Aftermath of a Toxic Relationship – Part Two

Following the article Toxic Relationship Aftermath: Doubt, Mistrust, and Paranoia? , there’s been some good discussion and sharing of common experiences by relational abuse survivors.  Several folks mentioned how unsettling it was on an emotional level for them not only to wake up to the realities about the impaired character of their former relationship partner but also to be more aware of the nature and prevalence of character disturbance once their eyes were open.  Such comments suggested to me how important it would be to revisit and expand upon some of the fundamental precepts of the major psychological paradigms of human nature and behavior.

Let me say from the outset that I well know the summary of the more traditional psychology perspectives I’m about to offer is a bit of an oversimplification.  But to fully understand the sometimes detrimental impact that some of our longest-standing paradigms for understanding human nature have had on our collective mindset, such a simplification is necessary.   For the most part, traditional paradigms taught us:

  • We’re all basically the same
  • We’re all naturally inclined toward healthy, positive behaviors and relationships
  • Traumatic circumstances (i.e. abuse, neglect, adverse circumstances, poverty, injustice, abandonment, etc.) are the reasons we socially malfunction
  • As a result of our traumas, we develop fears and “defenses,” and it’s these fears and defenses that shape our personalities.
  • Most of the time, when we malfunction, we don’t really even realize what we’re doing because our defenses keep us in the dark.
  • With patience, love, understanding, everyone will let down their guard, become more aware, be their more genuine, loving self, and become healthy again.

After years of practicing psychology and long before I wrote In Sheep’s Clothing, I came to realize that the axioms stated above seemed to apply very well when talking about a certain group of people – those others have labeled and whom I affectionately refer to as “neurotic.”   But there were other folks I was encountering who didn’t seem to fit within this paradigm at all.  I slowly came to realize and had to admit:

  • We’re not all alike.  Some people are very different from most.  They think differently and act differently – even feel differently.
  • Not everyone has the same natural inclinations.  And some folks seem to have had certain predispositions from a very early age that significantly affected their growth and development.
  • Bad things happen to everyone, but not everyone responds the same way.  And there are plenty of very dysfunctional people who experience little to no trauma growing up and just as many folks who are stellar characters who suffered all manner of adversity.  So it can’t possibly be true that we’d all be psychologically healthy if it weren’t for the bad things that happened to us.
  • An adequate human psychology simply has to consider more than just the emotion of fear and what people tend to do to manage their fears.  A whole lot more goes into shaping a person’s character than just their fears and defenses.  And it’s not just trauma and environment, either.  There’s biology and innate predispositions and a host of other factors dynamically interacting to make someone the person they are.
  • Not everyone is oblivious when they do bad things.  People can and do act with full knowledge, awareness, and yet malevolent intention.
  • Love and understanding simply will not cure all ills.  Some folks need far more than that to acquire the motivation and the means necessary to change and grow.

As a result of my realizations, I began a much deeper study of all the available research on personality, and to make some very careful observations of the two groups of people with whom I’d been working:  individuals who tended to be more “neurotic” and individuals who, for lack of a better term, appeared to be character-impaired or deficient.  The more I worked with “neurotic” victims of abusive relationships with character-impaired persons, the more I realized not only how different they were from one another but also how detrimental the traditional frameworks actually were to really understanding them.  And while the neurotics seemed to have an intuitive grasp of the traditional axioms (i.e. we’re all the same underneath; our fears and the defenses we’ve built mess us up; with enough love and understanding everyone gets better, etc.), and tacitly accepted them (they knew these axioms held much truth for them so it seemed reasonable they must hold true for everyone), subscribing to these traditional beliefs actually played a large role in how they were lured into and subsequently remained in abusive relationships!  I also came to realize how well the individuals of the character-impaired variety knew how neurotics tended to view things and how they used this awareness to their advantage.  As I would eventually assert in Character Disturbance, nobody, but nobody knows neurosis like a disturbed character.  And I decided right then that my main mission in life would be to advance a new, more accurate, and more comprehensive paradigm for understanding human nature and behavior.  Most especially, I wanted to introduce a psychology that was not so narrowly confined to what can go wrong with people when they’re riddled with fears and insecurities or scarred by trauma, but rather a psychology expanded to include what can go wrong when people are more inclined to fight than run, when they never acquired the ability to discipline their instincts, and when their unruliness and lack of conscientiousness – not their fears and insecurities – were  the main cause of the problems and pain in their relationships.

What I never really expected to happen as the result of my early work but nonetheless turned out to be the biggest blessing in my life is that literally thousands of people began reporting that the “paradigm shift” I proposed (i.e. a way of looking at human nature and behavior) was the single biggest factor in their breaking free of a destructive relationship and carving out a more vital, empowered life for themselves.  I couldn’t possibly have been more edified.  But truly, it was just a beginning.  The quest to provide folks with a more comprehensive and accurate way to perceive the human condition continues.  And when we wrap-up the discussion on the issues commonly experienced in the aftermath of a toxic relationship, I’ll be introducing the series “Personality Development 101,” which will take a much more in-depth look at all that behavioral science has managed to learn about how people come to be the way they are.  And judging from the wide range and sometimes contentious nature of opinions on the subject expressed in many of the comments over the past several weeks, the series should spark a very interesting discussion.

36 thoughts on “Aftermath of a Toxic Relationship – Part Two

  1. Hopefully not truly contentious. It wouldn’t be the first time in my life when I’d get carried away with ponderings. Waiting for the personality development series.

    Always interested in understanding more about how people work.

  2. This ‘journey’ of yours has been of immense value to many of us. And of course the ‘Aftermath’ of these toxic situations can be enlightening, liberating, empowering — for a better future (sorry for the cliche).

    I am VERY lucky not to have been in romantic/sexual relationships, or parent-sibling-child relationships, with disturbed characters. I have ‘been there often’ because for whatever reason I’ve encountered many in professional-social-acquaintance contexts and almost feel like a seasoned Zoologist of the problem. Not in a detached way though – I have been a multiple victim but not in the uniquely horrible way of being in love/sleeping with one!! (pure luck).

    Last week I completed a hugely helpful exercise which I strongly recommend, and am willing to share some of the insights of mine if there is an appropriate way. It’s too long to paste into a comment.

    In short, I did ‘case studies’ of all the CD individuals, and an opposite – a colleague of extremely good character, for contrast. The headings:
    What felt good
    What felt bad
    What was a red flag, possible tell or indicator of CD
    What tactics did s/he use
    What personality or character traits did s/he display, what values or desires, what weaknesses or vulnerabilities of his/her own
    Things s/he said & did, particular incidents
    What were my vulnerabilities that made me susceptible to them
    What were any protective features I had
    Brainstorm different responses I might have made in specific situations

    I then analysed and compiled and now in addition to ‘case studies’ have an extremely useful list, using 10 years experience, of:
    My vulnerabilities – which are often my good personality traits & characteristics unprotected!! (an interesting lesson)
    My protective factors
    ‘Tells’ ‘danger signs’ – this is perhaps the most useful of all. Apart from the treasure of information in Dr Simon’s book, these are all the little things that WITH HINDSIGHT I NOW KNOW (over a few cases) are danger signs of a *probable* CD.
    I am also developing new personal practices and tiny little ‘tests’ to apply early on.

    My vulnerabilities are ‘just me’ but the ‘Tells’ I suspect have more universal relevance and if there’s a way, I’m happy to share them in case anyone else agrees or can add to them. They’re probably deficient for romantic relationships but I suspect there’s huge overlap.

    One lesson/insight that surprised me by actually writing it up and formally, thoroughly analysing this (as opposed to thinking about it too much over the years)is:

    Nearly every dangerous character trait showed itself EARLY in the professional setting in some way that lodged in my brain, powerfully, but that I in fairness or ‘objectively’ felt I had to disregard because it was ‘trivial’, ‘didn’t mean anything’, ‘it would be petty to make an issue of it’ or ‘judging someone too harshly’.

    I still know, in an employment context, I couldn’t have made an issue of it overtly with them. (I was ‘right’.)

    But I was also ‘wrong’. I should have let my intuition and judgment modify my behavior so that I didn’t entrust myself to them and do key things that made me vulnerable. My new practice will be: Trust my judgment if adverse; but keep my counsel, and keep my behavior clean and kind and then I don’t have to justify any adverse judgments to anyone. They don’t have to know what I THINK. I don’t have to make myself vulnerable and no one can demand that I do.

    But this was reassuring – a week ago I was still feeling ‘HOW DO YOU KNOW?? HOW CAN YOU TELL?? HOW CAN YOU STOP IT HAPPENING AGAIN??’ But now I’ve realized you really, really, can tell early on; and so I feel much reassured and have much more confidence in myself and optimism for the future (in only a week, and cheaper than therapy! 🙂 ) You can’t be sure. But you can be careful.

    1. 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 better than a pound of cure….

      I just lost a friend whose presence in my life I treasured because despite all the information I provided (including my medical diagnosis the CA lied about!) she has chosen to believe him.

      Another great series, Dr Simon, would be on why it is that people so often support the CA, while demanding from the victim to “forgive and forget”, move on from the past, be the one to make up and give the CA support he needs, and a whole slew of platitudes that go nowhere with these characters. Lundy Bancroft writes about it in his excellent book. About how the abusers get allies all over the place, even in the justice system, while the abused partner has to fight to be heard, and often fails.

      Even with abusive bosses, people will confirm things in private conversations, but are unwilling to come out and file a grievance, or be a witness for the whistleblower. It’s a crazy situation. As though the whole culture supports the abuser one way or another, and those of us who’ve finally awakened to the wrong perpetrated on us, must then fight to be believed, or taken seriously, or supported.

      It’s almost as though people figure that CAs are so difficult to deal with, they instead pick on the abused person in the equation, aiding the bully. Path of least resistance?

      1. Possible. Another reason that comes to mind is that abusers manage to fool others into thinking they are the slandered, abused party.

          1. Because they are 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 such a complex mess, hard to remember all the twists ant turns, let alone describe them in context. SO MUCH gets lost in translation. My Spathx is just skipping right along in his pathetic life as if he never missed a beat. Mean while I feel like I got hit head on by a Mac truck. My life is upside down because I got so far behind having most of my time eaten up with him. He had no ability to spend time alone so the thing turned into a full time babysitting job. It seems like I’m never going to get back to home base in my life. Just an example of my situation…..

        1. I’ve understood that frequently people believe things they like to hear. Manipulative personalities have learned all their life how to say things someone wants to hear. For example, Rasputin brought about the downfall of the czar family by lying about people’s opinion towards their ruler.

          I’m not saying there aren’t people, who want to know the true state of things regardless of how unpleasant it is. I’m saying that the flaw of many people I just mentioned plays into manipulators’ hands and sets truthful people at disadvantage.

          1. Yeah J,,,,, I think this may apply with Spathx and me…..he did his part in creating the illusion of what I wanted….sometimes. It’s all so tiring to try to explain… My mind just slumps over at the thought.

      2. Absolutely. I’ve often been leaned on to comply with or placate an aggressive or manipulative person by an anxious the third party. The nice, neurotic person is easier to displease, ‘they’ll understand’. The aggressive or manipulative won’t. The placater can’t stand up to them and so tries to get you not to either.
        If anyone has some good tactics or one-liners for this I’d love to hear them.
        I’m ‘getting over it’ where I’m in control; the problem is for me a relative who I love and don’t want to hurt, who can’t hope with the aggressive spouse and leans on everyone else not to rock the boat by … oh… just setting normal boundaries and basic politeness!

      3. Toxic environments reward all the wrong things and that’s why I never want to get into one. If an interpersonal cutthroat has power, anyone challenging them is bound to suffer and, people reason, by extensions those sticking up for those doing the right thing. Too often good deeds are punished.

      4. A lot of reasons at play with respect to the realities you describe here, and probably worth a few articles to discuss. Some of the reasons have already been suggested by a few readers. But there are enough factors to sort through that it would definitely be worth writing about. Remind me from time to time. I already have the next half-dozen articles planned, but this is a topic that deserves some attention. So bring it to my attention if I don’t tend to it in the near future. Thanks.

  3. This unhealthy paradigm is why I perservered so long with a boyfriend/husband with severe lack of empathy and character disorders. I kept thinking with love, time, and understanding, all of my sacrifices would pay off and surely he wanted to have a healthy relationship and a happy family. Actually, he wanted to keep taking and controlling and never wanted to meet any of my needs, and then discard me when he felt time to move on. What is a way to educate my child about these realities without scaring him?

    1. There are many ways people can develop and some people develop in the wrong direction? Perhaps not that, but would that spark a thought?

      1. Some people get better results by preying on others, in their view. They like the goodies it gets them. They are mature alright… and very skilled.

      2. Some people haven’t learned to care about other people’s wellbeing. I think that would be a good way to start if you were to educate a child.

        1. They know how to care about people’s wellbeing… they just care about their own a lot more than that of others. IMO, it’s about the misuse of power, not about immaturity or lack of skills. They want the privileges that come with bullying other people. Lundy Bancroft says that these rewards are so powerful, that only a few of them ever find it in them to really change.

          1. I think they “care” about others well being ONLY when it’s in their own interest to do so.

          2. Or make a great show of caring or helping. A move example comes to my mind in Wolf Creek, with the great example of a sadistic predatory aggressive personality.

        2. Indeed some people just think themselves to be above the rest of us. It’s scary that anyone can think rules only apply to others and that they can treat those others as they please.

          Some of them might be describable as overgrown bullies, like a child that acts like a terrorist to get what s/he wants. Even those kinds of people, I am sure, understand what they are like as people and, more often than not, why they act like they do.

          Power is so intoxicating and people, who disregard others’ wellbeing are the most attracted to it. What would they do without power?

    1. I’ve spent some time on Bancroft’s site and find much of the information there quite beneficial. And this particular article definitely has its good points as well. And, as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t edit out suggestions for other resources or links to other books and blogs, not only because I, too, rely upon folks spreading the word about this blog and sharing with others links to my articles, (and let me reiterate how much I appreciate all of you tuning others in to my work) but also because my main purpose here is to educate and empower, and I want the readers to have any and all the helpful information they need. But I must caution that sometimes, some of the information offered about the nature of personality/character disturbance on other sites is inaccurate and derived mostly from popular lore as opposed to the existing science or sound clinical judgment and experience. And this article has some weaknesses in that very area, so exercise some caution.

      I also have written extensively on “charm,” seduction, and related topics, and have 3 or 4 future articles planned, expanding upon the topic. But for starters, you might want to check out some very popular articles I posted on a well-read international psychology blog:

      “Seduction as a Manipulation Tactic”:

      “Great Sounding Words and the Power of Seduction”:

      1. Dr Simon, today it’s a year when I began, clueless, what I call my anti-bully pilgrimage. (!) 🙂

        There have only been a few books that have been highly helpful, besides yours. Lundy Bancroft’s Why does he do that? is among them, and he tells much the same message as you do, in his own words. He is primarily oriented to the domestic abuse situations, having worked in programs where abusive men go for a help to learn other behaviors — sometimes voluntarily (pushed by their partners) but mostly mandated by the courts. It provides strong corroboration to your own work, since he has been working with more or less same populations and come to more or less the same conclusions as you. Great stuff, all around!

          1. Is it indiscreet to ask what you think some of the problems are? I share your feeling of ‘almost but not quite’ about many of the other treatments of the subject.
            However i don’t want to put you in the position of feeling you’re being asked to criticize or ‘trash’ others!

          2. This blog is about the information necessary to empower. So, almost all relevant questions are fair game. And all of us, including myself, need to be challenged to be as accurate as possible. Criticism need not have a bad name. We’ll all do our best not to “trash” anyone.

  4. I didn’t know until last night after another discussion turned around to me being the cause, that I have been a victim of pain and depression over the last 13 years because of this manipulative man who I married 11 years ago. I thought it was me. He became someone I didn’t really know. The little signs began 5 mos after he had successful wooed me away from a loveless marriage and got me to move from Idaho to Calif. I would discover odd things he was doing behind my back, that he was addicted to alcohol and that he could look me straight in the eyes and have a quick answer to every one of my questions. Lying and lying. This went on for another 5 mos until I did some private snooping around. It finally was revealed after a big blow up which involved the police, alcohol & a gun and him being held for 24 hrs in a mental ward. Turns out he was still married to his real wife of 27 yrs and was conducting two lives (although I wouldn’t let him propose to me because of all the deceitfulness). I had made him promise that I before I moved down to live with him that he had to be divorced first. He lied just to get me down there and make me his and nobody else’s. So many horrible things have happened to me because I just wanted to make him happy and I felt sorry for him. He was raised by a paranoid schizophrenic mother and a dad who didn’t know how to deal with her in the early 1950’s. He was also an only child. Your blog has described everything I go through.

    1. Bunky,

      I sure hope you’ve read both of my books and are beginning to be committed to your own well-being and empowerment. And, if you’ll forgive me in advance and permit me a couple of pertinent challenges as food for thought: You haven’t the power to make anyone happy, and you need to be particularly cautious about letting your empathy for this man’s childhood experience draw or keep you in a destructive relationship. Besides, you only know (hopefully, reliably) that he’s deceitful, manipulative, and experienced a less than favorable early environment. You don’t know and shouldn’t assume that he’s deceitful and manipulative because he experienced that environment. Buying into such causal notions, misplacing empathy, and harboring the grandiosity of thinking that your care and concern has the power to fix things has led many before you to languish in the most destructive of relationships.

      1. Dr. Simon,,,,,,I might expand……With these types of disturbed users and manipulative liars, What you think you know about his childhood/ past/ parents,,,,,,,etc, etc, etc, is only what he’s told you anyhow. Could all be another fabrication. Pity ploy. They are such a sorry lot.

        1. Great point. And here’s an interesting tidbit: In one very well-done study, they split a large group of psychopaths in half and asked each group to tell about both their history of being abused, neglected, etc. as well as the extent to which they had abused others. But one group was also told they’d be polygraphed, that a thorough collateral history would be taken, and they’d be interviewed again after the poiygraph. The group not expecting the polygraph or verification of their history reported all sorts of victimization to themselves growing up and very little deliberate victimization of others. But the group expecting to be double-checked and polygraphed reported virtually no abuse to themselves and much more senseless victimization of others. Interesting…..

          1. AND,,,,,,I might add again…… 🙂
            There is also the possibility of a parent being complicit in upholding the CA’s pitty ploy story. God Knows my mother swallowed my spath-bro’s stories, hook, line and sinker and regurgitated them without compunction. I have learned that the people nearest and “dearest” to the disordered individual can be duped and roped into these peoples schemes, knowingly or unknowingly.
            My X’s mother is his greatest fan and enabler. I wouldn’t believe one word.

    2. Bunky, even if you have learnt about his past from another source more reliable than him, he’s still likely to use that past as an excuse, exaggerate, appeal to emotional hurt, blame others, minimize his own role, bring up instances where he had no role in order to make himself look like an innocent suffering one and who knows what else.

      If you see any harmful patterns in his past behavior, then let that alert you that he’s going to keep acting like that in the future. That returns you back into what matters: his impact on you.

      People like him can use anything to excuse themselves from responsibility.

    1. Ab,

      No idea. I think it goes back to basic first aid-anxiety when in pain, is normal.

      When I saw my doctor recently for one of my neuroses (JK), I commented, “Depression is healthy coping.” I think it can be a sign of it.

      Can I ever relate.

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