Narcissists have impairment in social functioning, which can have profound effects on the people who love them or spend time with them. A study published in Personality and Mental Health sought to understand how people with narcissistic loved ones are affected. Results showed many negative outcomes, such as increased anxiety, depression, and somatic concerns.
Narcissists have dysfunctional social relationships that may include aspects such as controlling, vindictive, or manipulative behaviors. Additionally, they favor mind games, deception, and often react angrily or violently. Understandably, partners of narcissists report higher levels of distress.
This research seeks to address some of the limitations of trying to understand narcissism using self-report measures from narcissists and instead focuses on responses of people close to a narcissist.
Study author Nicholas J. S. Day and colleagues utilized 436 participants who have a relative who met the threshold of a narcissistic screening tool. Participants provided a narrative about their relative and their relationship and then completed a survey, in order to use both quantitative and qualitative measures to understand the relationship between participants and their narcissistic relatives.
Results showed some common themes between many of the participants’ experiences, such as emotional or physical abuse, stealing, debt, unwanted sexual behavior, infidelity, addition, withholding, demanding behavior, and more.
“I never knew where all the money went,” one participant told the researchers about a narcissistic relative. “He had nothing to show for it and would not discuss it with me… He lied to me about how much money we had and did not pay our bills. Eviction notices piled up.”
Narcissistic relatives also created cycles of idealizing and then devaluing their relatives, which can lead to confusion and low self-esteem, as well as create confusion that keeps people stuck in abusive cycles without leaving. The relatives studied showed higher rates of anxiety, depression, self-blame, and hostility.
“Interpersonal dysfunction is a prominent feature of pathological narcissism, and these findings provide clear examples within the context of intimate relationships,” the researchers said. “These findings also inform clinical interventions, such as the need to assess for interpersonal violence in the treatment of individuals with pathological narcissism, as well as attending to potential conflicts around dependency for partners and family members with a narcissistic relative. Treating clinicians may also need to carefully examine the therapeutic alliance with individuals with pathological narcissism, attending to themes of idealization and devaluation, as well as potentially needing to set limits and establish a sense of personal safety in the treatment.”
This study took steps into better understanding narcissists by asking for perspective from the people close to them. Despite this, it has its limitations. Relying on ratings from relatives leaves room for bias depending on their perspective and view of the relative. Additionally, most of the relatives studied were female and the narcissists they were describing were male. The results may not generalize to other gender combinations.
The study, “Pathological narcissism: An analysis of interpersonal dysfunction within intimate relationships“, was authored by Nicholas J. S. Day, Michelle L. Townsend, and Brin F. S. Grenyer.