Narcissism and infidelity are twins separated at birth. It was back in the 80’s when researchers were developing the notion of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Men always scored higher on narcissism…until now. Grijalva and colleagues (2015) recently found no gender difference. And this new research suggests that women appear to have just caught up with men in their rates of infidelity over the same time period.
Ever since Freud first defined the term, researchers have been trying to measure narcissism by degree. We know from multiple studies that Narcissistic Personality Disorder affects only about a hardcore 1% of the population.
We now assume that narcissistic traits span over a continuum. The Narcissistic Personality Inventory by Raskin & Hall (1979, 1981), allows therapists to methodically assess the differences between those clients who score either relatively high or low on narcissism… but aren’t diagnosed with a personality disorder.
Most cheating, Involved Partners do not have a Narcissistic personality disorder. But Involved Partners are more narcissistic than Hurt Partners who remain faithful.
We know a lot more about narcissism than we used to. The conventional wisdom had been that narcissists have low self-esteem and that their high opinion of themselves is merely a defense against feelings of inferiority. That remains the standard frame of reference.
Research by Bushman & Baumeister (1998) suggested narcissists actually have very high levels of self-esteem which they will vigorously defend if threatened. I’m not sure how a single piece of research can pierce the thick protective armor of the narcissist to come to that conclusion, so I’m not buying it just quite yet.
Josephs (2017) describes the psyche as possessing a Narcissistic Dimension. It’s the part of you that can cheat. And part of the reason why, especially for men, is the physiology of lust.
Lust objectifies and can trigger a narcissistic schema. Sexual arousal light up a part of the brain that doesn’t give a tinker’s dam about long-term consequences, or other people’s feelings (Ariel & Loewenstein, 2006).
The idea of a Narcissistic Dimension is useful. Narcissism may be thought of as any of the following; an enduring personality disorder, a somewhat reliable trait, or a “what was I thinking?” fleeting state of mind that was driven by context and circumstances…or anywhere in between.
Narcissism and infidelity are wrapped around the idea of entitlement. The narcissist sees their dalliance as acceptable, but their partner best remain faithful. Research by Exline (2004) discovered that those with high narcissistic entitlement were particularly unforgiving if their partner cheated on them.
Their partners’ insufferable deficits create the necessity for their infidelity in the first place… but for their spouse to heap faithless ingratitude on top of their prior sins is truly too much for the narcissist to bear.
Couples therapists are grateful for the fact that only a small number of couples will present with full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder because the extreme end of everyday garden-variety narcissism is challenging enough.
Research tells us that Hurt Partners have a harder time recovering from the PTSD-like symptoms of affair discovery or disclosure if their partner has an inclination toward narcissism (Joseph, 2017).
And it usually is discovery. The very technology that facilitates infidelity often betrays as Involved Partner as well.
Conducting a successful undetected ongoing affair take more than just narcissism. It takes work. It demands strategic thinking (Machiavellian Intelligence) and the capacity to dodge, defend, deflect, and deny with skill (psychopathy).
Personality psychologists now believe that Machiavellian Intelligence, psychopathy, and narcissism are distinct personality traits that have a correlation to one another. Researchers Paulhus & Williams (2002) named these three traits the Dark Triad.
In other words, this same Dark Triad is often found in Involved Partners, as well as Mate Poachers.
Researchers discovered that subjects who score high on the Dark Triad employ an opportunistic mating strategy which is inherently unfaithful and strategic. Narcissists in therapy are keenly sensitive to micro-expressions that might betray the frustration many therapists feel when dealing with their client’s narcissistic impenetrability and moral labyrinths.
Narcissistic Men might be under siege in today’s headlines, but they are remarkably resilient.
Haslam & Montrose (2015) found that women are more attracted to narcissistic men because of the resources and status they may bestow.
This is despite the fact that these same men will lack commitment and will stray. This research may not be PC, but it is solid.
Men who score highly on narcissism are in turn, highly attracted to potential mates who are attracted to them, soothe their egos, and have a caring and connected stance. Then they do whatever the hell they want.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.