Tag Archives: boundaries

Dr. George Simon, internationally recognized authority on manipulators and other disturbed characters.

The Importance of Making Amends

I’ve counseled many couples over the years whose relationship bonds had become strained to the point of possibly breaking.  Generally this happened because the parties had allowed themselves to cross certain boundaries and violate certain limits that inflicted deep emotional wounds.  Some of the things we allow ourselves to say to one another can really pierce the heart.  And there are things we can let ourselves do or refuse to make ourselves do that can inflict a lot of injury, too.  Over the years, I’ve been really taken aback by some of the things folks have allowed themselves to do or say without sufficient appreciation for the damage caused and without a due sense of obligation to repairing the damage.

Making amends in a meaningful way can be a particularly arduous task.  But in a loving relationship, repairing any damage done (whether inadvertently or intentionally inflicted) is not only a person’s duty but also essential for maintaining integrity of character.  Relationships never survive or prosper unless the parties embrace this obligation both willingly and freely.

I once counseled a couple who’d been blessed in many ways.  Well-educated, and coming from somewhat privileged backgrounds, they had it all:  wonderful careers, financial security, beautiful, healthy children, etc. But like most couples they had “issues” between them and unfortunately they didn’t do very well in addressing those issues in a respectful way.  One major bone of contention between them had to do with how the children should be disciplined.  The husband tended to be the rule-setter and “enforcer” whereas the wife tended to be the coddler and “rescuer.” The children, recognizing the the lack of alliance between their parents, knew very well how to play one against the other. But it’s how the couple addressed their differences with one another that really caused the trouble.  Dropping expletives, name-calling, withholding affection, chastising and belittling were common, and when there appeared no compromise, there’d be the inevitable “threat” to end it all.  Now both of these individuals were a lot alike:  Neither liked to lose a fight.  Both were strong-willed, opinionated, and most of all, they had their pride.  And in their determination to win, and especially to vindicate themselves, each was willing to go to the mat, even over matters that could rightfully be considered pretty trivial.  And they knew very well each other’s deepest emotional vulnerabilities, and sometimes they just couldn’t seem to stop themselves from going too far (“Going for the jugular,” is how they put it).  As a result, their marriage was really in trouble.  Too much hurt, too many scars – these things had taken their toll.  And it’s not like either of them hadn’t felt sorrow over some of the things they’d done or said. And it’s not like each hadn’t apologized, sometimes over and over again. But the wounds they’d both inflicted and sustained went deep and were a testament to the fact that being sorry or even saying you’re sorry simply isn’t enough.  For a relationship to work, each party needs be able to trust.  Partners need to know they’ll be safe in the arms of the other and free of the threat of the worst kinds of wounding.  Inadvertent slights are one thing.  But repeated acts of cruelty just to prove a point or to try and intimidate the other into doing what you want them to do, or to feel the pain you believe they’ve caused you is quite another.  And unless you’re truly willing to make amends, and you demonstrate that willingness quite clearly in your efforts to change your approach, there’s no way to restore or rebuild that necessary trust.

I’ve written before about what genuine remorse and contrition look like (See, for example What Real Contrition Looks Like, Contrition Revisited, and Shame, Guilt, Regret, Remorse, and Contrition), and what it really takes to make amends.  In counseling this couple, I called their attention to the work that had to be done and made it clear there could be no excuses.  If you really love someone and fancy yourself as having any real integrity of character, you have to be willing to repair damage you’ve done.  It’s like when you were a kid playing baseball in the street and you accidentally knocked a ball through someone’s window, your responsibility is to do more than apologize.  You need to sacrifice and underwrite the repair of the damage.  And there’s always a cost to damage you inflict, a cost you have to be freely willing to bear.  It’s never ceased to amaze me how many people are willing to pay the price for something like breaking a neighbor’s window but not be willing to do what it takes to repair damage they’ve inflicted on a person they purport to love.

In the next few articles, I’ll be having more to say about making amends with examples of how folks who not only accepted the responsibility to repair damage they had done but also did the work it took to nurture their relationships back to health.  In the process, they didn’t just save their partnership, they developed greater integrity of character.

Some announcements:  This week’s Character Matters program will be a rebroadcast of a prior program, so no calls can be taken.  And within a few months, you’ll be noticing some striking new changes in the overall appearance and structure of the blog as well as some new content on the pages devoted to my books In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and The Judas Syndrome.

Dr. George Simon, internationally recognized authority on manipulators and other disturbed characters.

Judging Character – Part Two

In today’s world, making the right assessment of a person’s character before getting involved in a serious relationship is more important than ever (see also: Becoming a Better Judge of Character).  As I point out in Character Disturbance, each type of character exhibits certain, reliable signs (in patterns of interpersonal behavior, dominant attitudes, ways of thinking about things, etc.) and if you know what to look for, you can possibly stave off disaster.  What follows is a detail-altered story of two individuals I’ll call “Jack” and “Amy,” that illustrates the kind of trouble that can ensue when someone’s character is wrongly appraised.

I first became acquainted with Amy after a friend suggested she seek me out and she called to make an appointment for her and her husband Jack.  Amy and Jack had seen a therapist a little over a year ago and Amy was disappointed in the results.  She tried to understand what the therapist said:  that Jack must have grown up lacking the approval he needed, especially from his mother and the other significant women in his life, that he had a deep fear of genuine intimacy and commitment, and that his cheating was a way to get the affirmation he craved and to build his self-esteem.  And she worked really hard doing her part to allay those fears, but things were still not working out.  She thought she could get past the fact he had two affairs, but now, even after therapy, and even after all her hard work, everything was going wrong again.  The lies, the constant wondering, the rants and the denials that made her feel like the crazy one – they were all back.  She just couldn’t understand or take much more of what she feared would be his constant unfaithfulness.  All sense of trust was gone.  She also felt both used and discarded.  She wanted more out of life and a relationship but somehow felt guilty and selfish about it.  From time to time she did think she might have to leave because of how hard it was to bear the hurt.  But she’d invested so much of herself trying to make things work, and there were occasional glimmers of hope, so she couldn’t bring  herself to simply walk away.   

The different demeanor Amy and Jack displayed told me a lot before we even began talking during the first session.  Amy appeared anxious for help, while Jack appeared not only disinterested but a bit put off by the whole thing.  Still, Jack did a lot of the talking, right from the outset.  He wanted to know what good it might do to come to sessions, how much I charged, and also made it clear that he believed that the reason they were in my office was because Amy was “never satisfied” and expected “far too much” in their relationship. He was a “damned good provider” and she had all the money and comforts a person could possibly want, so he couldn’t understand what all the big fuss was about.  He readily admitted the two affairs he had confessed to before they saw their first counselor, but said that he was “stressed” at work at the time and wasn’t feeling very appreciated at home.  He also insisted that his dalliances “meant nothing at all” and that Amy’s “paranoia” was not only unwarranted but had recently gotten “out of bounds.”

I asked Jack what he had done to “repair the damage” he’d done by breaching the trust in his relationship with Amy.  His immediate reply, “Huh?”, said a lot, all by itself.  But to add insult to injury, he quickly added: “Well, she was supposed to quit snooping, and quit questioning me all the time. And she was also supposed to give me some positive attention – that’s what the therapist said she should do.  But did she do it?  No!  She’s still sneaking around trying to check my cell phone and emails all the time.  I even had to close one email account and open another just to have some privacy!” Jack seemed outraged and indignant. But he didn’t seem like someone who felt horribly about having injured the love of his life, remorseful for his actions, and willing to make amends.  It was all on Amy.  These were immediate and clearly present signs of character disturbance, so it would be no surprise at all what I would eventually ferret out before the interview was over with regard to his behavioral history.

By the end of the interview I’d managed to learn that:

  1. Jack actually came from a loving, caring family who pretty much gave him everything, including more attention and approval than anyone might ever need.
  2. He had always been a thrill-seeker, being quite the daredevil most of his young life and was just as heavily into fast cars as he was into “fast” and “willing” women.
  3. He had crossed many other lines and boundaries than merely those pertaining to his marital vows.  In fact, he’d engaged in enough shady practices in his business that were it not for his wealth, means, shrewdness, and access to top-notch lawyers, he might well be in jail.
  4. He had many more “dalliances” than the two he confessed during his prior therapy stint and since that time had numerous others but got “careless” with his texting on his cell phone which is how Amy’s suspicions recently became aroused again.
  5. He saw absolutely nothing wrong with his behavior.  The women meant nothing to him and he had given Amy “everything a woman could possibly want.” He had “absolutely nothing to feel guilty about.”

Now this was a man of such deficient character that he couldn’t possibly conduct a relationship on the plane to which Amy aspired. And he’d been this way since adolescence.  Moreover, after listening to Amy describe why and how she fell in love with him, it was clear she had virtually no ability to accurately appraise his character or anyone else’s for that matter.  Of course, the stint in therapy didn’t help matters on that count either, for this was not a self-esteem deficient, approval-hungry, wounded soul who deeply feared commitment because his mother never loved him enough (as the therapist suggested), but rather a self-indulgent, empathy-devoid, remorseless thrill-seeker, people exploiter and abuser, and serial boundary and rule violator.  A man without remorse and devoid of real contrition (for more this see: What Real Contrition Looks Like and Contrition Revisited).  So trusting the therapist’s judgment on things only made matters worse.  Only lately was Amy becoming more willing to listen to her own inner voice, which had long been trying to tell her what kind of person she was really dealing with.  Still, she was too afraid and unsure of herself to act on what she was slowly coming to realize.

I worked with Amy a relatively short time, considering how much she needed to change with respect to the way she viewed herself, her worth, and how she judged the character of others.  But once, as they say, the light bulb moment happened, she was on a roll. And after she dealt with her own character issues, especially her emotional dependency and feelings of inadequacy, then found her strength and got her bearings, she made a commitment to never sell herself so short again or give herself away so cheaply.  It’s a commitment she’s kept to this day.

Next week’s post will provide another example of the power that comes along with being able to make sound character judgments.

What Made Them This Way?: Understanding Disturbed Characters

By far the most frequent question I’m asked has to do how disturbed characters came to be the way they are.  The following (edited) inquiry I received is typical of those searching for understanding:

I simply don’t understand most of the behaviors I see out of this guy.  He doesn’t seem to have the same sense of how to get along in the world that most of the people I know figured out a long time ago.  And while I’ve seen some strange behaviors in my day, I could never even imagine some of the things I’ve seen him do.  What’s worse, he does them without any compunction whatsoever.

I always find myself asking how a person gets to be this way.  Sometimes I think he must have been abused as a child. Perhaps he can’t love the way most people love because he doesn’t have any familiarity with love.  Maybe no one showed it to him.  I know his parents divorced when he was young.  Perhaps that had something to do with it, I don’t know.  But it just seems like no matter how hard I try to explain things to him, he just doesn’t get it.  I’ve done my best to understand, but to tell you the  truth, I’m simply worn out from trying.  It just doesn’t make any sense.

What makes a person become this way?  Can they ever change?

The notion that disturbed characters must have experienced abuse, trauma, or neglect as children has been around for a long time. But ample research indicates that although many disturbed characters report traumatic experiences, the veracity of those reports with respect to is often suspect.  There’s also abundant evidence that a person can develop a markedly impaired character even when raised in the most benign, nurturing environment.  Moreover, many individuals who come from difficult backgrounds somehow seem to be able to develop admirable character.   So, there is never a simple answer to this question.   Both an individual’s innate predispositions and their environment contribute to the shaping of their character.  The most important thing to remember, however, is when you strive too hard to “understand” a person’s behavior, you can often inadvertently excuse it.

Most people really ask this question because they are so unnerved by the behavior pattern of the disturbed character in their life. And it’s even more distressing to entertain the notions that some people are simply radically different from what we might perceive as “normal” and are also resistant to changing their style of coping.  As I assert in both my books, In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance, “they already see (i.e. know that their behavior is not what others consider appropriate) but simply disagree (i.e. prefer a style of coping that while offensive to others is acceptable to them).”  What’s more, it doesn’t really matter why they act the way they do.  What really matters is that anyone who wants to have an empowered relationship with them must enforce strict boundaries, limits, and expectations with respect to behavior.  And whether a disturbed character can or will change depends upon a number of factors.  But to develop any motivation to change their dysfunctional pattern, it simply has to stop working for them.  As long as others tolerate or try incessantly to be understanding, the disturbed character will keep on doing what they’ve always done.

So remember, don’t try too hard to understand.  Just set reasonable expectations and limits.  And accept the fact that people are different and some folks really have to be held accountable because they spend so little effort of their own to appropriately manage their behavior.  And don’t count on them changing either.  Let time and consistency be your guides.  Remember, they already “get it.”  And if they really mean to change you’ll know it by a consistent, self-directed effort on their part.

Character on Trial: Some Lessons to Learn

I’ve been watching portions of the trial of the physician who was treating Michael Jackson at the time of his untimely death.  And to me, some of the most intriguing aspects of the case are the facts that the trial is occurring at all as well as the hard to understand reactions of some of the spectators who gather each day outside the courthouse.
I’m not making any judgments whatsoever with respect to the legal guilt or innocence of the defendant.  But I feel obliged to comment on what I consider yet another example of one of the main points I make in my book Character Disturbance, namely that a wide variety of the ills plaguing modern, industrialized societies are directly traceable to the character crisis increasingly prevalent within them.  The problem cuts across all walks of life, all social and economic levels, both sexes, and various age groups.  And what really compounds the problem is that because of years of moral relativism and the blanket acceptance of sometimes outdated and critically inaccurate paradigms of understanding human nature, many folks have simply lost their ability to fairly and accurately appraise the character of others.  That’s why so many people enter into relationships only to realize how dysfunctional, abusive, exploiting, or dangerous they are long after substantial damage has already been done.
Dr. Conrad Murray is by no means the only high-profile person to be in the news of late because of alleged unethical, outrageous, or unscrupulous conduct.  When it comes to irresponsible conduct, there’s a wide open field, and vast, ready and willing cast of nefarious characters ready to play.  And because so many scoundrels have come to prominent attention of late, it really perplexes me at times how difficult it still is for some folks to make simple, plain judgments about a person’s character.  I can’t think of a case that’s made headlines in recent months where it wasn’t fairly clear early on that if there were a single shred of decency in the person caught red-handed in their horrendous conduct, they would not put the dwindling and already over-burdened responsible folks among us through the ordeal and expense of a media circus primarily designed to save their skins from sanction.  I have noticed that folks generally appear to be less understanding or forgiving if the scoundrel in question has gotten rich as a result of their misdeeds. In the case of Bernie Madoff, for example, I didn’t see anyone marching outside the courtroom carrying placards and advocating for the notion that the good things he might have done for some was de facto evidence that his character was being unjustly assailed.  But I have seen such things in the current fiasco.  And some people have even given interviews asserting that because the doctor professionally did them some good, he simply can’t be bad.
I know this is a provocative assertion for some, but here’s how I see it:  years of moral relativism, permissiveness, a huge sense of entitlement, and well-intended but inaccurate paradigms of human understanding taught and promoted at many educational levels, have “enabled” the character crisis that has beset us and clouded the average person’s judgment about how to appraise character. And if we fail to recognize the problem and how serious the problem has become, how in the world will we ever see our way clear to remedy it?
Fortunately, there really are some fairly straightforward guidelines by which almost anyone can fairly judge the character of another.   Nobody’s perfect.  But a person with at least a minimum level of decency and does something really wrong, takes responsibility for it, doesn’t try to justify it or blame everyone else, doesn’t make others pay for their mistake, and at the very least, makes a good-faith and from the heart commitment to do better next time.
Society can set all the limits and boundaries it chooses.  But the willingness to respect those boundaries and limits instead of trying to get around them is an a matter of each individual heart.  That’s why character matters so much.  And societies that forget that inevitably fall into decline.  And if some outrageous scoundrels bringing the entire world to the brink of economic collapse is not enough to get the responsible folks among us to realize how important it is to recognize, deal with, and do something about what’s producing so any rascals among us, I’m not sure what will.  So, even though I’ve written about it several times before and even relatively recently (see: Character, and the Ability to Correctly Appraise It, Matters), and even though I’ve written an entire book about it (i.e. Character Disturbance), I’ve posted yet another article calling attention to what I truly believe is the defining “phenomenon of our age.”

Anger Issues or Something More?

Some time ago, I got an urgent plea for help from a woman trying to understand her husband’s “anger issues.”  An edited (to preserve anonymity) summary of her inquiry follows:

My husband is afflicted with episodes of intense anger over stupid, little things.  I don’t understand it.  You never know what might set him off.  He will call me names like “stupid idiot” in front of the children and yell and scream.  He can blow up over anything, like when something is accidentally spilled on the floor, or when I wear something he hasn’t gotten a chance to give his approval to first, or when I take the car without asking.

We’ve been married for almost 16 years, and he has never hit me, so I wouldn’t call him abusive. I came from a loving, quiet family where people never raised their voices.  But two years into our marriage his tirades started.  I think his dad must have been abusive to him before he deserted the family when he was a teenager. I know his problems come stem from this but I still don’t know how to deal with it. I left him a few years back and we stayed apart for 4 months before getting back together. He always brings up the fact that it was me who deserted him.  He also constantly questions whether I have been with someone else.  The other day, I had  a doctor’s appointment and when I returned he asked if anyone made a pass at me.

I don’t want our 12 and 13 year-old sons to grow up and treat their wives my husband treats me.  I’ve told them this is not right behavior.  I’ve also  tried to talk to him about getting help.  I’ve even mentioned possibly leaving again. Whenever I do, he gets a lot better for awhile.  But then things start going badly again.  I know he’s a good person if it weren’t for these anger outbursts.  Sometimes I worry he might have a stroke or an aneurysm.  I also worry he could have some kind of chemical imbalance and I wonder if he should be on some kind of medication.  But when I suggest he see somebody, he tells me he’d be fine if I wouldn’t stress him out like I do. What do you think I should do?

Like many, this woman views her husband as afflicted by a condition that she assumes stems from his experiences in childhood or a variety of other causes.  And she continues to try very hard to “understand” his behavior. But in making assumptions about the root causes of his actions and trying far too hard to understand them, she inadvertently excuses the behavior and “enables” problems to continue and possibly escalate.  She also identifies the emotion of anger as the problem instead of the aggressive behavior he displays. She also trivializes the significance of the emotional and verbal abuse heaped upon her, and casts her husband as a basically good guy because he hasn’t physically assaulted her.  But as I discuss in both In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance, this man shows many key signs of severe character dysfunction, including thinking patterns, attitudes, and tactics (e.g., entitlement, possession and ownership, intimidation, blaming, etc.) that predispose him to unhealthy dominance-seeking in his relationships and to aggressive conduct, much of which is not even rooted in anger.  My response to this woman’s inquiry included the following:

Whether your husband has problems with anger management, impulse and aggression control, or an underdeveloped character, the most important thing for you to accept is that they are his problems to address through appropriate guidance and dedicated self-correction.   Your responsibility is to take care of yourself, which means setting firm limits and expectations, and refusing to subject yourself to anything less than loving, respectful treatment by others.  Your husband’s capacity to modify his behavior has been demonstrated during the times you left him, and briefly during those times when you’ve urged him to seek help or raised the possibility of leaving again.  But it’s also apparent he lost any motivation to clean up his act once you resumed your former tolerance. Insist that he take responsibility for himself and his actions, secure whatever guidance he might require, abide by any treatment recommendations he is given, and stop blaming anyone else.  It’s not uncommon for a well-trained therapist to advise that all the family members seek help of some sort.  You might want to explore for yourself how you came to be so unreasonably tolerant of abusive and controlling behavior and why you put more energy into trying to “understand” as opposed to enforcing limits and boundaries.

This kind of situation might be familiar to some of the readers.  Hopefully, some of key points highlighted in this example will prove helpful to those in similar circumstances.

Aggressive and Assertive Behavior

Recently, I was asked to compare and contrast assertive and aggressive behavior.  In responding to the inquiry, I realized that although I had written about both behaviors many times, I had not posted an article dealing solely with how these two behaviors compare.  Assertive behavior is a key element of healthy, independent, adult functioning.  But because asserting oneself is a form of “fighting” for one’s legitimate needs, it’s easy to get confused about the difference between aggressive and assertive behavior.

When my first book, In Sheep’s Clothing was first released nearly 15 years ago, I was careful to include a substantial material on the nature of human aggression in all its many forms.  That’s because there have always been so many misconceptions about the nature of aggression.  Firstly, many equate aggression with violence, when nothing could be further from the truth.  The vast majority of aggressive behavior among human beings is not violent.  Secondly, the many different forms aggression can take were poorly understood or confused, as exemplified by how often terms like “passive-aggression” are misused (in fact I include it in the “top ten list” of misused psychology terms).

In my new book, Character Disturbance, I try to do a better job not only at explaining and clarifying the various types of aggressive behavior but also how aggressive behavior in general differs from assertive behavior.  The following is an edited excerpt from the chapter in my new book that deals with aggressive personalities and explains not only the various kinds of aggression but also how aggressive behavior compares and contrasts with assertive behavior:

Aggression in human beings is not synonymous with violence.  Human aggression is the forceful energy we all expend to survive, prosper, and secure the things we want or need.  We reflect a deep-seated awareness of this fact in our linguistics:  We say things like, “if you really want something, you have to fight for it.”  We encourage those who are sick or infirmed to do battle with their cancers, infections, or other diseases.  As a society, we even launched a “war on poverty.”

Fighting is a huge part of life…and it’s fair to say that when we’re not making some kind of love, we’re waging some kind of war.  But how and we fight is another matter entirely.  And there are big differences between aggression and assertion.  Assertive behavior is fighting for a  legitimate purpose.  It’s fair and it’s principled.  It’d done with deliberately imposed and observed limits.  And the  rights and boundaries of others are always respected.  Violence is rejected, and the overall goal is constructive goal (to make a situation better).

In contrast, aggressive behavior is fighting for a purely selfish interest and to simply gain advantage over another.  No care is taken to impose limits or restraints, and the rights and boundaries of others are of little concern.  The goal is destructive because the goal is to weaken or incapacitate an opponent, and this can often involve violence.

There are also many types of aggressive behavior.  Aggression can be overt (open and unabashed) or covert (deliberately concealed).  It can also be active (reflected in what we do) or passive (the result of what we refuse to do).  It can be the result of an offensive posture, or a necessary aspect of a defensive maneuver Aggression can also be reactive or predatory (alt: instrumental). There are some really big difference between these two types of aggression:  Reactive aggression is a spontaneous, unplanned response to a genuine threat, it’s prompted by fear, it’s defensive in character (primarily motivated by the desire to keep something bad from happening), and the primary goal is prevention of one’s own victimization. Contrarily, predatory (or instrumental) aggression is calculated and premeditated, prompted purely by desire (sometimes not even precipitated by anger), is of completely offensive character and the goal is causing the injury or victimization of another.

It’s important to understand the various ways people have of fighting with one another and how to protect and empower yourself.  Learning how to stand up for your legitimate wants and needs without trampling the rights of others and without undue apprehension about the right kind of fighting is at the very heart of personal empowerment.  The above material is condensed from almost 14 pages and should be regarded only as a brief glimpse into this important topic.  Perhaps any questions arising from its necessary brevity can be addressed through any comments and replies.