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 Narcissism, Technology and Relationships  

We recently went through the commencement season as colleges and universities across the country invited esteemed, or not, individuals to offer words of encouragement and advice to their graduating students.  Jonathan Franzen, the novelist, spoke at Kenyon College and addressed a good part of his speech to true love.  While I don’t agree with everything he said, I thought it was an insightful speech and worth commenting on here.

Franzen talked about how technology, particularly consumer technology, moves toward developing things that meet more and more of our needs, but require very little of us.  He thinks that technology works to create things that fulfill our fantasy of an erotic relationship where “the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all powerful, and doesn’t throw terrible scenes when it’s replaced by an even sexier object and is consigned to a drawer.” 

We do seem to fall easily into the expectation that our gadgets will be replaced every couple of years (months for some) and will meet more and more of our needs each time – including needs we didn’t know we had until the new gadget came along.  Unfortunately, we sometimes transfer this attitude, or at least a close cousin, to our relationships.

The worst part of this narcissism, and that’s what it is, isn’t even that it makes us think of relationships as easily discardable.  That’s bad but the worst is it makes relationships inherently unsatisfying.  To be satisfied in relationships we have to be secure enough in ourselves to put ourselves aside and take into account the other person.  We also have to be comfortable enough with who we are to accept our limitations and imperfections and mistakes, because we will certainly make them in a relationship.

This kind of narcissism leads to needing relationships with others and their love for us to feel OK about ourselves.  In working with single people who struggle with getting into relationships, I often tell them that when they are starting up with someone, it is much more important they like the person they are dating than the person likes them.  It is more important to choose what you like than to choose to be liked.  Choosing to be liked can lead to problems down the line when you figure out you are loved by someone you are not very interested in.

Other issues come out in committed relationships.  The most common one I see is someone who believes that if they are OK their partner will be happy.  This makes it difficult for them to tolerate unhappiness in their partner and to be open to supporting them.  And no one is happy all the time. 

Bottom line.  We need to work to be secure enough in ourselves to accept our faults – and believe we can be loved in spite of them.  That makes it much easier for us to do the work necessary to create healthy and rewarding relationships.

If you are interested in the speech that started me thinking down this line, drop me an email at and I will send you a link.