This couple adopted a large breed male dog as a pup and as the pup got older, he began to confront the narcissist when the narcissist would physically attack the wife, even biting the narcissist on more than one occasion. The dog got very large, so the narcissist became afraid of him and stopped hitting the wife out of fear of injury.
The interesting thing is that not even a year later, the dog sadly had to be put to sleep (for an unrelated reason) and even though the threat to the narcissist’s safety was not around anymore, he did not resume hitting his wife. It seemed to be that the “knee-jerk reaction” of hitting his wife was not a knee-jerk reaction after all, but a choice he was making without realizing it. A habit, for lack of a better word. A pattern.
The advent of the dog into the situation forced the narcissist to stop and think before he did something and once he did that, he was able to consider the consequences and make the choice not to do it. As of this writing, he has not been physical with his wife again, and that was years ago. He’s still a narcissist of course, but he is not physically violent anymore. He was forced to think before he acted and the pattern was broken. After that, he got into a different pattern and did not go back to the old one.
This is a unique situation, but it is one that shows that narcissists can change their behavior if there are severe enough internal and external consequences.
Related: Why Narcissists Act the Way They Do
The Narcissist And The Mirror-Image
Consequences only work if someone understands them and if they care. For example, ending the relationship with the narcissist only matters if the loss of the relationship means something to the narcissist about himself. If it doesn’t, this is no threat and therefore, no consequence.
The narcissist doesn’t care about what you think of their behavior. They live behind Teflon armor and your feelings, accusations, and complaints can’t touch them. In order for narcissists to be motivated to change their behavior, they have to dislike their own behavior and the way it makes them feel so much that they don’t want to feel that way anymore, and they have to be able to remain focused on that even when they are upset.
This is the only thing that will motivate a narcissist to change something they are doing: their own feelings.
Because they are experts in justification, denial, compartmentalization, and blame-shifting, it is very hard for this situation to come about. They have to realize their own behavior is the problem before they can stop doing it. In our example involving the dog, the narcissist was able to justify his behavior for years by blaming his wife for causing it and by claiming it was just an uncontrollable reaction when he got angry.
And it probably was, because he had no idea how to go back and rescind permission for himself to behave that way and no idea how to react a different way than the way he had always reacted. However, once a consequence was introduced to the situation that forced him to stop and think, he controlled himself.
He did not go back to that behavior even when the external consequence – the dog – was gone because he did not like the way doing those things made him feel. He did not like thinking of himself as the kind of man who hits women.
While the negative external consequence may have been the vehicle through which the behavior modification was possible, it is the negative internal consequence that made it a true change. If it were solely dependent on external consequences, the change would not have been permanent, and abuse would have started back up as soon as the dog was no longer present.