There is a lot of evidence that narcissists have problematic interpersonal relationships.1,2 They are less committed and more likely to manipulate their partners. Not surprisingly, their partners also tend to become increasingly dissatisfied over time. But why? What is going on inside of these relationships that leads to problems?

   Gwendolyn Seidman Ph.D.
     Gwendolyn Seidman Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology and chair of the psychology department at Albright College. She received her doctorate in social-personality psychology from New York University in 2006. She studies self-expression and self-presentation on the Internet, cognition in close relationships, and social support.

Editor:  Talha Khalid

Most research that examines narcissists' relationships has asked people to report their general impressions of their relationships. But what is actually occurring day to day as narcissists interact with their partners? Some research suggests that narcissists are especially hostile during conflicts.3,4 This research provides some insight into why narcissists have more relationship problems, but fewer everyday, non-conflict interactions have been examined, and neither have narcissists' tendencies to engage in positive behaviors. New research by Joanna Lamkin and colleagues examines how narcissists behave during neutral discussions with their romantic partners.5

Before getting into the details of the research, it’s important to understand how narcissism is defined in these studies. This research examines narcissistic tendencies, consistent with the idea of grandiose narcissism. This research is not studying people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which is relatively rare. In the general population, narcissism runs along a continuum, with those who are more narcissistic having inflated views of themselves, a sense of superiority over others, feelings of entitlement, and a tendency to lack empathy and to manipulate other people.

The Research

In their study, Lamkin and colleagues recruited 54 undergraduate student couples.5 The couples were videotaped while they had a 10-minute discussion about how they would plan a hypothetical 5-day vacation with a $3,000 budget. Trained coders evaluated several aspects of the participants' behavior:

  • Positive affect: How much they seemed to enjoy the task (smiling, laughing).
  • Anger: Signs of fighting (confrontational style, raised voices), angry tone of voice (frustration, annoyance), and more subtle passive displays of anger, such as pouting or turning away.
  • Hostility: Rejecting or hurtful comments (e.g., "you’re stupid," "you're a lousy travel companion"). The hostility ratings capture more than just anger, because they involve actions that are not expected to resolve the conflict. Both anger and hostility are negative, but expressions of anger could be used to influence or coerce your partner in a way that expressions of hostility cannot.

Results showed that both partners engaged in more hostile behavior when the woman in the couple was the narcissistic one. Men showed more anger when interacting with a narcissistic partner; however, the man's level of narcissism was unrelated to these behaviors, and neither partner’s narcissism was related to positive displays. So narcissistic women were more hostile, and their partners tended to be more hostile and angry during the discussion.

Gender, then, clearly plays a role in how narcissism manifests in relationships. Specifically, the evidence suggests that women's narcissism may be especially problematic in the context of relationships. In another study that followed newlyweds for four years, it was, again, wives', not husbands', narcissism that was related to increasing marital problems and decreasing satisfaction over time.6 The authors hypothesize that this pattern occurs because women’s traits and behavior generally tend to affect relationships more7, something I recently discussed in a post on discrepancies between partners' levels of commitment.

These results can also be interpreted in light of overall gender differences in narcissism: Men, on average, are more narcissistic than women.8 So another possibility is that because women are generally less narcissistic, their narcissistic behavior comes as more of a shock to partners and more of a norm violation, leading to more problems.5

The Implications

These results also showed that narcissists didn’t necessarily demonstrate a less positive affect. They were actually just as likely to laugh and smile and show enjoyment in their interactions as non-narcissists. The authors posit that this is consistent with the idea that narcissists tend to play games, being hot and cold with their partners. Narcissists can get away with greater hostile behavior, in part  because they balance it with more positive behavior. If they were negative all the time, they would likely be less successful in attracting and keeping partners.

This research also shows that it is not just the narcissists themselves who behave badly. Their behavior may also affect their partners. Interacting with a hostile, egotistical person, not surprisingly, can elicit hostility and anger. If you believe that your partner is narcissistic, it may be valuable to not only observe how they treat you, but to observe your own behavior as well: Is your partner bringing out the worst in you?

Because these findings are correlational, it's unclear if narcissistic women cause partners to become angry or hostile because of their behavior, or if they are just more likely to have hostile and angry partners in the first place. 

It should be noted that the results of this study may not apply to longer-established relationships. The sample was fairly small, and the couples who participated were young and typically involved in relatively short relationships. It is likely that the behavior of narcissists and their partners changes over the course of a relationship. Perhaps narcissists’ positive behavior declines over time, once they are assured of their partners’ long-term commitment. Or, more optimistically, maybe these couples develop more adaptive ways of interacting. But overall, this latest study adds to the evidence that it’s advisable to avoid getting into a relationship with a narcissist.