If you are currently in a committed relationship with a narcissist, you may think your life is an enduring hell- or at least purgatory. You might wonder if you stick it out, will he get better with age, will he mellow out? Unfortunately, there is not a longitudinal research study with a definitive answer. One study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry (F.Stinson et al, 2008) suggested that pathological narcissists might mellow out, as the characteristics of NPD were more prevalent among younger adults compared to older ones.
However, if a person reads the overly-abundant blogs available on the internet, they appear to be overwhelmingly of the opinion that narcissistic traits worsen as the narcissist ages. There are a few, less common but still published, accounts of narcissists who have indeed tempered their outbursts and learned to control their verbal abuse and constant demands. It is possible that mild narcissistic traits may decrease over time but pathological narcissism doesn’t.
Generally, narcissists don’t get more flexible, empathic or agreeable with age. These are personality traits of NPD and they are highly unlikely to change. Aging is rough on the ego- it increases dependency and vulnerability, usually reduces status (unless you are Donald Trump or Hugh Hefner), triggers regrets, and increases feelings of envy. Thus, it would make sense that a disorder involving the ego, such as NPD, would become exacerbated as the individual ages. Over the course of time, “child prodigies lose their magic, lovers exhaust their potency, philanderers waste their allure, and geniuses miss their touch”. Time brings the narcissist closer and closer to being average as the gulf widens between his grandiose expectations and his actual accomplishments.
Why don’t they get better?
In order to “get better” the narcissist would have to confess that his behavior and treatment of others was wrong or inappropriate. The narcissist would also need to admit that they need to change into a more compassionate human being. This will not happen for several reasons:
1) The narcissist is never wrong. “Wrong” or “inappropriate” are words that don’t exist in the narcissist’s vocabulary of self-perception. The narcissist firmly holds the belief that they are right, even if others disagree with them.
2) Compassion and empathy are considered weaknesses. Narcissists regard compassion and empathy as weaknesses because they allow people to be exploited (especially by narcissists). They know intuitively that they can manipulate and control compassionate people.
3) There is no value to the narcissist in being a better person. The narcissist may mimic compassion or empathy if there is something in it for him- something that will lead to obtaining Narcissistic Supply such as attention or others’ esteem. Like the other theatrical acts in his life, this will simply be an actor strutting on the stage for his audience. As the attention fades away, so goes the feigned compassion and empathy.
The Aging Narcissistic Parent
Reading the blogs from children of narcissistic parents, it is clear that pathological parents get meaner with age. They hold their children hostage through brainwashing about obligation, guilt and fear. They continue to manipulate and punish. An online example tells of an elderly, malignant mother who after years of wretched care-taking, further punished her children by leaving all her money to charity, claiming that she would never want to “cripple her children with something as burdensome as an inheritance”. Instead of aging gracefully, the narcissist’s anger increases with time. They are prone to more narcissistic rages against their adult children. They have no difficulty inexplicably cutting off communication. Their lack of empathy for their family becomes evident as their children grow older. When the spouse and children of their current relationship no longer provide reliable Narcissistic Supply, they simply move on to another source to get their fix. Often they will abruptly abandon the old family and jump into starting a new one. Children can be a crucial source of Narcissistic Supply; they adore unconditionally, worship their parents and are submissive (when young). On the other hand, children can take away attention from the narcissist. They can take too much of what the narcissist wants for himself: time, energy, resources, and attention. It is not uncommon for narcissists to view their own children as a threat, a nuisance, an unnecessary evil.
All in all, the narcissist makes for a terrible friend, poor lover and appalling parent…no matter what their age. He or she is likely to divorce many times (if they marry at all) and to end up in a series of monogamous relationships. Narcissists don’t mature with age; they continue to seek revenge for perceived insults, narcissistic injuries, and threats to their superiority. Redeeming a parent-child relationship later in life is highly unlikely; having a genuine, rewarding relationship with an aging narcissistic parent impossible.
Can aging narcissists return to a normal life?
Sam Vaknin, author of “Malignant Self Love” was asked if aging narcissists could return to a normal life if they were given therapy, counseling, or social support. He answered as follows:
“How can a narcissist return to a “normal” when – by the very definition of his disorder – he has never had a normal life and is utterly incapable of one? Narcissists are mentally-ill. Pathological narcissism cannot be”healed”, or “cured”. Only certain attendant mental health problems – such as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder – can be ameliorated or controlled with medication. Additionally, particularly abrasive, grating, or antisocial behaviors can be modified using talk therapy (cognitive-behavioral being the most successful).
Narcissists rarely seek therapeutic help and they definitely do not listen to advice of any kind. The narcissist constantly consumes (really, preys upon) adoration, admiration, approval, applause, attention and other forms of Narcissistic Supply. When lacking or deficient, a Narcissistic Deficiency Dysphoria sets in. The narcissist then appears to be depressed, his movements slow down, his sleep patterns are disordered (he either sleeps too much or becomes insomniac), his eating patterns change (he gorges on food or is avoids it altogether).”
Dr. Vaknin goes on to cite specific behaviors and feelings that an aging narcissist might display: chronic sadness (dysphoria), no longer finds pleasure in anything (including his former pursuits, hobbies, and interests), violent mood swings (mostly narcissistic rages) attacks) and a compulsive addiction to alcohol, drugs, reckless driving, or shopaholism.
The overall conclusion is that narcissists do get worse with age. Some would say that narcissists just continue ‘being narcissists’ with the exception that they exhibit more depressive symptoms as they age. Others would argue that they have gotten away with their actions for so long that they up the ante by increasing their narcissistic abuse and demands. They have lost their looks, their grandiose fantasies were not supported, their old charm no longer works, they most likely have had several failed marriages and countless failed relationships, their children avoid them… no wonder they are depressed. Some might say that is poetic justice.