Because we live in an age of such permissiveness, moral relativism, and most especially, entitlement, character disturbance – at least some degree of character disturbance – is very common. And as most folks know, having to live or deal with a person who is character disturbed to any degree is always a stressful ordeal. But if you’re in a relationship with someone with character issues, more than likely the main thing you want to know is whether there’s any hope things can ever change. And the answer to that almost always lies in how seriously “disordered” the character-impaired individual is. As I mentioned in last week’s post (see: Personality and Character Disorders: The Continuum Revisited), and have discussed in several other articles as well as my books In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and The Judas Syndrome, character disturbance exists along contiunua of both quality and severity. And the most seriously disordered characters are those with severe empathy deficits and weak or absent consciences, both of which engender the most malignant form of narcissism, which predisposes a person to use and abuse others without compunction.
Of course, no one is perfect. We’re all human and make mistakes. And in our weaknesses, occasionally we do things that hurt others. Sometimes this is completely unintentional. Sometimes, when we’re in moments of reckless abandon, it’s even intentional. But what we do when we misbehave matters a lot. How we regard what we did (or failed to do) and the impact it had on others, and what we oblige ourselves to do to remedy situations and any injury we might have caused is what decency of character is all about.
I’ve written before about the various levels of sorrow a person can have for their wrongdoings (see, for example: Shame, Guilt, Regret, Remorse, and Contrition and What Real Contrition Looks Like). something bad – see the articles on regret, remorse, and contrition. If there’s a modicum of character health in a person (i.e. when the person has sufficient capacities for shame, guilt, remorse, etc.), when they hurt someone (whether inadvertantly or in a moment of character abandon, deliberately), they hurt too. And they don’t just feel bad because they did something they know hurt you. They hurt precisely because you are hurting. Knowing you’re in pain is what pains them. That’s what real empathy-rooted conscientiousness is all about. And knowing that they’re the cause of that pain is what motivates a person of integrity and conscience to repair the damage. So when you’re tying to figure out how much hope there is for your relationship with a character-impaired individual, ask yourself the following questions:
- When they say they’re “sorry” for something, do they subsequently act like they mean it?
- When they say they accept responsibility, do they behave in a manner suggesting they feel obliged to correct matters or do they still insuinuate that other people, places, and things are partly or mostly to blame for the way they acted?
- Are they more concerned with what their misbehavior has cost them in some way, or do they appear genuinely distressed by the damage done to another?
- Most importantly, do you see purposeful, deliberate efforts on their part to repair damage they may have done and to do better in the future?
The most severely disordered characters are not the “hot-headed” types who sometimes let their passions get the better of them and do things they might sometimes later regret but rather the “cold-hearted” sorts who chronically and ruthelessly try to get the better of others. Can such folks change? I’m not so sure (and neither is the scientific research on the subject). The concensus these days appears to be that the best you can do is help a person with empathy come to see the practical social value in being more mindful of their behavior and its impact on others.
I know of several folks who have made surface-level changes in their patterns of behavior that are rather striking but who still retain traits that are deeply disturbing. I’m familiar with one person with a truly horrendous past (i.e. predatory behavior, sophisticated crimes, violence, multiple exploitative relationships, etc.), who, in his later years, appeared to come to see the folly in some of his ways and also appeared to significantly reform. He also came to appreciate the many benefits of conducting himself in a more civil manner. On the surface, he seemed like a totally different guy. But every now and then you’d get a glimpse of his coldness. Sometimes, it seemed he just couldn’t resist the temptation to make a cruel remark or show disdain for someone. While he had indeed modified many aspects of his behavior (and again, primarily for practical, social reasons) he just couldn’t seem to change his internal “stripes.” And while he had some regrets about some things, he still seemed capable of doing things heartless, hurtful little things with no apparent remorse. From my perspective, he lacked the contrition necessary to really change his heart. For over 10 years, he’s been in a relationship with a truly kind and gentle woman. And to the best of my knowledge, he’s never done anything to hurt her badly. But is she truly safe with him? My gut would say that in the absence of a genuine change of heart, there’s no way that’s truly possible.
Character Matters will be a live program again this Sunday evening at 6 PM CDT, so I can take your calls.
SITE MAINTENANCE ALERT: You may see some periodic “maintenance” messages on the blog over the next several days or weeks as we migrate this site to new, faster, more powerful servers. The commenting feature may also be occasionally disabled. Please bear with us as exciting changes are coming to the site, all of which will prove beneficial in the long run. And, as always, a big thanks to all of you for helping to make this resource all that it is.