How Narcissists See Daily Interactions With Their Partners

New research investigates the two-sided nature of narcissism.

Posted Feb 21, 2021 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

Alex Green/Pexels
Source: Alex Green/Pexels

Key Points:

  • There are two major paths narcissists can take to feel better about themselves in relationships: narcissistic admiration and narcissistic rivalry.
  • Narcissistic admiration involves a belief that you are special and a desire to charm others, and it appears to be associated with more positive interactions.
  • Narcissistic rivalry, a sense that others are inferior to you, may lead to unpleasant interactions with others. 

How do narcissists interpret the day-to-day events in their relationships? You might expect narcissists to see their daily relationship interactions as very positive. This would help them maintain the view that their relationships—and, by extension, they themselves—are wonderful.

On the other hand, narcissists often blame other people for conflicts and problems, so they might be especially negative in how they interpret their partners' actions. New research by Katrin Rentzsch and colleagues just published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science asked couples to keep track of how they felt about interactions with their partners daily and examined how narcissism related to those perceptions.

The Two-Sided Nature of Narcissism

The behavior of narcissists can often appear contradictory and inconsistent. On the one hand, they are very positive about themselves and are often energetic and sociable. On the other hand, they tend to have problematic relationships with others, can be aggressive, and blame other people when things go wrong.

One helpful framework for understanding this dual nature of narcissism is the narcissistic admiration and rivalry concept. According to this theory, narcissism consists of two elements:

1. Narcissistic admiration: A tendency to believe one is special and talented and a desire to charm others.

2. Narcissistic rivalry: A tendency to believe that other people are inferior, often leading to unpleasant interactions with others.

Both narcissistic admiration and rivalry are paths narcissists can take toward feeling great about themselves. They can think they’re great because they possess a bunch of desirable qualities, and everyone admires them. Or they can think they're great because they’re better than other people, who are mostly a bunch of losers. (In fact, one item on the narcissistic admiration and rivalry questionnaire asks respondents to rate their agreement with the statement "Most other people are somehow losers.")

Researchers have used this framework to understand how narcissistic individuals see their romantic partners. People with high levels of narcissistic rivalry tend to perceive their partners relatively negatively, whereas people with high levels of narcissistic admiration tend to perceive their partners pretty positively.

When it comes to day-to-day interactions with your partner, good and bad things can happen. Some events could even be interpreted as a threat to the relationship, such as a friendly conversation your partner has with a waiter being construed as flirtatious. Might narcissists be especially likely to read the worst into these ambiguous situations? 

Other research has shown that people who are high in narcissistic rivalry, in particular, tend to trust other people less and see other people as more aggressive and less respectful, which is likely to lead them to make less generous interpretations of their partners' actions.

Daily Interactions With Romantic Partners

In their study, Rentzsch and colleagues asked 180 couples (with an average age of 28) to complete daily questionnaires for two weeks about the events in their relationship. At the end of each day, they were asked to describe a situation involving both partners that occurred that evening. They also rated the extent to which the situation contained several different qualities, including:

  • Adversity: "threat, criticism, accusation"
  • Romance: "romance, sexuality, love"
  • Positivity: "Positive, pleasant, nice things"
  • Negativity: "Negative things, unpleasant things, bad feelings"
  • Intellect: "Intellectual, aesthetic, profound things"
  • Sociality: "Communication, interaction, social relationships"

Study participants also rated how generally satisfied they felt with their relationship that day. The results showed that, overall, narcissistic admiration was associated with more positive and rivalry with more negative, relationship interactions. Those higher in narcissistic admiration tended to be more satisfied with their relationships on a daily basis, and this was largely because they found their interactions with their partners to be more intellectually stimulating, romantic, and generally more positive.

On the other hand, those high in narcissistic rivalry experienced less daily relationship satisfaction, largely because they perceived their interactions with their partner as having greater levels of threat, criticism, and accusations. Those high in rivalry also felt their interactions were less social, and this also contributed to being less satisfied with the relationship on a given day.

How Do These Two Sides to Narcissism Come Together?

These findings may seem confusing to interpret because admiration and rivalry are supposedly two sides of the same personality characteristic. Some researchers have suggested that narcissistic admiration is the default mode of functioning, as long as everything is going well and the narcissist is getting the validation they desire from others. But when things go wrong and others are treating them poorly or disrespecting them, narcissistic rivalry kicks in.

In fact, my own research shows that while some narcissistic individuals score high on both rivalry and admiration, others score highly on admiration only. This suggests that not all narcissists have fully developed this dark side. And in some good news, this research shows that there are virtually no people who score high in rivalry while also having low levels of narcissistic admiration. This also explains the short-term social appeal of narcissists—they're never all bad (i.e., never just exhibit narcissistic rivalry).

It seems that narcissistic individuals who have higher levels of that dark side, narcissistic rivalry, tend to see their everyday interactions with their partners in a more negative light, perceiving threats, criticisms, and accusations. One thing that's not clear from these results is if their partners really were criticizing, threatening, and accusing them more often or not. It may have just been in their heads since narcissists do tend to blame others for their problems and are especially sensitive to signs of rejection. It's also possible that those high in narcissistic rivalry really did behave more poorly during those interactions, causing their partners to react negatively by criticizing them.

Regardless, what these findings do show is that day-to-day, narcissistic individuals who primarily have the positive side (admiration) actually have more positive interactions with their partners, while those who have that dark side have more negative experiences.