Can A Relationship With A Narcissist Ever Work? New Study Says Maybe
In this day and age, narcissism has become a bit of a buzzword in the world of modern dating. The term refers to a specific pattern of behavior marked by grandiosity, extreme self-centeredness, and lack of empathy, among other narcissistic traits. These qualities definitely make a person hard to be around, and dating a narcissist can often be a harrowing experience.
That said, a recent study published in the 1Journal of Social and Personal Relationships1 suggests that some nuance is warranted when it comes to talking about relationships with narcissists.
Studying the effects of dating a narcissist
For this study, researchers wanted to understand how a person's mental health is impacted by a romantic partner prone to two different types of narcissistic behavior: narcissistic rivalry and narcissistic admiration.
Narcissistic rivalry refers to antagonistic behaviors toward others meant to protect the narcissist's grandiose self-image, such as being aggressive and devaluing others in order to make yourself look good or seem better than them.
Narcissistic admiration refers to behaviors with the same purpose—trying to boost your own self-image and emphasize how superior you are—but by means of being charming and confident around others so that they might admire you.
To study how these behaviors impact a narcissist's partner in a romantic context, the researchers looked at data from a survey of over 7,000 German couples (specifically relationships involving one man and one woman) who currently lived together. The survey asked each partner questions about their mental health and their various personality traits and behaviors, including ones associated with narcissism.
What they found
What the researchers found surprised them: Having a partner high in these narcissistic behaviors actually had little to no impact on a person's mental health, contrary to what they expected. "The expected direct effects on romantic partners did not emerge," they wrote in the paper.
There was one exception, wherein women, in particular, did tend to have lower mental health when they had a male partner with particularly high tendencies toward narcissistic rivalry (i.e., behaviors like aggression and devaluing others). But even then, an additional analysis suggested that those negative effects on the woman's mental health may have actually had less to do with the partner's narcissism and more to do with tangential personality traits that tended to come with it—like low agreeableness and extroversion.
"The lack of a clear link between someone's narcissism and their partner's mental health was surprising and did not support our hypotheses," Leopold Maria Lautenbacher, M.S., a psychology researcher who led the study, told PsyPost.
The team emphasized that more research is necessary to validate these seemingly confusing findings, but they conclude that these narcissistic behaviors may not actually matter much for the mental health of one's romantic partner.
What people often get wrong about dating a narcissist
"Having a rather narcissistic romantic partner does not have to automatically sound the death knell for your own mental health," Lautenbacher explained. "We did not detect clear trends of worse (or better) mental health for individuals with increasingly narcissistic partners."
But there's a big caveat to that, he pointed out: "Keep in mind that we are not talking about Narcissistic Personality Disorder here—the results are restricted to non-pathological, interindividual differences in narcissism."
The thing is, we all have some levels of narcissism, and not every person with narcissistic traits necessarily has full-blown narcissistic personality disorder (the clinical diagnosis for extreme narcissism). As licensed therapist Alyssa Mancao, LCSW, previously told mbg, "It's very common for most people to demonstrate narcissistic behaviors." She adds, "These behaviors come and go and do not last very long, nor do they have significant impairments in your relationships."
None of this is to say that you should tolerate unacceptable behavior from narcissists in relationships, of course. Narcissistic abuse is real, and it's important to know the warning signs and to end a relationship with a narcissist if abusive behavior emerges.
That said, studies like these suggest it is possible to date a narcissist without the dynamic necessarily becoming toxic for your mental health.
Not every relationship with a narcissist is automatically a disaster. While narcissistic behavior is often a red flag, it's important to recognize the nuances when it comes to narcissism.
As psychologist Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., writes for mbg, "Provided there is no abuse at play and you feel good about remaining in the relationship, there are ways you can learn how to lovingly tolerate—and even connect with—the narcissist in your life."
If you find yourself in that situation and are up for the challenge, she's got a whole guide to loving a narcissist while also making sure you're looking out for your own well-being, too.
Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.
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