Sometimes people hurt others out of ignorance or a lack of mindfulness. In essence, they truly know not what they do. But sometimes people act out of malice whether actively by what they deliberately do to cause harm or passively by what they fail to do to avoid inflicting harm. The story that follows gives an example of malicious behavior and some of the more insidious reasons it can be overlooked or inadvertently perpetuated by those on the receiving end (Once again, the usual notice and disclaimer is warranted here: names, details and circumstances have been altered to ensure anonymity).
Tammy was beginning to question some things. She and Marvin had been in couples’ counseling off and on for over 8 years and things were definitely not getting better. But she was questioning more than just whether the counseling was doing any good or if her marriage would survive. She was also questioning whether there was really any truth to many of the things she had regarded as fact for a long, long time.
Tammy had accepted for some time that Marvin had an addiction. After all, the therapist explained how sexual addictions are just as real as other addictions and they often develop in the same insidious ways other addictions take hold: as a way of “self-medicating” emotional pain and altering mood — a way that can quickly spiral out of control once our brains accommodate to the pattern. And it seemed Marvin had all the trauma that set the downward spiral in motion, too. There was the loss of his mother a few years back, quickly followed by the collapse of his business. He was in pain and he “acted out” (for more on this rampantly misused psychological term see: Acting Up Is Not Acting Out) largely to assuage that pain. On top of that his self-esteem had taken a big hit. He didn’t set out to hurt her, he just needed an ego boost and a way to ease the pain. And if she hadn’t found out, she wouldn’t have been hurt at all. She got that. It all seem to make so much sense, at least at first. But now Tammy was beginning to question everything. For one thing, despite all the treatment, many things weren’t getting better. And it seemed that all the explanations she’d gotten over the years were making less and less sense, too. After all, she herself had been traumatized repeatedly over the years, had long been on an emotional roller coaster, and suffered many blows to her self-esteem, yet never resorted to “self-medicating” with serial cheating, financial irresponsibility, constant lying, etc. In fact, she never would have even thought of such things. So her gut was telling her there simply must be much more to Marvin’s behavior and that’s how I came to know Marvin and Tammy.
Marvin was always the Golden Boy. He had the looks and he had the charm. He had the moxie, too. Everybody just knew he was going places. And if you judged only by the fancy clothes he wore and the flashy cars he drove, you’d assume he was a successful and self-made man. But such was never really the case. When Marvin married Tammy, he just happened to also tap into a small fortune. Tammy’s parents were of substantial means and left her a sizable inheritance when they passed away in a car accident. Tammy always had a career of her own, and feeling fairly secure, was more than happy to support Marvin’s various business ventures. Even though several of those ventures didn’t work out all that well, she stuck by him, believing he would eventually succeed. What Tammy didn’t know was that Marvin had been gambling, squandering her inheritance on escapades that were supposedly business trips, and cheating on her almost since the day they were married. And when she finally learned the truth, she was not only in financial distress but also an emotional wreck because of magnitude of her disbelief. How could anyone, she wondered, cause so much hurt and seem so unfazed by it all? Surely, he mustn’t realize what he’s doing, she thought at first. But her deepest pain came upon realizing that he knew all the while but simply didn’t care. He used and abused her, and right from the beginning! She had the means to let him live the lifestyle he always wanted but could never quite discipline himself enough to earn on his own. And to keep her in tow, he had preyed on her over-conscientiousness nature, mercilessly blaming her and her lack of faith in him, as well as her insufficient support whenever he got into trouble. And Tammy, poor Tammy, for a long time she bought into it all, trying ever harder to do right by Marvin. While she eventually came to know all too well how much he had hurt her, she always thought he simply didn’t stop to think about what he was doing. Never did she entertain the notion that he knowingly and willfully did her any harm. Surely, he didn’t mean to hurt her, he just did. And when Tammy finally realized the malicious nature of Marvin’s actions, and the tactics he’d been using to manipulate her, her hurt was only compounded.
Last week’s post (see: Character Disorders and Malice), presented some of the major reasons disturbed and disordered characters behave maliciously. And in Marvin’s case, two of the reasons given applied quite clearly: Marvin always sought to take advantage, which was in itself a willfully malicious act; and, he was woefully lacking in the kinds of character attributes that might have kept him from doing anything other than exploiting, using, and abusing others. He neither had the empathy for others nor the degree of conscience to refrain from purely exploiting everything and everyone he encountered. And while Tammy herself had a hard time seeing Marvin’s behavior (and character) for what it was, it was certainly no help that her early therapy experience reinforced notions that seemed plausible yet so missed the mark that they only helped prolong her misery [A word of caution here: Genuine addictions do exist, and there are even some cases where some forms of sexual behavior can take on addictive character. That said, an “industry” of sorts has developed in recent years that tends to want to conceptualize all sorts of behavioral irresponsibility as addiction, emotional self-medication, etc., and in my opinion such conceptualizations are sometimes not only unhelpful but also dangerous and damaging because of the misconceptions they foster and the “enabling” they promote].
A big “thank you” to all the listeners for the amazing response to the special Easter edition of Character Matters last Sunday and to you blog followers for such longstanding support not only for this site but also for my books In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and The Judas Syndrome. If it weren’t for the tremendous and ongoing word-of-mouth about my work this whole enterprise would be impossible.