You believe that your relationship with your partner is happy, and that your partner is as content as you are. Or perhaps there’s a co-worker with whom you’ve always gotten along well, and you feel safe that there’s trust between you.
But what if things aren’t really going that well? What if you’ve been doing something that drives your romantic partner or co-worker absolutely nuts? Maybe that relationship isn’t as secure as you believe it to be after all. Perhaps we all have somewhat of a blind eye to our own flaws and therefore don’t realize that the eyes of our nearest and dearest aren’t that blind. New research on people high in narcissistic traits shows just how off-base our perceptions can be about the quality of our relationships.
-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: Saad Shaheed
According to Albright College’s Gwendolyn Seidman (2016), most people value warmth and loyalty—the intrinsic qualities to a relationship—more than the status, attractiveness, or even passion of their partners, or their extrinsic qualities. Warmth and loyalty are qualities you only find in certain people, and they are at the core of a relationship. Status, attractiveness, and passion are qualities that are interchangeable among partners. They do not represent the unique qualities of the person or persons you care about the most. If these extrinsic qualities are what you seek, you’ll be less likely to see your partner, co-workers, or friends for what they and they alone can bring to a relationship.
When you believe your relationship to be on an even keel while it's really not, you inadvertently fail to connect with the intrinsic features of your partner. You're distracted by the superficial features of the relationship, such as whether your partner is attractive or "fun" enough for you. You forget what drew you to that person in the first place. It’s also possible that you take for granted the very qualities that form a bond between you two.
At that point, you are on your way to ruining a perfectly good relationship even without intending to do so.
The Seidman study suggests that people high in the trait of narcissism are especially likely to proceed down the path of ruining a good relationship. Looking at narcissism as a personality disposition, which ranges from low to high in all of us, we can see that anyone can become capable of taking those relationship-poisoning steps, but narcissistic traits make it more likely that you'll be the one to do so. To be high in narcissism implies that you see yourself in an overly idealistic, positive light. You also believe that you’re a highly desirable partner and assume that therefore, anyone should be attracted to you. This means that you can start to take the people in your life for granted because you see them as interchangeable and ultimately switchable for people who are more attractive, or of higher status, or both.
People high in narcissism, Seidman points out, also value so-called “agentic” traits such as ambition, high intelligence, and extraversion, and they don’t value morality and warmth. They want to be around people they perceive as high in status because it makes them feel better about themselves. Rather than promote closeness with others through commitment, they tend to engage in manipulative forms of game-playing.
Seidman gave questionnaires to 206 young adults, primarily women, nearly 70 percent of whom were romantically involved. The questionnaires measured narcissism as a personality trait, as well as the extent to which participants valued in their partners the qualities of warmth/trustworthiness, vitality/attractiveness, and status/resources. Participants also rated whether they believed that intimacy/loyalty was more important than passion (excitement and fun). Participants also rated how satisfactory their relationships were on the dimensions of satisfaction, commitment, intimacy, trust, passion, and love.
From the findings, it appears that people high in narcissism place greater value on extrinsic qualities of their partners, and tend to see their partners as inferior on these very same qualities. This becomes the crux of the problem for such individuals seeking to maintain their relationships over time. As Seidman notes, “Given their ideal standards, narcissists are more likely to push partners for extrinsic changes” (p. 1028). This, in turn, creates pressure on the partners to change in ways that may not be consistent with their own desires, and they in turn "become less happy since pursuing intrinsic goals leads to greater well-being” (p. 1028).
Now that we see how people high in narcissism sow the seeds of discontent in their relationships, here is how—without your awareness—the process can work in your own relationships.
Following are five ways to ruin your closest, and best, relationships:
1. Make demands that the other person live up to your standards instead of their own. By pushing people to live up to an image you project as important, you create resentment and discontent.
2. Fail to build trust and loyalty. The intrinsic, emotion-focused qualities that people have are necessary to form close, lasting relationships. If you only focus on the superficial, you will fail to bond at a deeper level.
3. Fixate on the external trappings more than on what really counts. If you are constantly expecting those in your life to look the part but not adopt those crucial intrinsic qualities, they will eventually feel less motivated to do either. Allow them to express their individuality and even encourage them to fulfill their inner strivings.
4. Violate the trust that you and your partner have established. People who are high in narcissism don’t value trust or loyalty, but instead try to achieve recognition. If your partner or a co-worker senses that you’re likely to throw him or her under the bus, it will erode the foundation on which good relationships are built.
5. Fail to see your own foibles. Those high in narcissism have high standards for others but don’t apply those same standards to themselves. Recognizing your own weaknesses and contributions to problems will eventually lead your partner to resent your constant demands for perfection.
There may be 50 ways to leave your lover, as the song says, but these five ways to get your lover to leave you are just as problematic. Similarly, in non-romantic relationships, we can expect that connections with co-workers and friends can be ruined in a similar fashion. By avoiding these paths to relationship self-destruction, you and those around you will be better able to benefit from the intrinsic qualities that form our strongest bonds.