The past few posts have addressed some of the feelings, reactions, and concerns experienced by survivors of toxic relationships (see: Toxic Relationship Aftermath: Doubt, Mistrust, and Paranoia? and Aftermath of a Toxic Relationship – Part 2). And because there have been so many helpful anecdotes shared by the readers, I thought it best to summarize all that’s been discussed before moving on to the next series of articles on personality and personality disorders.
People get into relationships with disturbed characters for a variety of reasons. They might be somewhat naive about human nature, having an essentially Pollyanna-like vision of others, and never fully appreciating the extent to which some folks’ character can be so flawed that a relationship with them is destined to be toxic. They might also have been over-exposed to and blindly accepted some of our older, traditional psychological perspectives that tend to view everyone as basically good and decent “underneath,” and, therefore, judged the hurtful behaviors of their relationship partner as merely the unfortunate manifestation of that person’s emotional wounding and trauma. So, even if they noticed some red-flags for trouble early on, they might have entertained the notion that with enough patience, love, and understanding, the partner’s wounds would necessarily be healed and all would be well. Love, after all, conquers all – does it not? But many relational abuse survivors have simply been the unwitting victims of a masterful con artist who said all the right things and did all the right things on the front end of the relationship to secure the object of his/her desire, only to reveal their true self once their conquest was complete and they found little reason to perpetuate their fraud any longer.
Once folks get into a relationship with a disturbed character, it’s often not so easy to get out, even when things get really bad at times. For one thing, disturbed characters are often not only determined to win or dominate but also have the skills to manipulate others and keep them in one-down positions and under their control. And perhaps even more insidiously, as I mention in both In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance, the aggrieved party in dysfunctional relationships often invests considerable time and energy (and sometimes considerable financial and other personal resources) trying to make things work. Infrequent but nonetheless significant and periodic “rewards” for making such an investment make it even more likely the abused party will stay involved (I discuss this phenomenon or “slot machine syndrome” in both of my books). So even when the situation has become too toxic and painful to bear anymore, breaking free means walking away from a substantial personal investment, and reckoning with such a loss is not an easy thing to do. And reckoning with the need to get out also invites understandable (albeit unwarranted) feelings of guilt and shame for having allowed oneself to be duped in the first place.
Most folks I’ve counseled who’d finally reached the point that they simply had to extricate themselves from a toxic relationship appeared as though they’d been run over by a train. And in those cases where the disturbed character vowed all sorts of nastiness if divorce was pursued as the ultimate solution, the victim had virtually no energy left to weather the brutal battle they knew lay ahead. They were deeply depressed and desperate for support. And it was not particularly sweet music to their ears to hear me advise that they do their best to “let go” of the inordinate attention they’d focused on their abuser. After all, they had finally come to identify the true source of their pain and wanted to hold their tormentor accountable. So, the notion of emotionally letting go of the other person and taking stock in themselves was not initially appealing at all. But in time, and with sufficient support and encouragement, they saw more clearly that they were their own key to a more rich, empowered life.
The readers have done a great job in providing helpful information both in the other resources they’ve suggested and in the stories they’ve shared. I thought I might cite a few of the comments (edited for brevity, relevance, and clarity) for the benefit of readers who haven’t read every post or comment:
They’ re clever, calculated and smooth. Hard to rattle. At the end of one of these nightmares even the person who went in to the situation relatively healthy and intact comes out drained, shaken, weakened, confused and too exhausted to fight for their honor. It’s hard to remember all the twists ant turns, let alone describe them in context. SO MUCH gets lost in translation. My sociopathic ex was just skipping right along and never missed a beat. Meanwhile I was feeling like I got hit head-on by a Mac truck. My life was turned upside down because so much of my time was eaten up with him.
If only we trusted those early “pings” of unease and warning that our intuition sends! This is what I am focusing on now. An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure!
[Disturbed characters] know how to care about people’s well-being but they just care more about their own well-being than that of others. It’s really about the misuse of power, not about immaturity or lack of skills. They [experience payoffs] bullying other people and these rewards are so [valued by them that they rarely find the motivation] to really change.
Next week we’ll begin a four-part series on personality and character. Given the many misconceptions that exist on this issue, there’s a lot to discuss. My years of experience have taught me how crucial it is that folks have a solid, basic understanding of what really makes people the way they are and do the things they do. The series on personality and character should not only provide you with new insights about the nature of character disturbance and what we need to do as a society to help decrease its prevalence, but also help you understand yourself and the proclivities you possess that are likely to impact your relationship and happiness.