Serious Abusers And Psychology’s Failure to Understand Them

For the past two weeks I’ve been posting on the various types of relational abuse to which disturbed characters are prone (See, for example: Narcissism and Relational Abuse – Both Active and Passive and Abusive Relationships: From Disregard to Dominance). The series is meant to help those who find themselves in abusive situations recognize the true dynamics at play and to procure the tools necessary to empower themselves. Over the years, I’ve unfortunately heard from thousands of folks dismayed at how little genuine understanding or assistance they got when seeking professional help for themselves or the disturbed character in their lives. Sometimes, that was because their relationship partner’s character disturbance was so severe or intractable that no amount or type of therapy had much chance of making a difference.  But more often it was because the therapy itself – especially the psychological paradigm guiding the therapy – was ill-suited to the task.  When it comes to understanding human aggression and the problems it can cause in relationships, many of psychology’s most time-honored models have proven to be seriously inadequate, if not fatally flawed.

We’ve all heard the explanations:  People abuse because they were abused themselves and act-out their inner pain; Bullies are really cowards “underneath;” Those who try to assert power and control over others are really insecure individuals, suffering from low-self esteem; Serial cheaters have trust wounds and are therefore “commitment-phobic,” etc.  And even though great strides have been made in recent years with respect to recognizing the true nature of character disturbance, some of these notions, derived from traditional psychology paradigms, unfortunately persist despite mounds of empirical evidence that they are in error.

I wrote In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance with the average person in mind.  I wanted to give folks a rational and comprehensible model for understanding the various disturbances and disorders of character.  I began this blog for similar reasons.  Since doing so, I’ve not only heard from thousands of individuals ecstatic because their gut feelings were finally validated but also from hundreds of therapists who wanted to let me know how grateful they were to finally understand why the approaches they had been using to deal with impaired characters weren’t working and to now have both a perspective and a set of tools that could make a real impact.

My last two articles have dealt with the dynamics at work with narcissistic characters and two of the aggressive variants of such characters: the unbridled aggressive and the channeled-aggressive personalities.  Today’s article will focus on the least well-understood aggressive personality subtypes:  the sadistic, covert-aggressive, and predatory aggressive (alt: psychopathic) personalities.

As odd as it might seem, most aggressive personalities don’t have hurting people as their primary agenda.  Rather, what they seek primarily is to have their way, including getting what they want from people.  Now, make no mistake, they certainly have no problem trampling over others and their rights to get what they want, but their main objective is securing what they desire, not inflicting injury.  Such is not the case, however, with sadistic personalities and psychopaths.

Sadistic-aggressives relish in demeaning and wielding brutal power over others (for more on this personality type see:  Understanding The Sadistic Personality, Demeaning as a Lifestyle: The Sadistic-Aggressive, Character Disturbance pp. 120-121, and In Sheep’s Clothing pp. 43-44).  They not only intend to hurt but also derive great satisfaction from so doing.  One psychopathic female with very prominent sadistic traits, and who was executed in Texas several years ago, told law enforcement officers that she actually experienced orgasm during the act of sadistically torturing and impaling the person she and her accomplice gruesomely murdered.  Sadists come in all shapes, sizes, and genders.  And how they get to be the way they are is a matter of great dispute.  The only things we know for sure are that, like all seriously disturbed characters, they lack empathy and they truly enjoy making others suffer and grovel. They’re the most poignant example of the axiom I advance with respect to the primary agenda of aggressive personalities:  It’s always about position, position, and position! As long as they’re dominant over you and you’re groveling and suffering under their oppression, they’re happy. And they’re simply miserable when there isn’t someone or something they can lord power over. Some are innately revulsed by weakness and particularly enjoy tormenting those they perceive as week or needy. They can also cause people to suffer for the pure pleasure of it, which is what makes their behavior so incomprehensible to their victims.  That’s also one reason victims (and traditionally-minded therapists) have always speculated so much about what horrific thing must have happened to the sadistic abuser to make them behave the way they do. Unfortunately, entertaining some of the traditionally-offered but never validated explanations for their behavior only makes it more likely the victim will continue to be abused.

As those familiar with my books and other writings already know, I prefer the term “predatory aggressive” for the folks who most recently have again been labeled psychopathic (and sometimes, erroneously labeled “sociopathic”) because I believe that term best describes their fundamental interpersonal modus operandi.  Psychopaths are the only known intra-species predators.  And, as I assert in my writings and have learned from years of experience with such folks, the reason for this is that they consider themselves superior creatures compared to common humans.  They have the most malignant form of narcissism.  They know all too well how different they are from the rest of us but don’t consider this a shortcoming.  Rather, they consider themselves more than “special.” They consider themselves distinctly superior to those who possess two characteristics they don’t have:  empathy and conscience.  The way they see it, folks with a heart and with those things the rest of us call “qualms” are an inferior breed, the perfect patsies, and their rightful prey.  They enjoy “toying with,” manipulating, using, and abusing others at will.  And they’re often adept at concealing their true nature from us, being capable of “mimicking” normality and exuding surface-level charm. They’re the most extreme variation of the characters I call “covert-aggressive” (and that other offers have referred to as “almost a psychopath”). The difference is that “garden variety” covert-aggressors have some capacity for empathy (although it’s seriously impaired) and some degree of conscience (and therefore they lie on a different part of the character-disordered – neurotic spectrum). There are many more covert-aggressive personalities than there are true psychopaths, which is one reason I felt compelled to write In Sheep’s Clothing.  The other reason I wrote the book is because covert-aggressives prefer a select group of tactics to get the better of others, so once you know how to recognize those tactics and appropriately deal with them, you can be substantially empowered in your dealings with such characters and avoid being manipulated.  But when it comes to a relationship with a true psychopath, there’s only one good way of dealing with things: Get out!  Run! And do so quickly!  Even a psychopath who’s come to realize the practical benefits of conforming is still extremely dangerous because of the capacity they have for heartless, remorseless abuse.

The professional community is only beginning to understand the real reasons people do the kinds of things they do.  Our aggressive tendencies are part of our evolutionary heritage.  And civilization is but a recent blip in the timeline of evolution. There was even a period when the psychopaths among us were probably the single most significant reason for our survival as a species. They were the totally fearless warriors who dominated their tribes and slew all the tribe’s foes (human and non-human foes alike) without hesitation, compunction, or remorse. A truly adequate psychology would need to set aside our outdated, well-intended but purely speculative and unverifiable notions about who we are and why we do the things we do and build on the hard science we’ve acquired about our species and the natural world around us.  That would necessarily include an honest reckoning with our animal instincts, our tribal nature, and what we really need in the way of shaping influences in our environment to enhance our ability to function in a prosocial way, given the so-called “civilized” world we’ve created for ourselves over the past few millennia.

Next week’s article will focus on the paradigms that work best when it comes to dealing with abusive characters.  And I’ll also be continuing a discussion on the topic of abusive characters over the next few weeks on Character Matters Sundays at 7 pm Eastern time.

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31 thoughts on “Serious Abusers And Psychology’s Failure to Understand Them

  1. “individuals ecstatic because their gut feelings were finally validated”

    Yes, I was, and it was the very moment I started healing from the experience. I’m forever indebted. Thank you again.

    1. Me Too Einstein. After having such a mixture of confusion, frustration, invalidation, you know the drill……once I got on to the information like Dr. Simon’s, I felt like running up to anyone who would listen and saying, read this!! read this!!! It’s Him! That’s what HE did/ said/ didn’t do/ wouldn’t do. Actually I did “take it” to far too many people but I was literally desperate for someone to understand what I was really going through.

    2. So, Einstein, I apologize for offending you a while back with my reply (which I can’t find now) about serial killers and something about socio-economic status. I think that was it. I remember you said something and my reply was sort of brash? It was not not well worded or thought through and it seems that you took it badly. That is my perspective and if it’s true, I am sorry.

  2. I believe that because someone has shown interest in Spathtard, he thinks he has the right to do as he will with them. THEY opened the door, he just walks in……………and then demolishes the house. Technically I opened the door initially but he barged through, blew right past me and headed to the fridge and helped himself. What I’m saying is that, I’ve had this thought going on over the last several days in regard to their self justification, superior morality, judge/ jury/ executioner tendencies?

  3. Very grateful too. Yes, the traditional psychology can be/may left to neurotics. It is the most likely, that these species should be dealt differently. I am always happy about a movement/discovery/breakthrough, that would add to the social justice in general. Hope, that the methodology Dr. Simon follows will prevent the unfortunate, but very suspicious attempts to extract ‘The Disorder’ from the DSM, at least, and at best, to add the value to DSM’s criteria.

  4. I think the actions of psychologists says it all. From what I’ve read they have very little if any success with character disordered people. We really need the best way possible to make others aware of the problem and what things to look out for. I have made suggestions to members of my family and xnh’s family to read Dr. Simon’s books to get some insight, but so far no one has that I know of.

    1. Noel, I wonder if that is because they are approaching them with the out dated mind set Dr. Simon speaks of…..the old beliefs. Or are you referring to even the psychologists using the newer understandings? Probably both as Dr. Simon has said that he has had some successes but not many.

  5. I refuse to communicate in any way with xnh unless it is by e-mail. That way I have documented proof of what he says.

    He tried to approach me at two family events recently that we both attended. Each time I was approached from a different direction by someone else. I believe he is just trying to maintain his image and be polite so no one can say that he wasn’t. I don’t want to even give him a chance to do that.

    1. One of the things that fascinates me about this website is the consistency and almost pinpoint accuracy of the shared experiences….as a result of the narrative. My communications with my wife are much the same as yours – the boundary put in place by me after ‘discovering’ years of her manipulation. Outside of which she will occasionally try to approach me direct for pretty well the same reasons you outline – she wants to maintain a public face of trying to reconcile, whilst privately (when she thinks no one is looking) continuing her machinations aimed at winning back her power and control.

  6. You wrote:
    “When it comes to understanding human aggression and the problems it can cause in relationships, many of psychology’s most time-honored models have proven to be seriously inadequate, if not fatally flawed.”

    I agree 100%. Thirty years ago a psychologist who had been meeting with us for more than a year, and knew my then-fiance’s story, encouraged me to marry him despite having a long history as a pedophile. (Of course we didn’t use that word. We used sexual addict, which minimized the reality.)

    Dr. J should have known that pedophilia never goes away. Sure, on a scale of 1 to 10, maybe therapy “changed him” — aka reduced his criminal behavior from a 10 down to a 7, but it never went down to a zero. Dozens of victims, despite treatment by the top shrinks in America and the best in-patient program.

    Fortunately, I got out. But I am an advocate of suing psychologists for malpractice when they do not give the same kind of warnings that surgeons give.

    1. Anon3, you would think the parents of the children would have a LOT to say about this as well.
      Dr. Simon, a long while back you asked to be reminded about writing something more on the topic of pedophiles and how there are all kinds of levels(?) and types of sexual attractions to children. I remember you comment scrambled my mind! It was so interesting but I didn’t really understand it. SO, this is the reminder! 🙂

      1. My story as the ex-wife of a pedophile is told on a Christian website. You might find the comment thread very interesting. Several wives came forward and shared their stories too.

        One of the women who commented was someone whose story made headline news in a major U.S. newspaper.

        Today the two of us co-moderate a password-protected forum for ex-partners of pedophiles (and for those trying to get away).

        If you are interested, here’s my story:
        http://spiritualsoundingboard.com/2013/05/15/being-married-to-a-pedophile-a-wife-speaks-out-and-offers-hope-to-other-wives-of-pedophiles/#comments

    2. Anon3, I agree that there should be some serious repercussions for any therapists who minimize or overlook the seriousness of pedophilia or other sex crimes. By an actual offender–or even having one in the family. Too many therapists are under the wrong impression or belief that there are actually offenders who can improve or are “least likely to reoffend.” They will always reoffend but they might not be caught. What’s worse is when the family protects the criminal to minimize their own shame. No one benefits by pretending it is less serious than it is. There should be legal recourse for family members who try to keep their kids away from an offender but in this current sad state of affairs there sometimes is no recourse.

      1. My PTSD councilor is overseeing a case right now where the father is trying (has?) to get custody of the children from his most recent marriage. He is lying through his teeth about the mother and get this………had his children taken away from him in his previous marriage because he molested at least one of them. Things like this about psychopaths, like most things about anything to do with psychopaths, shake my perception of the world and people an reality in general. So much of it just does not compute or make sense but there it is IN YOUR FACE. It’s bewildering.
        I was thinking about the impact this has on children and another aspect of it came to mind. You not only have the ill effects of the disordered parent impacting the children but the diminished capacity to function of the victim parent. Here is a parent who consciously or not is being repeatedly traumatized and suffering with PTSD to varying degrees yet at the same time being made to look like the one at fault by all kinds of people including the ones they have turned to for help. It’s so sad.

        1. Puddle,

          That’s exactly why it’s so important to divorce as soon as you realize that you’re married to a pedophile. The children will be fine if you get out. My children were not victims, and they didn’t know the reason for the divorce until I told them at age 21.

          Being raised in a single mother family is FAR BETTER than in a home with a pedophile. I asked my husband to leave the home for good. My kids turned out great. They went to college, and turned out well emotionally, intellectually, and relationally.

          The healing in the home begins the instant the pedophile is removed once and for all.

          1. Anon3……good for you for being able to take action like that and save yourself and children’s well being. I honestly can not imagine the shock of your experience, I just can not. It boggles my mind to think an adult can do something like this to a child. I’m sorry you had this experience. Your children are fortunate to have you for their mother. Sometimes these situations don’t have as good of an outcome.

      2. T,
        I get what you’re saying. And I agree that therapists MUST be held accountable for not giving a disclosure statement when a person is in an intimate relationship with a pedophile. “Pedophilia never goes away.” That’s simply the truth.

        Can therapists “reduce” the risk of offending? I think there is some clinical evidence that they can. But eliminate it? No, they cannot. Is a pedophile safe to babysit your children when he’s gone from a 10 to a 5? I once asked my ex-husband’s therapist if he would allow my ex- to babysit his kids. He got the point.

        In family law, I wish the courts could determine who is lying and who is not — and come to the aid of the innocent. But unfortunately there are too many false accusations out there. It’s always a judgment call for the court. Our custody process is so flawed (at least in my state) and I have no idea how to fix it.

        I was able to get sole custody with monitored visitation for my ex, but nowadays, that’s difficult to get without a confession, a disinterested witness, or a prison sentence.

        I wish court-appointed psychological testing was less expensive. Where I am, a full psych evaluation (a 730 evaluation) is about $12,000. My ex-husband failed miserably, and my sole custody claim was upheld. I was lucky that I didn’t have to pay the fee; he was so confident he was “OK” he paid it — and lost.

  7. I knew a very aggressive Narcissist who eventually developed the habit of taking advantage of people whenever she saw an “opening” or opportunity. It does me no good to think of her as a psychopath. She just wanted her way and could not calibrate her aggression and had no desire to. She got worse with age (worse as in less calibrated, more aggressive.)

  8. Thank you Dr Simon for your wonderful post, its definately true that most of the Pychiatric Profession fail to recognise these dangerous individuals,i have looked into the eyes of my Violent husband as he beat me and saw no love there,just enjoyment..it took me a long time to accept this truth,we are so used to being around ‘normal’ non aggresive people in our society,its an enormous shock to meet someone so different!!!
    I wonder if these people are born like this? it is interesting what you say about early society needing these personality types,but to me almost gives them a ‘heroic ‘status,i dont agree they were needed by society, and have a very simple Christian view, that they are just Evil! plain and simple!! As Christians we are taught to love and forgive everyone,(a view which kept me with my abusive husband far too long), and of course as humans we dont listen to our instincts enough, which of course are telling us to run away!

    1. ” As Christians we are taught to love and forgive everyone,(a view which kept me with my abusive husband far too long), and of course as humans we dont listen to our instincts enough, which of course are telling us to run away!”

      Similar problem I have with the commandment “Honor thy mother and father”. What if they are physically, emotionally or verbally abusive or, worse, spiritually abusive?

      1. Having personally wrestled with the “honor thy father and thy mother” commandment 50 years ago, I came to the conclusion that since they did NOT behave in an honorable manner, as I have detailed in previous posts, I was not bound by that commandment. She was NPD. I realized many years later that the worst punishment you can give to a narcissistic person is to ignore him or her. One author I read stated that if people do not ASK for forgiveness, we as Christians are not bound to grant forgiveness to such people. Some “parents” are so toxic and dangerous to be around that “No Contact” is the best way to go. I wrestled with this for many years, realized that if I allowed myself to be consumed with efforts to “get along” with these people, it would waste my energy and keep me from using the many gifts God gave me to help other people along life’s way. I highly recommend reading the J.B. Phillips Bible translation “The New Testament in Modern English.” It’s easily available free online at biblegateway.com. Or you can buy it through Amazon. The book of Romans is very helpful in telling how to get along with our neighbors. Best wishes to you.

        1. Good points all round Elva. I agree completely. I would also add that being so consumed with efforts to get along with manipulative or narcissistic people can be a matter of life or death, for the victim. These people can be killers. You clearly believe in a God, my point being that I can’t think that it would be God’s will for you to be in a domestic situation that would or could ultimately threaten your own life or lead to premature loss of life. That doesn’t seem to me in any way loving.

          1. Danny, thank you. I’m very thankful that I have not been in a situation where I feared for my life. (Only time was when I was 4, sent out with man, ostensibly to “hunt rabbits” — when he could not pull me out of the truck, he pointed his small rifle, probably a .22 caliber, off into the distance, fired off 2 shots, which I think were intended for my younger sister and me, and drove us back home.) I detailed this in a previous post. But there were many times in my childhood that were miserable.

            At age of almost 74 now, my personal focus is on identifying “odd” people when they come into my alterations shop. I think I’m getting a little better at it, and being on Main Street, with a fairly sizable homeless population floating around, I do get some weirdos. On a good note, the local FBI agent is one of my customers, as are several other local law enforcement personnel. They check out my business whenever they drive by. I am also prepared to defend myself if necessary.

            But I do sympathize with everyone who posts here about their difficulties, I remember how helpless I felt sometimes. And yes, when you are in a situation where you can’t leave, when your tormenter has promised to kill you if you try to get away, when there are children involved, when you have no skills to earn a living, when you live in a rural area with few jobs even available, when the general public thinks your abuser is such a “wonderful” person, when you are married to someone and your religion does not permit a divorce, the list goes on and I’m sure you could add more circumstances. So, I comment when maybe something that helped me might possibly give another reader a tidbit to think about.

            In my work, I concentrate on fitting clothes properly, so that the person looks as good as possible. But I also keep an ear open for when someone needs an encouraging word, or when someone says something about the “impossible to please” mother in law, I ask a couple of questions, and then can tell the person it sounds like your mother-in-law might have narcissistic personality disorder, no matter what you do, you can’t please this person, not your fault, here are a couple of websites you can visit for more information. In short, I try to give useful information about a variety of subjects.

            God has blessed me in many ways, and no, I’m not a Pollyana. I’m impatient, not diplomatic, lots of flaws, but I keep trying to improve, and God has been patient with me all of my life.

            As Puddle said just below, children don’t always know when they are being abused, until they grow up a bit and can visit other homes and observe. I see news articles daily about new cases of horrendous abuse and neglect that have just discovered, and wonder if those children will get the help they need, that is, if they are still alive, because some of them have been murdered by parents claiming that they punished the children for various reasons, including “religious” reasons.

            Post is way too long, I apologize, just wanted everyone to know that I pray daily that God will strengthen and guide Dr. Simon, and that He will protect and guide all of us who ask for His guidance. I wish Peace and Hope for each one of you other posters, and readers. Best wishes from Elva

      2. J, good point. And yet, how does an unknowing child determine if they are being abused? sometimes its a fine line. They are between a rock and a hard place as helpless, dependent children. It’s very sad what some children go through and are forced to endure. The damage can be a life long affliction.

      3. I take it that the idea is to transform in spirit. On one page talking about autonomous complexes(“demons”), I read the mention of Christ being the symbol of wholeness. I see God, Christ and other religious figures as symbols myself, so that statement made sense to me.

        Some rituals, like chanting and prayer, seem designed to get a person into an altered state of consciousness, to train their mind a certain way(which can be for good or for ill).

        However, there are many misuses, there are rigid dogmas, persecution, fanaticism, bigotry, abuse and all kinds of ugly things. Spirituality is used as an excuse.

        1. J, your comment has all kinds of things rolling in my head.
          ” I read the mention of Christ being the symbol of wholeness”
          So……they divide and conquer in a sense. I don’t know how to explain this but they smash the innocence and purity in a child/ victim/ etc….maybe because they don’t have these qualities they want to destroy it in others.They are not whole and certainly are not pure. They are like rogue elephants.
          Everyone has that part of themselves, that pure child like/ connected to the earth and animals and nature and love( I call that “spirit”)……unless you are a Psychopath or a psychopath has defiled yours. I’m using the term Psychopath as an umbrella term here. They seek to destroy that which they can not possess or control.

  9. Love your posts and books. And as I say if one wants to know human spirit and behaviour one shouls study History…regards

  10. The NARC I knew was very aggressive, exploitive, with enough grandiosity for 5 people. He had been an inpatient several years ago for depression and possible suicide. Now on medications (Lithium, Seroquel, abilify, and Zoloft) which try and control the mania for ‘success’ ‘control’ and Grandiosity. Has no empathy, a conscience that is shallow, and fleeting at best. At first I though he was Bi Polar, but the lack of emotions (seemingly almost nonexistent) except when faced with narcissistic injury- then NARC Rage the only time I saw any emotion. Charismatic with a ‘God like’ persona, acted ‘perfect’ in nearly every situation. Likely NPD/Malignant narcissist. Exceedingly ego centric and self absorbed. What’s really funny , he fooled a PhD in Psychology- who had been in his company several times!

    I have no contact today. I just ‘know’ too much. These ‘predator’s’ move on- they eventually ‘settle’ I guess for someone who never ‘catches’ onto their twisted reality. I am not a clinician, but have wondered if there where some psychopathic traits, or they where indeed a ‘Psychopath’? The medications seem standard for an NPD- but for a Psychopath?

    Just curious- my experience still leaves me in wonderment.

  11. Thank you for your blog, Dr. Simon. Having come to grips with my family of origin close to a decade ago and having walked away from most of the family narcissists and their supporters about 8 years ago, it’s been a while since I’ve had a brush-up on manipulation. After all, once I finally “got it” and got the manipulators and sadists out of my life, why keep reading about it? Well, we should, because sometimes we need a reminder, to keep ourselves safe!

    Tonight I came to your blog from some information that someone posted in a comment to an article on the Chabad website, and I’m so glad that I read it– I recently moved overseas and have a new job and I work with a very toxic person who keeps trying to sabotage me (fortunately even my boss knows what she’s about and warned me about her).

    I’ve tried to tell myself that really she’s a good person who is acting out the pain of her stolen youth (I heard from someone that she had a very bad childhood in an Eastern Bloc country), and I’ve tried to focus on her qualities (she is a very hard worker), but I really did need a reality check and your website brought it to me. She’s a toxic person who enjoys causing discomfort to others, who enjoys creating chaos and disruption, and who wants to interfere with my employment. Time to watch my back at work and engage in self-protective behavior. Thank you again for the reality check!

  12. I have been reading so much of your site and I believe that I have not yet fully grasped the magnitude of the situation I am facing. I read and then read something else which triggers the “Ah ha” moment on the previous posts. I find myself re-reading as I educate myself and find the relevance. I am fortunate to have a professional to help me through this process who understands the dangerous nature of Person X. Person X is not a family member but is totally controlling my child in a dating relationship.

    But I have a question. The person I am dealing with is still somewhat immature (20 years old) and has repeatedly bragged about his manipulations of his father. He claims he helped make him a better person by changing his fathers behavior. To summarize, he spent 2 years withholding affection or communication with his father. The father would cry at his bedside and beg him for a relationship. He ignored his father and only spoke to his mother. He considers this a great accomplishment to have made is father a better man. I find it tragic!!! It was as if he was trying to impress me by bragging about this. Yes I have confirmed this with his parents. This is not the only example of how he has “helped” people to be better people. Or changed people for the grater good of society. (yes he believes lying and murder are acceptable if society as a whole is better.) Scary Guy!!

    My question: Is it normal for a predatory aggressor (psychopath/sociopath) to brag about their manipulative accomplishments to other people?

  13. Hi Sane, I would say it all depends on the person, how narcissistically they are based, the level of grandiosity, etc……. I HAVE read that these types are at their absolute worst (as if there is ANYtime that they are “ok”) around the ages 18, 19, 20,,,,,,in that age bracket. The supposed reason being, that they have sexually matured, gained their emancipation, and i believe something happens in the brain development around this age as well. I would give Person X as little of my time and energy as possible…..

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