Becoming a well-socialized, conscientious, responsible human being is process – a long, delicate, sophisticated, and arduous process (for more on this topic see: Socialization is a Process). Some individuals possess innate traits and have learning experiences that together more easily prepare them to lead a responsible life. But other individuals possess traits that make the socialization process inherently more challenging than usual. And, if on top of that such folks just happen to come from environments replete with various types of abuse, neglect, or inadequate guidance, they can enter adulthood with little motivation to bear the burden of responsible living. Today’s article is the second in a series (see also: Bearing the Burden of Responsible Living) designed to illustrate how differently certain personality types approach the burden of responsibility and the problems this can pose for both for relationships and society at large (Note: As always, names and circumstances depicted in the vignette below have been altered to ensure anonymity).
Jerry and Lisa had been married only a few years but it had already become clear their relationship was in trouble, so at Lisa’s insistence, they came in for therapy. Neither was shy about voicing their complaints. Jerry had had his fill of Lisa’s “constant bitching and nagging.” She didn’t used to be that way, he complained, and he could hardly believe how she had changed. He only knew he didn’t like it and wished things could be like they used to be. For her part, Lisa couldn’t fathom how anyone could be as “selfish” and “uncaring” as Jerry had seemed to become. She always knew he had those tendencies, but she also saw something more in him – at least, at first – and she had high hopes early on that once he’d “settled down” to married life everything would be fine. But things had gotten so contentious lately that both were at a point of thinking they’d made a very big mistake ever getting together.
Lisa and Jerry had come from very different backgrounds. While she was still in junior high school, Lisa lost her mother to cancer. It was rough on the whole family. After her mother died, her father began drinking too much and his business almost went under. For awhile, it seemed to Lisa like the whole family – perhaps even her whole world – might fall apart. But she was determined not to let that happen and she took her role as the elder sibling seriously, making sure her brothers and sisters got dressed and ready for school and making sure breakfast was on the table for everyone, including her dad. She also did her best to support her dad emotionally while he recovered from his loss. And when he stopped drinking, reinvested himself in his family, and attended to his business affairs more faithfully, he seemed to more than deserve the “super dad” title she affectionately conferred on him. She promised herself she’d marry someone just like him someday.
Jerry came from a background of privilege. Both of his parents came from well-to-do families and he never wanted for anything growing up. He’d be the first to admit he didn’t invest himself as much as he could have in his studies but being quite gifted intellectually, he managed to pass all his classes, and because his parents were both benefactors and had connections there, he was able to get into and graduate (albeit “barely”) from a reputable private college. Tragically, he lost his younger brother to a drug overdose right after graduation, and for awhile he “kind of dropped out” of life until, that is, he met Lisa.
Lisa became pregnant within the first year of their marriage but miscarried toward the end of her second month. As difficult as the experience was for her emotionally, she regarded the event as fortunate in a way because it was because of Jerry’s response to the prospect of fatherhood and his seeming lack of concern about losing another job that she began taking better notice of his general attitude toward his responsibilities. How could someone be so unconcerned about not working when they knew there would soon be another mouth to feed? And what kind of husband could be so comfortable letting his wife carry the whole load by herself, pregnant and all? She had been there for him. But would he be there for her?
Now, I’ve seen hundreds of situations just like Lisa and Jerry’s where one party gives short-shrift to social expectations and the other party is all-too-willing to pick up the slack. And I’ve seen too many instances where someone makes the same mistake Lisa made when she first became involved with Jerry: Based on her experience with her father, who lost his wife, sank into a fair degree of depression which he self-medicated for awhile with alcohol, but then with support, became “super dad,” she just knew Jerry was a wounded soul (after all he’d also suffered a loss) and even though she had reservations about his sense of obligation, she felt that with the right kind of support, all would be well. It’s natural for us to want to generalize from our experience. But the fact is that everyone is different. Moreover, environment alone doesn’t shape a person’s character. A person brings their own innate inclinations to the table, too. And most importantly, just how much a person allows him/herself to profit from their experiences both good and bad counts for a lot, and that has much more to do with their ability to get past themselves and both see and care about the bigger picture (for more on personality formation and disorders of personality and character, see the relevant chapters in Character Disturbance, In Sheep’s Clothing, and The Judas Syndrome and the series beginning with: Personality and Character Disorders: A Primer, and culminating with Personality and Character Disorders – Part 7: A Wrap-Up). Jerry lacked a sense of obligation to anything or anyone bigger than himself long before he experienced any significant trauma in his life. And he unfortunately came from the consummate family of “enablers” who only reinforced his lack of investment. On the other hand, Lisa, who had every reason to abandon care and hope because of the trauma she experienced, seemed have the internal resources to accept the daunting challenges life presented her and more than rise to the occasion. Hers was a remarkably conscientious character. Unfortunately, she was conscientious to the point (and naive enough) that she enabled an individual already prone to being irresponsible shirk his duties even more once he married.
Fortunately, the extent of Jerry’s character disturbance was not so severe that his relationship with Lisa couldn’t survive. But Lisa had to become much less willing to do everything and more willing to hold Jerry accountable. And she had to do much less complaining (her way of simultaneously venting and cajoling) and simply set and stand by reasonable limits and expectations. Jerry, for his part, would have to find some cause to release his passions. At first, his sole motivation would be his fear of losing someone he knew to be a good and decent person, but later it would necessarily be acquiring some sense of a “higher purpose” in life and cultivating the willingness to serve that higher cause.
While this particular story had a happy resolve, there are unfortunately all-too-many examples I could give of folks who approached the burden of responsible living with utter disregard or even contempt, and next week’s post will feature a vivid example of this.
Character Matters this Sunday at 7 pm Eastern Time will again be a live program, so I’ll again be able to take your telephone calls.