Living in a socially responsible manner inevitably requires a person to bear certain burdens. Fortunately, there are many who are willing to do so. And some of the more ardently conscientious, “neurotic” individuals among us are perhaps all-too-willing to bear these burdens (thus often “enabling” character-impaired individuals to shirk their responsibilities). When fairly conscientious folks find themselves in relationships with disturbed or disordered characters, they generally end up carrying a disproportionate share of burdens. At times, it can seem like the weight of the whole world is on their shoulders. The vignette that follows (as always, details have been altered to preserve anonymity) illustrates such a scenario, which, based on the thousands of stories I’ve heard over the years, is, unfortunately, an all-too-frequent occurrence, and concludes the current series on bearing social burdens (see also the articles: Bearing the Burden of Responsible Living and Bearing the Burden of Responsible Living – Part 2).
The fact that Mary was as accomplished a person at all she did would astound almost anyone. She’d worked her way up to management-level position in a major international corporation, somehow still found the time to be “super mom” to her 4 children (operating the after-school “shuttle service,” for their various activities, serving as tutor, coach, and mentor, paying the bills, managing the household), and was the consummate, dutiful and devoted wife. She knew that Steve worked hard, too, in his own way. He was quite the entrepreneur, operating as many as 3 businesses simultaneously at one point in time. But she was getting a bit weary of all the schemes that had never quite paid off and all the promises that had never come to fruition. And lately she’d come to feel like she was both bankrolling and underwriting a lifestyle that Steve always wanted but never really earned strictly on his own. Now she didn’t really begrudge him the time he spent on the golf course, because, after all, it appeared his primary – perhaps his only – form of recreation. But she was getting increasingly weary of carrying so much of the load and she really needed him to pitch in more. And it bothered her even more that not only did he not seem to feel inclined to do more on his own but he also seemed to be complaining more and more that she wasn’t being “supportive” enough. Here she was, emptying herself out completely each and every day and he was the one somehow feeling the right to be dissatisfied. So she knew she needed to confront him.
At first things looked promising as Steve promised to go to counseling with her. But he quickly found fault with the therapist who, according to Steve, only seem to want to blame him and tear him down, so he stopped going. Soon after that, and without warning, Mary’s whole world seemed to fall apart. Her company laid off several mid-level managers, and although she had escaped the first round of cuts, she eventually found herself without a job and its substantial income. But perhaps even more of a blow to the gut was Steve’s announcement that he’d been thinking for a while that he needed time and space to “sort through some issues” – to find himself as it were. And within weeks he’d be wanting a formal separation, having already secured an apartment in town that fairly soon afterward she would learn he would be sharing with someone he’d met some time ago through one of his business ventures. She would also learn that their joint bank accounts no longer had the balances she had every reason to believe they had. It seems Steve’s enterprises had been experiencing a “cash flow problem” for quite awhile and he needed the money to sustain himself. So now she had no one to lean on or depend on but herself, and at the moment she had no job, little money in the bank, a stack of unpaid bills, 4 children who still very much needed their mom, and very little hope for the future. How could her life have unraveled so quickly? And how could all Steve’s shenanigans have happened right under her nose?
Actually, the warning signs were there early on. Mary entered her marriage with every intention of being a full partner to Steve and doing her part to build a life together. And as their family grew, every decision she made was made with both Steve’s and her family’s welfare in the forefront of her mind. But right from the start, it wasn’t quite that way with Steve. Somehow, it was always about him. All his energy was directed toward he enjoyed or what he thought would get him the things he desired. True, he could sometimes work very hard. But his efforts were always in the service of his own interest. And whenever things got rough or when it was pretty clear that Mary or the kids really needed him to step up to the plate, he either had no time or energy to give them or was all-too-ready to bail out. Now, it had happened again, and big time! He’d literally taken the money and run and seemingly without a concern in the world or a moment’s hesitation, leaving behind not only his dutiful wife of 20 plus years but also his own four children – all, for the purported purpose of “finding himself” (The truth would out much later that Steve quickly lost interest in his marriage when Mary no longer had the means to support a lifestyle to which he had become accustomed. And the money he drained from their accounts would help him maintain positive impressions while he plotted the exploitation of his next victim).
Mary had to learn the hard way something both I and Stanton Samenow have written about many times with respect to persons of impaired character: They seem to have a real aversion to a particular kind of labor. They find expending energy on anyone else’s behalf quite unpalatable. That kind of w-o-r-k is truly a “four-letter word” to them (For more on this see the articles: Character and Attitudes toward Work and When W-O-R-K is a Four-Letter Word). As Samenow asserts, they have a big problem with accepting “obligation.” They hate to feel like they owe anything to anyone other than themselves and are unwilling to engage in those “labors of love” so necessary to make things work and that persons of decent character more willingly and freely embrace. The more narcissistic characters are so self-absorbed and feel so “above” the need, they simply don’t concern themselves with the needs of others. And the more antisocial characters find the whole notion of heeding their social responsibilities too much like submitting themselves to a higher power or authority, a notion I assert in my books In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and The Judas Syndrome is inherently abhorrent to them. To care enough about the welfare of others to want to work on their behalf requires empathy and is the essence of genuine love. Disturbed characters of the ilk I described above, lack the capacity to love in this way because they lack empathy, and the warning signs of such empathy deficits are always in the attitudes they display toward accepting obligation.
This Sunday night’s Character Matters program at 7 pm Eastern Daylight Time (6 PM CDT and 4 PM PDT) will again be a live show, so I can take your phone calls.