Three Words You Will Never Hear From a Narcissist

Research reveals the source of a narcissist´s aversion to apology.

Posted Jun 24, 2018

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Your charming, self-confident love interest is both egotistical and engaging. Sitting across from this brilliant storyteller, you are regaled for hours with accounts of past adventures, as well as future plans—that you hope include you. You look forward to your time together, because the two of you always seem to be doing something exciting. From extreme sports to the symphony, your partner loves adventure, and you are thrilled to be along for the ride.  

Although most of the time you feel satisfied and smitten, there is a problem—one that does not appear to have a solution. Your partner does not apologize. Ever. For anything. Whether your feelings become hurt as a result of his or her words or behavior (or both), your partner simply ignores the situation and waits for you to get over it. Eventually, you do, considering the alternative—ending the relationship. But without your partner's apology, your hurt feelings persist. Are you being too sensitive, or does an inflated ego result in an inability to admit guilt?

I Am (Not) Sorry

The three words you will never hear from a partner high in the personality trait of narcissism are not "I love you"; they are “I am sorry.”  For a narcissist, it is easier to express affection than admit guilt. If you have never heard words of apology from a partner, whether you have admitted it to yourself or not, that individual might be a narcissist. He or she may not have narcissistic personality disorder (full-blown narcissism, from a clinical standpoint) or your relationship would likely already be over. But according to research, an inability to apologize still suggests the presence of narcissistic traits. 

Leunissen et al., in the study, "Why Narcissists are Unwilling to Apologize" (2017), explain why narcissists have such a difficult time saying they are sorry.[i] The team adopted a research-based definition of the personality trait of narcissism as a “self-centered, self-aggrandizing, dominant, and manipulative interpersonal orientation.” They note that individuals high in narcissism value agency (uniqueness and competence) as opposed to communion (warmth or relatedness). After conducting four studies, the team found that generally, individuals high in the trait of narcissism are unwilling to apologize due to experiencing low levels of empathy and guilt. They also note that an apology involves admitting wrongdoing, which is contrary to narcissistic self-enhancement. Further, the goal of an apology is to restore social bonds and communion—which is a dimension narcissists do not value.

Remorse Promotes Reconciliation 

Karina Schumann, in a piece entitled "The Psychology of Offering an Apology” (2018), reviews a variety of reasons that people may not apologize.[ii] The failure to apologize may have significant relational consequences, as Schumann recognizes that high-quality apologies promote reconciliation. Yet she notes that many people, post-transgression, fail to apologize, extend a cursory apology, or respond defensively to the person they have wronged.

Schumann identifies three major barriers to offering high quality apologies:

  • low concern for the victim or relationship.
  • perceived threat to the transgressor’s self-image.
  • perceived apology ineffectiveness.

Schumann notes that people are less likely to apologize when they have lower self-esteem, higher narcissism, and/or are worried about making a good impression. Interestingly, she also notes that transgressors report being more willing to reconcile with a victim after the victim has restored their moral image through communicating acceptance.

In earlier research, Schumann and Dweck (2014) studied how personality theories impact a transgressor's willingness to accept responsibility for offenses.[iii] The researchers found support for their predictions that people who view personality as malleable (incremental theory) are more likely to apologize than those who view personality as fixed (entity theory). They explain that people in the incremental category are less threatened by accepting responsibility for a transgression because they view it as an opportunity for personal growth, and a chance to enhance their bond with the victim. Narcissists, however, are not interested in bonding with their victims as much as non-narcissistic partners are. This impacts their willingness—or rather, unwillingness—to apologize.

Acceptance Promotes Reconciliation 

There is no such thing as a perfect, conflict-free relationship. If you are dating a narcissist, research indicates that conflict resolution may be facilitated by an acceptance of your partner´s characteristics—good and bad. If you choose to remain in the relationship, understanding his or her aversion to apology will enhance your ability to weather relational discord, and promote reconciliation. And remember: A refusal to say "I am sorry” speaks volumes about your partner, not you. 

References

[i]Joost M. Leunissen, Constantine Sedikides, and Tim Wildschut, “Why Narcissists are Unwilling to Apologize: The Role of Empathy and Guilt,” European Journal of Personality, Eur. J. Pers. 31, 2017, 385–403.

[ii]Karina Schumann, “The Psychology of Offering an Apology: Understanding the Barriers to Apologizing and How to Overcome Them,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 27, iss. 2, 74 – 78.

[iii]Karina Schumann and Carol S. Dweck, “Who Accepts Responsibility for Their Transgressions?” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 40, no. 12, 2014, 1598-1610.