For narcissists, extrinsic traits like attractiveness are important for a happy relationship

Psychology research has found that narcissists are more satisfied with their romantic relationship when their partner meets their extrinsic ideals.

The study of 206 adults found that most people value intrinsic traits like warmth and trustworthiness in their romantic partners. But more narcissistic people tend to value extrinsic traits like physical attractiveness and social status more than less narcissistic people.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s author, Gwendolyn Seidman, about the research.

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Seidman: I have always been interested in how romantic partners view one another, and have been studying these processes since my dissertation work. Before I began this particular project, I read an article (by Lindsay Rodriguez and colleagues) that found that people were happier with romantic partners who met their “intrinsic” relationship ideals, and whether not partners met “extrinsic” ideals was less important.

Intrinsic qualities are those that are essential to relationship functioning and make the relationship personally fulfilling, such as having a partner who is warm, trustworthy, and loyal. Extrinsic qualities are those relate more to how outsiders might view your relationship, such as physical attractiveness and status.

When I read that article, I thought it was a very interesting take on the topic of partner ideals, but my second thought was “this is definitely not going to be true for narcissists.” So drawing on the literature on narcissism, I decided to test that out.

What should the average person take away from your study?

Those who are highly narcissistic tend to value extrinsic traits, such as physical attractiveness and status, and are happier with their relationships when their partners meet those ideals. Having a partner who meets one’s ideals on warmth and trustworthiness is less important. For those low in narcissism, it is especially important to have a partner who meets those warmth and trustworthiness ideals, and having a partner who met status and attractiveness ideals was unrelated to satisfaction.

Are there any major caveats?

The major caveat here involves the sample. It was primarily college students, so these relationships were relatively new. It’s not clear if this would apply to couples who have been together for many years. Perhaps these more superficial qualities are pleasing to narcissists in the short term, but become less important in the long term. On the other hand, traits like status and financial resources might become more important in longer term relationships where personal finances are more salient (the Rodriguez study I mentioned in my first answer also relied on an undergraduate sample).

What questions still need to be addressed?

Going along with what I said in your third question, it’s not clear from my research or the Rodriguez research how these processes play out in longer term relationships. It would also be interesting to see how all of this affects narcissists’ partners. Past research has shown that the partners of narcissists tend to be especially happy early in their relationships, but then satisfaction takes a nosedive, and by the time the relationship ends, they are especially unhappy.

There are likely many reasons for this, but one possibility is that they are negatively affected by the standards and expectations their partners have for them. Other research has shown that people who pursue extrinsic goals (such as having an attractive appearance and gaining the admiration of others), in general, are less happy than those who pursue intrinsic goals (seeking personal growth). So if narcissists are pressuring their partners to pursue extrinsic goals, this could make them less happy.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

It’s important to remember that this research, and other similar research on narcissism, is focusing on narcissistic personality traits. Those who score highly on a measure of narcissism in a study like this do not necessary have narcissistic personality disorder. Some participants might qualify for the disorder (and these would be people with especially high narcissism scores), but the data don’t allow us to determine if they do, and it is likely that most of the participants in these sorts of studies do not.

Also, this research needs to be considered within the broader context of narcissism research. Narcissists tend to prefer agency (the ability to get things done) over communion (the ability to get along with other people). But that doesn’t mean narcissists don’t need other people. It’s just that what they want from them is different than what non-narcissists want. Narcissists need other people to admire them and be impressed by them. So their romantic partners should admire them, and they will seek romantic partners that can boost their own status (i.e., impress others with their trophy partner). Non-narcissists want to form caring relationships with others and want others to like and trust them – being admired is less important.

The study, “Narcissism, intrinsic and extrinsic romantic ideals, and relationship satisfaction,” was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.