Can people change? Yes. They most definitely can; even toxic people. But it’s not as easy as your fears and insecurities would like to believe.
I talk to people every day who are going through a breakup where they gave their all to a toxic person. They tell me how incredible their ex was in the beginning; they thought they had found their soulmate.
But then, it takes a very ugly and sad turn.
They go on to tell me how they found out they were being lied to, cheated on, and manipulated for months on end after the honeymoon phase wore off. They blame themselves and are convinced that they must have “done something” to make him/her change all of a sudden.
After telling me every detail and essentially, describing their ex to be: manipulative, dishonest, abusive, and incapable of an adult relationship, many (understandably) break down in tears.
But it’s not for the reasons you would think.
- “Can you believe she did this?”
- “How am I ever going to find someone like him?”
- “He was the greatest person I’ve ever known.”
- “What am I going to do without him?”
- “How can I get her back?”
- “You don’t understand Natasha. He made mistakes but he was so chivalrous in the beginning. I’ll never find anyone with looks and a personality like his.”
And while I can empathize because I have so been there, these are my answers:
- “Yes. At this point, it’s very believable that she did this. I’m not shocked. You’ve basically told me that you found something with feathers, quacking in the pond, and can’t believe it’s a duck. I’m not surprised that it’s a duck.”
- “You’re right. You are never going to find someone like him again – that’s the whole point.”
- “He wasn’t the ‘greatest man you’ve ever known.’ You were the greatest you had ever been when you were with him. You struggle with boundaries and self-love, which is why you fall for men who make you love the person you are when you’re around them because you’re able to do things for them that you can’t do for yourself (like protect, nurture, encourage, and support). He is not the greatest. The idea that you had of him and what he represented was the greatest. And all that credit you are giving him… he didn’t earn it. Give yourself some credit for breaking free.”
- “You know what you’re going to do without him? Much BETTER.”
- “You get her back the moment you activate indifference (by accepting who she has revealed herself to be).
- “While it’s great to appreciate chivalry, good looks, and a winning personality, all you have is a chivalrous, good looking liar with a great personality who cheats. How is this attractive? Would you introduce this man to your younger self? Would you leave your younger self alone with him? Would you want your best friend or a family member to date someone like him?”
It’s one thing to be heartbroken over being taken for granted, used, and abused. It’s another thing to be heartbroken over no longer being with a toxic person who cheats, lies, and isn’t good for your mental health. All because you are convinced who they were, in the beginning, is who they really are.
It’s like crying because you just found out you’re cancer-free or beating yourself up for a life-long prison sentence being lifted over a crime you didn’t commit.
I know how much it hurts though. And I know how much it can eat away at you.
There is nothing more painful than realizing you invested in a relational Ponzi scheme. It would have been easier if this was a financial investment. Money can be earned back and you could file a lawsuit. And even if you didn’t get your money back, at the very least, it could be recognized by a court of law that what happened to you was not only wrong and unethical, but it was illegal. The other party would have egg all over their face and their reputation would be ruined.
But what happens when someone breaks relational laws and there’s no justice insight?
What happens when you invest your most breakable asset? Something that you don’t know for sure if you can ever get to unbreak or open up again…
Some of the smartest, most successful people have unknowingly invested in Ponzi schemes. And even when they weren’t getting their calls (and investments) returned, many continued to invest in hope that proving their loyalty and faith would somehow elicit a return. No one in history would have ever invested in a Ponzi scheme if it did not look so attractive and make so much sense in the beginning. So please, don’t beat yourself up.
When it comes to relational Ponzi schemes, even women who have their self-love and boundaries intact blame themselves after realizing they invested in one.
You’re not taking this so hard because you lost a real one. You’re taking this so hard because you suffer from the disease to please and because of this, can’t help but blame yourself. You’re convinced that you must have done something to scare your ex off and make them turn cold. As if catering to someone’s needs, wanting to know where the relationship is going, and having the expectation that they act in accordance with who they presented themselves to be would make a decent person completely drop their humanity, moral code, communication skills, and empathy.
You may have acted inappropriately and been suffocating or clingy, which isn’t good but even then, a person who isn’t toxic would not stay in the relationship with you and continue to use you without pressing pause, communicating what the issue was, and discussing what needed to change for the relationship to continue. Or, if they had truly hit their limit, they would at least communicate that it was over and be on their way.
When it comes to “can people change?” Remember this…
Everyone is on their best behavior in the beginning stages of dating. They present their best selves and are extra conscientious because things are new and this is where they have the most control over their image.
In this stage of dating, you’ll get more of an indication of who someone is, not by observing their treatment of you, but by observing how they treat everyone around you – their friends and family, your friends and family, children, animals, the staff at a restaurant, their coworkers, and people who can do nothing for them.
If you’re with someone who is not toxic, after a while, you’ll start to see that yes, they are human. They have their own habits and ways of doing things that might annoy you, but they have character, integrity, and empathy.
You can count on them to have your back in the same way they have their own (and in the same way you have your own; you both have healthy boundaries). They are relationally ambitious. Things continue to move forward and even though you both may have your bad days, there is mutual love, communication, and trust that supports growing intimacy and connection. You feel like you can (respectfully) say what’s on your mind and communicate your feelings without worrying about them recoiling, ghosting, getting freaked out, or judging you. And vice versa.
With people who are toxic, it’s a totally different story. It’s a complete Jekyll and Hyde. They look great on paper, will be incredible in the beginning, and show you that they have the capacity to be, say, and do everything you ever dreamed of. You see this as a preview of the Happily Ever After you’ve been waiting for and fall for all the potential – no matter how strong they initially come on and how okay they are with you compromising your own life to be a part of theirs.
Then one day (which could be weeks or months down the line), they’re no longer the same. They do a complete 180.
You work even harder to try to get things back to the way they were in the beginning and the “pressure” irritates them. They are then able to turn it around on you and make you feel like the criminal when you’re the one left with no more money in your emotional bank and no return on your investment.
The whole experience is traumatizing because it messes with your sense of reality and confidence in both yourself and your decision-making. When you start feeling ashamed for having an expectation of a standard that was set (and laid on so thick) in the beginning, you’ll start to become grateful for crumbs.
Can toxic people change? Can a narcissist change?
This isn’t to say that toxic/narcissistic people are not capable of change. I am living proof that they are capable of it. But that change wasn’t as simple as meeting a great guy (after being a total asshole to my ex), taking no time to self-reflect, and being fresh out of a relationship.
It took unplugging from patterns that produced such debilitating fear and loneliness, I didn’t think I would make it through the withdrawals. It took prioritizing my younger self and dedicating my life to being the parent and best friend she needed all those years ago. It took serving her before my ego.
Your ex doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with the way he is and operates, nor does he think he needs to change. He’s only capable of switching up a façade.
It’s tough because your own eyes and ears have experienced that he/she can be everything that they were in the beginning. And you worry about them consistently being that person with someone new (they won’t). But when someone has been shittier than they are kind and honest, more careless than they are caring, and more selfish than they are empathetic, why on earth would you think that you were powerful enough to be the sole cause of that discrepancy? No is powerful enough that they can scare, smother, love, irritate, or communicate the humanity and integrity out of someone else.
Stop telling yourself that he/she changed. They didn’t change. You didn’t know them in the beginning and you got to know them over time. People reveal who they are over time.