You’ve begun to suspect that your partner might be a narcissist. So, you go to your computer and start doing numerous Google searches, entering terms such as “narcissism”, “emotional blackmail”, and “verbal abuse”. You begin gradually (and perhaps also grudgingly) coming to the realization that your partner most likely is a narcissist and that the best option for you is to detach yourself from the relationship and go No Contact.
But then you come across a site which claims that narcissists don’t mean any genuine harm—that they’re not really aware of the fact that their behavior hurts others and so they aren’t really intending to inflict any injury. These sites further claim that the narcissist’s hurtful behavior doesn’t mean that they are deliberately cruel people; rather, it’s simply a by-product of their incapacity to empathize. And since they aren’t necessarily horrible people, perhaps we should show them a little sympathy and understanding for their unfortunate condition.
Or maybe you find material out there which claims that a long-term relationship with a narcissist is both possible and perhaps even rewarding. True, narcissists will invariably cause some injury to those around them, but you just should decide for yourself whether their “redeeming qualities” offset the pain that comes from their occasional abuse.
And to make matters more confusing, you discover a trend that’s lately come into fashion—one which encourages the acceptance of the “self-aware” narcissist. So long as the narcissist is aware (at some level) of their lack of empathy, you can maintain a relationship with them, recognizing that the inevitable harm they do isn’t really their fault. They aren’t really trying to hurt you; they are simply trying to find their own happiness according to their own lights. And so long as you too are aware of this fact, the relationship can continue and perhaps improve as a result.
Finally, you land on an article which reports that many people who are diagnosed narcissists have, in fact, achieved self-awareness, and after recognizing the pain they’re causing their loved ones, they form a resolution to change their ways, even if only to improve their own lives.
When you encounter claims such as these, they may make you feel better about your situation. You realize it would be extremely difficult and painful for you to break off all relations with your narcissist, and so you may be susceptible to wishful thinking about how things in your relationship could get better.
Articles that try to alleviate the dire situation of being in a relationship with a narcissist simply feed into your wishful thinking. They keep you from resolutely facing the facts, and, if you follow their advice, they keep you stuck where you are.
In contrast to the promises these articles make, you will discover as time goes on, despite all your efforts to make things better, that all you get from the narcissist are promises of change that they never follow through on at all, or at least not in any lasting way. You will come to see that no amount of patience or understanding on your part can bring about any lasting change in the narcissist’s behavior toward you.
As you have always done before, you are still constantly walking on eggshells around them. Instead of experiencing the loving benefits of a relationship with a “changed” or “enlightened narcissist”, you are still constantly on edge, and still living in misery. And at some point in this process, you have to wonder whether the patience and understanding that those articles have recommended you show your narcissistic partner—and that you, accordingly, have shown them, to your detriment—were based merely on misconceptions and false hopes.
There are lots of myths out there about narcissistic individuals becoming “self-aware” and changing their ways as a result and about how you can improve your relationship with them. My purpose in this article is to puncture what is probably the biggest misconception that some people have about narcissists.
The biggest misconception I’ve encountered about narcissistic individuals is that they are wounded people who don’t really mean to hurt others…that they are simply acting out on a condition which they were left with owing to childhood wounding and that we should show them great patience and sympathy, since, by doing so, there is hope that their behavior will change and we will have a better future with them.
While it’s true that most narcissists were wounded as children, we must realize that those children are now gone. In their place are adults with underdeveloped levels of emotional maturity, deficient attachment capabilities, and a complete inability to empathize with others. What’s left in the place of those wounded children are scheming manipulators who don’t give a care about anyone except themselves and their own immediate needs.
The myth that there is “hope for a narcissist to change” is perpetuated by people of all sorts—from the licensed psychologist to self-proclaimed narcissistic individuals themselves who hop on forums to defend themselves and their conduct. (Many of the people in this category are self-diagnosed and may not actually have narcissistic personality disorder, so their ability to speak for the narcissist is questionable.) But the proof is in the pudding, and finding a “changed narcissist” seems to be like discovering a “square circle”—it just can’t be done.
What is most distinctive about narcissists is that they display behaviors that come straight from the “Power and Control Wheel”, which can be found on most domestic violence websites. This fact alone shows that, contrary to the popular myth, they are fully aware of what they are doing and the effects that their behavior has on those around them. Those effects are precisely what they are trying to achieve, for ends of their own.
Another indication that narcissists are aware of what they are doing is the way they display two distinct “personalities”. With the outside world, they are capable of being agreeable and showing proper respect. It’s only with you (and others close to them) that they show their true colors and trample all the rules of human decency. The public face they show reveals that they know how they should behave with others; it’s just with you that they lack all sensitivity. Their abusive behavior, therefore, cannot be explained by a lack of awareness. They “know the rules” and simply choose to ignore them in their private relationships.
If narcissists were truly unaware of the consequences of abusive behavior, they would act the same way in all environments. But that is not their way. And because they already know what they are doing, it is a mistake to hope that the narcissist will change by becoming “self-aware”.
For these reasons, then, we should resist the call that we show greater sympathy for these abusive individuals, at least to the extent that by doing so we are causing greater and unnecessary harm to ourselves and other members of our family. Why show patience with the narcissist when they are repeatedly inflicting deep wounds upon us and when they are having such harmful effects on our children and their emotional development? It is, of course, an individual’s prerogative to sacrifice themselves for the sake of an unworthy cause, but when that involves creating a toxic environment for children, who deserve much better, then we must seriously rethink our motives and their likely repercussions.
We have an ethical obligation to remove ourselves and our children from such abusive situations, since whatever good may be achieved by sympathy and understanding for the narcissist is far outweighed by the inevitable harm that will come to ourselves and our children from remaining in a hopelessly toxic relationship. Our energies are wasted on the narcissist and are better devoted elsewhere—to improving our own lives and giving our children the sort of childhood that will enable them to have healthy relationships and happy lives.
For some people, these will be harsh truths. The pain that ending a relationship with a narcissistic partner will bring leads people to hope and look for some other way. Articles that hold out promises of narcissists changing and of your improving your relationship with them are stepping in to serve that misguided need. But, the truth is: it’s dangerous to keep a narcissist in one’s life. The ripple effect from doing this is far beyond the scope of what people can generally comprehend while in the midst of abuse.
In my article, The Chaos Theory of Narcissistic Abuse, I discuss the real and present danger in trying to maintain a relationship with a narcissistic partner. There are no miraculous transformations or divine epiphanies that will finally bring narcissists to see the error of their ways and change the irredeemably self-centered way they approach relationships and life in general. To remain in a relationship with a narcissist is, therefore, at best reckless and at worst an ethical wrong.
This article was originally written for and published on PsychCentral.com
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Kim Saeed is a narcissistic abuse recovery expert on a mission to help abuse survivors to heal, find purpose, and live joyfully after No Contact. She also hosts a podcast called Heal, Grow, Evolve, where she aims to help people create meaningful lives and relationships after emotional abuse. Listen and subscribe at www.healgrowevolvewithkim.com