Two kinds of people won’t be surprised to learn this week that science has demonstrated that narcissists are more attractive for dates than non-narcissists: people who’ve had the misfortune of being romantically involved with narcissists, and narcissists themselves – because believing that they are very attractive is a key symptom of their character.
This breakthrough was published by an Austrian researcher, who ran an experiment with speed daters. He indexed people’s narcissistic characteristics against the frequency with which their speed-dating partners indicated that they’d like to see them again. His finding: those with the highest scores on the narcissism scale also tended to be perceived as most desirable by members of the opposite sex.
But as partners, narcissists are no picnic: their self-obsession can smother any semblance of vulnerability, and yet for all that talk about how great they are, narcissists often struggle with very low self-esteem. They are crippled by an inability to build real emotional connections with other people. They lack empathy. They’re great at attracting partners, but terrible at maintaining healthy relationships.
And yet – and yet! – we love them. Why? Here are three reasons why narcissists thrive in our romantic economy:
They deeply believe in their own attractiveness
Narcissists are good-looking. Or, perhaps more importantly, they believe that they are – and this belief plays a role in how they move through the world: confident in their ability to make other people want to have sex with them. One of the best (and by that I mean worst) examples of this behavior that I ever came across was a man whose opening seduction gambit at parties would be to go over to a woman he liked and physically pick her up off the floor. It was at once a demonstration of his extreme confidence and total indifference to other people’s feelings.
Of course, physical attraction is essential in any relationship. But the problem with dating a narcissist is that they wear out their partners with demands for attention and soon start to seek that approbation from others. Which is why they will go back on Tinder (“just for fun!”) and why, if you’re seeking a monogamous relationship, being with a narcissist isn’t very nice at all.
They’re the kings of flattery
Narcissists want other people to think that they’re better, more attractive, more interesting and smarter than everyone else. And in the initial phases of a relationship they tend to tell whoever they’re dating that (s)he is wonderful, attractive, interesting and smart, because they think that it reflects well on them: they’re marvelous, so they choose marvelous partners. The trouble is that narcissists can’t cope with the inevitable result of that process: your development of affection for them.
Fear of exposing their intrinsic lack of lovability means that when you start feeling close to your narcissist partner, they’ll start to push you away. If you’re lucky, that means that they’ll tell you that you care too much about them and leave. The breakup will inevitably be confusing, upsetting and painful, but easier than the effects of a long-term relationship with a narcissist.
They’re really, really charismatic
Despite the trouble they have with emotional vulnerability, narcissists tend to surround themselves with people – they’ve always got lots of friends, acquaintances, professional contacts. Is there anything more appealing that having someone with a million friends – who’s the life of the party, who’s made it clear that all kinds of people want to spend time with them – pay attention to you? Maybe you’re very special. Until they decide that you’re not that special anymore. The narcissist feeds on attention, and once (s)he has sucked you dry, it’s on to the next.
It can take a while to determine that a prospective romantic partner is a narcissist. But if you get the inkling that they might be, here’s a trick: ask them. If they are, they’ll say yes.