It’s easy to understand the initial allure of narcissists. Charismatic, charming, and utterly fascinating, they give great first impressions. Their magnetic appeal may explain their easy popularity, and they are popular, at least in the short term (Back, Schmukle, & Egloff, 2010). It’s long-term relationships that pose a challenge for them.
Romantic relationships with narcissists are not easy. Narcissists — who by definition have an exaggerated sense of self-importance — tend to engage in game-playing in their relationships as a way to exert power and reinforce their independence (Campbell, Foster, & Finkel, 2002). This isn't fun for a narcissist's partner, who might sometimes feel like a priority but other times feel utterly uncertain about the relationship. Narcissistic individuals are often skillful at keeping their emotional distance, but lean into the partnership when they stand to gain something. In general, they succeed in short-term relationships (e.g., hook-ups, one-night stands) to a much greater degree than long-term relationships. This might be because narcissistic individuals generally value relationships for what they can get out of them (e.g., physical pleasure) over the possibility of intimacy and emotional connection (Foster, Shrira, & Campbell, 2006).
But what if a highly narcissistic person decides to get married? Is such a marriage always doomed, or could narcissism have little effect on a long-term relationship?
New research from the University of Georgia and UCLA gives us some answers (Lavner et al., 2016). Researchers recruited approximately 150 newly-married heterosexual couples for a longitudinal study. Data were collected within six months of marriage and again six more times over the first four years of marriage. This yielded considerable data on spouses’ relationship satisfaction, perceptions of marital problems, and narcissistic tendencies. Most important, the longitudinal design of the study allowed for observation of how these factors change over time.
So what did they find? Is narcissism like chocolate cake, appealing at first, but detrimental over time? Or is narcissism’s effect stable: If it makes for a not-so-great dating relationship, does it also makes for a not-so-great marriage?
The major finding of this study suggests that marriage to a narcissist worsens over time. The more that wives exhibited narcissistic qualities (e.g., entitlement, exploitativeness), the more marriage satisfaction declined over time (Lavner et al., 2016). In other words, it was not the case that dating a narcissist was predictive of lower pre-marital relationship quality; the effect took place later, during marriage. As the first few years passed, couples with narcissistic wives reported less satisfaction and more problems.
Interestingly, it does seem that wives’ narcissism, not husbands', was the driving cause of both men's and women’s perceived relationship quality. This warrants attention and consideration: Why didn’t male narcissism have the same effect? Is it because men, by social norms, are allowed more leeway in exerting power; in other words, is having narcissistic tendencies more standard for men but when women exhibit the same traits, the consequences are greater? Alternatively, the idea of "happy wife, happy life," may play out here, reflecting the greater influence that wives’ characteristics have on relationship quality.
All marriages come with risk, and it's worth reflecting on a partner's personality, and how well that person meets your needs. This research suggests that heterosexual men do particularly well when their long-term partners have average, or even low, levels of narcissism.
Back, M. D., Schmukle, S. C., & Egloff, B. (2010). Why are narcissists so charming at first sight? Decoding the narcissism–popularity link at zero acquaintance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 132-145.
Campbell, W. K., Foster, C. A., & Finkel, E. J. (2002). Does self-love lead to love for others?: A story of narcissistic game playing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 340-354.
Foster, J. D., Shrira, I., & Campbell, W. K. (2006). Theoretical models of narcissism, sexuality, and relationship commitment. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 23, 367-386.
Lavner, J. A., Lamkin, J., Miller, J. D., Campbell, W. K., & Karney, B. R. (2016). Narcissism and newlywed marriage: Partner characteristics and marital trajectories. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 7, 169-179.