Is There Any Hope for Relationships With Narcissists?

Research shows what it might take to bring out their empathy and compassion.

Posted Sep 01, 2015

Liv friis-larsen/Shutterstock
Source: Liv friis-larsen/Shutterstock

If you're in love with a narcissist, and still hopeful for a happy ending, it’s not your fault, even though it may not be wise.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: Humans are generally loss-averse, as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have shown; we tend to be overly optimistic and simplistic when it comes to the future (as per Daniel Gilbert); and we're highly receptive to intermittent reinforcement (proved by B.F. Skinner). It’s little wonder that when you get entangled with a person you either know or suspect is a narcissist, you somehow falter, even though the exit beckons. Perhaps it’s the memory of how attractive he was at the start, walking toward you with a smile and his hair falling boyishly onto his forehead, or how sweet and attentive she was to you just last week and how it made you feel. Somehow, in that moment, all the manipulations, the jousting, the emotional turmoil, and everything else fade from view and suddenly you think: Maybe he or she can change.

But can they?

That’s the big question and, not surprisingly, one that has interested researchers as well.

Can narcissists become more committed?

That's what Eli J. Finkel, W. Keith Campbell, and their team sought to clarify, since abundant research testifies to the fact that narcissists are less committed to partners than those who aren’t narcissists; tend to play more games in a relationship; and are more likely to be unfaithful. In other words, if it’s commitment you want, ixnay on a narcissist.

But what if there were a way to activate commitment somehow?

Three separate studies were designed and devoted to the effort, with participants taking the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) so they could be identified. The first experiment involved visually priming participants with five words connected to relationship—committed, devoted, faithful, loyal, loving—randomly scattered with 20 words unconnected to relationship, and then having them identify images of a woman holding a child, a teacher helping a student, or a man assisting a woman in a wheelchair as me/not me. (The control images were of a car, a tree, and a soccer player.) Primed narcissists actually did identify with the images of relationship more than those in the control group.

In the second experiment, conducted with married couples at two intervals four months apart, participants were asked to think about the behaviors their partners elicited from them and exhibited (nurturing, gracious, friendly, generous, charitable, warm) and were then asked how long they believed their marriage would last. Again, primed to reflect, narcissists actually showed increased commitment. 

The third experiment also involved couples, and sought to look at relationship dynamics six months after an initial test of commitment. Couples had a discussion about achieving personal goals, which was videotaped, and then they watched the video separately. They rated their own and their partner’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors while commitment was measured by agreement or disagreement with the following statement: “During this conversation, I felt very committed to our relationship.” Participants who felt loved and cared for during the conversation felt great commitment, especially narcissists.

Now, there are some significant caveats: The researchers note that there is “cause for optimism rather than exuberance.” First, they admit it’s a “long way from a subliminal prime…to a therapeutic intervention.” Second, they point out, commitment is only one of your problems when your love interest or partner is a narcissist.

Can a narcissist’s egotism be tamped down?

That’s what Christian H. Jordan and his colleagues wondered, since it’s not just a narcissist’s grandiose sense of self that creates problems, but his or her disregard for others. Could this particular horse be led to drink the waters of caring? A series of experiments, including having participants repeat the phrase “I am a caring person” or recalling a time when they were caring to someone, did indeed reduce a narcissist’s sense of entitlement and exploitativeness. Similarly, priming narcissists to think about interdependence (having them focus on the way they were similar to family and friends) and priming them for interdependence by having them count the plural pronouns (we/our/ours) in a story (versus priming independence by counting the pronouns I/me/mine) did reduce the way in which narcissists see themselves as separate.

Mind you, the subjects in these trials were all college students and, again, it’s worth heeding the wise words of Finkel and his colleagues: It’s a long way from a prime to making a tiger change its stripes.

To be blunt: The jury still seems to be very much out.

Can a narcissist become more empathic?

The narcissist’s lack of empathy is key to understanding why, when you’re with one, there’s a real sense in which he or she isn’t “with” you at all. Without empathy, a person remains more or less encased in hard plastic, unmoved by the feelings or plight of others—even supposedly close others—on both a cognitive and emotional level. Erica G. Hepper and her colleagues wondered whether it was possible, in fact, to push a narcissist in the direction of connection, and actually being emotionally moved by another person’s plight. In their first experiment (in which 81% of the participants were female), they administered the NPI and then had participants read a vignette about a woman who’d gone through a break-up; they manipulated the severity of the break-up as well as how much control the woman had over the outcome.

Even when the effects were severe—with the fictional person experiencing depression—a measurement of empathy showed that the narcissists in the group exhibited none.

In a second experiment—with a smaller sample that was all female—participants were instructed to watch a 10-minute documentary video on domestic violence, either taking the victim’s perspective (“Imagine how Susan feels”) or just watching it as they would anything else on television. What the researchers found was that empathy actually increased when the narcissists were asked to take it “personally.”

The team's third experiment probed whether narcissists experienced the physiological changes that accompany empathy, such increased heart rate, while they listened to a five-minute description of a breakup. The result? They don’t but, again, they can when instructed. It turns out the narcissist’s low arousal of emotion and empathy is automatic, and physiological in nature.

All of this seems to suggest that perhaps narcissists can be moved—or does it? Keep in mind: One experiment was all-female, and the topics—breakups and domestic violence—are, for most women, the kind that really push one's buttons for empathy. It made me wonder what kind of extremes it took to induce empathy in narcissists, and whether in everyday life it would actually be possible. That is, would asking your narcissist partner to take it “personally” really work when the drama was being played out in your own living room?

My layperson’s question was underscored by another study conducted by Miranda Giacomin and Christian H. Jordan. In their first experiment, participants read an article about a horrific accident—a woman named Karen and her sister were hit by a drunk driver while driving to work. The article detailed the terrible aftermath—the sister is killed, and Karen is left in a wheelchair—and the emotional and physical pain Karen experiences. Again, participants were asked to read the piece objectively (a state of low empathy) or to take Karen’s perspective (high empathy). While the effect was small, again, the researchers reported that narcissism was reduced.

But, really, is that the kind of situation—heartrending and senseless and filled with all manner of loss—that it takes to melt a narcissist’s heart, even in a lab setting?

Just saying…

Wikipedia Narcissus by Caravaggio
Source: Wikipedia Narcissus by Caravaggio

These studies appear to show that perhaps change will, someday, be possible with different therapeutic interventions as science begins to understand in greater depth what makes a narcissist tick. But for now, certainly, I’d be inclined to keep my eye on the exit if I were involved with a narcissist.

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Finkel, Eli J., W. Keith Campbell, Laura E. Buffardi, Madoka Kumashiro, and Caryl E. Rusbuit, “The Metamorphosis of Narcissus: Communal Activation Promotes Commitment Among Narcissists,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (October 2009), vol.35m no, 19, 1271-1284.

Jordan, Christian H., Miranda Giacomin, and Leia Kopp, “Let Go of Your (Inflated) Ego: Caring More About Others Reduces Narcissistic Tendencies,” Personality and Psychology Compass 8/9 (2014), 511-523. 11011/spr.3,12128

Hepper, Erica G., Claire M. Hart, and Constantine Sedikides, “Moving Narcissus: Can Narcissists Be Empathic?” Perrsonality and Social Psychology Bulletin (September 2013), vol.4, no.9. 1079-1091.

Giacomin, Miranda and Christian H. Jordan, “Down-Regulating Narcissistic Tendencies: Communal Focus Reduces State Narcissism,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2013), vo.xx (x), 1-13.

Copyright© 2015 Peg Streep