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A New Interview with Dr. George Simon

The original has just been posted over at Huffington Post here. If you would all do me the favor of lavishing social media upon it, I’d be ever so grateful. Make a comment. Tweet. Snark.

As a HuffPo blogger, when I first submit an article, it tends to go into HuffPo purgatory for a day or so before they determine where it will appear on the Divorce page. Whatever attention you can give it bumps it up the charts — and as we all want people to leave wing nuts and stop untangling the skein — let’s give a shout out to Dr. Simon on HuffPo, please.

That said, you can read the interview here too below. (Just do me the favor of visiting HuffPo as well — thank you!)

If you’re a new reader to the blog, Dr. Simon is a psychologist with 25 years experience researching and treating character disturbance. He’s written two great books on manipulation and character disorder (for sale to the right in the Amazon box). He also has a great blog

I’m a fan of his work because he doesn’t sugar coat manipulative people. There’s no untangling their motivations, their “toxic shame” and “brokenness” and what have you. He deals straight with behavior and takes a confrontational approach to character disorder.

This interview is a follow up to an early interview I did for HuffPo with Dr. Simon on divorcing the character disordered person. Here we talk about how to move on after you’ve divorced one of these freaks. How do you put your life back together? How do you trust yourself to not be chumped again?

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.

Ask Chump Lady

Got a question for the Chump Lady? Or a submission for the Universal Bullshit Translator? Write to me at [email protected]. Read more about submission guidelines.
  • I dropped by Dr. Simon’s website and it looks very informative. But I am wondering–is there a difference between being character disordered and being, say, narcissistic or having borderline personality disorder? I thought character was something that was taught to children, either explicitly through religion or a discussion of ethics, or by example. Thanks for posting this–I look forward to reading more about Dr. Simon.

    • He explains the distinction in his In Sheep’s Clothing book. Essentially, in my view of it, he lumps folks behaving unethically under the rubicon “character disordered.” People more entrenched are personality disorders, that we’ve heard of NPD, Borderline, etc. He thinks most people are on a spectrum — except sociopaths. They’re immune to shame, have zero empathy, ice water in their veins.

      He describes the tactics of manipulation and focuses on behavior. Instead of the usual shrink take on what is “motivating” them (untangling the skein) he looks at what IS — behavior and takes that as his cue about character. That people manipulate to gain advantage. CDs don’t play by the usual rules we expect others to play by.

      • An interesting footnote here.: that description of sociopaths is pretty common, and it was widely believed, but modern neuropsychology (specifically, MRI imaging) has called that into question somewhat. It turns out that sociopaths can empathize… when they decide they want to do that (usually it is goal oriented). The biggest difference seems to be that neural mirroring is “normally off” with sociopaths; whereas, it’s “normally on” (though it can be turned “off” by labeling somebody as “other”) among normal people.

        This kind of explains the puzzle of “how can sociopaths sometimes behave so charismatically when they appear to also lack empathy?”. They can “turn empathy on” and do so when they want something. In MRI experiments when asked to imagine what somebody in a film must be feeling, sociopaths do activate mirroring neurons; they just don’t normally doing it watching the film unless they are asked to do so.

        • err, bad grammar: “they just don’t normally do it watching the film unless they are asked to do so”.

          BTW, dogs have high mirror neuron activity, especially where their owners are involved (even the scent of their owners). I like dogs. Sociopaths, not so muh 🙂

        • Interesting, but it makes sense. They have to flip that switch to get inside other people’s heads so they can manipulate them better, IMO. Adaptable strategy. This makes this person grieve. This makes them happy. Then switch off — and use this information ruthlessly.

          If you’re evolving human sharks — very useful.

  • I too had ‘slot machine syndrome’ – I say; time to leave the amusement park, grab a bag of chips (fries to u chump lady) & go home…. Let someone else play that game.
    Kindest regards
    Liverpool, England

      • A little bit of indulgence in the local ‘chippy’ is always healthier than a slice of cake from a ‘cake eater’ !

        • Only 5% fat, Lesley, slow release energy and lots of vitamin C!!

          Its practically a HEALTH food.

  • Slot machine syndrome, law of intermittent reinforcement, whatever you call it, I was knee deep in it. I know that I love that man just because he exists. There were no expectations and no standards for him to maintain. I learned to tolerate whatthefuckever behavior because I was too scared to call his bluff, knowing the answer would be, “I never wanted you anyway.” This is why no contact is the only way I will ever survive. I still feel exactly the same way I did about him the moment I laid eyes on him 15 years ago. I don’t care what he did or will do. It’s just my lot in life, and that’s okay! I realize he is a horrible person and my brain doesn’t want him back, but there will always be a battle going on inside between what my brain knows I need and what my heart wants. Thanks for the fresh perspective and reinforcement that controlling my life is where my focus must remain. Chump Lady nails it again!

    • Same. But I also know that my heart is in love with a man who does not exist–my ex as his ideal self, which he never really was.

      I trust that he sucks.

      God, Tracy, you have no idea how those four words helped me completely abort a melt-down tonight. Trust that he sucks. His name came up–like a turd in a punch bowl, and I remembered to trust that he sucks. THANK YOU for showing me awesome coping skills.

    • Andrea, I was right where you are! My head knew I needed to get this man out of my life, but my heart (and my body!) wanted him still.

      I found that No Contact is GOLD for this; the less I saw him, the less I cared. For a long time I was still really affected every time I did see him (which I had to do sometimes, because of the kids). But now, a year and a half after DDay, he has far less impact on me – despite his three attempts to come back! Heading towards ‘meh’, which I feared would never happen!

  • I bought Dr. Simon’s book before I found Chump Lady’s website. I highly recommend it! I’d call it required reading for Chumps. It’s a very practical, plain-language approach to what Simon says (very effectively) are “character disordered” people.

  • This especially resonated with me.

    “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.”

    I have lost so much time and productivity over the last few years even while mostly knowing this but for some reason it doesn’t stop all the fruitless rumination and accompanying anger and depression. I really need to remind myself of this much more often and to reinforce myself for even my smallest efforts. Joy still seems like too much to hope for… I would settle for meh.

  • The heartbreaking mistake I always make (hopium) is appealing to his better nature – and then getting hurt. See, the hard bit is that he is not a bad person: he is committed to his children and providing for us all, and has a sense of fairness. I also do love him. It is that knowledge of the frightened little boy underneath all the posturing.

    ‘So how can he not see that blowing up his family and the assets for the sake of foolish pride (you are not the boss of me) is just so costly?’

    I fall for it every single time. When am I going to let go, to truly understand that losing the false self is annhialation for him. He now has decided he has to get divorced – because I am so abusive! Although I know about narcissistic projections, it was a body punch and it got to me a bit.

    • Patsy, I’m sorry, but I don’t know your story. But it does sound like you need to plan a new future without him. Forget the hopium. He sounds abusive.

  • And to answer Jade’s very good question, when people are brought up with a lot of shame (the parent is not empathetic enough to hold the child lovingly whilst they are in the discomfort of a discipline situation), religious shame, when people are brought up by parents who confuse discipline with abuse, who withdraw rather than show anger or disapproval or are not strong themselves to give boundaries, then the child has no means of developing internal symbols (that is bad but I am still a good person I will choose to think about this), and so get the ’emptiness’ that is characteristic of CD.

    • Patsy,

      Great comments.

      Character, sadly, is a bit like concrete. Once it hardens, it doesn’t change. So I think you should drop your hammer and chisel and stop trying to sculpt this guy.

      Hey, I made and often make the same mistake. But the sad reality is that character, once congealed, often stays that way, particularly for the disordered. A normal person can usually adjust and change. CD types often get into a lock so that, if they change even a bit, it would threaten the fragile self inside. Chumps should put down their chisel and look elsewhere for partners, friends, support……

      • Disordered people are kind of cornered by their own actions. And if they admit they are wrong, they become incredibly threatened, it threatens to unravel their whole world view. So, they hang onto their disorderedness, blame others and, in that way, stay kind of “safe,” in their own minds.

        Chumps can’t change that.

        • This reminds me of an elephant joke we used to tell: “How do you carve an elephant? Well, you take a block of stone and chip away anything that doesn’t look like an elephant.” In the case of the CD or NPD, you start chipping away the character disordered or narcissistic behavior, looking for the wonderful sparkly person you thought you were in a relationship with, and pretty soon there is nothing left. Deep down inside, there is nothing, and certainly NOT the person we thought they were.

      • David

        I love this analogy and realizing that my STBXW cannot change as her behavior dates back to her teenage this was the hardest thing for me to accept.

    • Patsy,

      You sound so much like me. I spent 10 years trying to unravel my exH, with great empathy and love because his family and childhood were so insane and abusive. After wasting a decade and his leaving me and two preschool children, I had to realize that I was in love with something like a character in a movie. I loved who I SAW; who I wanted to believe in; I loved the character. But he wasn’t the character – he was an actor – and only on some days did he “act” like that man. When the movie was over, he went back to be who he originally and authentically was – and that was a sad, unstable man incapable of loving anyone, including himself.

      My very first appointment with an awesome therapist, I spent the hour talking about exH and his issues. The therapist listened, and then in the last 5 minutes said quietly, “You’ve observed and diagnosed your husband perfectly – I could not likely do better. But in the past hour, you’ve mentioned not one word about YOU; who YOU are, what you want; what you deserve. You have completely disappeared in this marraige – and now you have to decide if you still exist, apart from him; and who you are.” So very sad, and so very true of most of us chumps. I was raised in a home with a special needs sister, just 2 years younger than me. Our family’s “mission” was taking care of her; and I married the same dynamic (as did my two siblings). For the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to be “not invisible” anymore, and try to remember what I like, and look for and believe I deserve what I need. It’s a pretty awesome journey actually. This place is a great resource for all of us. Hugs to you.

      • Redefining, I grew up with similar dynamics. A really sick mom who was in and out of hospitals all the time, a workaholic dad, a little sister with learning disabilities, a brother who died when I was 4 years old. I coped by learning not to rock the boat, not to make demands. My mantra was “there’s too much trouble in the world, I’m not going to add to it.” It’s so hard to start living for yourself when you’ve spent a lifetime adapting to live around others.

  • Another great post. I’m heading off to find out more about Dr Simon’s work.

    I was glad to read his advice about being a bit more savvy & judgy about people. I also really understand his point about knowing yourself as well. I don’t see this as being down on myself or blaming myself, but recognising my own patterns of behaviour and my own “foo” issues.

    There is no doubt that forewarned is forearmed and that applies both to yourself & others, if that makes sense. Us chumps can still be good people, we just need to be sure we know how to seek out other good people too & that may be through the process of eliminating the narc/NPD/CDs etc.

    Right, I’m off to the chippy with Lesley – mine’s a small bag with salt & vinegar! 😉

  • I’ll have crumbed fish with mine! 🙂

    Thanks for the timely interview CL. I just realized I have the kindle version of “in sheep’s clothing” on my IPad, and have only ever skimmed through it. Now I have another must read after I finish my current one. Amazon Chumpness is hard to shake.

    But your interview was a great “firedrill” for us still dealing with disordered X’s on a regular basis. Your interview has just reinforced to me, that I need be on my guard when dealing my X, especially when it comes to property settlement.

    “trust that they suck!”……………….Priceless!

  • Hey just a reminder — if you wouldn’t mind posting a comment on HuffPo, I’d appreciate it. The interview is rather languishing over there, uncommented on right now.

    Thank you!

    • Sorry Tracy:(

      I attempted to leave a comment on HuffPo, but apparently I can’t create an account over there unless I have Facebook account. I don’t want a Facebook account. Surely in this era, they could make it a little more user friendly, or maybe I’m missing something?

      • Yeah, I think they changed their whole comment structure. Oh well! Thanks for trying! There seems to be a lot fewer comments over there lately, but then again fewer trolls too.

        • Yeah, on the other hand, if my account is going to associate my screen name with my real actual name now, it would be nice if they allowed the courtesy of allowing you to choose a new screen name.

          • Hi Chump Lady – would love to help promote your good work – God knows it’s been a lifesaver for me and for so many other Chumps. Unfortunately, I too am reluctant to open my old, closed, Facebook account. I got utterly teed off with constant emails from them and hated how much of my life the whole Facebook experience was costing me! I finally closed the account when they changed the timeline thing (also, not so keen on being ‘tracked’ by every bloody website out there wanting to flog me something!). Sorry about that – felt ‘stalked’ by the ruddy thing! x

            • No worries. I had no idea it’s linked to FB these days. I wonder if this is true for people with existing profiles on HuffPo? Or just new accounts?

              • You have to verify via Facebook…but you can go into your profile on HuffPo and set your privacy settings so that your comment on HuffPo does not show up on your Facebook profile or news feed.

    • I would gladly comment but need to comment without my actual name showing up. When I tried to create a new HuffPo account, it said that my “display name” and “username” will both show up when I comment. I can choose a generic username, but my display name options were both my real name. Arrrgh.

      • Same with me, CL. I used to have a Huffpo account but it’s asking me to sign in and allow comment to be posted on my Facebook page. I don’t want my real name showing up.

  • I tried to leave comments too, but got sent around the houses while Huffpost tried to link to various accounts that I had. All seemed a bit invasive and notes came up saying Huffpost would have access to my contacts & emails, which put me off in the end.

  • CL, I really needed this post, thank you. I’m having a hard time moving on with my life. Don’t trust myself, my judgement. Don’t trust (most) other people. Disappointed in myself for letting this happen in the first place – to myself, and to my children. Picking up the pieces of charred remains where my dreams used to be, and accepting the “new reality”. Plus some PTSD? That part is getting better with time, though. I think it’s time I get some actual therapy. My insurance will cover a good portion of it, so that’s good.

    It’s good to hear Dr. Simon talk about how it’s not always so easy, post-CD. Validation helps a ton.

  • I just finished reading his book and I found it very helpful to me. Thanks Chump Lady for posting this recommendation. I was clumped by my ex and I understand better now why. I was one of those that look for the good in people and try to understand the whys. It is a bitter pill to swallow when you have to accept that someone is not a good person and it has to do with their character. My ex likes to win and fought his child’s Mother for custody. ( they were never married) She also liked to win so their battle went on for 9 yrs. I was needed to help support him to win. A year after we one custody he was having an affair with a woman in the Urkraine when he was traveling for business. The biggest loser in all this is my 12 yr old step daughter. Her Bio Mom passed away last yr 4 mths after her Dad and I split. Her Dad is disengaged ( therapist said) with her just like he was with me. She was thrilled last week because he actually sat and watched a movie with her minus his lap top. I’m worried sick that she will grow up thinking that she has to try and win affection over. I try and take her once a week. She remains very close to me and my family. I told her sometimes people meet for a reason a season or a lifetime. I said that the reason I met her Dad was to be a part of her life. I told her I had loved her Dad but he was not treating me the way a man should treat someone that is supposed to be his wife. It’s been a hard year and a half. Reading the comments on this site has helped. Thank you

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