A new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality suggests that one of the reasons why it is difficult to have a healthy relationship with a narcissist is due to their inability to exhibit partner-enhancement, i.e, the tendency to perceive a romantic partner as better than oneself.
Psychologists Anna Czarna and Magdalena Śmieja from the Jagiellonian University in Poland explain the inspiration for their research:
“We observed multiple couples where both partners seemed to be working in the same field and wondered how they dealt with competition with each other, how they avoided the pitfalls of comparisons with each other, and how such comparisons impacted their relationships. Some couples appeared perfectly able to perform this balancing act and maintain very high opinions of self and partner and respect for each other while others did not.”
To explore why this might be, Czarna and Śmieja conducted a series of surveys that measured couples’ self-esteem, narcissism, partner-enhancement, relationship duration, and relationship quality. Three key findings emerged:
- Individuals low on narcissism enhanced their partners in their earlier but not the later stages of their relationships
- Individuals high on narcissism showed little partner-enhancement throughout all relationship stages
- Instead, high narcissists indulged in self-enhancement
According to the researchers, partner-enhancement contributes significantly to the health and longevity of a romantic relationship in the following ways:
- More effective conflict coping
- Less usage of negative communication
- An inclination to higher levels of commitment
“Partner-enhancement seems to work as a sort of ‘inoculation’ against less favorable interpretations of partner’s behavior in situations of conflict,” explain the authors. “It may prevent perceiving a partner’s intentions as mean or malevolent. Instead, those who enhance their partners likely make more favorable attributions of their partner’s actions.”
In the case of narcissists, however, the researchers suggest that self-enhancement overtakes partner-enhancement.
“Highly narcissistic individuals are basically addicted to self-esteem,” they elaborate. “They crave for ego boosts and use all opportunities to get them. Their relentless desire for self-enhancement makes it hard to refrain from it within close and intimate relationships. Most importantly, they tend to attach higher value to agency, personal achievements, and success than to communion and relationship well-being.”
The researchers also found an unexpected gender effect: male narcissists seemed to be particularly enhanced by their female partners.
“Women tended to perceive their highly narcissistic male partners as superior to themselves,” say the authors. “This result might play into folk psychology (‘women like bad boys’) and also popular stereotypes about male narcissists who are found attractive, popular, and perceived positively by their female admirers.”
The researchers emphasize, however, that the effects were short-lived; male narcissists become unpopular as their socially aversive qualities like selfishness, dishonesty, and exploitativeness are noticed.
In the future, Czarna and Śmieja would like to explore which facets, or ‘flavors,’ of narcissism play the biggest role in relationship outcomes.
“Building on this knowledge is a necessary step in designing future interventions that could be useful in couples counseling,” they conclude.
A full interview with psychologists Anna Czarna and Magdalena Śmieja discussing their research can be found here: One tell-tale sign that your partner may be a narcissist