So you've just realized you're in a relationship with a narcissist. Should you leave, or is it possible to stay and make the relationship work?
As with any relationship in which you come to a realization that something's deeply wrong or dysfunctional within the relationship, it's important to consider not just your willingness to do the work of healing but also your partner's willingness. That mutual commitment is key to healing a broken relationship. Both people need to do that inner work.
But narcissists pose a very unique problem. One of the hallmarks of narcissism is an inability to be self-aware, which generally translates into believing that they are never the problem in a relationship. Narcissists are, as the label suggests, incredibly self-focused and tend to overestimate their accomplishments. They tend to not take criticism well, take no responsibility for their own feelings or actions, and oftentimes resort to anger or rage when not getting their way. This in mind, it's easy to see why narcissists traditionally blame all the problems on their partner and are rarely able to see their part in causing relationship issues.
Everyone can change if they want to, but one of the major problems with narcissists is that because they rarely believe they have a problem, they have no motivation to change.
The false hope of "potential."
Take my former husband. This man was funny, sexy, and charismatic—like so many narcissists are. I fell madly in love with his sense of humor, with how handsome he was, and because he said he loved to read and was in therapy. He had so much potential.
Later on, I learned he'd been lying about going to therapy. Lying—another hallmark of narcissism. Nonetheless, it still took me years to connect the dots. My mother had also been a narcissist, and so it had become hard for me to recognize it. Her lack of empathy and compassion had always confused me, and soon a similar sense of confusion and frustration began to bubble within my marriage. His needs always seemed to override mine in his eyes: For example, if I was reading in bed when he got in and wanted time with me, and I said I wanted to finish a chapter first, he would pout and tell me that the book was more important to me than him. When I was in school to be a therapist and had to be at a Sunday class, he would get angry at me for not being able to spend the day with him, telling me I was selfish and had my priorities wrong. He went into complete resistance any time I asked him to do something but was very demanding regarding what he wanted.
It took me years of therapy to understand that his lack of caring wasn't because I was inadequate. But before I finally came to recognize his narcissism, I tried everything to get him to change: I was a caretaker, tending to his every need. I had sex just about whenever he wanted, even if I wasn't in the mood. I would spend exhausting hours trying to get him to open when he would withdraw in anger. I went from therapist to therapist trying to fix myself so that he would love me.
Looking back, I realize now that we were a particularly poor match—not only was he a narcissist, but I'm a highly sensitive empath. Growing up, I didn't understand that not everyone was like me, and I went through most of my school years confused and baffled by other people's careless and seemingly heartless treatment of one another. With my husband, I stayed confused for many years, thinking he would finally start to care about me and learn to be empathic with me. But a hallmark of narcissism is that very inability to feel empathy for others. It was a fruitless effort.
There was a defining moment two years before I ended the marriage. He wanted to have a big Thanksgiving dinner, and I agreed, provided he would help. Traditionally, I did everything to prepare for these events myself. This time he finally agreed to help, but on the day of the dinner, he was again doing nothing. I said, "You promised to help," and he just smirked at me, as if to say, Gotcha again.
It should've dawned on me then that nothing would ever change. Still, I gave him a challenge: I told him I wouldn't spend any more time with him until he could be consistently loving with me for three months straight. Until then, I'd move into another room. This "challenge" went on for two years—but he simply could not be loving toward me for more than a few days at a time.
I knew I had to end the marriage. I was getting very ill from the drain of being at the other end of narcissism for so long, and I knew that if I didn't leave, I would likely become so ill I would die. Leaving was actually lifesaving for me.
Looking back, I now know that there was nothing I could do to get him to change. The allure of potential had strung me along for years. Today, I always tell my clients to never count on potential. Everyone has potential, but we can only count on what we see.
If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, it's best not to expect change.
It took me 30 years to finally accept that my husband was never going to change. He was never going to become the caring, compassionate, and empathic person I believed he had the potential to be.
Now, having lived with a narcissist for so much of my life, I can generally spot one quickly. I'm no longer drawn to the charisma, the over-the-top compliments, the fake caring. I'm no longer drawn to their pull for attention or to try to fill the empty hole within them. I can now feel the difference in energy between someone coming from a truly open and caring heart versus someone acting open and caring.
The question to ask isn't "Can a narcissist change?" but "Will a narcissist change?" A great majority of the time, the answer is no. Even though change can sometimes be possible, you shouldn't count on it. If you do, you may whittle through years of your life waiting for that potential to become reality—without any guarantee that it'll ever happen.
What should you do if you find yourself in a relationship with a narcissist?
If you realize you are in a relationship with a narcissist, you need to decide if you can fully accept your partner exactly as they are because you can't guarantee change. If you can accept them—and you can learn how to take loving care of yourself in the face of their behavior such that it won't be a constant source of pain in your life—then you can try staying. Sometimes a history together, children, and an at-least-sometimes loving connection merit an attempt to make a relationship with a narcissist.
Talk to your narcissistic partner and see how much they're willing to contribute to this process. Again, anyone can change if they want to. If your partner isn't an extreme or malignant narcissist, they might be willing to receive help. If they're open to therapy and can stick with it, that's a positive sign. But if your partner says they will change on their own, be wary—narcissism is a very deep issue and generally takes years of good therapy for change to occur, and most narcissists aren't motivated to do this level of inner work.
At the end of the day, you'll need to be honest with yourself: Can you accept your partner exactly as they are? If not, then it might be time to leave.