In the aftermath of a toxic relationship, you can find yourself scratching yourself and asking the questions: “How did I get here?; How could all these things have happened?; Why did I not see this coming?,” etc. You might even be tempted to blame yourself – to engage in what has sometimes been called “morbid introspection,” wondering how on earth you could have ended up in the position you find yourself without there being someting seriously wrong with you. But while it certainly can help a lot to understand both the nature of your ordeal and the possible reasons for it (some of which may very well have to do with various”vulnerabilities” in your makeup), it’s potentially as damaging as the toxic relationship itself to berate yourself. As I point out in In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance, some personalities are extremely adept at the arts of seduction, manipulation, image projection, and other forms of manipulation and impression management. Even the healthiest of us can be taken in. Moreover, sometimes it’s the most decent things about us – things that it would behoove us never to change – that make us vulnerable to the most character-impaired among us. The vignette that follows below (as always, potentially identifying information has been altered) is designed to illustrate that point.
If you had to describe Emma in only one word, it would probably have to be “conscientious.” Responsible, and possibly to a fault, it’s hard to imagine that any employer wouldn’t want someone with a conscience like Emma’s. She made it her business to learn whatever she needed to know to get the tasks assigned to her done in the best possible way. You could always count on Emma, and you could trust her implicitly.
David appeared to really appeciate Emma, too. That’s part of what drew her to him in the first place. Unlike others she’d dated, he really seemed to know who she was and to value her. That made here feel good. And in a very real and practical sense, David really did appreciate Emma, just not in the manner she reasonably assumed, and, as time would eventually bear out, not in the manner that would make for a healthy, lasting relationship.
David was a man of high ambition and drive. And he thought enough of himself to want only the best in life, including a partner whom he could unreservedly trust and depend upon, and one who would be the envy of every other guy’s eye. He recognized Emma’s qualities and talents right off the bat and was determined to have her for his own. So he set out to “woo the socks off” Emma, and woo her he did.
For quite some time, Emma felt on a pedestal, and she really enjoyed the position. David’s doting made her feel both “special” and appreciated. David was also moving up in the world (just as he’d always promised) and she was moving right along with him. This made her feel important and understandably proud. Whether David said it often enough, she knew in her heart that her support – especially the way she always took care of everything – was a big part of their success. But slowly, and barely perceptibly at first, Emma began to feel less important and less genuinely appreciated. As David acquired more and more of what he wanted in life, it appeared like he had less and less interest in and need for her. At social gatherings, she was feeling more like “arm candy” and a “trophy” than someone who was truly treasured for the kind and decent person she was. But it would be some time yet before she realized just how poorly she was really regarded and how badly she’d been used. And when she found out, it wasn’t pretty. David hadn’t just been unfaithful, he’d been serially unfaithful. And the fact that he’d used and abused so many others and sluffed them off as meaning “nothing” to him didn’t ease the pain in the slightest. He’d been lying about money, too. He hadn’t just been dishonest about what they had, he’d stashed away a small fortune. Worst of all, he revealed himself to be anything but the appreciative, thoughtful person he once appeared to be. That was clear – but only now. Yes, he saw something valuable in her. He always did. But she mistook this practical appreciation for her virtues and his desire to possess her as evidence that he truly cared about her and her well being. She would have to learn the hard way, that caring on any kind of meaningful level was simply not in David’s emotional vocabulary. The only thing he cared about with any fervor was his own self-interest. And when it became abundantly clear just how shallow and devoid of empathy he really was, Emma was heartbroken. Then she began questioning herself. How could she have not seen it? What was wrong with her?
How deep any care and concern they might have really does go is always the major question with disturbed characters. In the case of the more severely impaired characters, sentiments rarely get beyond the purely superficial level. Superficial charm, superficial appreciation, superficial interest, that’s the extent of things for the significantly character-impaired. It’s rarely about what really lies underneath but mostly about appearances and image. Emma would realize this eventualy, but not until she’d been fully used and exploited. When David had a need for her, he was willing to do anything to possess her. But when he had finished using her he was all-too-willing to discard her. In the end, Emma would be glad to get out of the relationship with her sanity. But in the aftermath, she would still find herself constantly obsessing and ruminating: Why didn’t she see things for what they really were? Why didn’t she see who he really was from the beginning? How could she have so misjudged his capacity to care – to really love? And she would blame herself.
Now Emma would eventually have to come to some understanding about what aspects of her own personality makeup might have contributed to her vulnerability. But she would have to do so without destructive and unnecessary self-blame. And she would have to become more solid in the belief that her best attributes – her conscientiousness and depth of caring – really were truly character strengths and not weakness. Just because someone of grossly impaired character took advantage of those very qualities shouldn’t make her think less of herself. Someone’s willingness to exploit such characteristics says much more about their character. Besides, there are individuals in this world who both know how to and do in fact have a genuine and deep regard for these noble qualities. Unfortunately, in our age of rampant character disturbance, such folks are just not as common as they once were. Emma’s naivete about that would be one thing she’d have to reckon with if she were to improve her odds of not being victimized again. She’d have to come to accept that there really are people who despite all surface-level indications, simply lack the ability to really care about another. And that, makes all the difference. She’d also have to learn how to better scrutinize the depth and genuineness of someone’s apparent concern. Emma had fair instincts. But her “charm alarm” didn’t go off because she didn’t see anything in David as superficially glib (i.e. smooth-talking or fast-talking) as your “typical” used car salesperson. She had reason to think he really valued her. And to her, that was an indication he must also really care. Emma will never make that mistake again.
Sunday night’s Character Matters program will again be live, so I can take phone calls.