MECKY / Getty Images New research shows Americans are more obsessed with themselves than ever. Hannah Seligson examines the ways our love lives are coming to reflect our record-high levels of self-regard.
When John Edwards invoked “the narcissism defense” in his explanation last August for why he cheated on his wife, the moment felt a bit anticlimactic—male politicians have long reinforced their stereotype as egomaniacs who think they’re God’s gift to women. But a new book asserts that more and more Americans are developing congressman-like levels of narcissism, which begs the question: Are our relationships suffering for it, just like Edwards’ did? How can a person who can’t stop looking in the mirror maintain a healthy love life?
These are people who agreed with statements like: “If I ruled the world it would be a much better place,” and, “I will never be satisfied until I get all that I deserve.”
“The culture of narcissism is about your personal happiness coming first and your partner coming second,” says Esther Perel, the author of Mating in Captivity and a licensed marriage and family therapist. “It’s what’s at the core of divorce.”
According to researchers, there’s a groundswell of narcissism in our society. In a new book, The Narcissism Epidemic, psychology professors W. Keith Campbell and Jean Twenge chart the dramatic rise in the number of Americans who have a clinical narcissist personality disorder. These are people who are more than just a little bit self-regarding. In a nationally representative sample of 35,000 Americans, one out of 16 respondents registered as a narcissist on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. These are people who agreed with statements like: “If I ruled the world it would be a much better place,” or, “I will never be satisfied until I get all that I deserve,” and, “I find it easy to manipulate people.”
Narcissism functions on a continuum, which means that because more people register on the extreme end of the spectrum, there’s a surge of people in the general population—in the median area—that are displaying narcissistic traits. And the numbers for youth are higher than any other age group—nearly 10 percent of twentysomethings reported symptoms of narcissism, compared to just over 3 percent of those over 65.
So as a new generation of narcissistic daters upload their personal ads, belly up to the bars, and start popping the question, they’re increasingly altering the dynamics of 21st-century courtship, say the researchers.
“It changes what is normal behavior in dating,” says Campbell, referring to the hookup culture among youth that has left modern-day parents wringing their hands. According to Campbell and Twenge, the rise of the hookup culture and narcissism rates had a convergent evolution—a link they see as significant. “One of the hallmarks of a narcissist is short-term relationships that don’t require a lot of emotional investment,” says Campbell. Adds Twenge: “The current trend right now, especially among younger people, is that ‘I’m going to focus on myself, not on forging an emotionally close relationship.’”
But a few unreturned booty texts and some one-night stands might be the least of the collateral damage wrought by the narcissism epidemic. Narcissists are myopically focused on how they appear to the world. The symptoms of the disease range from the extreme (hiring fake paparazzi to follow you around for a weekend) to the more ubiquitous, garden-variety solipsism (Twittering what you ate for lunch or hiring a professional photographer to take your Facebook photo). Translated into the realm of romantic relationships, the message comes across as: I’m great, and you’d better be, too.
“That kind of grandiosity eats relationships,” says Terry Real, a therapist and relationship expert. Real believes in a more radical way of teaching people to let go of an overinflated sense of self. Call it the anti-Oprah school of thought.
“There is a national obsession with feeling good about yourself,” says Real. “We have done a good job teaching people to come up from shame, but have ignored the issue of having people come down from grandiosity.”
The most recent research on narcissism runs contrary to what the legions of self-help experts have proselytized when it comes to finding love—that you have to love yourself before you can love someone else. Twenge says that’s a fallacy. “There is no evidence that people with very high self-esteem are any better in a relationship than people with low self-esteem.”
In fact, narcissism, even in small doses, has shifted courtship into a high-stakes relationship culture. Now that people think more highly of themselves, expectations of what a relationship should be like have skyrocketed into the realm of superlatives. Twentysomethings not only expect to waltz into high-level career positions right out of college, they also expect partners who have the moral fortitude of Nelson Mandela, the comedic timing of Stephen Colbert, the abs of Hugh Jackman, and the hair of Patrick Dempsey.
“Everyone is looking for ‘the perfect product,’” says Perel, who says she believes this is creating not just emotional, but also sexual, frustration. “People are not willing to compromise, or willing to be patient.”
And this is where narcissism and relationships end up on a collision course. “The current wisdom on relationships is ‘don’t compromise,’ but relationships are all about compromise. You won’t last more than two days in a marriage if you don’t compromise,” says Twenge.
In other words, in an age where “does s/he make you happy?” has become the ultimate litmus test for a relationship, it’s tempting to use personal gratification and satisfaction as the benchmarks. But there’s an insidious side to that outlook, says Perel. “There has to be more than one parameter than happiness to examine your life.”
Real goes further, saying this quest for personal pleasure from coupledom breeds an impoverished view of relationships. “Think of parenting. When your kid is being a pain, parents have to see the bigger picture—that being a parent has so many benefits and a deeper joy. It’s a perspective that people in good marriages have. Narcissists, however, have a big blind spot. For them, it’s about being fulfilled all the time.”
So should we shelve the personal-empowerment movement if we want to have long and happy marriages? According to the many experts who study this phenomenon and treat the fallout, the answer is yes. By focusing so much on the self, we’ve fostered a generation of overly individualized young people who are three times more likely to be narcissistic than their grandparents. Perhaps it’s time for a refresher course on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s social contract about the individual’s responsibility to society.
“Everything from feminism to 12-step recovery to religion has become about ‘I was weak, now I’m strong, go screw yourself,’” says Real. The danger is in narcissists taking this too far and blaming their partners if they’re not 100 percent satisfied in their love lives.
“I think it’s time for the culture to move to a place where we think about it more like, ‘I was weak, now I’m strong—let’s roll up our sleeves and work together,” says Real.
Hannah Seligson is a journalist and the author of New Girl on the Job: Advice from the Trenches. Her second book, A Little Bit Married, will be published by De Capo this spring. Her website is www.hannahseligson.com