You're so vain, I bet you think this post is about you. Don't you?
Of course you do. This is the age of the selfie, when everyone has a chance to be Instagram famous or rack up two million followers on Vine simply by posting videos from their living room. Problem is, our constant self-obsession is bound to have consequences and new research has found that all this narcissism we so proudly display may in fact be ruining our relationships—but only if you're a woman, of course.
Yes, researchers from the University of Georgia and UCLA wanted to find out how narcissism affects modern day relationships, specifically newly married couples. To do this they studied 146 newlyweds (married for less than six months when the experiment began) in Florida for four years.
Here's how it worked: in the beginning the lovebirds were mailed a detailed questionnaire about their relationship and personalities. They were asked to fill it out separately. Then they were brought into the lab for a three-hour session. After that, the couples were mailed questionnaires at six-month intervals. This went on for four years. Toward the end they were once again brought into the lab for another in-person interview.
As for the individual questionnaires, those were used to measure marital satisfaction, marital problems, narcissism, personality traits, and self-esteem over time. Narcissism was measured using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory test (take a version of it yourself here!).
The researchers were actually looking to answer two questions: What type of people would narcissists marry? And how would one or both spouses' narcissistic tendencies affect the relationship?
First, they hypothesized that narcissists might be drawn to other narcissists (of course, they're so awesome). Secondly they thought narcissism would at first be beneficial to the relationship and then gradually cause problems over time, a concept known as the "chocolate cake model." At first chocolate cake is awesome and delicious, but over time too much of it makes you sick and fat.
Narcissists work much the same way: at first they are charming and wonderful people, but slowly over time their manipulative tendencies, ego, and vanity leave you wanting more.
Turns out, there wasn't a clear pattern on which type of individuals narcissists married. There was, however, a correlation between narcissism and relationship satisfaction, but only when it was the wife who was the narcissist.
"Wives’ total narcissism was associated with the slope of marital satisfaction and the slope of marital problems, such that marriages in which wives had higher levels of total narcissism were marked by greater declines in satisfaction and greater increases in problems," write the researchers.
More specifically, wives who exhibited entitlement and exploitativeness or grandiose exhibitionism (which the author of the study defined to Fusion as "self-absorption, vanity, superiority, and exhibitionistic tendencies") saw declines in marital happiness over time for both them and their husbands.
However, in relationships in which the husband was the
self-absorbed egomaniac narcissist, it made no difference. "As with total narcissism, husbands’ entitlement/exploitativeness did not have a significant effect on marital trajectories for themselves or for their wives," write the researchers.
Interestingly (or sadly) however, when a husband exhibited one particular aspect of narcissism, grandiose exhibitionism, it actually "predicted better marital trajectories (higher satisfaction, decreases in problems)," according to the researchers.
Why the double standard?
"There are a couple of reasons this might be the case. First, in general, we know that wives’ characteristics tend to predict marital quality more than husbands’ characteristics do, reflecting the idea that women are the barometer of relationships," explains Justin Lavner, professor of psychology at University of Georgia and lead author on the study, to Fusion.
"A second possibility is that men generally have higher levels of narcissism than do women, so men’s narcissism might be seen as more normative (and therefore less problematic) than women’s," he says.
In other words we expect narcissism from men, which somehow makes it okay when it actually happens.
As for modern day relationships, plenty of studies have shown the negative impacts of social media and self-absorption on relationships and couples should heed this warning. As Lavner points out, the problems aren't always apparent when you walk down the aisle, they build over time.
"What was really interesting about these findings is that wives’ narcissism didn’t initially affect the level of relationship satisfaction, but did so over time," he explained to Fusion. "This tells us that the personality characteristics we see in our relationships now may not have immediate effects on our relationships, but are very likely to do so eventually."
Hear that folks, step away from the Instagram.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.