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Relationships Are Not Cake: Countering the Relationship Mantras of our Narcissistic Culture

Recently, I’ve been very taken with a book entitled The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D. and W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D. The authors assert that narcissism (an inflated view of the self) is on the rise — especially among people in their 20’s and 30’s. Narcissism as a cultural disorder is sort of the amalgamation of pride, vanity, materialism, and entitlement. They identify the root causes and symptoms of narcissism and its far-ranging reach from pop culture to education, employment, and the global economy. Their chapter on relationships, of course, was of special interest to me.

Narcissism can indeed be a challenge to the dating coach and matchmaker and many (though not all) in my industry would shy away from taking on a narcissistic client. Such clients can be impossible to please. They often have difficulty taking responsibility for their role in our work and accurately assessing themselves as a potential partner to someone else.  The issues that Twenge and Campbell pointed out for narcissists in romantic relationships (and for those who are in these relationships with them) are all-too-familiar to me.

There are three relationship mantras of our narcissistic culture:

  1. Don’t settle; you deserve the best.

  2. Relationships should be effortless and pleasurable.

  3. Self-love before other-love

  4. Have casual sex.

These are reinforced through pop songs, reality television, self-help books, and numerous other mediums – including even well-intentioned friends and family members. I’ll address each of these from the perspective of a professional dating coach and matchmaker.

1. Don’t settle; you deserve the best.

Campbell and Twenge first observe, “One pattern of relationship behaviors is the ‘fear of settling’ or ‘fear of missing out on the magic.’” Fear of settling seems to be a more common theme among my female clients than my male clients – particularly those who are highly educated and high-achieving in their careers. Occasionally, a single woman (or man) becomes rather set in their ways and uses “fear of settling” as an excuse to reject potential mates because the partner doesn’t quite meet all of the bullet pointed items on their check list. “In the old days this would have been considered simple immaturity,” say Campbell and Twenge. “You would have been told to ‘take the good with the bad’ or ‘relationships are not all about you.’” I’d like to see a return to this less individualistic thinking when it comes to relationships. Previous generations seemed to have a better understanding that there is no such thing as a perfect partner. They seemed to be able to take a “big picture” view: one should expect a few faults and flaws in a partner, and hopefully the good outweighs the bad over the course of a lifetime.

2. Relationships should be effortless and pleasurable.

Most of us likely know someone who seems to have a revolving door of partners – someone whose relationship status on Facebook is perpetually being updated. Campbell and Twenge apparently have observed the same phenomenon: “Our individualistic culture narcissistically teaches people not to compromise. Many Gen Xers feel entitled to a relationship that is always fun and easy. There is a ‘What have you done for me lately’ attitude in relationships. If the answer is ‘not enough’ it’s on to the next partner – after all, goes our narcissistic cultural patter, you deserve better.” As a dating coach and matchmaker, however, I know that if you expect one person to bring you endless happiness and constant fulfillment, “you are either delusional or narcissistic.”

3. Self-love before other-love

Here is where the self-esteem movement may have moved off course. Campbell and Twenge tell us that, “Many people believe . . . you have to love yourself to be able to love someone else. This is a pervasive belief in our culture. This sounds good, but there’s little evidence it’s true.” Admittedly, it’s a catchy and attractive notion – the idea that we first must love ourselves before we can have anything to offer someone else. And I think that someone who generally likes, knows, and accepts him or herself usually has the foundation for being a pretty sound partner in a relationship. However, I think this love-yourself-first-and-others-second ideology can be taken to the extreme. Plenty of people who’ve struggled with self-acceptance and personal enlightenment can still make wonderful partners! Now, let me be clear: I certainly wouldn’t encourage anyone to enter a relationship with someone who is filled with self-loathing or chronic self-doubt! But I might have to agree with Campbell and Twenge that, “We need a new cultural belief: if you love yourself too much, you won’t have enough love left for anyone else.”

4. Have casual sex.

You’d have to live in an underwater cave on a planet in a galaxy far, far away not to see and hear this message on a daily basis! “Another cultural-level manifestation of the narcissism epidemic in relationships is the trend toward ‘hookups,’ ‘friends with benefits,’ and other commitment-free relationships,” say Campbell and Twenge. It’s not uncommon for college students and young professionals to seek out and enjoy opportunities for physical intimacy devoid of emotional connection. However, it’s not a behavior I encourage among my dating and matchmaking clients; it tends to run counter to our objectives. “Popular music [and film and television and the Internet, and just about every other medium participating in spinning our cultural narrative] has encouraged this manipulative, emotion-free attitude towards sex,” say Campbell and Twenge. The hookup is either another tool in the narcissist’s arsenal or another manifestation of the narcissist’s personality, depending on how you look at it. We are reminded that, “Hookups move the focus of sexual relationships away from the whole person and toward physical attractiveness.” Again, hookups are unproductive. My clients are interested in meaningful, long-term, committed relationships and they’re usually wise enough and value their time enough to steer clear of narcissists and their predilection for casual encounters.

I think it’s important to point out that even those of us with level heads and ample dating experience can easily fall prey to the misinformed mantras of our narcissistic culture. Having believed and/or acted on one of them does NOT make you a narcissist! It simply makes you not immune to pervasive cultural messages. I’ll speak to other issues of dating a narcissist (or being a narcissist who is trying to date) in a future blog.

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