A couple walking into a restaurant spot a mirror behind the front desk. Ignoring the hostess, who is trying to get the name on their reservation, both partners jockey for position to catch their reflection — joking about who has a better view. Once they reach their table, they continue to preen, cognizant of the attention (which they perceive as admiration) of other patrons. The man uses his smartphone mirror app to check his reflection; his date checks her teeth using her knife as a mirror.
These two peacocks are having a great time together. Realistic? Believe it or not, research says yes — but in some ways more than others.
The couple struggling for mirror time might not actually be diagnosed with clinical narcissism, but merely display narcissistic traits. Paired together, they probably make a better match than when either is paired with a non-narcissistic partner.
You probably know someone who is high in narcissistic traits. Perhaps you like having them around, because they are exciting and socially charming. Many self-focused people are fun to spend time with and can regale a crowd with tales of their exploits. But when it comes to romance, unless paired with a like-minded lover of self, they usually constitute short-term dating material, instead of possessing serious relationship potential.
Narcissism and Relational Quality
Kardum et al. (2018) examined the impact of similarity in dark triad traits (psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism) on relational quality.[i] They found similar levels of narcissism to be linked to higher relationship quality in both women and men — a finding that was absent from an examination of the other two dark triad traits.
Regarding the explanation for this finding, Kardum et al. discovered that the key was not the level of narcissism, but the similarity of narcissistic expression. They found that the highest congruence was in exhibitionism, and the lowest in vanity. They suggest that similarity in sensation-seeking, extraverted behaviors, and social visibility have a more significant impact on relational quality than regarding oneself as physically desirable.
Research by Grosz et al. (2015) produced similar findings. They found that people high in sensation seeking are attracted to people high in narcissistic admiration.[ii] They also found that narcissists are apparently attracted to individuals with a similar level of narcissism.
If narcissistic couples enjoy the same types of activities and being in the spotlight, perhaps there are some celebrity couples in this category. Although there are countless individuals who love to see and be seen, often at the latest neighborhood hot spot. How convenient to have a significant other who exhibits the same love for the limelight.
But do these relationships last?
Narcissism is often linked with short-term relationships, as opposed to marriage-bound bonding. Yet despite this trend, research indicates that narcissists may be attracted to other self-centered charmers as potential long-term mates.
Lyons and Blanchard (2016) recognize that narcissism is the dark triad trait most strongly correlated with an interest in short-term mating.[iii] Yet they found that narcissistic women were attracted to narcissistic male faces for long-term relationships, even though narcissistic women themselves exhibit less relational commitment.
And when it comes to enduring qualities over time, we might consider the role of perceived perfection.
Mirror Time Reflects a Desire for Perfection
If time spent looking in mirrors reflects a desire to always look their best, perhaps narcissists do. This partner is the perfect arm charmer, enhancing the image of a fellow narcissist like a shiny new accessory.
Peterson and DeHart (2014) note in “In Defense of Self-Love” that narcissists prefer partners who are admiring, but also perfect — because perfect partners will enhance the narcissist’s own self-esteem.[iv] In this sense, two narcissists might be a match made in heaven — neither of them ever caught dressed down, without makeup, or otherwise without their A-game image-wise.
Sincerity Over Superficiality
Some people with narcissistic traits are kind, generous people, whose grandiose tendencies are tempered with positive personality traits. Others are showy, shallow, and superficial. Individuals in the latter category face significant challenges in attempting to develop healthy relationships of respect, if that is even their goal.
If you are not a narcissist, you may struggle to maintain a relationship with one. The most stable relational partners are other-focused, humble, and authentically grounded. You won’t catch them scanning the room for mirrors. Their eyes will be focused not on themselves, but on you.