Can my narcissist husband change? If so, how?
Living with a narcissistic partner can be exhausting. You may be exhibiting Complex PTSD (CPTSD, ie relational PTSD) symptoms such as depression, anxiety, doubting yourself, confusion, memory loss, anger, impulsivity, using addiction or other escaping behaviors to numb the pain.
The first step is to take care of yourself. If there is physical abuse, severe verbal, emotional, spiritual, or financial abuse, or ongoing infidelity with no active recovery or repair work, then we recommend immediate separation. We don’t recommend steps towards reconciliation until significant change has been demonstrated.
If your narcissistic partner’s actions don’t meet this threshold, or otherwise you are remaining together despite the recommendation to separate, then you may wonder if your narcissistic partner has the ability to change.
There is a lot of information available in books, podcasts, and internet support forums on how to leave a narcissist. No contact, gray rocking, etc. There is not much information on whether it’s possible for a narcissist to change, and if it be possible, how? This article will explore this.
Narcissist vs Narcissistic (but does it matter?)
According to the guidelines in the DSM IV published in 1994, the estimated NPD (the official diagnosis for narcissism: narcissistic personality disorder) population made up “less than 1% of the general population”. Sociopaths were a bit more common at “about 3% of males and 1% of females”. The DSM V published in 2013 upgraded these but gave them wide ranges NPD at “0 to 6.2%” and sociopaths between 0.2 and 3.3%”.
We tend to use the word narcissist or the phrase “acting narcissistically” to mean more than just NPD diagnosis but to generally apply it to someone acting abusively in a relationship with the classic narcissistic traits of manipulation, devaluing, blame shifting, etc. Your partner might not be NPD or sociopath but is just acting narcissistically on a very frequent basis. Unfortunately it might feel the same to you.
Can a narcissist change?
Dr. Craig Milkin, Harvard Medical School psychologist, is known as one of the world experts on narcissism says that change is possible even for the worst of these.
I’m going to go on record as saying yes—I do believe it’s possible for people to change, even if they’ve been diagnosed with something as deeply entrenched and formidable as a personality disorder.
This may be upsetting for some readers who have determined their narcissist ex was not capable of change. You are not my audience. You are probably right. I’m also not trying to give false hope to a partner of an abusive husband. You should not be reading this. You should be separating from your husband and waiting to see if he exhibits sustained change over a period of time. The intended audience is those who are “stuck” with their narcissist partner for whatever reason for the time being and want to see what their partner’s change process would look like if they were willing to embark on that change process.
I identified as a sex addict for a large portion of my life and acted extremely narcissistically to my wife. Even though I was the narcissistic one, I had the gumption to gaslight her, manipulate her, and blame her for the relationship problems. Eventually, she initiated a one-year separation. Sometimes a separation is necessary to reboot the relationship.
I realized I didn’t want to lose her. And even though I hadn’t yet understood deeply that I truly was the one that needed to change, I dove into extensive therapy and underwent a complete transformation. My mind slowly cleared over a period of several months as I worked through my shame and was able to face up to really how bad I was acting. Through effective therapy, I went through waves of deeper and deeper self-awareness.
After the year separation, I was able to become safe enough for my wife to explore reconciliation with me and eventually fully reconcile. Was I a full-blown narcissist? Likely not, but per Dr. Milkin, if I can change, so can your partner. It’s been years since I engaged in any of those old narcissistic behaviors such as bullying, manipulating, verbal abuse, harshly criticizing, lying, gaslighting, blame-shifting, entitlement, and sexually acting out. It’s possible.
I took what worked for me and combined it with extensive study on the best practices of treating narcissism and use it in my therapy and coaching. I specialize in sex addiction and narcissism recovery.
Narcissists nearly always become that way due to childhood trauma and insecure attachment. Insecure attachment has two types. Anxious: defined by getting attached too easily, being too needy, being oversensitive to criticism, being too open and enmeshed, lashing out aggressively if they feel snubbed. Avoidant: defined by being afraid of intimacy, punishing by avoiding or going to other lovers, inability to be vulnerable. A third insecure type is Fearful Avoidant which means one exhibits both anxious and avoidant patterns.
If your partner is acting narcissistic, it’s likely he would test on the severe end of one of these attachment styles.
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) often looks a lot like narcissism. A lot of these ideas are new and not fully studied out, but many experts believe that someone acting narcissistically with an attachment pattern that’s more anxious than avoidant is more likely BPD than NPD. And more avoidant than anxious is more likely NPD than BPD. The treatment is similar.
It’s possible through therapy to move from insecure attachment to secure. I assess for attachment style and then customize a treatment plan to earn secure attachment for the given attachment style. Individuals with secure attachment are able to regulate their emotions without escaping with numbing or impulsive behaviors. They can receive criticism without lashing out. They are content and secure in their romantic relationship without the need to stray or find additional validation, even when their partner is not doing it “perfect”. They can manage stress and disappointment without blaming others.
We assess for: attachment security and style, childhood trauma, depression, anxiety, shame, self-compassion, emotion regulation, addiction, ADHD, family issues, and any other mental health issues that might be contributing to the narcissistic behavior. All this goes into a customized treatment plan.
I combine several therapeutic principles and modalities in narcissism recovery.
Self-Awareness—it all starts with self-awareness, and we do a lot of work on that. Often other therapy, especially shame healing, needs to be done in order to reach a higher level of self-awareness.
Earned Secure Attachment and Trauma—EMDR, IPF, IFS, and RAIN.
Emotion Regulation—mindfulness, ACT
Addiction Recovery—often narcissism is linked with addiction and the frustration or guilt and shame of addiction is driving narcissistic behavior
Internal Family Systems—a very effective modality that heals trauma, shame, and helps people gain insights into and heal unwanted behavior, ie if your narcissist partner expresses something like “I don’t know why I act like this.” IFS can be a very effective method.
Shame Healing—self compassion, reparenting, trauma healing
Compassion—for self and others
It’s hard to say how long this process will take. It depends on how deep the problem is and how hard an individual will work. Really positive results can be made in just a few months. True healing and deep transformation can take place sometimes within a year. Sometimes longer 3-5 years. Weekly therapy for 6-12 months and then twice a month thereafter is a good plan.
It all starts with a willingness to be humble and take a step of faith into this process. If someone can do that, they can heal. Self-awareness is critical. The reason why narcissists usually can’t or won’t change is that they don’t see the problem. What we can name, we can tame. If someone comes to me and is willing to see their behavioral and thinking errors, I know we can work together. Maybe your narcissist partner isn’t ready. Maybe they are. It might be worth a try.
Even if your partner refuses to admit he’s a narcissist, if he’s willing to admit, even begrudgingly, that he’s acting in harmful ways to you and your relationship, and he’s willing to put in some work to change, that’s good enough to start. Let’s get to work.
This article was written by Robert Terry, Co-Founder of Karuna Healing, CSAT-C (certified sex addiction therapist) also specializing in narcissism. He can be reached at www.karunahealing.org.
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Rob Terry is a therapist for clients in Utah and coach for clients outside of Utah and across the globe. He specializes in sex addiction recovery for individuals and couples. He integrates the CSAT, OCSB, and Minwalla models for individual recovery and Gottman Method, RLT, and ERCEM for couples recovery. He is betrayal trauma informed. His therapy modalities are IFS, ACT, CBT, EMDR, and Attachment Theory.