New research has uncovered important differences in how narcissism presents itself in women and men, and how these differences are related to intimate partner violence. The findings indicate that a less recognized manifestation of narcissism — known as vulnerable narcissism — is associated with the perpetration of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse among women.
The study has been published in Personality and Individual Differences.
“We were interested in this topic because narcissism in females is poorly understood due to an overreliance on grandiose features of narcissism indicative of males in the literature,” said Ava Green, a lecturer in forensic psychology at City University of London and lead author of the new study.
“Grandiose features of narcissism resemble stereotypically masculine expressions including an inflated self-esteem, physical expressions of aggression, entitlement, excessive need for power, and an authoritarian character style.”
“However, although females are less likely to endorse stereotypically masculine features of narcissism, they tend to align towards vulnerable features of narcissism. Vulnerable traits resemble more feminine expressions, including overt shyness, neuroticism, shame, hypersensitivity, and low self-esteem,” Green explained.
“Maladaptive features of narcissism, such as exploitation, entitlement and lack of empathy play a prominent role in partner violence perpetration. However, the bulk of research has predominantly associated (grandiose) narcissism with men’s perpetration of partner violence behaviors. The aim of our study was therefore to enhance theoretical knowledge regarding narcissistic females as perpetrators of intimate partner violence.”
For their research, Green and her colleagues had 152 men and 176 women complete an assessment of pathological narcissism. The participants also completed surveys regarding intimate partner violence and emotional abuse.
“In our study, we explored gender differences in narcissism using an inventory that captures both grandiosity and vulnerability, and we investigated the extent to which these manifestations predicted partner violence perpetration in intimate relationships,” Green said.
They found that women exhibited significantly higher scores on the vulnerable narcissism scale than male participants.
Green and her colleagues also found that grandiose narcissism predicted men’s perpetration of emotional abuse, while vulnerable narcissism predicted men’s perpetration of physical/sexual abuse. Among female participants, however, only vulnerable narcissism predicted perpetration of both physical/sexual and emotional abuse of a partner.
In other words, women who agreed with statements such as “When others don’t notice me, I start to feel worthless” were more likely to report behaviors such as shoving or hitting their partner, destroying something belonging to their partner, or verbally denigrating their partner.
“The takeaway message from this study is that narcissism manifest itself differently in males and females, and these differences were related to different partner violence outcomes. Whereas both grandiose and vulnerable narcissism predicted partner violence outcomes in males, only vulnerable narcissism predicted physical/sexual and psychological abuse in females,” Green told PsyPost.
“These gender differences provide implications for how narcissism has been traditionally conceptualized and assessed in the literature. Our findings suggest narcissism in females is expressed in more hidden and subtle ways (e.g., devaluing, hiding behind the self) which may not be recognized as stereotypically ‘narcissistic’ when exploiting intimate partners.”
“Our findings are in line with previous theorizations suggesting that narcissistic females may use more discreet and indirect ways to obtain their self-worth. In other words, whereas grandiose features of narcissism may create an acceptable norm about men being more entitled and exploitative, the same pattern in females may be perceived as unconventional and thereby conceptualized as being beyond what is considered socially normative. These theorizations may be an explanation as to why vulnerable narcissism, and not grandiose narcissism, was a significant predictor in females’ perpetration of abuse,” Green explained.
“Narcissism in females moves beyond the masculine stereotype commonly conceptualized in theory, research, and vernacular language. Assessing narcissism through the lens of grandiosity may not accurately capture narcissism in females and the harmful impact they have in intimate relationships. It is important to recognize this personality trait as more complex and multi-layered; a construct that is deeply ingrained in cultural norms associated with masculinity and femininity.”
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“One major caveat is that our research findings are limited as other-partner data were not collected. This may be particularly concerning due to the existing literature which finds a modest degree of homophily: the idea that narcissistic individuals seek partners with similar characteristics,” Green said.
“What these findings mean is that the aggressive behavior perpetrated by narcissistic individuals may, to an extent, be due to the narcissism of their partner. Future research may benefit from investigating narcissism and gender within the context of dyadic relationships.”
The study, “Unmasking gender differences in narcissism within intimate partner violence“, was authored by Ava Green, Rory MacLean, and Kathy Charles.