Asking for a Friend//

Can You Change a Narcissist?

A marriage therapist weighs in (hint: you’re better off focusing on your mental well-being).

(Credit: Andre Mouton)

Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships—with romantic partners, family members, coworkers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!

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Q: What are some legitimate signs of a narcissistic partner (or friend), and how should you handle the relationship once you’ve noticed them?  –P.L.

A: Your question reminds me of a client from my private practice — let’s call her Emily. We were doing individual counseling work together and she was convinced she was doing something wrong in how she communicated with her husband. She knew of my background as a Certified Gottman Therapist specializing in couples work, but her husband refused to go to marital therapy because “she was the problem.”

Emily painted a picture of a long-standing pattern in their relationship: a remarkable lack of empathy from her husband and his self-centered focus to always look good and receive accolades from his family and the outside world. While a therapist has to actually meet with the client to assess for any disorder, Emily and I could certainly discuss and explore the question she asked, “I’ve been reading about narcissism. What is it?”

We discussed the signs and symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), a type of personality disorder affecting 6.25 percent of the population, with higher rates among men. Symptoms of NPD include:

  • Exaggerated self-importance and talents
  • Preoccupation with fantasies of power, achievements, intelligence, beauty, or love
  • Seeing oneself as superior and wanting to be seen with other superior people
  • Expecting and demanding unconditional admiration
  • Feelings of entitlement
  • Exploiting others to achieve goals
  • Lack of empathy
  • Feelings of envy for others and convinced that others envy them
  • Arrogance and superiority over others

Causes of NPD are not yet well-understood. Researchers believe there are genetic, biological, and environmental factors as well as early life experiences. Underneath it all, narcissists suffer from shame, inadequacy and low self-esteem.

The next question Emily asked is, “Can you change a narcissist?” Sometimes we catch the delusion of grandiosity. The bottom line is that we aren’t powerful enough to change a partner with NPD. Individual therapy may help, but it’s not likely a person with NPD will see the need, despite the likelihood of coexisting depression, anxiety or substance use problems for which medications help.

Symptoms of narcissism tend to remain fairly constant in all relationships: intolerance, dissatisfaction with others, blame and temper at the slightest things, withdrawal and the silent treatment, emotional abuse and in some cases physical or sexual abuse.

In our sessions Emily began to see that the sometimes charming and at times even caring partner that she fell in love with was actually incapable of loving her back. The harder she tried to please him — she described endless attempts — the more she saw herself as a failure. At first Emily lamented, “If only I knew how to love him enough and in the right way.” Over time Emily realized that her low self-esteem and increasing feelings of depression were constantly reinforced by his manipulations, superiority, put-downs, indifference to her thoughts and feelings, insistence that she was a flawed wife, and being told that she never really truly appreciated and respected him in the way he deserved.

Dr. John Gottman’s research includes criteria for when to leave a relationship: lack of warmth, fondness and respect top the list. Additional things to consider in a partner’s behavior include: a constant focus on self as priority, lack of interest and knowledge in the partner’s life, continual chaos and constant disappointment. While the end of any relationship will always include feelings of sadness, some circumstances make leaving the relationship the healthiest choice.

Once Emily fully recognized and understood her husband’s narcissistic behaviors as toxic, she struggled with shame, guilt and additional self-blame for making a bad choice in marrying him. I explained that while this was not an uncommon feeling for partners who piece together the frightening awareness they married a narcissist, I explained this wasn’t her fault and that she certainly was not the first person deceived by their partner’s initial and periodic charming behavior. Emily had tried for years to make things better and nothing ever worked. She realized that her emotional and physical health was at stake and decided to leave the relationship.

If you relate to Emily’s situation, consider the following guidelines. You won’t win arguments, so don’t try to debate or to expect empathy or understanding; a person with NPD doesn’t feel bad when they hurt people. Instead, self-care is the order for the day. Step back and recognize interactions of gaslighting, that is, manipulation and brainwashing to convince you that you are crazy or that your perception is wrong. This is especially important if you grew up in a similar environment or had previous friendships and work relationships with these characteristics.

Talk to friends you trust, perhaps talk to a therapist, and know that self-care is different from selfishness. Take time to define what self-care is for you, then make the time and effort to focus on yourself and your needs. You are worth it; the relationship may not be if the cost is never being loved for who you are.

Read more “Asking for a Friend” columns here.

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