By Peg Streep
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.
Related Continuing Education Course on Narcissism