rarely used alone (without benefit-provisioning).

The Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Concept

To examine the association between mate retention behaviors and narcissism, Zeigler-Hill and colleagues used a model called the Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Concept.

According to this model, narcissists try to maintain a grandiose sense of self by using one of two strategies (see Figure 1):

  • Narcissistic admiration (self-promotion and self-enhancement): Narcissists attain social admiration by promoting themselves—for instance, trying to come across as self-assured and charming.
  • Narcissistic rivalry (antagonistic self-defense and self-protection): Narcissists defend themselves in a combative way, such as by aggressively devaluing potential rivals. This strategy is usually adopted when the first strategy cannot be used successfully.
Back et al., 2013 (arash emamzadeh)
Source: Back et al., 2013 (arash emamzadeh)

The current investigation: Samples and measures

To see how narcissistic admiration and rivalry are associated with mate retention behaviors, Zeigler-Hill et al. conducted three studies.

  • Study 1: 625 undergraduates (112 men); average age of 20 years; 82% White. The criteria for inclusion in this and following studies included involvement in a heterosexual relationship for the length of at least three months. In the sample in Study 1, the median length of the romantic relationship was 1.8 years. About 85% were dating, 7% cohabitating, 3% engaged, and 5% married.
  • Study 2: 349 participants (53 men); average age of 20 years; 85% White. The median length of the relationship: 1.9 years. Nearly 85% were dating, 3% engaged, 3% married, and 9% cohabitating.
  • Study 3: 373 individuals (58 men); average age of 20 years; 84% White. The median relationship length was close to 1.8 years. And 86% were dating, 8% cohabitating, 1% engaged, and 5% married.

Participants were asked to fill out various measures of narcissism, in addition to measures of mate retention behaviors, reactive jealousy (experienced in reaction to a romantic partner’s flirting behaviors or infidelity, for example), suspicious jealousy (experienced in reaction to suspicions regarding a partner’s interest in others), dominance orientation (inducing fear to attain status), and prestige orientation (earning status through competence).

Results: Effects of narcissism on mate retention behaviors

Positive associations were found between narcissistic admiration and benefit-provisioning actions, and between narcissistic rivalry and cost-inflicting actions. Let us look at each association in turn.

Narcissistic admiration: The data showed the tactics of narcissistic admiration for maintaining romantic relationships are similar to techniques used to maintain grandiose self-views.

To explain what this means, let me use the example of resource display (e.g., giving extravagant gifts). Giving expensive gifts is benefit-provisioning and obviously benefits the narcissist’s partner, but it is also self-promoting and self-enhancing for the narcissist.  It is about the needs of the narcissist to maintain a grandiose sense of self—being the kind of person who can and does give extravagant and expensive gifts.

Of course, not all narcissistic attempts to self-enhance necessarily benefit a narcissist’s romantic partner. Cost-inflicting behaviors may also be used, especially when a narcissist experiences a high degree of suspicious jealousy.

Narcissistic rivalry: Data showed narcissistic rivalry was associated with an inclination to perform cost-inflicting behaviors (e.g., intimidation, coercion, physical violence).

Given the link between narcissistic rivalry and these aversive techniques, it is no surprise that narcissistic rivalry is linked with poor relationship functioning. Even if the goal of this strategy is to maintain the relationship and prevent infidelity, using threats and force can encourage cheating or the dissolution of the relationship.

In summary:

  1. Narcissists who use the strategy of narcissistic rivalry engage in cost-inflicting behaviors.
  2. Narcissists using the strategy of narcissistic admiration perform benefit-provisioning behaviors but switch to cost-inflicting behaviors when experiencing high levels of suspicious jealousy.

In other words, to maintain their relationships, narcissists who often feel unable to self-promote and self-enhance may threaten and intimidate their romantic partner. Narcissists who are resourceful and can easily self-promote are likely to perform beneficial acts for their partner (e.g., buying expensive jewelry, going to fancy restaurants). However, if experiencing high levels of jealousy, these narcissists may also use threats or intimidation.

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