One Tell-Tale Sign That Your Partner May Be A Narcissist

Psychologists suggest that 'partner enhancement' is often missing in relationships with narcissists.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | May 3, 2022

A new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality confirms that narcissistic individuals are likely to look down on their partners as they do not experience 'partner-enhancement', i.e, perceiving their romantic partner more positively than one's self.

I recently spoke to psychologists Anna Czarna and Magdalena Śmieja from the Jagiellonian University in Poland to understand the effects of partner enhancement on the quality of romantic relationships. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to study the relationship between relationship length, narcissism, and partner enhancement?

I have been interested in how relationships with narcissistic individuals work. What seemed particularly puzzling was how the partners of highly narcissistic people were able to maintain relationships with individuals who are used to looking down on other people, very likely including their own partners.

I had this nagging thought that perhaps the partners of highly narcissistic individuals are simply unaware of how they are perceived by their narcissistic companions and this is the reason why they were able to remain in these relationships.

Naturally, there is a particular assumption underlying these thoughts: the assumption that everybody desires to be evaluated highly and respected by their partner and that it is difficult to have a relationship with someone who looks down on you.

I observed multiple couples (also in academia, which is populated by individuals rather high in narcissism) where both partners seemed to be working in the same field and I have 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 both: very high opinions of self and partner and respect for each other and a high quality, supportive relationship, while others did not.

These observations inspired me to study self-partner comparisons (so, partner-enhancement and self-enhancement) among persons differing in their levels of narcissism.

What are some of the reasons that partner-enhancement would decline from earlier to later relationship stages of a relationship?

There might be several reasons.

Growing acquaintance and growing expectations that accompany growing closeness and interdependence are likely reasons why the initial "seeing the partner through rose-colored glasses" declines as a relationship progresses in time.

With expectations increasing, disappointments become more likely.

All this happens while the initial novelty and excitement of the relationship wears off. The partner who was originally a source of very strong positive experiences is becoming familiar and hence less exciting.

Another reason might be a more general cognitive bias: human beings tend to be more sensitive to and more easily remember negative behaviors, thus making all undesirable behaviors, reactions, and words of a partner more impactful.

Naturally, the "record" of such failings of a partner tends to grow as the relationship progresses.

Sometimes, this process results in actual disillusionment and major disappointment, when initial perception and expectations were unrealistically high (and became even higher with increasing interdependence).

Most of the time, however, we assume, this process results in a still positive, yet more attenuated and realistic, perception of a partner.

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages that partner enhancement can have on a relationship?

Earlier research shows that partner-enhancement has many advantages for a relationship.

Couples who show partner-enhancement, i.e. where partners perceive each other as better than themselves, cope more effectively with conflicts, use less negative communication, and have higher relationship satisfaction.

Such couples are also more likely to progress in commitment, moving from dating to engagement and marriage.

Partner-enhancement seems to work as a sort of "inoculation" against less favorable interpretations of partner's behavior in situations of conflict: 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.

Disadvantages of partner-enhancement are less known. One is the risks of disappointment when partner-enhancement goes too far and partner perception becomes detached from reality. This however is a speculation that requires further empirical verification.

Furthermore, researchers have also established that it is beneficial to maintain idealizing views of a partner on a more general ("global") level where these views remain unverifiable and amount to overall positive evaluations (e.g., "my partner is a very good human being").

Yet, it is also beneficial to have realistic views of a partner on a more "detailed", verifiable level that pertains to expectations of behaviors (e.g., it is not advisable to maintain a belief that a partner is an excellent cook when the partner does not cook).

Are couples where individuals manifest self-enhancement rather than partner enhancement less likely to succeed? Please elaborate.

Yes, existing research shows that couples who manifest self-enhancement (i.e., where individuals evaluate themselves more favorably than their partner) are more likely to experience dissatisfaction and face relationship dissolution.

In the past, over two decades, there was a debate in psychology on the advantages and disadvantages of self-enhancement, i.e. on the links of self-enhancement to psychological adjustment and on psychological costs of self-enhancement (two of our colleagues: Michael Dufner and Constantine Sedikides made important contributions to this debate).

It led to a consensus that self-enhancement, considering oneself as e.g., more intelligent than others, does indeed bring multiple advantages to individuals. For one, it is generally beneficial for personal adjustment but it remains a mixed blessing for interpersonal adjustment.

Functioning in a close relationship might be a domain where interpersonal costs of self-enhancement are particularly acute. Few people want to be in a close relationship with someone who clearly considers himself or herself superior to them. Such cognitions likely have straightforward negative effects on behavior and attitudes toward a partner.

Hence, it might be best to foster positive, even self-enhancing, views outside of close relationships.

Love and self-enhancement do not mix well.

Why are narcissists less likely to partner-enhance in their relationships?

Highly narcissistic individuals are basically addicted to self-esteem.

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 also 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.

Your research speaks about how narcissism and self-esteem are characterized by positive self-views, yet they often have divergent effects on interpersonal functioning. Could you please describe some of these opposing effects?

While narcissism and self-esteem are correlated and both characterized by positive self-views, our research results show that it is exclusively narcissism and not self-esteem that is responsible for self-enhancement in close relationships (self-esteem did not have consistent effects for self-enhancement in our studies).

This remains in line with multiple earlier studies that showed divergent associations and consequences of narcissism and self-esteem for both intra- and interpersonal functioning.

While self-esteem has predominantly positive effects, both for individuals and for couples, narcissism, especially when analyzed separately "without" its high self-esteem component (i.e., when this component was statistically removed/controlled), shows numerous negative effects.

In fact, high self-esteem might exactly be the part of narcissism that is responsible for narcissists' resilience, persistence in striving for their goals, and psychological health.

Once self-esteem is "removed" or "collapses" (e.g. when facing a setback, a failure, or other ego threat), narcissism brings about aggression, hostility, sadness and depression, loneliness, and anxiety.

Did you find any gender differences or other demographic differences within your research? What were their significance?

Yes, indeed, we found an intriguing, though unexpected gender effect: in our couple study, we found that male narcissists were enhanced by their female partners.

In other words, women tended to perceive their highly narcissistic male partners as superior to themselves.

This was particularly true during earlier relationship stages. At later relationship stages, this effect declined.

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.

It is important to note that this effect was short-lived. Male narcissists elicit more positive impressions only earlier and not later in relationships.

The latter effect remains in line with theory and findings showing that while narcissists are popular at zero and early stages of acquaintance, their popularity declines due to their socially aversive qualities, such as selfishness, manifesting in dishonesty and exploitative behaviors.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on this topic go in the future?

Follow-up research could include longitudinal, perhaps diary studies that would track how partner perceptions change over time and with an increasing number of more common experiences.

It is important that such studies look at perceptions of both partners and track how they interact with each other.

Also, it would be interesting to see in more detail which "flavors" and facets of narcissism (admirative, rivalrous, communal, vulnerable) play the most important roles in partner perceptions.

Generally speaking, studying cognitions and also emotions of narcissistic individuals helps us better understand their motivations and behaviors. Hence, building this knowledge is a necessary step in order to predict their behaviors in the future and it is essential in designing future interventions that could be useful, e.g. in couples counseling.