Dating someone who is narcissistic can be confusing. You are attracted to the person and want to explore a relationship, but you're asking yourself, "Can a narcissist change for love?" Knowing more about narcissism and whether a person can change certain traits or behaviors for the sake of your relationship, can help you gauge if your partner is able to adjust their personality style for love.
What is Narcissism?
The first thing to consider is the level of your partner's narcissism. There is a difference between someone having narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) versus having just some traits of the disorder.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Those with NPD regard themselves as perfect, need constant admiration, and lack empathy. (Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and appreciate their feelings and experiences). Someone with NPD lacks the ability to empathize because they are so focused on themselves.
Someone with NPD does most of these things a vast majority of the time with almost everyone in their lives:
- Thinks of themselves as superior to others
- Believes they are extraordinary and very important, and as a result, only other high-status people can truly understand them
- Fantasizes about unlimited power, success, beauty or ideal love
- Has a strong sense of entitlement or believes they should get favorable treatment
- Expects and seeks constant admiration
- Exploits others to meet their own goals
- Is unwilling to empathize or identify with the feelings of others
- Is envious of others or believes others are envious of them
- Exhibits arrogance or haughtiness
Therefore, NPD is more of a spectrum, and where the person falls on the spectrum depends on how many of the above characteristics they have: at least five traits is the low end of the spectrum and possessing all nine is the high end.
Additionally, NPD has been categorized into two types of narcissism: grandiose and vulnerable. A grandiose narcissist has an inflated sense of self, strong sense of entitlement, a tendency to exploit others, and need for admiration. On the other hand, vulnerable narcissism means that the person tends to be defensive, insecure, highly sensitive, and angry and hostile.
Development of Narcissistic Traits
Narcissism often develops from childhood adversity such as physical and emotional abuse or extreme poverty. Such experiences lead to very low self-esteem. Therefore, over time the person starts to develop narcissistic traits as a way of compensating for their low self-esteem. They try to convince themselves they are worthy and they try to present themselves as praiseworthy to others.
It is possible for someone to have a few of the above-listed traits but not enough of them to constitute a clinical disorder. For instance, they may be arrogant, need admiration and have a strong sense of entitlement however, not exploit others and still have the willingness to empathize with them. In such a case, they would be able to engage in a mutually loving relationship. For someone with actual NPD however, it can depend on how many and which traits they have.
First Versus Lasting Impressions
When you first started dating, your partner probably got your attention because of their charisma and charm. This is common for narcissists, because getting admiration strongly matters to them. As a result, they are able to romance their way into your life.
However, romance and a solid relationship are two very different things. Over time, your partner is likely to become distant from you and may even suddenly break-up with you. This is because as the relationship progresses there is increased expectation of emotional intimacy and give-and-take, whereas a narcissist is focused on getting their own needs met. This keeps them from being able to attend to your needs unconditionally.
Or as the relationship continues, they could try to make you jealous as a way to gain power and control, get revenge, test the relationship, or seek security in the relationship.
There is a general or normal level of competitiveness that is necessary for success across various fields such as medicine and major league basketball. This is different from hyper-competitiveness, which is strongly associated with self-worth and a constant need for recognition from others.
Narcissists of both types are highly hypercompetitive. This can cause strain in a romantic relationship, for a narcissist will compete with you rather than foster a partnership of mutual support and respect.
Possible Areas of Change
It is possible that your partner could meet your needs in a relationship depending on factors such as age, where they are on the NPD spectrum, and if they can be cued to have empathy.
Age and Vanity
Generally, personality can and does change over the course of a lifetime. One study found that over 23 years, from young adulthood to mid-life, overall narcissism decreased in the study participants. That is, as people age, they tend to have fewer narcissistic qualities, so an older narcissist could more easily adapt for a romantic relationship.
With regard to the specific quality of vanity, those who were vainer in the study were likely to be married for a shorter period and begin new relationships more often. On the other side of the coin, those whose vanity decreased over time were more likely to be in a serious relationship and have more children. In other words, if your partner is not particularly vain, the relationship is more likely to work, because they will be less concerned with themselves compared to someone with high vanity.
Reminder of Empathy
One research study found that after participants were primed to think about empathy, they did express higher empathy and more altruism. This can be explained by the fact that a narcissist likes to make a good impression. So, when they are reminded of a value held by society, or by you as their dating partner, they are more likely to comply with a request. The results of this study provide hope for some change in a person with NPD. At the same time, if you want a long-term relationship that is a true partnership, it could get tiring if you have to consistently remind your partner of something.
In a healthy relationship there is equity in division of labor, and when one sees that the other is struggling, they jump in to help. If you have to remind your partner every week that you've taken care of cooking dinner every night, but you have an aversion to the grocery store and have to ask them to go shopping again, the relationship would be a lot more fragile. However, if they respond by doing the grocery shopping every week after you ask them just once, you would find that more workable.
What Does All This Mean for Me?
Whether a narcissist can change for love is a complicated question that depends on a wide range of factors.
The most important thing to consider is whether your needs are getting met, and what change you need your partner to make for the relationship to work for you. To gauge this, ask yourself:
- Do they do something that I ask them nicely to do?
- Do they make me feel appreciated?
- Do they support me in my endeavors, or do they compete with me?
- Am I tired because they need constant validation from me?
- Do I feel used?
- Are they able to put themselves in my shoes?
- Are they always preoccupied with how they look or come across to others?
- Am I happy when I am with them?
- Do I envision a long-term relationship with them?
- Are they willing to go to couples' therapy with me?
These are actually good questions to explore to gauge the health of any type of relationship.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
In deciding whether to continue a relationship, it ultimately comes down to how you weigh the costs and benefits for yourself. The most important question you can ask yourself is "Do I like this person?" In the end, you will be in a much happier and healthier relationship if you like who they are now, not if you will only like them if they change.