Narcissism negatively predicts partner improvement in romantic relationships

In the early stages of a romantic relationship, people tend to overestimate their partner’s qualities and view their partner more positively than themselves. This is called partner enhancement, and new research is appearing in the Personality Research Journal found that narcissistic individuals do not enhance partners to the same extent as non-narcissistic individuals.

Research shows that partner improvement tends to decrease as relationship satisfaction increases. “Couples who manifest partner improvement deal more effectively with disappointment or conflict and experience lower expectations of a partner change, less negative communication, and higher relationship satisfaction,” study author Anna Z. Czarna and colleagues explained. “Conversely, couples who demonstrate self-improvement (i.e., individuals who view themselves more positively than their partner) are likely to experience relationship dissatisfaction and face relationship dissolution.”

Therefore, the researchers became interested in narcissism as a personality trait and how individuals with narcissistic tendencies engage in partner improvement (or not) in romantic relationships.

For Study 1, researchers recruited 70 adult participants involved in a romantic relationship to complete the online study. They completed measures to rate the length of their relationship, level of self-esteem, level of partner improvement they engage in, and narcissistic personality.

Results show that relationship length was not associated with partner improvement. However, narcissism influenced this pattern in that those with lower levels of narcissism engaged in partner betterment earlier (rather than later) in the relationship. Those with high levels of narcissism, on the other hand, did not show partner improvement at any stage of the relationship.

Study 2 attempted to replicate these results with a larger sample size and using different measures of narcissism and partner enhancement. Researchers recruited 412 adult participants involved in a romantic relationship. They measured the same variables as in Study 1, but used different measures of partner enhancement and narcissism.

In general, the results indicated that neither relationship length nor narcissism were associated with partner improvement. Consistent with Study 1, those with lower levels of narcissism were partner-reinforced in earlier relationship stages but not in later stages. Those who had higher levels of narcissism did not improve their partner at any relationship stage.

For Study 3, the researchers tested both Partners in a sample of 84 couples using the same measures as in the previous studies (narcissism measure from Study 2 and partner improvement measure from Study 1). Results showed that shorter relationship duration was associated with higher partner improvement, but only in men, which was generally consistent with previous findings.

“Among men, low narcissists reinforced their partners earlier (but not later) in the relationship, while high narcissists consistently reinforced themselves. Among women, low narcissists reinforced their partners earlier and later (though less) in the relationship, while high narcissists consistently reinforced themselves.”

The authors cite some limitations of this work, including the self-selective nature of the recruitment strategies, the predominantly female composition of the Study 2 sample, and the inclusion of only young, heterosexual relationships in the Study 3 sample.

The study “Narcissism and Partner Improvement in Different Phases of Relationships” was authored by Anna Z. Czarna, Magdalena Śmieja, Maria Wider, Michael Dufner and Constantine Sedikides.

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