Behavior Modification

(I am at a conference this weekend and posting from my tablet. Please forgive the strange formatting)

                                                                          It’s Narcissist Friday!  

Behavior, the things we do, is supposed to be outward evidence of what we think or feel.  Emotions are acted out in our behavior.  We think we should be able to see a person’s heart in his behavior. 
But some people use their behavior to pretend to have certain feelings.  In the beginning of the relationship, for example, the narcissist behaves in a most loving and caring way.  Patience, kindness, attentiveness—these things project love in the narcissist’s mind. So, to convince a potential partner of love, he exhibits loving behavior. 

I suspect this is the most concrete area of overlap between narcissism and legalism in my mind.  Believers under legalism are taught to behave in certain ways, whether they feel those things or not.  Pray a certain way and amount, give a certain way and amount, serve a certain way and amount—and others will believe that you are a good Christian.  Never mind what is really in your heart.  Only behavior matters.

Narcissists can modify their behavior in order to convince or control.  Those who do not understand this can be deceived.  Suddenly the husband has a wonderful change of heart.  He becomes a listener.  He is thoughtful and caring.  So the wife yields once again.  Maybe things have really changed.  But it doesn’t take long before things are back to normal.  What happened?  The husband knew what he had to do to keep her, to manipulate her feelings. 

This is a common story in narcissistic relationships of all kinds.  We long for kindness and respect, so we are open to receiving them.  We relax and enjoy and are tricked again.  The man who does all the Christian things and stays away from all the worldly things must be good enough to bring on as a leader in the church.  And we are tricked again.

If you are in a narcissistic relationship, or suspect you might be, watch out for this type of behavior modification.  It is surprisingly effective.  Most often, the heart stays the same as the behavior changes.

However, if you are called to stay in the relationship, or stuck in the situation, this ability of the narcissist to change behavior might work to your advantage.  If you are wise enough to recognize that no real love exists, you may be able to at least have a partner who treats you in a loving way.  If the narcissist wants something you have or give, he/she might be willing to act lovingly in order to get it. 

I certainly understand that might seem wrong to some of you.  You want someone who actually feels love for you.  But the narcissist probably cannot and probably never will.  He/she may still value you and want you in their life, however.  You may be able to tell him/her what loving you acts like … and you can expect that behavior.

And, it may not be as phony as you think.  The narcissist who willingly changes behavior because he wants you in his life is telling you something.  Maybe love is foreign, at least in the way you love, but desire and value are certainly part of love. 

Some counselors who work with narcissists consider success to be changed behavior, particularly for the purpose of valuing another person.  If it is not done to deceive, it is a way for the narcissist to fit in society and to function in relationships.


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13 responses to “Behavior Modification

  1. LoyaltoJesus

    I have had some success in seeing behaviour modification work with my N husband and have worked to establish boundaries particularly for the sake of my children. On balance I would say that this was the right thing to do as if I had left he would have made sure that I he had the most contact with them that he possibly could and I would not have been able to influence his behaviour towards them. There is an underlying rage and resentment towards me because he has had his actions challenged and he can’t get away with bad behaviour as much as he wants to. It isn’t fair or easy but the best option in difficult circumstances.

  2. Hephzibah

    Thanks, Pastor Dave, for your faithfulness in putting up encouraging and thought-provoking posts, and for keeping in mind those who are somehow “stuck with” their N.
    You say, “The narcissist who willingly changes behavior because he wants you in his life is telling you something… If it is not done to deceive, it is a way for the narcissist to fit in society and to function in relationships.” But that “IF” is a big one. How likely is it that someone whose whole life has been about using manipulation to get what s/he wants will suddenly lose that desire to push the envelope? Can the N ever do ANYTHING without expecting to get something back – usually something MORE than s/he gave? I think that they would be unable to agree to any terms without reserving some hidden hope of deceiving you and wringing more out of you than you bargained for. Remember, N always has to win, no matter what the game!
    But as you say, if you have/are something that the N really wants/needs at the moment, you could perhaps “buy” yourself a bit of at least temporary relief in some specific areas. “Tit for tat” is the default for N’s as far as I have seen, so, yes, “if you want this, then do that” might work to some extent. But never let your guard down or you will end up on the short end of the stick once again….(Well, you’ll probably end up there even if you do keep your guard up, but it may take a bit longer…)
    And does anyone have experience with an N whose wonderful plans and good intentions ever are more than a flash in the pan, if that? One who follows through on ANYTHING (except their own agenda)? I think that the terms in any deal might need to be renegotiated with exhausting frequency.

  3. Tammy

    Truth!! N’s are truly masters at behavior modification! My husband worked with one that was professional, helpful, etc to certain people, but a snake to my husband and others who were not directly in a position to correct his behavior.

    My husband did research on the N’s baffling behavior, figured out what N supply was and what made his N co-worker tick. Understanding how they think is very important… My husband became very strategic in his interaction and conversations; bringing the lies and manipulation out of the darkness, at least where my husband’s interactions were concerned.

    The N subsequently started behaving better with respect to my husband because he was an exposure threat! Of course the N plotted more covertly, but at least was cordial and better behaved. So yes, they can certainly modify their behavior if they think it will benefit them! The sad part is that many will be sucked in because like Pastor Dave said… Our heart is in OUR behavior so we THINK we are seeing theirs. Oh, how we wish this were true!

    Eventually the exposure led to him being moved into an office where he could be overheard in his dealings with clients. It was too much for the N to bear, so he resigned. HALLELUJAH!!! A happy ending! Well, not exactly… As many of us know, they don’t go down without a NASTY fight. He vowed to use the stack of notepads with loads of customer info to turn as many customers away as possible. We don’t know how successful he was, but business did suffer to some extent.

    Good things came out of this. That was 3 years ago, and my sweet husband’s research helped me understand some people in my family and my ex-husband. A quick back story… You see, I chose poorly the first time. I was barely 18 and as naive as they come. My brother and grandmother were different types of N’s. I married an N. He wasn’t physically abusive, but the emotional abuse, gas-lighting, manipulation, cheating, selfishness, etc etc etc were baffling and beyond logical and normal comprehension. Each time I left him, he transformed into the “perfect husband”. Like Pastor Dave said, I was valued. The truth was that I was useful. I was the most important part of his “image” to the outside world. Sadly, I held onto a futile hope for 14 years, so my heart grieves for you that are reading this and can’t see a way out of your N relationship!

    I know this is a long story but I got out of that sad abusive false relationship, grieved properly, remarried 5 years later, and now I have been very happily remarried in an incredible loving relationship for almost 12 years to a wonderful Christian man.

    Behavior Modification is key to a narcissist’s survival. Matthew 10:16…be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be wary and wise! My ex did this to his current wife in the worst way possible! His abuse had actually far surpassed anything he had ever done to me to a level that even to me was incomprehensible! She finally left him. He did the only thing he could think of. He claimed that he got SAVED! He came to my house, apologized for everything and had everyone convinced that he was sincere. She bought it because she desperately wanted it to be true. His new image includes church attendance, even on Wednesdays. The truth is, this was only behavior modification in the most evil and shrewd way. The modification lasted long enough to get her to stay, and what is left is a pitifully sad shell of a marriage and home. What a sad sad existence.

    Hephzibah is correct! “The terms in any deal might need to be renegotiated with exhausting frequency” It is exhausting to research, understand and especially try to out-think and negotiate with an N because it goes against our nature. If you decide to stay, you MUST learn to be good at it if you are going to survive and stay in the relationship. Unfortunately, you can’t expect much more than survival and existing. That is a sad life and far away from what God intends for us!

    Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
    Ephesians 6:10-18 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Read this entire chapter!
    I John 4:4… he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world

    Does that sound like God wants us to live a defeated life with an evil Narcissist?? Absolutely not! Once I was truly saved, the words in the Bible finally made sense! They continue to give me strength and they are for you today! With His strength I moved on, healed, faced the difficulties and challenges with the shield of faith, and continue to be amazed at what He is doing in my life.

    I hope to be a beacon of light to you who are suffering. If you aren’t saved, seek out Jesus. Find a Bible believing church. Seek out positive true Christians and form healthy relationships. Knowledge is definitely power. It is strength for the soul and can definitely help in day to day dealings with N’s. There is a treasure trove of great advice on this blog. Pastor Dave understands N’s like no-one else I have found on the web. His Christian perspective is refreshing and enlightening in a world filled with lies venom and revenge. I pray you find wisdom and strength here and know that you are valuable and loved.

  4. Questions for Pastor Dave and others: Would you agree that part of the befuddlement being married to a narcissist is that we falsely project onto the narcissist our own feelings and behaviors? When we say we want a better relationship we mean it and do something about it. But doesn’t it appear when the narcissist says it, we think they mean the same thing, but it ends up being just lip service to appear Knightly in the moment?

    Yesterday I was befuddled with this concept when a woman I’m mentoring with, whose husband also appears to be a narcissist, told me our husbands met alone and decided they didn’t want to discuss personal stories in our upcoming four-some mentoring relationship. I’d agreed with that upfront as internally I knew pride was an issue with the men. Up to now we’d only watched mentoring DVD’s for a few weeks prior to time off during the holidays. Now that discussion-time loomed near, I presumed we’d keep the talks to commenting on ourselves not our marriage, but her husband told her he wanted no part of it adding that their marriage problem was her fault. When I told my husband I found out he’d had this conversation, he said it happened weeks before and that he enjoyed the insightful reading and DVD’s, but now claims his own reason for not wanting to continue was because he doesn’t have time since he has so much reading to do for his men’s discipleship group. To note, he’s repeating an entry-level christian discipleship class which I don’t think he needs, especially because these classes never change anything. I think he attends so he can talk about himself and make men marvel at how wonderful he is, albeit excelling in entry level learning…. The men don’t realize they’re getting a narcissists view of reality. Like me, they take him at his word. Am I awful for saying this???

    My heart, mind and emotions get so confused. I responded to my husband as I have the past 18 years, speaking like I am with a “normal” person and I suggested the (to me “obvious”) solution he drop men’s discipleship so he’d have time for marriage mentoring. He responded with his usual silence. (Lack of closure or follow-through is considered “a conversation” with him.) Now I regret having shed light where he prefers darkness. When I see the light I always want it to shine. But in contrast, with a narcissist it seems in order to get the real response you should let it stay dark until the narcissist comes up with his own enlightened idea. That sounds so foreign to just let someone walk in darkness, but narcissists dig their heels deep.

    Why don’t I stop with his idea that he doesn’t have time for marriage mentoring and not suggest a solution, which is what you do with a “normal” person? It’s so obvious that I should go with his reality that he doesn’t WANT time for marriage mentoring, even though he signed up for it. Sadly, the reality is it was only his “ideal” agreement in the moment when I suggested it. Narcissists only like their own ideal ideas.

    Not liking these false starts, what will it take for me to stop getting hooked into a lie? I’ve repeated this pattern for 18 years, though only known about narcissism for 14-months. How can I ignore his words and start seeing our life from the narcissists view that the reason a narcissist won’t come up with solutions is because they don’t WANT any? That sounds like such a terrible thing to accuse someone of. Although,he did once gave the appearance of wanting a solution when he spent $500.00 with a woman counselor (recommended by a fellow discipler). Then when it came time for me to come in on the meetings (ie. add in “reality”), he cancelled all further meetings and blamed the counselor for bowing out -which I found wasn’t true when I called the counselor and got her take on it: he had revoked permission for her to talk to me. Classic….

    In conclusion, I feel like it’s normal to suggest “healthy” strategies for behavior modification, but I need to train my mind somehow to stop doing that in order to accommodate a narcissists reality and not experience the repeated rejection of a narcissist not following through. It’s so deflating when his words say “yes” and I believe him as I would expect him to believe me, but every time his actions say “no”. I like Amy Grant’s counselor’s words that some times it’s not good and bad people just good and bad combinations. Combining with a narcissist needs to come with a translator!

    (For those wondering, separation is not an option for me due to childcare concerns. I’ve chosen that it is better for our children that I stay with their father who acts “single” than to be separated as I’ve been through the havoc that comes with a divorce when children are in the picture and I would never do that again. My present marriage is an upgrade of the previous one and I am gratefully left alone most of the time to make the best of the life I have. With Jesus by my side and in my heart, I’m finding much joy doing just that.)

    Thank you, Pastor Dave, for being there for us!

    • Tammy

      “part of the befuddlement being married to a narcissist is that we falsely project onto the narcissist our own feelings and behaviors?”

      Yes. Yes. Yes. Well Gratefully Yours, You are right, if there was a translator that would be great. If there was a way to have a relationship that was reasonably close to normal that would be great. It is true that they are all different so we can’t put all N’s in the same box, but what you are describing is very familiar to me.

      I was young and naive and used to believe that his motivations were the same as mine. Yes, I projected my own intentions on his behavior, when that was far from the truth. I remember becoming so exasperated with trying to figure out what would make him happy that I said “I can’t win for losing”. He jumped all over that one of course… I used to try to be strategic on how to get him to do what I wanted by telling him I wanted the opposite. It was exhausting.

      You seem to think it is terrible to recognize that he doesn’t want things to change. What did Jesus call the Pharisees? Read Paul’s letters to the Corinthians church – they called out behavior for what it ACTUALLY WAS, not what was being “projected”.

      Know that a Narcissist is GREAT at making others feel like they are the cause of the problem. They are GREAT at making everyone around them think that everything they do is OK. Everyone else seems to be doing all of the accommodating and apologizing.

      Husbands are supposed to love their wives like Christ loved the Church! A “marriage” with a true N may be legal, and it may be difficult to end because there are children involved, but it bears no resemblance to what God intended for marriage.

      It may seem like there is no way out. I don’t presume to know how to give others advice. I can tell you that God has blessed me beyond my wildest dreams and the challenges that I faced were worth it WAY beyond what I can express.

      I was pregnant, had an 8 year old, a home that was in deplorable condition and I made only about $11/hr. Within a few years, God healed my heart and my home. I had a new career, more money, a renovated home and most importantly a growing relationship with Christ. It wasn’t easy, but IT WAS WORTH IT. For the record, I don’t believe in divorce except for the reasons the Bible provides. I had just cause.

      That was 17 years ago and I have been remarried for 12 to a wonderful Christian man. Wouldn’t it be nice not having to walk on eggshells? Not doing mental gymnastics before what should be a typical conversation? No more “gaslighting” or “crazy-making”? No more emotional headgames? No more trying to accommodate their “ideals”? No more hearing his “yes” when you KNOW he doesn’t mean it? Wouldn’t it be great to be accepted for who you are? To be able to laugh and love freely and comfortably?

      I know it is extremely difficult when there are children involved. Try to imagine that your children are now adults. If they had a husband or wife that was an N, what advice would you give to them? Is it best for them that they grow up believing that this behavior is normal? That they should accept bad behavior? Jesus didn’t. His disciples didn’t. We shouldn’t either.

      • Hi Tammy,

        Thank you so much for your sweetheart reply. I don’t know why words like yours are so comforting but it means the world to me to hear someone share similar experiences. I sense this wonderful relief from someone else understanding. When so much of life with a narcissist is disconcerting your words are soothing to my soul..

        I loved your question “What did Jesus call them?” How many times have I overlooked that story till you applied it to narcissism! The narcissistic behavior I’ve seen IS hypocritical! How awful to be comfortable with being a hypocrite. To say one wants a healthy relationship then behave counter to meeting that goal is hypocritical. (Big sigh.) Thanks for stating what is now so obvious, I’m chuckling.

        I appreciate your encouragement. My priority right now is to do right by my children, finish a few more years of homeschooling through high school before I head back to employment in the field of education and have more options. I presently get by with the encouragement that from an eternal perspective my temporary trial is an opportunity to love God through a difficult time, making the best God honoring choices I can. I’m learning to do well, teach others well, and present my best to the Lord as an offering of my love for Him. I know I’m saved by Christi’s sacrifice alone but if I liken this stormy relationship to taking Honors courses, I think it will look well on my eternal report card!

        Thank you again for sharing your words of comfort. You’re a blessing!

        Gratefully Yours!

  5. SDM

    Thank you so much for the message. You describe my life experience. I have felt this way about behavior management with my N husband and even communicated some of the same thoughts to a very few close friends. However I’ve never seen it explained in print– this is so helpful. And it reminds us that we are not crazy as we manage the “craziness”.
    I wish I knew how to adequately express my gratefulness for your weekly insights. I know I am not alone as I share that God has used your articles to bring much insight and wisdom– and make behavior management more “managable” and sensible.
    Thank you, Pastor Dave, for sharing and thank you, commenters, for sharing your thoughts as well. We are all on this journey together. It is so challenging, but I do believe I am getting to know God better through the struggles.

  6. Tee3

    Thank you, Pst Dave for this article. I noticed the behaviour changes in my N husband some months ago. When the month is coming to an end, and it’s getting close to collecting my monthly salary, he becomes very nice and caring. Same thing happens when I’m expecting any bonus from my office. So I can spend part of it on him or lend him some money. I don’t let him know when I’m getting any bonus or extras anymore. And I’m contributing minimally to our monthly household budget. He doesn’t want to spend on the family. He runs from his responsibilities, and he doesn’t help with housework. But when the month is ending, he begins to do some work around the house. When he gets what he wants, he reverts to his old lazy irresponsible cruel self. So sad.

  7. Annie

    Thank youfor exploring this Pastor Dave. It made me understand more as you were able to explain clearly how narcissist behaves and I completely agree as I have first- hand ecperienced this. Now I am out of that relationship as I came to realize how hard to live a life to be controlled and manipulated. I was able to accept the Narcissist theory to be able not to have hate for that person and think it is a limitation on their brain that the feeling of love is hard for them to comprehend. I even remember how he would be surprised when i tell him he hurts me. He is not aware as his feelings of being hurt is different too. The feeling of uncertainty is what i hate most living with a narc as I always need to please them. Make sure to conform with that they need in me in their life so i will be valued. A loving person values others with a simple statement” everyone deserves love and respect no matter what”. Now i am in the process of bringing back that to myself and i thank God for it.

  8. Tammy

    To Gratefully Yours and others that may benefit:

    I love your sense of humor and attitude! It sounds like you are dealing with it as best you can. You have your children’s best interests at heart and that is a great thing. May I offer you a few things to consider? If the children are NOT being emotionally, mentally or physically abused, then you are making the right decision. You may consider pretending you are an observer in your children’s life… as if you can remove the roof of your home and see everything that affects them. Would an objective observer agree with your view?

    A few thoughts –
    We are called to stand firm in the cause of Christ, and if that brings suffering, then we will be rewarded for it. We need to be careful to apply that in the context in which it is intended. We are not expected to endure abuse AND we are expected to protect our children. We are to be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.

    1 Corinthians 5:11: But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.

    Read verses 9&10 – We cannot keep from associating with people of this world or we would have to leave it! But I see it as profound that there are clear instructions to completely avoid people that call themselves “Christians” and do not bear the fruit that proves Jesus Christ is in residence!

    I have been divorced from the N for over 16 years and unfortunately he is still trying to get to me through our 16 year old daughter. (Praise God – I am wearing the impenetrable armor of Christ and am unaffected!!) Early this morning I had a few decisions to make and found my answer clearly spelled out in scripture. I wrapped up my decision with I John 2:4 “Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.

    We tend to apply verses to others but this one was directed to me. Decisions can be heart wrenching in the flesh, but should be easy to make when we follow God’s word. That doesn’t mean that the results of our decisions will be easy, but there are dozens of verses supporting our obedience and God’s power that is unleashed as a result!

    • Hi Tammy,

      Love your words of wisdom. Once again, another homerun!

      To clarify concerns about children, our kids are protected being with me. In our situation there is no physical abuse or yelling. It’s just that narcissistic perspective that spoils some moments and we all go “huh?” To divorce and share custody, exposing them to a Narcissist without me to “translate” narcissistic behavior or provide healthier opportunities, would be a major step down for all of us. And I’d be grieved for lack of seeing the chlldren and what I’d be giving them over to if I had to share custody. They need someone to train their mind in healthy thinking by clarifying, “no, that wasn’t right, here’s what would have been better…”

      Right now I am privileged to spend so much time with our children it’s closer to my having sole custody. My husband has a strong drive to feed that narcissistic need to look good in other’s eyes so he has a very active work and social life giving us plenty of room to breathe. With only a few years left of homeschooled High School I am fortunate to teach them full-time about God, character, love, forgiveness, empathy, life skills, and the ingredients for a healthy relationship along with the educational skills I am credentialed to teach them. It’s what I was made for let alone I get to give it all to my own children 24/7 instead of giving my gifts to other people’s children because I’d need money from teaching to support myself. That is a rare blessing.

      I may be an “Abigail” married to a modified “Nabal” (1 Samuel 25:3), but I am so blessed to live with the outskirts of narcissism and not the full blown abusive version. Albeit, I say that feeling the remorse that it’s a shame not to be able to share a loving, close relationship with a husband. I’ve learned from following the loving “Joey+Rory Feek story” that what I have today is enough. And it’s so much better than if I tore it apart for personal gain. I would lose more if I left.

      What brings the most gratitude is the, albeit self-diagnosed discovery of Narcissism 15-months ago which gave me direction. Then studying the subject, reading Grace for My Heart, surrounding myself with healthy people from church groups who study healthy Christian behavior. It’s been such a belief to identify and explain to myself and my children the unusual behavior of narcissists in my family. My children now understand and are at peace with it. They’re learning to “translate” narcissistic words and behavior. Just yesterday I smoothed over a narcissistic moment when one child commented, “Dad didn’t think I’d like a career in computer animation. Instead he wants me to pursue my previous interest of real estate so he can work with me.” This child still has a few years to explore options but I was able to explain that part of being a Narcissist is the limitation that they can only imagine others would be interested in the things that interest the Narcissist.. Finding a home in need of repair to resell for a profit has been a long standing interest of Dad’s. With his carpentry skills, having his child sell real estate would make for a good fit from his perspective.

      In conclusion, I wish I’d had me for a mom! A little narcissistic humour there! But seriously, those of us studying this subject are making life better for ourselves and improving life for those who follow us.

      Again, thank you Tammy for your insights! Keep carrying the torch! Your light shines so brightly in this dark world. Those Bible verses are so healing when applied to narcissism. Thank you for Grace for My Heart!

      Gratefully Yours!

      • Tammy

        Wow. Not that you need anyone’s approval, but you convinced me. Again, I love your sense of humor and great attitude! You are wise to “translate” and educate your children about projection and other N behavior which helps insulate them from such deep wounds. They will be more emotionally intelligent and have healthier future relationships.

        I am happy that I have been a blessing to you!!

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