In 2013 I interviewed friend of the blog, Dr. George Simon for HuffPo. I thought it’s long past time to rerun this column, as I can’t recommend Dr. Simon’s works enough (see the Resource page for his books or check out his site at www.manipulative-people.com ). Simon is a psychologist who has spent over 25 years researching character disturbance and has written two acclaimed books on manipulative and other difficult personalities — “In Sheeps’ Clothing” and “Character Disturbance.” I interviewed Simon about his views on divorcing someone with a character disorder.
Many of us might be inclined to describe our exes as “crazy.” After all, divorce doesn’t normally bring out the best in folks, but according to Dr. George Simon, some divorces may be exceptionally toxic because one party suffers from what he terms a “character disorder” (CD). Divorcing a disordered person is its own particular kind of hell, distinct from the usual miseries of divorce.
TS: How do you know if you’re dealing with someone who is truly disordered, or someone who is just being a difficult jerk? I wonder if the distinction matters?
GS: CDs really can’t help themselves when it comes to being who they are. Yes, some are very adept at positive impression management and manipulation, but if you know what to look for, you can tell.
But first you must divest yourself of many popularly held but erroneous beliefs about human nature. Not everyone is struggling with fears and insecurities. Some people actually aren’t “hung up” enough about the things they do. And not everyone who puts on an air of confidence or superiority is compensating for low self-esteem. There really are people who sincerely think they’re all that and are therefore entitled to do as they please regardless of the consequences! People reveal their true character mainly in their core beliefs — which are reflected not in what they say, but in their actions.
Top CD attitude red flags: Entitlement, possessiveness, indifference to others, arrogance, disdain for obligation. The more of these attitudes they possess and the more intense these attributes are, the more character impaired the person is.
TS: How does someone who is character disturbed behave differently in a divorce? Is it more contentious?
GS: There are hundreds of examples. But here are a few:
First, it’s not about acknowledging failure in the marital relationship, separating, and moving on. Rather, it’s about punishing, destroying, or making someone else’s life miserable for daring to say “no” or declare an end to an abusive situation. Character assassination becomes the norm. The CD will arm their attorneys with examples of their ex’s “questionable behavior,” but which are amplified to such an extent to paint the worst possible picture of the person.
Perhaps even more important is the ordeal the CD wants to be sure the ex-partner goes through. They’ll bring out such big cannons with their lawyer, that the other party has to spend much time, energy, and money either defending themselves or just trying to survive the ordeal that they have no time, energy, or money left to advocate for a stronger position.
TS: Are CDs financially abusive?
GS: Money matters always tell the story the best. The CD will clean out bank accounts. Or they play financial games. The reckless gambling and spending will all get discovered right around the time the aggrieved party has begun seriously contemplating the divorce. This makes it even harder to think about throwing in the towel because of how disadvantaged the victim will be walking out.
The CD will also try to penny-pinch or in other ways attempt to ensure that their former partner can’t simply walk away in a financially tenable position. The worst CDs will want to see their former partners financially broken and destitute. The last thing they want is simply to separate and allow the other person to be on their feet and move on to a different (better) life. Rather, they want them — at least from a financial standpoint — to rue the day they decided to call it quits.
TS: How are children affected?
CDs triangulate the kids and use them as pawns and weapons of war in divorce. As pathetic as it already is for CDs to treat the person they supposedly once worshiped so horrendously, their willingness to use their children to emotionally wound their partner is even more reprehensible. But the greater the character disturbance, the less compunction the CD has to use the kids in this way. Alienating kids from the other parent. Trying to sabotage whatever positive relationship there is. Bribing and trying to buy affection and allegiance, not just with money but with superficial attentiveness, attention, seduction, and placating.
TS: What motivates someone who is CD?
It depends. There are two major CD types, the narcissistic and the “aggressive” personalities. For the narcissist, no one else really matters. The cardinal feature will be a complete indifference and insensitivity to everyone else’s welfare and a pathological determination to save face.
For the aggressive characters, it’s all about “winning.” And while this always includes ensuring the defeat of the opponent, in some cases (as in the case with the sadistic aggressive) it’s also about humiliating the other person and relishing in the pain they might be able to cause them.
TS: So how do we deal with them, aside from divorcing them? Should we try to achieve some kind of consensus around co-parenting, for example?
GS: You have to understand that CDs don’t play by the regular rules, so trying to reach consensus with them and exhausting yourself trying to get them to “see” the unhealthiness of their ways is pointless. I have a rhyme I like to use — “it’s not that they don’t see, it’s that they disagree.”
Character disordered people are not stupid people. They’re contrary people. They know what the generally accepted rules are, they know what most people’s expectations are. But they haven’t made the decision in their heart to play by the rules most of us want them to play by. That’s a matter of the heart.
Trying to reason with them to examine their behavior assumes something that is patently untrue. It assumes that what they need is insight. I make that point in my book. We live under this delusion. Therapists do this all the time! They think they are going to be the person who says just the right thing in just the right way, so that this time a light bulb is going to go off in this person’s mind and all of a sudden — they will understand and “see” the error of their ways! The problem is, they already understand!
It’s not that the disturbed character doesn’t know what they’re doing and what damage comes from it. If the wounded party is crying their heart out and is miserable, it’s not like you don’t know what you’ve done and what an effect it has had! It’s right there. They already see this but disagree with the notion that they should conform their conduct and work to make amends.
They’ll change only when the cost of their behavior rises too high, the benefits of doing something different becomes more clear, that’s when they’ll change. It’s not that people can’t or won’t change. It’s under what circumstances they’ll be motivated to change. What you need to do if you’re in a relationship with someone like this is set those limits and enforce those boundaries.
You must set the terms of engagement! You can’t trust the character-impaired person to do it. When there is a clear cost to continuing their crazy behavior, there will perhaps be some incentive to change.
Dr. George Simon blogs about manipulative people at www.manipulative-people.com