The Narcissistic Personality Inventory was developed by Raskin and Hall (1979) based on the DSM-III criteria. A series of 40 questions are used for the measurement of narcissism as a personality trait in social psychological research. It is a standardised population test, though over time the scores which certain populations achieve have been getting higher. Does this mean that we are all becoming more narcissistic? the truth is no one knows, but it is an interesting question. The score which does interest me is the one for celebrities. Apparently, an average score for a non-narcissist is 12-15. A narcissist scores around 20 or more. Your average celebrity scores a whopping 18! Does this mean that the likes of Brangelina are “peri-narcissistic”?
If many celebrities are “peri-narcissists” then put two together in one relationship is probably asking for trouble, especially if the nature of enduring love is considered as it is now, in the early years of the 21st century. So why are narcissists “bad” in relationships when what we know about them is that often, many have been deprived of unconditional love in the first place. It would seem logical for them to want more. Tracy Ullman the successful UK-born describes this lonely life as a child in the intro to her current BBC TV series where she tried to entertain her mother out of depression after her father died young. She suggests it was this need for affection and attention which drove her toward attention seeking at school and celebrity success. Unlike many celebrities, Tracy managed a very successful and enduring marriage.
So what are narcissistic romantic relationships like?
Many commentators describe the experience of the non-narcissistic partner as being “dragged along” an unwilling passenger on their partner’s emotional roller coaster. A non-narcissist usually begins a relationship to seek a mutual companionship physical, social and emotional. Narcissists don’t have that “template” of normal love to work from so they seek love to fill that void. The problem is because their own identity and experience of love is hollow it can never be filled. Their relationships are merely functional rather than reciprocal, they need sex, an ego stroke or secondary from the vicarious re-enforcement they get from their partner being admired.
There are three stages to the relationship, which when we consider the way celebrity relationships play out in public, are relatively easy to identify. I am not suggesting that these celebrities are narcissists, merely that their behaviours are echoing typical narcissistic behaviour in relationships.
The idealise stage
The choice of partner needs to “add something” in terms of status, appearance or skills. They need to be someone that someone else would envy and want to be with. This status feeds the narcissistic supply. When Brad and Angie met on the set of Mr & Mrs Smith they were both satisfied with what each could bring to the party. Two of the most attractive, successful actors in Hollywood both of whom were making a name outside of the goldfish bowl in terms of activism. If narcissists like looking in mirrors, they were mirrors of each other. The same could be said of Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher. She established actress, at the time, he attractive wannabe much younger than her.
For narcissists, they pursue their object as other would a prey. They become focussed and single minded. When they achieve their relationship, they idolize their partner and generally worship them. It is infatuation not mature adult love, but it is the best they can do. At the same time, at least for a while, the void inside them is filled with the adoration of their new “love”. The other partner just sees someone who has “bent themselves” to fit them and assumes this is soul mate material. This is why actors and celebrities are so good at this stage. They can act the part, they are used to contorting their personality to fit some imagined ideal. And for celebrities this hopefulness felt in relationships is perhaps why so many fall in love again and again. Elizabeth Taylor and ZaZa Gabor, both much married, said they fell in love with the idea of being in love.
The Devaluation Phase
As the song goes “falling in love with love is falling for make believe”. It cannot last because it is not real love. The narcissist at first experiences disappointment as they realise that the void in the middle of them, the emptiness, is returning. Then two things happen. The narcissist will become indifferent and treat their partner with careless contempt. The non-narc will wonder what has hit them as they try to understand what could have happened. They play back their love and try to find when or how it all went wrong.
The deterioration of the relationship is confused by the narcissist’s tendency to “love bomb” their partner. A narcissist needs their supply and one way of getting it is from a grateful lover who has received the rain of love after a drought of affection. This is just enough to keep them hanging on. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor seemed to be permanently locked in this stage of their lives together. Married twice, they echoed in real life the characters they played in Edward Albee’s: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?” Both Taylor and Burton were narcissistic after a fashion and they married a total of 13 times between them – unlucky for some.
The Discard Phase
Then one day, happy ever after is tossed aside and the partner is left wondering if there was ever love in the first place? The cruellest answer is unfortunately true: no, you were a supply to feed their needy ego. A narcissistic survivor may take quite a few years to get better and rebuild their self-esteem. Emma Thompson’s painful and honest description of how she fell to pieces when she was cast aside by Ken Branagh for Helena Bonham Carter,( talented actor and serial muse) illustrates what the effect on the non-narc as they are cast aside may be.
But take care, the narcissist without a current supply may attempt to resume feeding as they try to re-enact stage one again and potentially again. Many celebrities have gone on to remarry their former partner, sometimes with success, but more often to repeat the same mistakes over again. Burton and Taylor are a case in point but they are joined by the likes of Melanie Griffiths and Don Johnson amongst many more.
So are celebrities “peri narcissistic”? I can’t say for sure, but in too many cases their relationship patterns suggest that there may be something in it, or perhaps as Bonham Carter suggests they are all just “as mad as a box of frogs. Brangelina, watch this space.