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You’re So Vain, I bet That’s Why You’re Always Cheating on Me

The common sense view of people who cheat is that they are vain and selfish, and mostly out for themselves and their own needs.  They don’t care how much suffering they cause others as long as they get what they want.

Social scientists who study people who cheat on their partners actually confirm this common sense view of infidelity.  A cluster of personality traits like selfishness and lack of feeling for others together make up a personality disorder called “narcissism.”  While not everyone who cheats is a narcissist, people with those traits are more likely to be unfaithful and enter into a series of short-term relationships with the opposite sex.

A narcissist lover works something like a flashlight battery.  The light is beautiful, but it burns out fast.  The average narcissist, according to a study from the University of Alabama, has relationships that turn sour after about four months.  The thing is that they are so good at first impressions that they can quickly find another relationship to replace it.

Narcissists tend to be physically more attractive than average, and they have great self-esteem.  They dress well and carefully groom themselves. Female narcissists prefer sexy clothing. They were more popular in school than most students. Male narcissists (and there are more narcissistic men than women) tend to brag, be witty and talk in loud voices, but both sexes dominate conversations and act bored when others are talking. Narcissists make great first impressions because they tend to more attractive, intelligent and charismatic than others, and because they know how to manipulate other people. They walk into a party and immediately “own” the room.

Narcissists see other people as objects they use to further their self-interest.  And they are only interested in themselves and their goals, most often to be unrealistically successful, rich, and famous. They make friendships based on what the other person has that benefits them — they prefer people who are wealthy, beautiful, well-connected, etc. They use their charm and intelligence to get what they want, and drop those who are no longer useful to them.

Narcissists tend to be jealous lovers. They over-react, usually by getting angry, if a partner criticizes them or shows too much independence. They need you to constantly admire them.  As your relationship matures and you start treating them in a normal way, they move on to someone who will worship them.  They are actually more likely to cheat when they believe a partner is committed to them.

Dr. Peter Jonason of the University of South Alabama and certain other psychologists believe that narcissism may be a “sexual style” that evolved over time as a way of successfully insuring a variety of fertile sexual partners.

Dr. Robert Emmons was the first to write about the paradox of narcissism, which is that although a narcissist devalues other people, he desperately needs them to admire him.  In other words, you can get over an affair with a narcissist and find a healthy romantic relationship, but like that flashlight battery, he will just keep going and going and going and going on to someone new.


Back, Mitja D., Stefan C. Schmukle, and Boris Egloff. “Why are narcissists so charming at first sight? Decoding the narcissism-popularity link at zero acquaintance.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 98.1 (2010): 132.

Buss, David and Todd Shackelford. “Susceptibility to Infidelity in the First Year of Marriage,” The Journal of Research in Personality, Volume 31, Issue 2, June 1997, Pages 193-221.
Buss, David. The Personality of the Unfaithful. Excerpts from his book posted at

Holtzman, Nicholas S., and Michael J. Strube. “Narcissism and attractiveness.” Journal of Research in Personality 44.1 (2010): 133-136.

Kaufman, Scott. “How to Spot a Narcissist,” Psychology Today, see
“Narcissistic Personality Disorder,” Psychology Today, Diagnosis Dictionary, see
Orsolya Hunyadyab,  Lawrence Josephsa & John T. Jostc. ” Priming the Primal Scene: Betrayal Trauma, Narcissism, and Attitudes Toward Sexual Infidelity,” Self and Identity, Volume 7, Issue 3, 2008, pages 278-294.
Twenge, Jean M., et al. “Egos Inflating Over Time: A Cross‐Temporal Meta‐Analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.” Journal of personality 76.4 (2008): 875-902.

Vazire, Simine, Nicholas S. Holtzman, and Matthias Mehlb. “Sounds like a narcissist: Behavioral manifestations of narcissism in everyday life.” Journal of Research in Personality, Volume 44, Issue 4, August 2010, Pages 478–484

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