A frequent question in my counseling practice and from website subscribers is “Do narcissists and borderlines get better with age?” Another common question is, “What happens when they get old and are no longer attractive?” These are understandable questions.
The latter is a form of anticipatory schadenfreude. The former is a common part of the grieving process. Specifically, it’s a form of bargaining. If things get better after age 55, well, maybe you can endure the next 10 or 15 years, right?
Wrong. Well, you can, but things are likely to worsen not improve. Meanwhile, you’d suffer more abuse and allow yourself to be chipped away at, piece by piece, until you’re an empty husk of your former self. Please don’t do that.
People don’t grow out of personality disorders. If that was going to happen, it would’ve happened at the developmentally appropriate time — during childhood and adolescence. As for getting better with age, that depends upon how one defines better.
First, narcissists, borderlines, histrionics and psychopaths don’t get better without psychological treatment. Second, therapy doesn’t cure a personality disorder. The best you can hope for is that the disordered individual will take some accountability for their destructive and pathological behavior and manage the worst of it. Even then, therapy doesn’t guarantee that — especially if the disordered person uses their diagnosis to abdicate personal responsibility. “I’m borderline! I can’t help the way I am! I didn’t ask to be born like this!!!!!” [No, they didn’t, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t responsible for themselves and their behavior just like everyone else born into this world without developmental delays, brain injury or dementia.]
Catastrophic consequences that would result in life-changing epiphanies for non-disordered individuals, don’t cause the narcissist or borderline to change either. If anything, it teaches them to change tactics and to cover their tracks better. It doesn’t change their psychology. For example, a psychopathic mother doesn’t want to lose custody of the kids, so she learns to hurt the children in ways that don’t leave marks and escalates invisible forms of abuse. I wouldn’t call that meaningful or positive change, would you?
Narcissists, borderlines and psychopaths usually change tactics as they age. Not because they want to, but out of necessity. For example, the once sexy siren or movie star handsome narcissist reaches the stage where they can no longer seduce others with their appearance. Once that happens, they rely more on ingratiating (i.e., ass kissing), guilt tripping, shaming, instilling a sense of obligation and playing the frail, helpless victim. [Exception: If they’re wealthy they can find younger targets willing to play along.]
Due to a lack of self-awareness, some of them still play the coquette or Lothario well past their prime. A great place to observe this is Facebook. “You haven’t aged a day in 20 years! You and your daughter could be sisters!” Really? Are you looking at the same photo as me? When their inappropriate, unwelcome, self-deluding flirtations and overtures fall flat, they’ll often label the uninterested target as gay, closet case, stuck up, crazy or something equally derogatory.
Do narcissists and borderlines get better with age?
The low functioning ones typically decompensate even more with age to the point they may require hospitalization. The high-functioning ones become better predators, not better people. Adult children of narcissists and borderlines understand this all too well.
Well into their senior years, they still get up to their old tricks. They triangulate. They find enablers, minions and flying monkeys. They take pleasure in hurting people. They lie. They scheme. They manipulate. They control. They lash out. They gaslight. They play the victim. They hold grudges. And they remain every bit as self-absorbed and selfish as they ever were.
Case Study: MitziAnne Merriweather, my 81-year old neighbor
MitziAnne Merriweather isn’t her real name, of course. Her real name is straight out of a Jacqueline Susann novel. I wish I could share it, but I won’t. You’d think I was making it up if I did, but you’d be wrong.
My neighborhood is composed primarily of retirees and summer and weekend people. I’m the middle-aged whippersnapper on the road. Before meeting MitziAnne, other neighbors warned me about her. The phrase “piece of work” was used repeatedly. Curiosity piqued.
They explained MitziAnne recruits people to do things for her like pick up her groceries, take her to restaurants, move furniture and do yard work and construction projects. Also, she’ll try to sell low quality antiques at inflated prices and find other ways to make money off of you.
Her husband of many years died my first year in the neighborhood. I met her about 6 months after his passing. From all accounts, her husband was an incredibly kind and generous man. My first encounter with her was memorable, even with my neighbors’ warnings. She definitely lived up to her reputation. As I spent more time socializing with her, I realized I had another real life answer to my clients’ questions (my deceased narcissistic parent and the narcissistic parents of my clients providing the same answer). Here are my observations:
Minion, Enabler, Flying Monkey and Narcissistic Supply Recruitment. Fish got to swim, birds got to fly, narcissists got to have lots of supply (sing to the tune of Hammerstein & Kern’s Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.) It was a misty 6am dog walk one summer morning when MitziAnne Merriweather suddenly appeared on the road en route to her newspaper box. She was in a semi-sheer nightgown, sans bra. Two words: gravity + time. I blinked my eyes in case I was having a caffeine deprivation hallucination.
She approached me and introduced herself inquiring, “Don’t you live in the so and so house?” Before I could answer, she continued, “Do you know what Linda said to me?”
Me: “No, who’s Linda?”
MAM: Beaming, “Linda delivers my paper. She’s just the nicest person. Do you know what she told me?”
Me: “No idea.”
MAM: “Linda told me if there’s ever anything I need, anytime of day, I can call her. Isn’t that nice? Can I have your phone number?”
Damn. MitziAnne gets right down to business. The neighbors weren’t exaggerating. Right out of the gate, MitziAnne was attempting to add me to her coterie of minions. Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to help people who genuinely require assistance. MitziAnne is very mobile and still quite capable of doing for herself. But why do for yourself when you can get others to do for you! [Narcissist credo #37.]
There’s a certain kind of narcissist who relishes manipulating others into doing things for them that they can do for themselves. They brag about all the work and favors they exploit from their minions, enablers and flying monkeys. The more they get others to do for them, the more special they feel. They actually boast and gloat about manipulating and exploiting others.
Given how fast MitziAnne went from “nice to meet you” to ” nice people don’t have boundaries with me — aren’t you a nice person?” to “give me your number, so you can start doing stuff for me” my guess is she’s been doing this for decades. Since I’ve boundaries and no emotional stake in MitziAnne, it was actually amusing.
MitziAnne was on a manhunt less than a year after becoming a widow. Then again, when you’re in your 80s time is at a premium. Her first prospect is the owner of a regional bank with a terminally ill wife. That’s a problem. The terminally ill wife could linger. She also said the banker was too smart. Translation: too difficult to manipulate. Less than a month later, she found her next prospect — a man 17 years her junior. That’s not a cougar situation; it’s a saber-tooth tiger situation.
He’s a lovely man and very, very handy. In less than 2 months, she got him cutting down trees on her property, doing home repairs and other construction projects. She’s also redecorating his home with antiques that she finds and he buys. He’s told her he’s not comfortable with it, but MitziAnne is not one to be easily deterred.
He’s a widow, too, and was his wife’s caregiver before she died after a long, debilitating illness. Narcissists and codependents are magnets. If there are 100 people in the room, the narcissist and the codependent will find each other. Age is irrelevant.
Self-Absorption. Narcissists can’t stand not being the center of attention no matter how young or old they are. MitziAnne is no exception. When socializing, I sometimes time how long it takes her to interrupt conversations that aren’t focused on her and how wonderful she is with a totally random non sequitur — about herself, naturally. The longest she’s been able to go thus far is 3 minutes and 42 seconds.
Talking about politics? She tells the story of how Trump bought her old family farm. Is this true? Not a clue. Laughing about different movies or TV shows? She talks about the cocktail dresses she sewed for herself and all the rich suitors she had. Neighbors asking you about your upcoming vacation? She jumps in and talks about the giant fishing cruiser her husband bought, how she decorated it and the trips they took on it.
Discussing development plans in the neighborhood? She tells the story of how she targeted and manipulated herself into her second marriage. That poor fellow didn’t know what hit him. She’s proud of this and gives relationship advice that I need to learn how to be, and I quote, “conniving” to get a man. This answers another often asked question — yes, sometimes narcissists are very aware of what they’re doing.
Mean Girl Behavior. Many female narcissists started out as mean girls. They engage in one-upmanship, putting down their peers in order to make themselves feel better. When I met MitziAnne we we were both single. She’d bemoan whether or not she’d ever have another man in her life. To make her feel better I’d tease her that she’d probably find herself a boyfriend before I did. And bless her heart she did.
Prior to snagging her younger man, she invited me over quite a bit for dinner or martinis. I knew something was up when I didn’t hear from her for 6 weeks. When she resurfaced, she invited me over for cocktails to tell me all about the new man — how smart, fun and handy he is, how they have the most amazing time together and how amazing the sex is (too much information!)
As I was leaving, I told her how happy I am for her. She put her hand on mine, looked me in the eye and said, “I hope you don’t think I invited you over to flaunt my new relationship at you.” Well, not until you said so, MitziAnne. 81 going on 15.
Damsels in Distress, the Death Stare, Triangulation, Attention Seeking/Drama Diffusion and Projection. Many female narcissists and borderlines seduce their victims by playing the Damsel in Distress. It’s Kryptonite to people pleasing, codependent men and women who want to play the hero or rescuer. To be fair, there are also male narcissists and borderlines who like to play the Dude in Distress. I’ve dated more than one of them in years past.
This doesn’t change with the passing of time. Eventually, MitziAnne invited me over to meet New Man and for martinis on the deck. I asked the gentleman about himself, his career, moose hunting trips and other interests. MitziAnne interrupted frequently with MitziAnne-centric non sequitur including one that was a real doozie. In fact, it was a five-fer.
“Do you know what [insert name of regional bank owner I’ve never met] told me to tell New Man? Banker told me to tell New Man that I’m not a wuss and not to treat me like one.” Before I could stop myself, I choked and snorted martini out my nose (vodka stings!) and said, “You?! A wuss?! That’s the last word I’d use to describe you. You’re the puppet master.” New Man laughed and added, “That was a 3-hour conversation that night.”
If looks could kill, I’d be 6 feet under. MitziAnne gave me the Death Stare. Anyone who’s been in a relationship with a narcissist is familiar with the Death Stare. You typically get it when you speak the truth about the narcissist. Frankly, I’m more worried about New Man being steamrolled than MitziAnne. In addition to the Death Stare, there are four other narc phenomena at play.
First, the wuss thing was MitziAnne’s attempt to Damsel. Although, at 81 it’d be more accurate to call it a Dowager in Distress move. Second, by saying it was Banker warning her about New Man taking advantage of her, she was creating a triangle (victim, persecutor, rescuer). Third, she manufactured a problem that doesn’t exist and he spent three hours reassuring her (attention seeking). Fourth, if anyone needs to have boundaries and not be a wuss it’s New Man. MitziAnne was projecting.
If you’ve any lingering doubts about narcissists, borderlines or psychopaths changing or improving with age, doubt no more. But if you do still have doubts, just visit support forums for the Adult Children of Narcissists and Borderlines. They’re still scheming, still sniping, still abusing, still manipulating and still crazy after all these years. Or, you can flush another 5, 10, 15 or 20 years of your life away. The choice is yours.
EPILOGUE: MitziAnne hasn’t invited me over for martinis since the wuss-puppet master incident. Whoops.
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Counseling, Consulting and Coaching with Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD provides services to help individuals work through their relationship issues via telephone or Skype, particularly men and women who trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. She combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for professional inquiries.