- People often wrongly assume that their partner is a narcissist because they have a dismissing attachment style.
- The research neither supports nor rejects a relationship between dismissing attachment and narcissism.
- Instead of automatically assuming narcissism is the problem, people should dig deeper and take more time getting to know others.
I have had numerous individuals recently ask me questions about the relationship between dismissing attachment and narcissism; rather, I have been asked to affirm their beliefs that their relationship partners are narcissists because they have dismissing attachment styles. Having worked with many of the individuals in question, I can see where the assertion comes from. But I am going to go against the tide on this one and suggest that most people with dismissing attachment styles are not narcissists. If you believe your dismissing partner is a narcissist, read all the way through to the end before giving up.
The Research on Dismissing Attachment and Narcissism
I have seen other blog posts that describe research showing a relationship between dismissing attachment and narcissism. One started off by saying, "Narcissists have an 'avoidant' attachment style…" But here is what I found when I dug into the research.
1. Some of the research cited is not actually research.
It is a set of ideas that researchers suggest would be good to study in the future. Some of the studies that were cited in blogs did not actually find a relationship between dismissing attachment and narcissism at all.
2. Online search results do not clearly agree.
My search of the PsychInfo and Ebscohost databases (ones used by most psychological researchers), using the phrase “dismissing attachment and narcissism” as my search string, produced just as many studies that found no relationship between dismissing attachment and narcissism as there were studies that did find a relationship. Look at it this way. When someone is trying to make the case in writing an article, they often look for information that supports their case... they do not actually look at all of the available information that is out there.
3. When research has detected a relationship between dismissing attachment and narcissism, the relationship has been very weak.
One cited study, for example, found a .15 correlation between dismissing attachment and narcissism and a .14 correlation between secure attachment and narcissism. First, that means that dismissing and secure attachment only overlap with narcissism by 2.25 percent. That is about as close to zero as you can get and suggests that securely attached individuals are just as likely to be narcissists as dismissing individuals.
4. People need to know how to understand research findings.
A correlation (relationship) between two things (like dismissing attachment and narcissism) just means that as scores on one go up, scores on the other go up too. Everyone in a research study who fills out a questionnaire has a score on narcissism. And all those same people have a score on dismissing attachment (even those of us with anxious styles get a score if we fill out the survey!).
So, those studies that find correlations between dismissing attachment and narcissism report results from people who, for the most part, do not have dismissing attachment styles and are not narcissists. Go figure?!
5. There are a similar number of studies out there showing a relationship between anxious/preoccupied attachment and narcissism as there are showing a relationship between dismissing attachment and narcissism.
Those are just some of my thoughts on the research that is out there. And here is why I think it matters when it comes to understanding someone with a dismissing attachment style.
A More Balanced Perspective
First, there is more than one parenting practice that can lead to someone having a dismissing attachment style. The one most people will recognize is that of a stern parent who does not tolerate childhood displays of neediness, sadness, or other such “wimpy” emotions but who simultaneously pushes the child for high levels of achievement. Some of these parents will celebrate the child’s achievements and promote the child’s specialness, which could promote narcissistic tendencies. But of the many people I have treated, just as many have parents who only boast about the child to other people, but never to the child directly (promoting a sense of shame or never being good enough even though they keep striving for success).
Another pattern that promotes dismissing attachment is the “helicopter” parent who overreacts to any of the child’s emotions: “Oh my god, a kid told you today they didn’t like you?! I’m going to call the child’s parents right now and set this straight.” In this case, the child learns quickly to suppress any negative emotions and deny ever being upset or having needs. “Nope,” the child may say, “Everything is good here. I’m fine. Everything is great!”
In these latter two patterns, the person is likely to grow up suppressing negative emotions, denying having emotional needs, and projecting an air of invulnerability. But these folks are not likely to engage in unrealistic self-aggrandizement. They are most likely accurate in their descriptions.
They just talk about those types of things as distractions to keep you from prodding at their soft emotional undersides or from trying to engage in some sort of interpersonal intimacy with them (which would make you dangerous!). So, they talk superficially about what they are doing in the world… which is mostly achievement-oriented stuff… and they don’t show that much interest in what is going on with you or your problems. So, their behavior may reflect being self-absorbed, but this does not make them narcissistic.
People with preoccupied attachment styles can be self-absorbed also. They tend to be overly focused on their own emotional experiences. Research shows that they take overly long conversational turns and overshare stories about themselves and their experiences. The point is that this set of behaviors can also look narcissistic to an outside observer. In other words, there are multiple patterns of emotional and interpersonal processes that can lead someone to manifest a narcissistic personality.
My suggestion is that we (as a society) cut down on using labels like “borderline,” “hysterical,” “aspie,” or “narcissist” and take the time to get to know people. Try asking them questions. If you want to challenge them because you think they are too full of themselves, just repeat back to them their own assertions but frame it as a question… “So, you were one of the most popular kids at school?” You are likely to get a more balanced view when the person clarifies their original statement. And you might just stay engaged with them long enough in conversation to get through the defenses to the great person underneath who is just waiting to be known.
Ahmet Altınok, & Nurseven Kılıç. (2020). Exploring the associations between narcissism, intentions towards infidelity, and relationship satisfaction: Attachment styles as a moderator. PLoS ONE, 15(11), e0242277. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0242277
Nehrig, N., Ho, S. S. M., & Wong, P. S. (2019). Understanding the Selfobject Needs Inventory: Its relationship to narcissism, attachment, and childhood maltreatment. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 36(1), 53–63. https://doi.org/10.1037/pap0000182
Kotera, Y., & Rhodes, C. (2019). Pathways to Sex Addiction: Relationships with Adverse Childhood Experience, Attachment, Narcissism, Self-Compassion and Motivation in a Gender-Balanced Sample. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 26(1/2), 54–76. https://doi.org/10.1080/10720162.2019.1615585
Feintuch, B. (1999). Adult attachment, narcissism, shame, and defensiveness [ProQuest Information & Learning]. In Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering (Vol. 59, Issue 10–B, p. 5575).
Narcissism and Attachment theory. What is the connection? Online at; http://www.sakkyndig.com/psykologi/artvit/laroche.pdf