Key points

  • Those low in narcissism tend to enhance their partner early in their relationship, but high narcissists don't.
  • Narcissistic individuals, particularly men, tended to have partners who viewed them especially positively early in the relationship.
  • The partners of narcissists may be missing out on the key relationship benefits of being enhanced.
Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash
Source: Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash

Narcissists tend to be attracted to trophy partners who are high in physical attractiveness or status. They are also well-known for their lack of commitment to partners, game-playing, and tendency to be on the lookout for a better partner. When narcissists do find themselves in long-term relationships, how do they perceive their partners and how might these perceptions change over time?

In order to think a partner is worthy of them, they need to see that partner as sufficiently attractive and high-status. But narcissists have a deep need to feel good about themselves, and this often comes at the expense of other people. That is, they will often puff themselves up compared to others and blame other people for conflicts and problems. While much research shows that happy couples tend to view each other through rose-colored glasses, especially in the early stages of a relationship, what we know about narcissists suggests that this wouldn’t be the case for them. In a series of studies just published in the Journal of Research in Personality, Anna Czarna and colleagues explored how narcissists view their partners relative to themselves and how this might change over the course of a relationship.

In two studies, Czarna and colleagues surveyed individuals involved in romantic relationships, assessing their levels of narcissism and partner enhancement. In the first study, they measured partner enhancement by asking survey respondents to make direct comparisons between themselves and their partner on a series of traits (e.g., physical attractiveness, professional success, showing affection). They asked questions like “who is more physically attractive?” and participants responded with a scale from “decidedly my partner” to “decidedly myself.” In the second study, they asked participants to rate both themselves and their partners on a series of traits (e.g., sociable, intelligent, attractive), and subtracted participants’ self-ratings from their ratings of their partner. Partner enhancement is defined as viewing one’s partner more positively than one views oneself; self-enhancement would be the opposite. The researchers also asked participants to report the length of their current relationship, so they could compare those at early and late stages of their relationships.

In both studies, the researchers found that people low in narcissism tended to enhance their partner if they were in a relatively new relationship, but not if they were in longer relationships. Those who were high in narcissism, on the other hand, did not partner-enhance at any relationship stage.

The first two studies only surveyed one member of a romantic couple. In their third and final study, Czarna and her colleagues surveyed both members of each couple. Both partners completed measures of narcissism and partner enhancement, similar to the earlier studies. Once again the researchers found that those low in narcissism tended to partner enhance if they were in a relatively new relationship, but not if they were in a longer relationship, while those high in narcissism did not partner enhance in either case.

Because this study had data from both partners, they were also able to examine how one’s partner’s narcissism related to one’s own tendency to partner enhance, that is, how does your partner’s narcissism relate to whether you enhance them? They found that subjects high in narcissism were more likely than those low in narcissism to be enhanced by their partners, particularly for male narcissists early in the relationship. This suggests that male narcissists, in particular, are attracted to partners who boost their egos early on.

These findings show that even though narcissists have high standards for their trophy partners, they nonetheless don’t view them very positively when compared to themselves. Thus, narcissists’ partners are missing out on the key relationship benefits of being enhanced by their partners.


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