Breaking up is hard to do. But it's especially hard after you've divorced someone with a personality or character disorder. Overcoming the trauma of the experience is difficult enough. But not content to simply part ways, some disordered people seek revenge and continue to harass their exes long after the break up, making moving on especially challenging. Their faith shaken, survivors of such relationships often doubt if they can ever trust others or their own judgment again.
I, author of Chump Lady, interviewed Dr. George Simon, a psychologist who has spent over 25 years studying and treating character disturbance, on how to move forward after a relationship with a character disordered person. This article follows our earlier HuffPost discussion, Divorcing the Character Disordered.
Dr. Simon has written two acclaimed books on difficult personalities -- In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People and Character Disturbance: The Phenomenon Of Our Age, as well as a popular blog on manipulation tactics. I'm self-professed former chump.
Tracy Schorn: So you've divorced the character disordered (CD) person. How do you heal and move on?
Dr. George Simon: Coming out of a relationship with a CD person can really shake up your world. You can begin to doubt your perceptions and your judgment. You might blame yourself for not seeing it coming. You might even recall red flags that you ignored. Your whole sense of trust in the basic decency and worth of people can be challenged.
The real key to transforming from victim to empowered survivor is allowing yourself to embrace the valuable lessons you've been taught without self-condemnation and reproach. You have to learn how to redirect your focus and energy. When you've been in a relationship with a CD person, you get used to focusing externally, always watching out for what the disturbed person might do next and trying (futilely) to control their behavior. You have to learn again how to focus only on what you have the power to control -- namely, your own behavior.
Once you're out of the toxic situation, it's time to take charge of your life again. But with your confidence shaken, that's not always so easy to do.
What if your ex is determined to make your life miserable?
I've posted more articles on my blog about this than just about anything else. Vindictive exes will sometimes carry out a smear campaign in an attempt to boost their image among your family and friends at the expense of yours. And if you happen to be in a position where continued co-parenting is involved, things can get fairly petty and contentious, too.
For narcissistic characters, it's all about pride and image. And for the aggressive characters, it's all about "winning," power and control. And while you might hope that, with time, your CD ex will simply give up their shenanigans, you certainly can't count on that. So it's really important to take charge of all your encounters, and, as I say in In Sheep's Clothing, to firmly set the "terms of engagement" very early on.
You wouldn't hand the car keys to a six-year-old because they neither have the wisdom nor the character development to handle the power and responsibility. It's the same with CDs, which is why you must learn to be pro-active in protecting yourself. And sometimes you'll need a strong support network or even the long arm of the law to assist you in enforcing the necessary boundaries. In the end, you have to adopt a whole new and more assertive perspective. My book outlines some specific empowerment tools to help folks set the terms of engagement firmly and effectively.
Chumps beat themselves up for not giving second (or fifteenth) chances. "No, she's really sorry this time!" And, in my opinion, they interpret a CD who keeps engaging as a sign that, gosh, this person really does love me. I say on my blog, you have to bludgeon hope with a fencepost.
It's the unhealthy, over-conscientiousness some of us have that character-impaired people prey upon. In some cases, no contact is a must. This is especially true if your ex is one of the "aggressive" personality types I mention, because for them, "no" is never really an option. They'll "assent" on the surface and appear to back off but then slowly, subtly, and ever so incrementally, try to get their foot back into the door and their sorry selves back into your life again.
If they play nice enough and you allow entry, it's usually too late by the time you realize you've been had all over again.
Whether they're really sorry or not after each boundary-violating incursion is really irrelevant. The fact is that they don't have sufficient internal motivation to back off and give you space and command of your own life in the first place. What they care about most is not "losing" and saving face, as opposed to any real concern for "closure," the possibility of relationship repair, or your mutual welfare.
What about getting help -- seeing a therapist?
That's a great idea, but it's also really important to work with a therapist who gets what makes CDs tick, and who appreciates the unique kind of trauma you have experienced. Many survivors of relationships with CDs have even their faith in therapy shaken. They might have sought help during their marriage only to experience even more frustration. Perhaps their ex deftly pulled the wool over the therapist's eyes. Perhaps the therapist came from a traditional perspective, tended to see insecurities, fears and hang-ups everywhere, and all the ways he or she tried to help quickly proved ineffective.
How is therapy different when it comes to dealing with character disturbance?
It's a very different orientation and approach, both when you're trying to salvage a relationship and when you're trying to recover and move on from a hopelessly toxic situation. Preferably, you want a therapist not only skilled in traditional psychotherapy, but also skilled in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), and experienced in the assessment and treatment of character disturbance and its impact.
CBT involves confronting dysfunctional kinds of thinking and as well as the dysfunctional behaviors that often stem from erroneous thinking. This type of approach is essential when dealing with a CD. But living with a CD person can immerse you in dysfunctional thinking and behavior patterns as well. And in the aftermath of a toxic, abusive relationship, the victim can struggle with a lot of cognitive dissonance and lingering tendencies toward out-of-character thinking and behavior patterns. So CBT can be a critical component of good therapy for a toxic relationship survivor, too.
Before you settle on a therapist, ask them what kind of experience they have with personality and character disorders and how they work with survivors of a relationship with a CD. Ask them to describe their therapeutic orientation and approach. Any reply not in the vein of "We would confront and correct dysfunctional thinking patterns that lead to problem behaviors," would be tip-off that you've probably got the wrong therapist.
What would the ideal sort of therapy look like?
The biggest difference between traditional approaches and CBT is the fine art of benignly but actively confronting and correcting dysfunctional thinking and behavior patterns. It's the complete opposite of more passive and "nonjudgmental" therapy. No assumptions about underlying fears and insecurities, and no focus on them either. And it's just as important to focus on specific problem behaviors as it is to address erroneous thinking. Some therapists do a good job at challenging folks on their thinking patterns and attitudes but don't call them on out on problem behaviors. And the time to confront is at the very moment the problem behaviors occur.
Can you give an example of "benign confrontation" with a CD?
Sure. If you were working to possibly salvage a relationship the therapist might confront the CD it might go something like this:
"John, would you please say again why you had that affair with Lola, and this time leave out any parts where you appear to cast blame on Rita?" And of course, I'll applaud your efforts if you self-correct this behavior the next time.
Or "Of course, John, you know that Rita can't possibly 'make' you lose your temper, so tell me what you were thinking that that got you wound up to the point that you lashed out in the way you did?"
Or "Mary, I noticed that this time when I asked you about why you did what you did, you didn't make excuses and you didn't minimize the seriousness of things. That's really good. It's a real step toward becoming more responsible."
Right between the eyes, behavior-specific, but without any trace of hostility or malice. It's a real art.
And I suppose it's similar in therapy for the chump/survivor? Speaking for myself, I needed the two-by-four. My shrink would put the focus on me -- is this acceptable to you? Are you listening to the things he says? This is who he really is, etc.
Absolutely. The folks you often refer to as "chumps" often need benign confrontation, too. And they need to be prepared to give up a lot of the expectations and personal inclinations that got them in trouble in the first place. Most important, survivors need to become much more astute appraisers of character to avoid future heartache.
You write about "a socio-cultural atmosphere that promotes and reinforces an unprecedented level of character impairment." In an age of rampant narcissism, how do we keep from being chumps?
Sad to say, but it's suicide these days to give folks the benefit of the doubt or to be gracious in your informal assessment of their character. And you can't fault yourself for your naiveté, generosity or hopeful optimism, either. We're better people for not being as jaded as we might easily become in this day and age. But, unfortunately, our good nature also makes us vulnerable. That's why it's absolutely crucial that we become better judges of character. And perhaps the best way to inoculate yourself against future victimization is to cast off some of the long accepted explanations for why people do the things they do and learn at least the basics of what really makes certain personalities "tick." That's the main reason I wrote my books.
Hey, but aren't you likely to get called out for "judging?" Maybe this person is really broken and suffers toxic shame or something.
While it might be a noble thought that you don't want to judge anybody, we live in an age where you simply have to judge. That's because we live in an age where character impairment is the norm. That doesn't mean everybody you meet has a full-blown and serious character disorder. It's a continuum. And everybody lies somewhere along the spectrum of character disturbance. Some have only minor and easily excusable impairments of character. Others have some pretty serious character defects. And when you see red flags, you owe it to yourself to pay attention and to investigate further.
You don't have to secure a Ph.D. in personality science. But you do have to know the basics of personality makeup and how to judge the basic character of someone. I wrote my books to give the average person an easily understandable framework to better judge the character of someone they're considering a relationship with.
Get to know someone's character before you take the leap. Even then, you have to accept the fact that some disturbed characters are pretty darned good at impression management. All the more reason to know the A-B-C's of character and the kinds of things to look for that can signal trouble. And, as I say in In Sheep's Clothing, it's really important to judge only behavior (and past behavior is always the best predictor of future behavior) and the kinds of thinking patterns, attitudes, etc. that typically predispose certain behaviors. It's dangerous to surmise intentions and motivations.
On Chump Lady I like to say, "Trust that they suck." Once you recognize that this person is disordered, put as much distance there as you can. And if you can't (if the person is harassing you) enforce those boundaries by law.
You've summed it up pretty nicely.
Can you say a word about why people, even in the face of a traumatic relationship with one of these jerks, have a hard time letting go?
It's hard for folks to disengage. One major reason is what I call the "slot machine syndrome." That is, people in relationships with CDs often invest a lot of themselves in trying to make things work (this is the "feeding the machine" part). From time to time, there appear to be little "payoffs" for their efforts, so they continue to get sucked in. If they leave, they don't just have to part ways with their CD partner, but they have to reckon with a serious loss of investment. This is really distasteful.
Sometimes survivors see disengaging as "giving up" and "surrendering" to the CD's negative influence. They want the CD ex to finally pay a price. Even emotionally drained, they often have enough energy left to want to fight the person they've come to hate, and that fight is always a losing battle.
Focusing attention on and investing time and energy in something we haven't power over (typically, someone else's behavior) is a behavioral formula for frustration, anger and inevitably, depression.
Recognizing that you only control yourself, and cannot control the CD is key. Once you accept this everything gets better. Focusing only on the positive steps you take, not ruminating over the possible outcomes, and reinforcing yourself for even the smallest efforts: that's the formula for joy.