There’s a big difference between being “aware” (at least on an intellectual level) and being “open” or receptive to someone else’s input or viewpoint. A person has to be in an admissive frame of mind and heart in order to process information at a level deep enough for it to have real meaning. But disturbed and disordered characters are often so married to their ways of seeing and doing things that they can’t give due consideration to other perspectives. They’re usually aware of how others want them to see and do things, but they’re also opposed to those ways. Naturally, this creates problems in their relationships.
The lack of openness in disturbed characters is rooted primarily in their arrogance (i.e. their “I understand your way but I think my way is superior” stance) as opposed to their ignorance (i.e. “I simply don’t know any other way”). Another reason for their lack of openness has to do with their preference. Most of the time, the ways they’ve come to look on things, think about things, and especially to conduct their affairs are compatible with various traits in their personality. They may have even tried out alternatives but found the ways they eventually adopted a more comfortable, easy “fit”, especially with respect to their self-image, and, therefore, preferable. And because they preferred these ways, they quickly became habitual and, in time, ingrained. Finally, the disturbed character’s lack of receptiveness has to do with their core beliefs and the values they hold. Now, many are quick to assert that disturbed, and especially disordered characters simply have no values. But this is untrue. They do indeed have values, as well as a hierarchy of importance they attach to those values. What you have to remember, however, is that the values they hold are often significantly different from the values most others might like them to embrace.
Over the years, I’ve counseled many couples experiencing difficulties in their relationships. Many times, one of the couple was more on the “neurotic” side of the spectrum whereas the other was more on the character disturbed side. And as I’ve mentioned in my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance as well as some prior posts (see, for example: Neurosis vs. Character Disorder: Levels of Awareness), neurotics and disturbed characters differ greatly with respect to their levels of awareness. I’ve borne witness to many interactions between couples that demonstrate these differences, so I thought I might provide an example (the example is actually more of a “composite” with some minor deliberate distortions introduced and identifying information altered to ensure complete anonymity) from the case file:
Tom and Terri had been married for almost 11 years, and their relationship became rocky almost as soon as the “honeymoon” period ended soon after their now 7 year old child was born. Initially, Terri verbalized three main complaints: Tom seemed to have little to do with her except when he wanted sex; he seemed to be always “eyeballing” other women, even in her presence, which made her both jealous and mistrusting; and, he seemed oblivious to her concerns and never wanted to “talk” whenever she approached him about these or other things. Like so many others, she was hoping therapy might help improve their “communication.” Tom, on the other hand, didn’t see where there was any problem. He’d heard all these complaints before but believed them unwarranted. If he didn’t love Terri, he would have left her a long time ago, he insisted. It was as simple as that. But he agreed to come to therapy because he thought it would make her happy.
The dialog that follows is from one of the sessions. And you might glean a few important points from it with regard to issues of awareness and openness:
Terri: Tom, when you look at other women the way you do, it really upsets me. And then when you don’t want to do anything with me but pester me for sex all the time, it makes me think that’s all you want me for.
Tom: I’m a man, okay! I’m gonna look. I think that’s perfectly normal. Doc, that’s perfectly normal, isn’t it? Besides, there’s no law against looking is there? But it’s not like I’m out there running around all the time. And okay, I admit, I flirt sometimes, too. I’ll own that. But that’s normal, too. I just don’t see what the big deal is and why it bothers you so much. I know that it does, but I don’t see why it should.
Terri: Maybe I am over-reacting.
Tom: And as for not wanting to do anything with you, well, you’re always wanting to do stuff like going to plays and crap like that. I wouldn’t be caught dead in one of those places. No real man would.
Therapist: Tom, you seem to have some pretty strong ideas about what it is to be a man. One thing I would have to know is whether you are the kind of man who would refuse to try out some different things just because you might think them not manly enough and even if in the short run Terri might be pleased that you tried them and in the long run you might find some benefit in doing so as well.
Tom: What did you have in mind?
Now here are some things I think are important to observe about this interaction:
- Tom is certainly “aware” of a lot of things. It’s not that he doesn’t know the behaviors Terri is concerned about and he’s clearly even aware of how much these behaviors emotionally distress her.
- Tom couldn’t be more clear about his attitudes. But the degree to which Terri allows herself to be “aware” of what those attitudes mean is another question.
- Tom has a pretty narrowly defined view of manliness. And there could be a whole host of reasons for this. But all the reasons that could be there are really irrelevant to the major concern of whether he is “open” to modifying that view.
- Tom’s views about women and the nature of relationships with them are as problematic as his views about men.
- Terri is more “neurotic” than Tom but she has character issues of her own. And her level of “awareness” about what drew her to Tom and the challenges Tom’s personality poses for the kind of relationship she wants seems fairly low.
- Terri is under the misguided notion that awareness and communication are the keys to improving her relationship with Tom.
- The fact that Tom is not swayed in his stance to even a small degree simply because of his full awareness of Terri’s pain is itself a red flag for character pathology (i.e. it signals some empathy deficiency).
- But the fact that Tom even asks what I might want to ask him to do differently instead of stubbornly digging in with respect to his position suggests at least some degree of amenability on his part that could possibly be developed over time with much tact on my part with respect to the interventions I might plan.
Now, I mentioned earlier that this “case” is actually more of a composite. I’ve known many individuals like Tom (and Terri), some of whose personality traits were of such intensity and inflexibility that they constituted a true “disorder.” Others were not so inflexible or as severely disturbed. And I can think of two cases that were identical with respect to the presenting issues outlined above but which had very different outcomes. In one case, the attitudes “Tom” reflected in his statements about men and women were but the tip of the iceberg. His protestations about the normalcy of “looking” and “flirting” and the attempts he made to manipulate his wife into feeling badly about complaining about these things were really a cover for the troubling beliefs (values) he held about the worth of women and the serial cheating he’d been doing the entire marriage. All of this was flushed out in the regular confrontation I engaged in with respect to his attitudes and perspectives. And while this particular Tom was fully aware of both his wife’s concern and her pain, he did not care at all. Neither was he “open” nor motivated to change. When his true character became fully evident to his wife, and she realized the kind of intimacy she’d always hoped for simply couldn’t be possible with a person like Tom, the marriage soon dissolved.
The “Tom” in another case was quite different. While he wasn’t very “open,” especially at first, he wasn’t completely “closed” either. Still, I had to be careful not to ask too much of him too soon. But in the end, he was willing to try out some behaviors that he never imagined himself doing (This Tom eventually even attended a play!). And while his capacity for empathy was impaired, it was not altogether absent, so it improved with careful nurturing. Tom was intellectually aware of a lot of things. But as allowed himself to do many of the things I asked him to do (i.e. tasks of incrementally more challenging character) he gained a different kind and level of “awareness” that can only come with the “corrective emotional and behavioral experience” I talk about in Character Disturbance and In Sheep’s Clothing. This kind of awareness inevitably leads to a shift in perspective (Remember, not only do our attitudes and ways of thinking predispose our behavior but also our behavior and the consequences we experience from it shape our attitudes and ways of thinking). And when I confronted him on the attitudes and thinking patterns he displayed regarding women and manliness, the underlying “issues” giving rise to them came to the fore and were dealt with as well.
In both cases, “Terri” came into the process hoping that improved “communication” would make all the difference. But she quickly came to appreciate how “cheap” talk is and how the different quality of relationship she’d always hoped for with her spouse could only be cultivated by initiating new behaviors, as opposed to talking. And she also reckoned with her own weaknesses of character. She learned that if she stopped backing down when she needed to maintain a firm stand, her self-image would steadily improve. As her self-image and strength of character improved, she began expecting more from her husband and their relationship. And as she overcame her neurotic denial her level of awareness and ability to see things more objectively improved dramatically. As a result, not only did “Tom’s” full character became more clear to her but also it became clear what the future of the relationship would necessarily be. Terri also came into the process (as so many do) hoping that somebody would say just the right thing or put things in just the right way that Tom would “see” the error of his ways. But to her surprise, what she learned is that the kind of “awareness” she had been looking for was actually more linked to her husband’s “openness” to doing some things differently and eventually realizing the benefits.
Many years of experience have taught me the folly of expending verbally exhorting or otherwise expending any energy trying to get disturbed characters to “see” something. Long gone are the days when I might have said something like: “But don’t you see, Tom, that when you (blah blah blah), Terri feels (blah blah blah).” Besides the fact that “seeing” is rarely the real issue anyway (and, most of the time, they already “see”), the more important question is whether a person has the motivation and willingness to embark on a different behavioral course. Most of the time, when we’re trying to get someone to “see” something, we’re really asking them if they might be willing to at least consider adopting a different point of view. And that’s why openness, not awareness, is the real key to change. And when someone is open and willing, and they try out new behaviors, it’s at least possible that they can come to “see” some things at an entirely different level.
SPECIAL NOTE: The first Character Matters program is “in the can” as they say in the broadcast biz and you can hear it in it’s entirety by visiting the UCY.TV site. You can also download the podcast and listen to it anytime. And remember, the program is generally first aired live, so you can call in for real time discussion. I must admit to being quite nervous during the first broadcast. But the response so far has been very good, so I’m hoping that with time and some settling of the nerves, the program will only improve, and, hopefully, even expand.