In recent weeks I’ve posted several articles on the special considerations that must be made when engaging therapeutically with a disturbed or disordered character. And I’ve spoken to the pitfalls inherent in traditional approaches and perspectives when it comes to fostering real change in impaired characters (see, for example: Therapy and the Face of Real Change Part 2 and Contrition, Behavior, and Therapy). As readers of my work know, I believe covert-aggression is the principal way irresponsible characters manipulate and control others. But by nature aggression that is covertly expressed is hard to detect, especially when you don’t know what to look for. And it’s even harder to detect and deal with appropriately if your conceptual framework is such that it impairs your ability to recognize covert-aggression when it’s at play. This can be especially problematic in a therapy situation.
I might have shared this tidbit before, but it’s worth mentioning again. I was first inspired to bring together all the information I’d compiled over the years and fashion a book about covert-aggression after watching a popular daytime talk show. The program featured a couple whose relationship had been marked by years of verbal and emotional abuse and sometimes physical violence. The husband was eventually incarcerated and ordered to complete a course of anger management and domestic violence group therapy as a precondition for early release. During the program, the couple discussed with the host how things had been going since the husband’s release, while the studio audience (as well as home viewers) and a panel of mental health experts looked on. I was simply horrified when I observed the husband, who had supposedly turned over a new leaf after therapy, subtly and craftily “beat up” his wife on an emotional level, eventually bringing her to submission. And his aggression appeared completely undetected by the host of the program, the panel of “experts,” and the studio audience. To make matters worse, some of the experts even appeared to side with the abuser, thus “enabling” the continued victimization of his wife.
The following case excerpt (again with names and details altered) is strikingly similar to the scenario I described above with one major exception: this covert-aggressor was exposed and confronted on his tactics, which led to some very different results for the victim (T=Therapist, R=”Randy”, F=Francine):
F: “Dr. Simon, I wanted us to come today because Randy really wants to come back to the house. But I’m not sure I’m ready for that just yet. You know he’s been living with his parents since he got released a couple of weeks ago. And he says things will be different now – and I’m not saying they won’t – but still….
R: What’s it going to take, Francine?! Haven’t I suffered enough?! It’s bad enough I got locked up because of you always calling the cops every time we had a disagreement. And I admit that I might have lost my temper a few times and maybe I pushed you that one time. But that’s over now and I’ve taken responsibility. And I learned in those classes they made me take how not to let all those irritating things you do bother me so much. Besides, I’ve paid for everything – in spades! Now, I have to live with a criminal record for the rest of my life! All I want is my life, my kids, and my wife back. Just a chance! Is that too much to ask? Do you want me to suffer?
F: No, I don’t want you to suffer, it’s just that….
R: It’s just that what, Francine? That you just can’t let go of the past and give me a chance?! I’ll bet I know what the real deal is! You’ve had your freedom for awhile and probably got together with somebody! I’m betting you just don’t want me around while you fool around and get my kids all turned against me and carry on with someone else!
F: No, that’s not it at all, I swear! I just, I…, I….
T: I’m going to interject here. Randy, what’s different about you now since completing the therapy the court ordered you to have?
R: I don’t get so upset anymore. I just don’t let things irritate me like they used to. And when I don’t get mad, I don’t lash out.
T: But you just spent the last few minutes beating up your wife pretty relentlessly and right in front of me to boot!
R: What are you talking about, beating up my wife?!
T: I think that just like any person would, you would know when you’re fighting, what you’re fighting for, and whether you’re fighting justly.
R: Okay! So I want my family back. That’s not a crime! Is it wrong to want to be with the woman who promised to love you for the rest of your life?
T: It’s wrong to beat up anyone, especially the woman you claim to love, just because they won’t give you what you want when you want it. Some things have to be earned, like trust. You know that.
F: He’s been pressuring me like this for days. That’s why I’ve been a little nervous about things. It reminds me of before.
T: But when he was pummeling you with all of his tactics, casting himself as a victim, blaming you and casting you as the real victimizer, minimizing the seriousness of the behaviors that rightly earned him prison time, and trying to shame and guilt you into relenting, not only didn’t he stop himself – even with me sitting here observing – but also you didn’t call him on his behavior.
F: In my heart I feel like there’s something wrong when he does those things, but then I end up saying to myself: “maybe he’s got a point,” or “maybe he’s right.”
T: If you’re ever going to really be safe, you have to trust your instincts more, Francine. Nature gifted you with fear for a reason. You also have to see more clearly how certain aggressive types operate, otherwise you could easily find yourself in similar circumstances, even in a different relationship. And Randy, there’s no way at this point that I’m recommending to the court that you derived sufficient benefit from your treatment to come home. I know you got a graduation certificate from your program and were released, but treatment like the kind you had can only be regarded as successful when a person demonstrates real behavioral change like control over their aggression, and empathy for the other person. You displayed just the opposite today.”
There is a lot more to this case, but the excerpt above should be sufficient to make the point about the nature of covert-aggression. And it also illustrates the problem with so many types of intervention that don’t focus on the here-and-now behaviors that really demonstrate whether someone is making meaningful changes. There are some additional vignettes in Character Disturbance that illustrate this point and some vignettes in In Sheep’s Clothing that illustrate what can go wrong in relationships when one party doesn’t trust their gut about when they’re under assault.