Most people believe narcissists can never really change. I find that depressing and difficult to accept, but intellectually, I can see how it is likely true. Those that cannot even accept that they are narcissists can’t accept that there is a problem in the first place and are not introspective enough to recognize a pattern in their behavior. In contrast, some narcissists are self-aware and those are likely to be the ones who get some enjoyment out of tormenting people and use their self-awareness to learn even more about how to calculate their actions so that they cause the greatest amount of harm and chaos. Thus, they see no reason why they would ever want to.
And then, apparently, there are some narcissists on the lower end of the spectrum who sometimes feel like they want to change, usually when there has been a hugely devastating loss in their lives that has brought them to a moment of self-reflection. When they try, however, their view of the world makes it difficult for them to implement lasting changes even if they are motivated (e.g., their brains lack the capacity for emotional empathy).
And yet… can it be that black-and-white? There are so many narcissistic traits. Is any change possible? Can they learn anything at all? Can they focus on a trait in themselves that has been called to their attention or that they feel is causing trouble in their lives and work on modifying it, even if it remains a struggle for them for the rest of their lives?
And when I looked back over the previous months, he was right. He had toned it down. It wasn’t that he hadn’t still sometimes tried to deflect or deny when things he had done in the past happened to come up. It wasn’t that he hadn’t still sometimes asked inappropriate questions about whether I was dating other men or made curt, controlling comments about it. But, in general, he had become less vicious. It all had less bite to it, and when I put him in his place for it, he backed down and it became less frequent.
In some ways, he was like a different person. Gone was the man who spit out insults when he felt jealous or insecure, or when he felt threatened by my success or his lack of control over me. Gone was the man who threatened me or said things with a smile on his face just to try to crush my spirit. Gone was the man who had watched me cry with the cold demeanor of someone who felt absolutely nothing. Gone was the man who used his physical presence to intimidate and cause me harm.
Instead, a calmness had set in. He would ask me what I wanted to eat and bring it over, cook it for me, or take me to where we could get it. He was always concerned that I wasn’t eating enough, knowing my physical health had declined (even if he didn’t exactly accept or mention why). He went with me to the doctor when something went wrong so I would have support. He spent hours at a time talking to me about whatever was on his mind and telling me he couldn’t talk to anyone in his life that way, that I was the only one who had ever really seen him and accepted him for who he was. He brought me surprises– chocolates, a necklace from Tiffany’s. On the night before my birthday, he brought over cupcakes and at midnight, pulled out candles, stuffed one in each of them, and lit them. Sometimes we’d take a walk around the city or go do something couples do, like play pool. He went to watch me sing in a competition and cheered me on, the first time he’d ever done it since I’d started performing more than a year before. He asked me every day how I was feeling and told me good night before I went to sleep.
It wasn’t that he had never been good to me before, but something had been removed– some element of resentment and hostility.
Had he changed?
He had toned something down, it was true. Way down.
But yet… something remained off.
It was unsettling. These actions seemed to show he loved and cared about me, but could I trust their intentions?
His actions overall, you see, were incongruent.
He was still keeping secrets and indicating that he was willing to lie to others, notably his wife from the arranged marriage, but almost everyone else he knew as well. Didn’t that mean that all of the rest, what he was showing me, could be a lie too?
Of course it did. And I later learned that some of it was. But how much? I’ll never know for sure.
If someone can keep lying and keep engaging in double lives but change some aspects of themselves, they have not truly changed as a person.
And yet what I puzzled over was… did that aspect of him even change?
The reason that seemed important was because it would tell me that that man who had sometimes morphed into a monster right in front of me was false, not representative of how he truly felt about me, but rather representative of a man who didn’t know how to manage a healthy relationship when his dishonest behavior was brought to light. It would tell me that he did love me and hadn’t meant to hurt me.
The alternative is that the entire “I’ve changed” narrative was a ruse. Had he just learned how to put the true face away again and hide the most brutal aspects of a narcissism that is more malignant than I thought it was to better serve his interests? Had he learned how to hide the hostility to maintain a relationship with me under what were changed circumstances– his marriage?
Perhaps he had stumbled upon a magic formula: dose me with loving action s, future-fake, lie about his role in and thoughts on this “arranged marriage” sitution he was in, talk up a connection between us, and control and isolate me from dating other men. After all, he knew the only way to keep me around that long was to be kind to me. I had zero reason to stay enmeshed with him at all if he wasn’t at least kind. His marrying someone else was cruelty enough and I’m sure he was perceptive enough to realize that, given all the conversations we had had about it.
Obviously, he had not entirely altered his personality.
But had he even changed anything at all or was that fake too?
And yet– what I observed was that he either had changed that, he had learned how to control it, or had always been able to control it but had chosen not to.
He later had a perfect opportunity to unleash all of his rage on me and show me that nothing at all had changed, but he did not. And yet, he also showed me that many of his words and deeds were empty. The two canceled each other out, so it is impossible for me to ever answer my own question. Only he knows the answer. Or perhaps not. Perhaps he has constructed a narrative for himself that is so compartmentalized, even he could not explain without contradicting himself if asked.*
What does change mean to a narcissist? It is unanswerable. I shall put this question out of my head.
EDIT: I did send him some information on narcissism a couple of times to see what he’d say, even though I anticipated the response: “There’s nothing wrong with me.” So that essentially sheds no light on this question. He either could have: (1) not recognized the problem as narcissism (narcissistic behavior of not accepting the problem); (2) recognized a problem without admitting to what it was (narcissist behavior of denying the truth to others); or (3) recognized a problem and used it to further become more manipulative by toning certain things down that made it so obvious (malignant narcissistic behavior). Or maybe there are other possibilities. No matter which one it is, this is why you’ll likely never get any answers from talking to them. See below.
EDIT 2 (1/14/2018): I guess I have one answer. Excellent read, an article posted by H.G. Tudor, narcissist in treatment, who writes about what narcissists think, on whether they can change: https://narcsite.com/2018/01/14/but-i-can-change-3/
tl/dr: Mostly the “I can change” mantra is implemented by mid-range narcissists who need to convince the partner to provide the “fuel” they need, but the narcissists genuinely believe they are good people or tortured souls willing to try something different:
“This is a Respite Period and he has implemented this because when you said you would not leave, you became painted white again because you did what he wanted. You succumbed to his control and your gracious behaviour provided fuel. The golden period returns and this is what powers his altered ways. It is not because there is any recognition that he must change because it hurts you. The alteration is because you have done what he wanted, thus his split thinking makes you ‘white’ once more and this is what keeps the devaluation at bay, but only for a while… He will of course herald his new-found redemption to third parties because this will garner fuel and maintain the facade and of course accords with his complete conviction that he is a good person. This will also provide him with ammunition to hurl at you at the appropriate time, in that he made the changes and if things have faltered it has to be your fault then… The desire to change is motivated by entirely different reasons than you realise and this desire is not genuine. The change is short-lived, never permanent and any and all behaviours associated with it, no matter how genuine they appear, no matter how earnest the pleading, no matter how many tears are spilled (and the Mid Ranger will turn on the waterworks) it is all part of the manipulation. They cannot and will not change.”