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How Changes in Narcissism Affect Relationship Satisfaction

Study tests how changes in narcissistic traits relate to satisfaction over time.

Key points

  • How changes over time in two types of narcissistic traits are related to changes in relationship satisfaction.
  • Increases in narcissistic rivalry, a defensive and antagonistic trait, were related to declines in relationship satisfaction.
  • Here are several ways to interpret these research findings.
Source: Photo by Antoni Shkraba on Pexels
Source: Photo by Antoni Shkraba on Pexels

It is well-documented that narcissists don't make good romantic partners. They tend to use their relationships for their own gain and to puff up their own self-image, rather than using relationships as a way to experience intimacy and love. They value superficial qualities, like physical attractiveness and status more than they value qualities that are key to promoting intimacy, such as warmth, loyalty, and trustworthiness, and are actually happiest when their partners possess those qualities. Not surprisingly, partners of narcissistic individuals tend to become unhappy with their relationships over time. Most studies have shown that one's own narcissism is unrelated to overall levels of satisfaction, but one study did find that highly narcissistic women experienced declines in satisfaction over time. But how might fluctuating levels of narcissistic traits themselves, within the same individual, affect the trajectory of a relationship? New research by Elyakim Kislev just published in Social Psychological and Personality Science explored patterns of change in narcissistic personality traits and relationship satisfaction.

Two Dimensions of Narcissism

The new research relied on a conceptualization of narcissism known as the Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Concept. The idea behind this theory is that there are two paths narcissistic individuals can use to boost their egos, and these are reflected in two separate traits: Narcissistic admiration and narcissistic rivalry. Those high in the admiration dimension believe they're unique and special, and try to charm and impress others. Those who are high in the rivalry dimension believe other people are inferior, and take pleasure in seeing their rivals fail. When narcissistic admiration exists on its own, without narcissistic rivalry, it can actually be associated with positive relationship experiences. However, when narcissistic individuals are high in the rivalry dimension, they are prone to multiple relationship problems, including using more destructive conflict strategies and being less forgiving toward their partners.

The Study

The new research used data from a large long-term study of over 8,000 adults in Germany. The sample included those who were married, living together without being married, or living apart, but more than half of the coupled respondents were married. Respondents completed questionnaires assessing their personality and relationship satisfaction at two different time points, two years apart.

For both men and women, increases in narcissistic rivalry over time were associated with declines in satisfaction. The results for narcissistic admiration were less clear, but increases in narcissistic admiration over time were somewhat associated with higher levels of relationship satisfaction for women.


The study provided strong evidence that changes in narcissistic rivalry were associated with changes in relationship satisfaction over time. While the study author framed this finding in terms of how increases in rivalry may contribute to declines in satisfaction, from a statistical standpoint, this finding also means that those who experienced declines in narcissistic rivalry over time felt more satisfied with their relationships. Either way, these results show that a tendency to protect your ego by putting others down does not lead to a happy relationship.

It is also possible that changes in satisfaction contributed to personality changes. Perhaps those whose relationships improved over time felt more accepted by their partners and thus more generous toward their potential rivals. Similarly, those whose relationships went downhill over time may have internalized negative experiences in that relationship and changed the way they see other people, in general, contributing to higher levels of narcissistic rivalry.

Finally, the fact that these variables fluctuated over time also shows that this is a dynamic process. Personality traits can change over time. Increases in destructive traits can take their toll on relationships over the long term, while personality changes in a healthier direction may have the opposite effect.

More from Gwendolyn Seidman Ph.D.
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