My last post dealt (See: The Importance of Making Amends) with how important it is for the health of a relationship for the parties to be willing to make amends for injuries inflicted whether intentionally or inadvertently. But when character disturbance is present in a relationship, the process of making appropriate amends can get quite complicated. Overly conscientious, “neurotic” types in relationships with disturbed or disordered characters can get lured into accepting too much of the responsibility for problems and going the extra mile to try and fix them, in the process only “enabling” the dysfunction in their relationship to continue. And as anyone who’s been involved with a disturbed or disordered character knows, how such characters approach the whole idea of acknowledging fault and making amends for damage they’ve done is as hard to comprehend and accept as it is reflective of the nature of their character dysfunction.
In my book Character Disturbance, I present a vignette featuring the interaction of a divorced mother doing her best to raise her already significantly character-impaired teenage son. Tho mother is a very conscientious type who has big sense of guilt and shame, even for things she probably shouldn’t harbor much of either. Her son knows this, and uses many of the manipulation tactics I describe in In Sheep’s Clothing, including minimizing, shaming and guilt-tripping to skirt responsibility and maintain an abusive upper hand in their relationship. In my office, their interaction (which I’ve edited considerably for this post) went something like this (again, as always, the vignettes depicted in all my writings have been altered in unessential ways to preserve anonymity):
- Therapist: What brings you both here today?
- Adolescent: She (looking glaringly at his mother) thinks I have an attitude problem. But she’s always doing stuff that makes me mad. She knows just what to do to piss me off.
- Therapist: Of course, no one can make you be angry, and anger is a normal, healthy emotion, rarely a problem in itself. What is it you do when you’re angry?
- Mother: He curses, says vile, hateful things to me.
- Adolescent: She starts it. And look, this whole thing is because I shoved her once and not hard and only because she got in my face again. I’ve told her a million times about that.
- Therapist: Are you telling me you’ve been physically aggressive with your mother?
- Adolescent: I barely touched her. But she wouldn’t leave me alone. I kept telling her to back off but she wouldn’t. She knows how to get me upset. She never has anything good to say about me. She’s constantly on my back – on my case all the time.
- Mother: Perhaps he has a point. I do gripe at him sometimes. He’s always getting in trouble. I try to help him learn. Maybe I’m too critical, so maybe it is partly my fault.
Now the dysfunction in this case is relatively easy to see. One party is perhaps overly willing to take responsibility and the other minimizes, blames, heaps on the guilt, shames, and uses every tactic in the book to resist taking any responsibility while simultaneously manipulating his “opponent” back into her customary one-down position. And as those who’ve read this vignette in my book already know, the first step I took to restore a proper balance of power in this relationship was to work closely with the person who at the time I felt was most amenable (i.e. the mother) in an attempt to restore a proper balance of power in the family. And by denying visits to the youngster until I felt he might be sufficiently motivated to work (At the time, he would have only wanted to come in to attempt to manipulate me and ensure he retained a position of power), I gained therapeutic “leverage” by defining firmly and adhering to the terms of engagement and I also set the stage for future work. That work would not merely focus on him surrendering his resistance to accepting responsibility for his actions. Doing that was actually the least demanding thing for him to do. The bigger challenge was developing in him a sufficient sense of obligation to repair the damage he’d done to his mother, his relationship with her, and to his own character development. And how committed he was to the work of making amends would be the best barometer of his progress.
Researchers on character disturbances have long known that a hostile attitude toward accepting obligation is perhaps the single biggest predictor of problematic social behavior. Disturbed characters with narcissistic and antisocial tendencies tend to feel both above the need to accept obligation and disdain for the notion of submitting to what they know are society’s expectations of them. Owning shortcomings is distasteful enough for disturbed characters. But making amends involves work, which they don’t gravitate toward easily. As I’ve written before (See: When W-O-R-K is a Four-Letter Word) about the negative attitude disturbed characters have toward work. And it’s not just any work that to which they’re adverse. They’ll expend all kinds of energy in self-serving pursuits. But they simply detest work they perceive is primarily on someone else’s behalf, or working for something that’s not clearly and intentionally self-serving, despite the potential benefit they might derive in the long run. That’s why they tend to give assent or “lip service” to the natural demands of a relationship (Assenting is one of the responsibility-avoidance tactics I outline in In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance) while resisting the real work of making amends.
Next week’s article will feature some additional vignettes illustrating the importance of making amends and what can happen when disturbed characters appear like they’re working to make amends and to change but their efforts are less than sincere.