The quality of grandiose narcissism, in which people need to see themselves as superior to everyone else, is not that compatible with good social relationships and especially not good romantic relationships. It’s not pleasant to be with a partner who always needs to show his or her superiority over you. However, there is one slight exception to this general rule, and that pertains to the fact that people high in narcissism can have a certain flair that makes them seem quite attractive — to those who don’t know them well. Charisma, charm (though superficial), and their enjoyment of being the center of attention can lead others to be drawn to them. As time goes on, though, things can turn sour.

   Susan Krauss    Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. is currently a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The author of over 160 refereed articles and book chapters and 16 books (many in multiple editions and translations), her most recent popular work is The Search for Fulfillment.

Editor:  Nadeem Noor

New research based on a set of studies carried out by University of Munster’s Stefanie Wurst and colleagues (2017) shows why relationships with narcissists can have a downward trajectory. The basic framework of the study compared grandiose narcissism to a chocolate cake: In the short run, you enjoy all that deliciousness, but later you start to regret having eaten it, due to the extra calories you’ve consumed. The model of grandiose narcissism tested in this study, labeled “Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Concept,” or “NARC,” proposes that narcissists strive to inflate their self-esteem in a two-dimensional way. The Admiration dimension involves the desire to seek approval from others and receive the positive social outcomes of being liked. The Rivalry dimension refers to the tendency of people high in narcissism to want to out-do others or to “protect oneself from a negative self-view by derogating others” (p. 282).

The German researchers tested the NARC model by conducting an elaborate series of investigations intended to parcel out the effects of the two dimensions of narcissism on relationship quality measures at both the early and later stages of a couple’s history. The crux of their approach rested on the NARQ, a questionnaire measure previously tested by Back et al. (2013) in their study of narcissism’s “bright” (admiration) and “dark” (rivalry) sides. Here are examples of NARQ questions for each dimension:

Admiration dimension:

1. Mostly, I am very adept at dealing with people.

2. Being a very special person gives me a lot of strength.

3. I am great.

Rivalry dimension:

1. Most people are somehow losers.

2. I want my rivals to fail.

3. I can barely stand it if another person is at the center of events.

You might be wondering how anyone could be attracted to a person who endorses the items on the Admiration dimension. However, keep in mind that this is how people respond to a questionnaire; it is not necessarily how the same individuals would behave when they’re trying to win someone over. You might also think that being high in rivalry would condemn you to never being liked by anyone else. However, as shown in the Wurst et al. study, the desire to beat others doesn’t show up right away in new relationships.

One set of the seven studies reported on in this investigation examined how attracted people would be in simulated short-term relationship settings (such as ratings based on videos) to individuals who previously completed the NARQ. Across these simulations, Admiration but not Rivalry predicted such relationship features as attractiveness as a potential mate; desirability as a short-term partner; and likeability. Those high in the Admiration dimension of narcissism also saw themselves as being attractive as mates, a factor which probably enhances their appeal when they meet new people. In short, those who believe in their own greatness but don’t do so at the expense of others can have a great deal of magnetic appeal to those who don’t know them very well.

Having established the positive contribution of narcissistic admiration to short-term romantic success, Wurst and her team then went on to assess the two dimensions of narcissism as predictors of long-term relationship outcomes. As expected, Rivalry negatively predicted relationship success as measured by a variety of indicators, outweighing Admiration. To a certain extent, Admiration could help to negate the impact of Rivalry on long-term relationship outcomes, and Rivalry can also taint a relationship in its opening stages. Nevertheless, the preponderance of data supported NARC’s prediction of the two-fold nature of narcissism’s effect on relationship quality in comparing early to late stages.

Although this study didn’t track couples over time, there’s an implicit trajectory in their data that works as follows: Having gotten into a relationship with a person who sweeps you off your feet with his or her outward charm, it’s unlikely you’ll notice right away that this magnetic individual seems to relish undercutting the good efforts of others. You might also not be aware until you get further down the road that this person constantly tries to thwart your own efforts to succeed, and resents it when you do.  

As shown in the German study, the problems that rivalry creates in a long-term relationship include unwillingness to forgive transgressions; a tendency to get into arguments; and a critical attitude toward a partner in general. In the words of the authors, “Once the relationship becomes more settled… more communal character traits seem to increase in importance for romantic success (e.g. low selfishness, a propensity to forgive, sensitivity, supporting and caring qualities), because a lack of them … provokes serious romantic problems in the long run” (p. 298). The authors also conclude that of the two, narcissistic admiration is less poisonous for a relationship than narcissistic rivalry. You can think of yourself as great, and as long as you don’t resent or thwart your partner’s own greatness, your relationship isn’t fated to fall apart.

Because we normally think of narcissism in such negative terms, the Wurst et al. study is surprising in pointing out some of narcissism's adaptive qualities. If you’re getting involved with a person high in these “bright” narcissistic tendencies, though, it’s wise to be on the lookout for the appearance of the less favorable qualities involved in rivalry. A partner who truly cares about you should root for your successes, and not your failures.

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