When romantic souvenirs are selfish not sentimental.
[The original article was posted Sep 01, 2020 and can be found here https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/why-bad-looks-good/202009/why-narcissists-keep-trophies-past-relationships ]
You spot your ex-flame and a new partner walking into a restaurant a year after you broke up. You can see from across the room that he is still sporting the expensive, special edition Beatles tie you bought him for his birthday—which has always been a conversation starter. You wonder how he is explaining where he got it when he is asked now? Depending on his motivation, it is very possible he may be admitting that it came from you.
Aleksandra Niemyjska et al. (2020), in an article entitled “Hunting Lovers: Narcissists Keep Trophies from Their Past Relationships,” discussed how narcissists maintain symbols and objects associated with relationships past.1 Why? Because part of the way narcissists maintain their sense of self is through “keepsakes” collected from past relationships, which are used to enhance self-presentation.
For Narcissists, Souvenirs are Selfish, not Sentimental
Niemyjska et al. note that research indicates that for narcissists, the perception of mementos from relationships past reveals their attitude towards the people associated with them. Accordingly, after a breakup, narcissists may keep inanimate objects associated with their past relationships not out of a sense of nostalgia, but as “trophies,” symbolizing their relational success. They found this effect to be true even after controlling for self-esteem, quality of past relationships, and gender.
Niemyjska et al. discuss two types of narcissists: grandiose and vulnerable, who share a common psychological core defined as a sense of feeling special and superior to others—a need that may be satisfied through relationships with partners who are successful and attractive.
They note that grandiose narcissists present themselves in a manner that is bold—as expressed through a confident, exhibitionistic style. Vulnerable narcissists, on the other hand, are more reactive, presenting as avoidant, shy, and even vindictive.
They note that grandiose individuals may keep trophy keepsakes as proof of their self-efficacy, agency, attractiveness, while vulnerable narcissists may use trophy keepsakes to indirectly enhance their own self-esteem through linking it to a past association with an attractive former flame. In this fashion, vulnerable narcissists may publicly showcase trophy keepsakes to gain recognition or admiration.
In both cases, however, one common denominator appears to be the recognition that trophies represent success.
Past Partners as Reflections of Status and Success
Trophies are awarded for the purpose of being displayed—as they so often are in our homes, our offices, and frequently within glass display cases at country clubs and workplaces across the globe. Why? Because of what they represent: success. Winning is attractive and admirable, and trophies reflect this sentiment. So too, apparently, do symbols of past relationships—at least for narcissists.
Niemyjska et al. note that both grandiose and vulnerable narcissists may choose “trophy partners” who possess “extraordinary merits” such as popularity, success, or attractiveness. They found that inanimate objects associated with ex-paramours are accordingly viewed as “mementos of their mating success,” as such “trophy keepsakes” may bolster self-worth, just like trophy partners do. They explain that these objects can be used for self-enhancement to showcase positive qualities such as competence, attractiveness, or superiority.
Interestingly, Niemyjska et al. note their results indicate both grandiose and vulnerable narcissists keep objects from past relationships not only as trophies but also as substitutes for the associated ex-partners. They describe this finding as somewhat unexpected due to the fact that perceiving such reminders as substitutes for ex-partners is usually viewed as reflecting communal needs, and both types of narcissism are negatively related to communion.
Avoid Misinterpreting the Message
For narcissists, ex-partners they viewed as arm charms can become a charm bracelet—of showy, but emotionally meaningless symbols of success. Just as Niemyjska et al. explain that narcissists may forgo intimacy and closeness, opting instead for romantic partners who enhance their sense of self-worth, so too they apparently display mementos for the same reasons. Reminding yourself of this when you see an ex-flame proudly showing off something you bought him or her will save you countless hours of wondering if they are missing you.
If you are the one still carrying the torch, resist the temptation to interpret an ex-flame showing off your past gifts as misplaced positive messaging. Recognizing the way narcissists operate both in and after relationships can help you avoid becoming involved with one to begin with, leaving more time to explore healthy relationships of mutual respect, admiration, and affection.
 Niemyjska, Aleksandra, Róża Bazińska, and Krystyna Drat-Ruszczak. “Hunting Lovers: Narcissists Keep Trophies from Their Past Relationships.” Personality and Individual Differences 163 (September 1, 2020). doi:10.1016/j.paid.2020.110060.