In today’s world, making the right assessment of a person’s character before getting involved in a serious relationship is more important than ever (see also: Becoming a Better Judge of Character). As I point out in Character Disturbance, each type of character exhibits certain, reliable signs (in patterns of interpersonal behavior, dominant attitudes, ways of thinking about things, etc.) and if you know what to look for, you can possibly stave off disaster. What follows is a detail-altered story of two individuals I’ll call “Jack” and “Amy,” that illustrates the kind of trouble that can ensue when someone’s character is wrongly appraised.
I first became acquainted with Amy after a friend suggested she seek me out and she called to make an appointment for her and her husband Jack. Amy and Jack had seen a therapist a little over a year ago and Amy was disappointed in the results. She tried to understand what the therapist said: that Jack must have grown up lacking the approval he needed, especially from his mother and the other significant women in his life, that he had a deep fear of genuine intimacy and commitment, and that his cheating was a way to get the affirmation he craved and to build his self-esteem. And she worked really hard doing her part to allay those fears, but things were still not working out. She thought she could get past the fact he had two affairs, but now, even after therapy, and even after all her hard work, everything was going wrong again. The lies, the constant wondering, the rants and the denials that made her feel like the crazy one – they were all back. She just couldn’t understand or take much more of what she feared would be his constant unfaithfulness. All sense of trust was gone. She also felt both used and discarded. She wanted more out of life and a relationship but somehow felt guilty and selfish about it. From time to time she did think she might have to leave because of how hard it was to bear the hurt. But she’d invested so much of herself trying to make things work, and there were occasional glimmers of hope, so she couldn’t bring herself to simply walk away.
The different demeanor Amy and Jack displayed told me a lot before we even began talking during the first session. Amy appeared anxious for help, while Jack appeared not only disinterested but a bit put off by the whole thing. Still, Jack did a lot of the talking, right from the outset. He wanted to know what good it might do to come to sessions, how much I charged, and also made it clear that he believed that the reason they were in my office was because Amy was “never satisfied” and expected “far too much” in their relationship. He was a “damned good provider” and she had all the money and comforts a person could possibly want, so he couldn’t understand what all the big fuss was about. He readily admitted the two affairs he had confessed to before they saw their first counselor, but said that he was “stressed” at work at the time and wasn’t feeling very appreciated at home. He also insisted that his dalliances “meant nothing at all” and that Amy’s “paranoia” was not only unwarranted but had recently gotten “out of bounds.”
I asked Jack what he had done to “repair the damage” he’d done by breaching the trust in his relationship with Amy. His immediate reply, “Huh?”, said a lot, all by itself. But to add insult to injury, he quickly added: “Well, she was supposed to quit snooping, and quit questioning me all the time. And she was also supposed to give me some positive attention – that’s what the therapist said she should do. But did she do it? No! She’s still sneaking around trying to check my cell phone and emails all the time. I even had to close one email account and open another just to have some privacy!” Jack seemed outraged and indignant. But he didn’t seem like someone who felt horribly about having injured the love of his life, remorseful for his actions, and willing to make amends. It was all on Amy. These were immediate and clearly present signs of character disturbance, so it would be no surprise at all what I would eventually ferret out before the interview was over with regard to his behavioral history.
By the end of the interview I’d managed to learn that:
- Jack actually came from a loving, caring family who pretty much gave him everything, including more attention and approval than anyone might ever need.
- He had always been a thrill-seeker, being quite the daredevil most of his young life and was just as heavily into fast cars as he was into “fast” and “willing” women.
- He had crossed many other lines and boundaries than merely those pertaining to his marital vows. In fact, he’d engaged in enough shady practices in his business that were it not for his wealth, means, shrewdness, and access to top-notch lawyers, he might well be in jail.
- He had many more “dalliances” than the two he confessed during his prior therapy stint and since that time had numerous others but got “careless” with his texting on his cell phone which is how Amy’s suspicions recently became aroused again.
- He saw absolutely nothing wrong with his behavior. The women meant nothing to him and he had given Amy “everything a woman could possibly want.” He had “absolutely nothing to feel guilty about.”
Now this was a man of such deficient character that he couldn’t possibly conduct a relationship on the plane to which Amy aspired. And he’d been this way since adolescence. Moreover, after listening to Amy describe why and how she fell in love with him, it was clear she had virtually no ability to accurately appraise his character or anyone else’s for that matter. Of course, the stint in therapy didn’t help matters on that count either, for this was not a self-esteem deficient, approval-hungry, wounded soul who deeply feared commitment because his mother never loved him enough (as the therapist suggested), but rather a self-indulgent, empathy-devoid, remorseless thrill-seeker, people exploiter and abuser, and serial boundary and rule violator. A man without remorse and devoid of real contrition (for more this see: What Real Contrition Looks Like and Contrition Revisited). So trusting the therapist’s judgment on things only made matters worse. Only lately was Amy becoming more willing to listen to her own inner voice, which had long been trying to tell her what kind of person she was really dealing with. Still, she was too afraid and unsure of herself to act on what she was slowly coming to realize.
I worked with Amy a relatively short time, considering how much she needed to change with respect to the way she viewed herself, her worth, and how she judged the character of others. But once, as they say, the light bulb moment happened, she was on a roll. And after she dealt with her own character issues, especially her emotional dependency and feelings of inadequacy, then found her strength and got her bearings, she made a commitment to never sell herself so short again or give herself away so cheaply. It’s a commitment she’s kept to this day.
Next week’s post will provide another example of the power that comes along with being able to make sound character judgments.