There’s a point at which you know you’re dating a narcissist

Not so great on reflection.
Not so great on reflection.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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There’s a relationship pattern some people will recognize: You meet a new person who comes across as intensely charming. Everyone seems to like them, which makes sense, since they’re fun, attentive, and interesting. But at some point, things shift. What felt like affectionate teasing now has a nastier edge. Comments seem designed to undermine, and the confidence that was once so attractive starts to seem just a little more like boasting.

If that sounds familiar, the chances are you’ve fallen for a particular kind of narcissist. And according to new research led by psychologists at the University of Münster in Germany, they’re displaying a set of behaviors that tend to make that group really good at getting into relationships, and then equally good at ruining them.

Previous research had already found that individuals who display high levels of narcissism tend to have more successful romantic lives in the short term than people without those traits, but less long-term success. The psychologists wanted to know exactly why that was. Their findings suggest that in particular relationships there’s a point where one pattern of behavior is swapped for another, darker kind.

A theory developed prior to this research likens dating a narcissist to eating a chocolate cake: It’s great in the short-term, but in the long term, you may regret it. Putting aside the politics of food-related guilt, the analogy is useful because it highlights the idea that the same component—all that sugar and fat—make the cake delicious, but also cause regret later on. The Münster researchers suggested instead that instead of seeing the problem as all stemming from the same source, there might in fact be two distinct, different traits of narcissists: One that makes them great at getting into relationships, and the second that makes those relationships fail.

“We propose that distinguishing between these two narcissistic dimensions might be a crucial point for explaining the diverging interpersonal outcomes of narcissism in short-term versus long-term romantic contexts,” the authors wrote. Through seven studies with a total of 3,560 participants, they found evidence that supported their two-traits theory.

The first, called “admiration,” is a person’s desire to be liked. This trait is paramount during the “emerging zone,” or early part of relationships. It manifests as ability to charm, self-assurance, and the desire to entertain others which might encourage their approval. People who were found, via an initial questionnaire, to have high levels of narcissism, were more likely to be romantically successful on a number of measures. The studies included video and in-person assessment by members of the opposite sex, and involved interviews, meetings between strangers, and some existing couples. They focused on people who were heterosexual.

But then the problems start.

The second trait the researchers identified, called “rivalry,” is also common among those identified as narcissistic. This characteristic can lead people to put others down, seek to exploit them, or make them insensitive to the needs of a partner, for example to feel safe and appreciated. Over the course of the studies, the researchers found rivalry was the “driving force behind strategies that pose risks to romantic relationship success,” especially in the long term. They included a dysfunctional coping after “transgressions,” high levels of conflict, and a lower opinion of their partner. The point at which those behaviors emerge marks the turn from a relationship led by the admiration trait, to one in which rivalry is the dominant dynamic.

The study, published in February in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, didn’t find that all narcissists shared both traits. And perhaps unsurprisingly, those who displayed most rivalry were less good than some others at getting into relationships in the first place.

For those with experience of dating a person who does have both traits, though, the findings might help explain that tricky and hard-to-pin-down moment when a shiny new romance stops producing dopamine, and instead leads to a sense of obscure insecurity. In this respect, suggest the researchers, it’s less like a cake and more like a cigarette: The nicotine might make you feel great for a moment, but another ingredient—the tar—has a much more unpleasant character.