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Jealousy In Relationships May Be Linked To Narcissism, New Study Finds

Kelly Gonsalves
November 12, 2019
Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
November 12, 2019

A narcissist is someone with an inflated ego and an unrealistic sense of self-importance. They can wreak havoc on their relationships because of their desire to assert their power or superiority over their partner and their lack of concern for their partner's feelings or well-being. Narcissism, indeed, has been linked with psychological abuse in relationships—that is, things like controlling your romantic partner, isolating them, criticizing them, and other types of abusive behaviors that can cause serious psychological damage. 

All that might make you think it'd be really easy or obvious to steer clear of narcissists when it comes to relationships, but not every narcissist displays their narcissistic behavior so obviously, especially at the start of a relationship. 

But a new study1 suggests there might be one helpful hint that you're dating a narcissist who might be apt to abuse you once you get close: jealousy.

As the researchers explain in the paper, recently published in the Journal of Psychology, there are actually two kinds of narcissism: grandiose and vulnerable. A grandiose narcissist has all the qualities we usually associate with narcissism: They're arrogant, entitled, and self-centered; refuse to acknowledge their faults and mistakes; and are willing to hurt others (or are altogether indifferent to other people's suffering) to make themselves feel superior. 

Vulnerable narcissists, on the other hand, are not as domineering. The researchers describe this type of narcissist tends to be "timid, embarrassed, and anxious, with a frail self-esteem that is influenced and regulated by the responses of others." They have just as much of an inflated ego as their grandiose siblings, but because of it, they're very sensitive to criticism and rejection because of the threat to their ego.

The researchers wanted to understand how these two forms of narcissism are linked to psychological abuse and what role romantic jealousy might play. They surveyed 473 adults currently involved in a stable romantic relationship about their personalities, behaviors toward their partners, and levels of romantic jealousy.

Mirroring previous studies, grandiose narcissism was directly related to psychological abuse—jealousy wasn't really a significant factor for this more obvious type of narcissist.

But what about that more subtle form of narcissism? Vulnerable narcissists, it turns out, also tended to be more psychologically abusive—but jealousy was the mediating factor. In other words, vulnerable narcissists tended to be way more jealous than the average person, and in turn, that degree of jealousy was associated with psychologically abusive behavior.

"These results can be understood by taking into consideration previous studies, which have highlighted that vulnerable narcissists experience high anxiety within interpersonal relationships, are highly sensitive to separation signals, and feel greater distress at the time of separation," the researchers write. "These individual characteristics, in turn, could reflect higher vigilance to potential threats to their own romantic relationships, consequently increasing their jealousy feelings."

And when your narcissism enables you to commit terrible acts of cruelty on others to preserve your own sense of self-worth, more jealousy means you'll likely be more controlling, more isolating, and more critical to try to protect yourself from those threats.

Not every jealous person is a narcissist or abusive, of course, but this study does suggest there's a link to be wary of in your relationships. If jealousy seems to be bringing out the worst in your partner, it may be worth it to reflect on whether they display other signs of narcissism and then evaluate whether you need to leave the relationship to stay safe.

Kelly Gonsalves author page.
Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor

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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