Are You the Trophy of a Narcissist?
We’ve all met people who are interested mostly in themselves, those people for whom you exist only if you pay attention to them—admire their style, congratulate their successes, like their posts, and compliment, congratulate, and admire them, again and again. In fact, according to research, many of us have even been in a romantic relationship with a narcissist. Have you?
If so, then at least for a short time, you were attractive enough, popular enough, or perfect enough to be with a narcissist, as a narcissist's partner cannot be someone unnoticeable or ordinary. Narcissists choose partners who make them seem glamorous, decorate them, and let them shine. They use their partners to nourish their ego, providing the narcissist with a positive self-image, as this is his or her fundamental need. Positive self-image holds the pieces of narcissistic identity together, similar to a skeleton that holds the various parts of the body.
Narcissists set high value on themselves, not on you. Narcissists are competent and efficient but not warm. Narcissists don’t need to be compassionate, tender, or faithful. Narcissists will not take care of you, and you may be comforted to know that a narcissist does not want you to take care of him or her either. Closeness is an area that narcissists rarely enter. Not surprisingly, narcissists’ relationships typically do not last long. Very soon, they will look for a new relationship in which they can shine again and feed themselves with fresh admiration.
But when they leave, you are left with your anger and regret your commitment, wondering what you were to the narcissist? Does he or she remember you at all?
We have answered these questions by studying why narcissists hold keepsakes from past romantic relationships, such as photographs, gifts, or random objects that were left after a breakup. What do these keepsakes mean to narcissists?
We found that narcissists view these objects mostly as trophies, similar to deer antlers, buffalo horns, or bear skins for big game hunters. The more magnificent, the harder to hunt, and the rarer an animal is, the more prestige the conqueror gets from the trophy, and the greater the glory of the narcissist. In a romantic relationship, a narcissist is an ambitious hunter! Thus, there must be an increasing number of trophies. One-time success would not count; it is not enough for a narcissist to prove that he or she is effective and capable of mating success. This is why your relationship was just another conquest and you, as a keepsake, continue to nourish the narcissistic ego.
Researchers have identified two types of narcissists—grandiose and vulnerable narcissists. Grandiose narcissists are excited about and confident in their greatness, but vulnerable narcissists are unsure of how great they are. They want to be more important and special than they think they are, so they easily feel offended. Sensitive to negative opinions from other people, a narcissist quickly identifies disrespect or mocking. A narcissist always blames his or her partner for everything.
Our research found that keepsakes serve as trophies for both grandiose and vulnerable narcissists; both kinds will use your merits to boost their self-esteem. For grandiose narcissists, reminders of you and your relationship do not elicit nostalgia, but for vulnerable narcissists, they do. Does this mean that vulnerable narcissists miss their relationships? Not necessarily. Romantic relationships usually disappoint vulnerable narcissists, but the keepsake attests that they are not socially worthless. The ex-partner had a chance but he or she did not take it, and it’s their loss.
Our research showed that keepsakes can allow the narcissist to maintain connection with a former partner, even when he or she is no longer there. Both grandiose and vulnerable narcissists perceive keepsakes as substitutes for their ex-partners. However, we do not think that narcissists save keepsakes to connect with their ex-partners. Instead, narcissists may use substitutes for their ex-partners to relive the experience of being together, which allows them to re-experience the partner’s admiration and devotion as they remember their love conquest.
W. Keith Campbell, a leading narcissism researcher, found that after a romantic relationship ends, the emotions experienced by narcissists’ partners are quite intense. Apart from anger and regret, the partners are glad that the relationship is finally over because no one—not only a deer, buffalo, or bear, but, most of all a human being—wants to be someone's trophy.
For Further Reading
Niemyjska, A., Bazińska, R., Drat-Ruszczak, K. (2020). Hunting lovers: Narcissists keep trophies from their past relationships, Personality and Individual Differences, 163, 110060. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110060
Krystyna Drat-Ruszczak is an Associate Professor of Psychology, clinical psychologist at SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities (Poland). She explores the influence of social changes on personality disorders (narcissism, borderline) and psychopathology of the self.
Aleksandra Niemyjska is an Assistant Professor at SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities (Poland). Her research focuses on psychological functions of inanimate objects.
Róża Bazińska is an Assistant Professor at SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities (Poland). She studies social relationships and narcissism.