An Interview with Dr. George Simon on Character Disturbance

Dr. George Simon character

Psychologist Dr. George Simon is a leading expert in understanding manipulation and character disturbance. In this interview he discusses his work and tactics of how to deal with disordered people.

Dr. Simon is the author of “In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People” and “Character Disturbance.” These are both go-to reads if you’re uncovering a partner’s double life and infidelity.

Narcissistic shame?

CL: I really enjoyed your books. Before I read your work, I had read several books on narcissistic personality disorder and what rang false to me, based on my personal experience, was that narcissists have low self-esteem or can’t deal with shame. Your books were so refreshing by contrast — as you argue some people are disordered, that it’s an issue of character, and that traditional therapeutic strategies aren’t very effective.

Can you speak a bit about your practice, and your experience dealing with disordered people? Are they compensating?

GS: In both my books, I try and make the distinction between people who are for the most part “neurotic” and people who are character disturbed. It’s a continuum.

On the one end, we have people who in the past would have been labeled “neurotic.”

These are folks who are struggling with anxieties and insecurities that are largely unconscious to them. They have “issues” that they never fully resolved. These issues cause them anxiety. Sometimes they “compensate” for underlying insecurities and they really don’t know they’re doing it. And there’s always some symptom that goes with the anxiety accompanying their neurosis —  fingernail biting, difficulty meeting people, or establishing relationships, for example.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have folks who are more disturbed in character.  

Frankly, they’re not very neurotic at all. And they lack the anxiety neurotics have.  

And what’s happened in our times is that most neurotics are not pathologically dysfunctional anyway. They’re just hung up and fretful enough to have qualms about things and make society work. They’re very functional people, generally. They do not have the kind of maladies that afflicted people in the Victorian era, when Freud came up with his theories. Back then people had bizarre maladies that couldn’t be explained. This extreme neurosis is what psychologists use to treat. From that, they came to some conclusions about what makes people tick and the role of neurosis in people’s mental health.

These old models are still with us. Change is slow.  

Many, including therapists, still adopt traditional points of view — so when presented with someone with a character disorder, they’ll say to themselves that person is compensating for something — that deep below they must have low self-esteem or insecurities they’re struggling with.

If someone takes this approach, the character disordered person isn’t going to get much help — and it’s not likely they’re going to get any better.

Can a healthy person conduct a double life?

CL:  Chump Lady is a blog about infidelity. If someone finds themselves cheated on, and it’s a longstanding pattern of lies, deceit and living a double life, should they consider that they might be with someone character or personality disorder?

Is it a matter of degree? I wonder if anyone can act this way over a period of years and NOT be disordered.

GS: You know, everybody lies sometimes. A friend might ask you how she looks in a dress, and you may lie. But the reason that you lie usually says something about your character, and often in a good way. You don’t want to hurt your friend’s feelings. So you might fudge a bit on the truth.

But the kind of lying that disordered people do is different.

Not only the reason they do it, but the many crafty ways they do it.  The most artful liars can lie by stating a series of perfectly true things — keeping out just one small crucial detail, which would shed an entirely new light on things. So, they lie artfully.

The other thing that distinguishes a character disordered person is why they lie.

Usually, good neurotics want to understand why people lie. They want to understand the underlying motives. What would make a person act this way? We rack our brains trying to understand why we’re being duped. But the ultimate reason disordered people lie is to maintain a position of advantage over someone else. If you’re in the dark, and you don’t know that you’re being deceived, then they have the upper hand and can have their way with you.

Remember, their goal is always to keep you in the one-down position. And the ways the disordered person can lie to keep you in that position can be quite artful.

More signs of character disturbance

CL: If someone is engaging in an affair, the why is maintaining the secret life, the narcissistic supply of cheating. So if they’re telling lies to throw you off their cheating, (lying in a disordered way), does that make them disordered?

GS: You always have to look for the telltale signs of character disturbance, and lying is one of those signs. There are several others. In my book “Character Disturbance” I outline the other signs to look for.

We live in a character disturbed age. We have so many folks who lack character and just don’t grow up.  Sometimes they grow up in their 50, 60s, or even 70s. Sometimes they never do.

When people are showing the signs of character disorder, it is important to not listen to the things that they say.  I know this sounds odd, but I learned this during my research. Therapists would work with disordered clients and realize they weren’t making headway. They would listen like they were trained to listen.

Therapists are trained to be warm, empathic, accommodating and trusting.

Because you assume a person has come to share and get advice from you. But that’s not true with character disorders. Usually, they’ve been dragged there by their ear by someone whose life they’re making miserable. It’s not the same thing [as coming to the therapist for advice].  So if you listen to them and take what they say at face value, you’re already likely to be taken in, but you just don’t know it yet. With character disorders, you can’t just listen to what they say — instead, you have to listen “for” the kinds of things they say — the kinds of tactics they use — and keep a watchful eye out for the signs that might suggest you’re being played.

Entitlement and character

CL:  Do people with character disorders want to be better? I would think that gaming the system and getting goodies without reward is pretty hard to give up. What’s in it for them? If you had a serial cheater as a client, how would you treat them versus a traditional therapeutic approach?

GS: It’s not as simple as being neurotic versus being character disordered.

There is a continuum.

There’s a little bit of neurosis in just about everyone. In some people there is none. In psychopaths — these are the folks whose have ice water in their veins — they pathologically lack any adaptive anxiety. They’re not afraid of anything. This is chilling. They’re not amenable at all to traditional approaches.

But most character disturbed people have some way to reach them. And sometimes they have a degree of appreciation for not only the error of their ways, but how it could be better if they were different. Sometimes they even appreciate someone else getting it — that they need to change.

So many times when they come into a traditionally minded therapist office and play their game and their therapist misperceives them. “Oh, this poor compensating, inadequate person!” the therapist is thinking. But under their breath, the disordered person is chuckling — this “shrink” is going to be a pushover.

But if somebody’s calls them on their issues, really calls them on it and asks them something like: “Have you ever experienced any kind of disaster in a relationship because of how inflated your opinion is of yourself?…. If someone dares to say something like that to them — it gets their attention. And you know what? They probably have an example! When they can share that and talk honestly with someone about how maybe this isn’t such a good thing, there’s room for discussion.  

You can’t ask such a question mean spiritedly.  

But you have to cut to the chase.  And what generally happens in that moment, is that for the first time the possibility of real trust occurs. Because the person dealing with them will meet them at the plane in which they function, as opposed to playing nice, seeing things through rose-colored glasses, and sending the signal that they can be played.

How to confront character disorder

CL: What would you advised someone who has been cheated on? Not to play nice because you’re going to get duped?

GS: When confronting [a character disordered person], I might ask “have you ever encountered a situation that ended badly because of the inflated way you think of yourself?” — the way it is said doesn’t have to be hostile, or uncivil. It can be perfectly benign but direct. And honest. Brutally honest, but no hostile intent.

It’s not about not playing nice, confrontation doesn’t have to be vindictive.

Just has to be direct and completely honest.

Policing is exhausting

CL: For people who are on the receiving end of bad behavior by character disordered people, is it better to constantly to be the marriage police and gently confront them when they step out of line? If you’re neurotic, you’re buying books for them on Amazon and trying to help them figure themselves out.

GS: I think that would be a total waste of time because it 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 cheater or 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.

Character disordered people are not stupid people. They’re contrary people.

They know what the rules are, they know what the expectations are. But they haven’t made the decision in their heart to play by the rules that you want them to play by. That’s a matter of the heart. So, like I’ve said over and over in countless workshops:

They already see but they just disagree. A little rhyming phrase I use a lot. I can’t say it enough! Therapists make the same mistake!

And 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 them to do it.  When there is a clear cost to continuing their crazy behavior, there will perhaps be some incentive to change.

You can define the terms of engagement. The problem for neurotic folks is they don’t like operating in that mode. It’s not natural for them. It feels to them like they’re being a hard [ass], like they’re being too selfish. They have all these ideas about how inappropriate it is to start calling some shots! But asserting your needs and enforcing the limits is just what you have to do.

Why are we chumps?

CL:  Are some people more prone to being manipulated than others? What makes people a mark?

GS: People with a conscience are especially good marks.

There are certain tactics that I outline in “In Sheep’s Clothing.” Favorite [tactics] like “shaming” and “guilt-tripping” cannot possibly work on someone without a conscience or unless that conscience is pretty active. You must have the capacity to feel guilt.

If you don’t feel shame, there is no way an invitation to shame or guilt can work with you. Of course there are people who are more vulnerable to manipulation — it’s the decent folks. It’s because they have a high level of conscientiousness.  There are others who are vulnerable, too.

Is character disturbance inherited?

CL: What do you make of the neuroscience around NPD and sociopaths? Did you read the New York Times article on psychopaths as children and “callous unemotional” traits as being inherited? Do you think that some people are… well, neurologically handicapped to be disordered? Is it dangerous to expect them to get better and change — if they literally don’t have empathy synapses?

GS: This research is in its infancy. We just don’t know. Some folks seem to have empathy deficits built into their wiring. There is something wrong, but we don’t know enough yet. We really don’t. Just because the brains of psychopaths work differently when you study them doesn’t necessarily mean those brains were different from birth.  The degree of empathy deficiency and the degree to which it is strictly part of the programming versus a developmental issue [is unclear].

Psychology has trends. Psychopathy is an old concept from several decades ago and it fell into disfavor, but now it’s back in the mainstream media because of the work by Dr. Robert Hare and his colleagues.  

One important point I make in my book “Character Disturbance” is that there is a vast spectrum of character disturbance, and psychopathy and sociopathy are some real severe manifestations of it.

But frankly there are many more folks who have certain traits and characteristics that make them problematic characters and I would not go so far as to say they are full blown sociopaths. To say they are simply endowed by nature with some deficits that are totally insurmountable and can’t be changed? We don’t know enough to say that. And there is too much variability there. There is a continuum.

At least now we’re at least taking a serious look at character disturbance. We are finally getting away from the old formulations about people’s unconscious fears, their “neurosis,” the notion that that metaphor alone was adequate to explain everybody. It’s not. It’s explains the smallest subset of people — and it doesn’t even do that great of a job explaining them.

For more about Dr. Simon, check out

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11 years ago

Great read. I’m fascinated by these people with personality disorders. I’m of the opinion my wife has Histrionic Personality Disorder. Very difficult to live with.

11 years ago

Excellent discussion. The suggested way of giving up on using to shame or guilt on these folks – and instead – establishing boundaries is the way to go. In fact there is a book I read about using boundaries in troubled marriages that is excellent.

One thing that bothers me about many cheaters or people with character disturbance – is the common statement from these folks “I live without regrets”. There was an excellent post on Huff/TED ” people who live without regret -the absence of regret is a hallmark of sociopathy, and the opposite is true, too.”

10 years ago
Reply to  crazyd

I agree. Those with no regrets are either lying or sociopaths. Oh yeah – sociopaths lie a lot. A circular problem.

11 years ago

Any investigation into infidelity should lead to research on personality disorders, IMO.

11 years ago

I’ve been saying this for years re the link between cheaters and PDs. My ex-husband and the yoyoho I gave him to are both so obviously disordered! Don’t understand why there is not more awareness, education and publications on the subject.
There should also be more on the links between cheating & domestic violence/abuse and personality disorders and domestic violence/abuse.
Marital Guidance Organisations like Relate need to take this on board too.

9 years ago
Reply to  Liberty

Absolutely agree about the need for education related to PD’s, cheating and domestic violence/abuse.
By the time I was told that I was dealing with someone with BPD probably coupled with narcissism, it was way to late. If only I had known because the signs were obvious.
Not only did I not realize that I was dealing with someone who was disordered, but because of the deception and deceit involved with her infidelity, I had no idea of her other, concurrent relationships. Without that knowledge there was no way I could act to remedy the situation in the ways suggested above.
In fact I blamed myself for our marital problems. This was encouraged by good dose of projection. I found out later that she falsely believed that I was cheating on her which gave her the justification to cheat on me.
As she told me, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander”. This belief started in the early part of our engagement, persisted through our marriage and is still there. I still don’t understand why she didn’t confront me with her belief so we could have had it out. It is a recurring theme in many posts here is “Why do people want to persist in relationships while cheating?”

9 years ago
Reply to  AussieChump2

Why do people want to persist in relationships while cheating? Good question. And I had a chance to ask my cheating husband that very question. His explanation if you can even call it one is that while he had built his life and loved me, and didnt want a divorce he had also crossed boundaries and became emotionally involved with this other woman. In my own explanation, its people who like the comfort of having a spouse and who feel so entitled that they carry on another relationship. Its totally sick and depraved. I can honestly say I wish I had never met my husband. If you wanna read a crazy store here is one for you.

My husband and I have been together since we were seventeen, I am not 26. We got married when I was 21. He had always been faithful and a very very caring person. He did show some red flags, he had an explosive temper at times but I never found him threatening. Slowly but surely he started to emotionally abuse me with name calling. When we had gotten married I was a large girl. I weighed probably 225. Shortly after we got married he started telling me I needed to lose weight. He had never mentioned a thing about my weight before this. He told me I was hurting our sex life and he wasnt attracted to me. I spent the next two years taking off 70 lbs. I thought he was right and I needed to change if my husband was unhappy. It didnt change his feelings. I was still technically 24 lbs overweight and it bothered him. By the way I did all the cooking, shopping, housework, and laundry while working 30 hours a week. When I would say I wish he would help out he would tell me that he worked more hours than me so it was my job. He told me, you havent gone to graduate school yet, youre not smart, youre not pretty, you need to lose more weight, you nag too much. Youre lucky I’m with you because no body would have wanted you when you were 100 lbs overweight, that he was ashamed of me that I embarassed him. Most of this has been in just the last year. He stopped sleeping with me telling me it was me. I was told I didnt deserve a christmas present while he bought himself a new handgun and a new XBox. I had no idea what the hell was wrong with him. Other things began to happen. In november of this year he started binge drinking and previously he did not drink at all. He bought a 60000 dollar shelby Mustang GT 500. He started looking for an apartment and in a fit of rage he broke his own hand at work by punching a wall. He almost was fired from his Union job because he was going off on union stewards and threatening people. He put in for a transfer at another plant. He found an apartment and moved almost all of our belongings into an apartment within three days. I had to move in with my mother and stepdad. He never offered to help me with money or anything. The entire four months that we were separated he would call me and tell me he was sorry he didnt know what he was doing or how things had gotten this far. I had no idea what he was talking about. Four months after being separated I get a text message from a number I didnt recognize, it said, “by the way, B**** did have an affair on you, just thought you should know.” My husband had been cheating on me with a 46 year old woman, someone 20 years older than him. She was also married, she married her 4th husband the same month they started having an affair. (December) She has adult children my husbands age. I should mention he stopped paying our bills and got way behind because he was paying for cheap motels so him and this whore could sleep together. I know people act nuts when they have an affair but is this normal? I mean this cant be normal? So an update would be that supposedly he has stopped talking to her is seeing a counselor and started antidepressents. I told him I wanted a divorce and he said, ” I never thought you would ever ask me for a divorce.” WTF!!!!!!!!!!!! How does someone believe that they can cheat on you for six months with an old vagina and think that you wont want a divorce. By the way I should mention he was the worship leader at our church lol He quit church quit all of his hobbies. He is a shell of a person. He continues to let me know how miserable his life is and how everyone thinks he’s a bad person lol correction people dont think it. YOU ARE NOT A GOOD PERSON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

11 years ago

“But the kind of lying that disordered people do is different. Not only the reason they do it, but the many crafty ways they do it. The most artful liars can lie by stating a series of perfectly true things — keeping out just one small crucial detail, which would shed an entirely new light on things. So, they lie artfully.”

Example from my ex after he told me the affair was over:

me: I am not sure you really have stopped seeing her
him: I am not seeing OW, I haven’t seen her in 3 weeks
me: You said this before and I want to believe you but I don’t
him: I am not seeing OW, how many times do I have to say this?

next day, I check and see he’s parked in front of her house so I tell him it’s over for good.
me: you lied again, it’s over
him: I told the truth, you didn’t ask me if I was going to see OW, you only asked if I was seeing her. I wasn’t at that time. She’s just a friend!

just one of many insane lying moments

11 years ago

Curious. Is any of this treatable?

10 years ago

For a while after DDay I would think sometimes about whether things could have been very different in my marriage if I had set clearer boundaries, perhaps right from the beginning, certainly after the first affair.

I could have shut him down when he was complaining constantly about small things. I could have shut him down when he was blaming me for his unhappiness. I could have made it very clear that I would leave if he cheated in any way, ever. I could have kept an eye on his relationships w/women and told him clearly when they were concerning me, and what had to stop. I could have had him arrested when he threatened me. I could have threatened to leave when he refused to continue couple’s therapy (it was ‘too hard’, eh?) I could have called him on making his work so much more important than anything else, including me and our kids, and really stood my ground on that.

But ya know, not only did I not ‘get’ most of this stuff at the time (I was assuming that emotionally he was a normal person, a lot like me inside!), but even when I started to, that isn’t me! I don’t want to treat someone like that, I don’t want to be the hard-ass.

And most importantly, I don’t want to live with someone with whom I constantly have to set boundaries. I know that no one is perfect, and everyone will screw up sometimes and say or do something hurtful. But I want to be with someone who shares my values, who CARES how I feel, and how the kids feel, who alters their behaviour when they see it has detrimental effects on the people they care about, especially when that behaviour gains them nothing. I want someone who gets as much pleasure from giving love, affection and care as I do, as well as from receiving. I want to be with someone who respects me, and shows it, who likes me and shows it. And I want my kids to be around people like that too.

9 years ago
Reply to  KarenE

My liar, cheater, faker for sixteens years with “massage therapists” wanted to get stay with me. Part of the deal he gave me was total access to his computer. Believe or not when AOL was hacked the “Bleeding Heart” virus sent all his e-mail addresses to me in an account he had along with 10 different addresses for “happy ending” massages. My D day.

We were together all the time. I picked him up at his office at 3pm. He had his “massages” every day at lunchtime and computer porn in the afternoon. He is an attorney and works by himself.

It’s been 5 months since I threw him out. The thought of having to police his computer and whatever else, made me sick. It’s against everything I believe in. I have raised my children and I never did this to them. I do not want this in a relationship with a man, someone I should love and trust. I told him this and that was the last contact he has had with me.

I am relieved. I am so glad I am not alone in feeling this way about “checking up”.

9 years ago
Reply to  KarenE

KarenE, great post. My sentiments exactly. And the love and affection is what I found with my wife, someone who respects me, and shows it, who likes me and shows it.

10 years ago
Reply to  KarenE

KarenE, you are so right. Who wants to be the Marriage Police? It’s like having another child to keep in line and then hoping for the minimum – that he respects and values you and your children in a genuine way. I lived with a disordered person like this for years and stayed too long – I have a hard time forgiving myself for letting my kids live with this.

9 years ago

hello everyone! i am about 30 days into separation, 25 yrs married, and the last 5 have
been pure hell. multiple online affairs, and everything I read on here is like peering
into a window into my life. every day i get the blast of texts, calls proclaiming his apologies. then I LISTEN. all I hear is shit about himself, how he is feeling, nothing how this has affected our family. And yes I did the Reconciliation dance the first time. Fast forward 5 years- oops! caught your ass again. hate being marriage police. too much energy wasted on
someone who doesn’t give 2 shits about you. Shit! I hear I love you more now that his
shit is out, and everyone knows the deal. Anything to get more kibbles. I woke up last night, and said to myself, I wil give you no more Kibbles !! LOL

9 years ago

today I was sitting in a parking lot at j c penney, and he calls and wants to meet. I say why so I can here more of you talk about yourself? I am sure most of you have experienced the me me me syndrome. I started to feel overwhelmed with the pending shit storm on the way. Separation is easy. Divorce is very different. As I start to have one of my many meltdowns, too bad I was on the phone with him when it happened. Try to avoid this!!
It empowers them !! Anyway, when I said no to the meeting, he had the nerve to say I have nothing but contempt for him, and the things I have put in place( i.e separating), have no purpose but to set him up to fail!! The fucker doesn’t need me to do that, he does a fantastic job all on his own!! Can anybody say blame shifting, manipulation???

9 years ago
Reply to  sodone

you are right–it empowers them. they eat it up. good luck to you…take care of YOURSELF!

8 years ago

I read the comments and see they talk about marriage relationships and adults. We have two adopted children. Both are good at the sort of behavior shown above. They are capable of making people perceive them as perfect people. But once people get to know them, they realize that they have been manipulated into playing into their games. They lie and leave out the crucial details. “I did my homework as request, they still didn’t let me go and made me pull weeds.” Detail left out, I didn’t turn the homework in, when questioned about this, “well, you didn’t tell me to turn it in.” REALLY, you are 17 and you know you have to turn it in. This is only one example, and it is a simple one, there are more, getting caught shop lifting. “Well, you told me to eat so I did” Why didn’t you use the gift card you had? “It didn’t work.” It has money on there, the thing is there wasn’t enough to pay for what they wanted. Or, well I wouldn’t have taken the money you had taken out of the bank out of your briefcase that was locked under the bed, if I had known you were going to go get that new used car.
Those are small examples, but it is consistent and they get more complicated, enough that people believe what they are told and eventually, they learned they have been duped. They are good at playing the victim to manipulate the other person to get what they want.
And if they discover they can’t manipulate you into feeling sorry or believing them, then you become the mean old so and so and they are very convincing.
This disturbance just doesn’t affect cheating adults in marriage, but kids and the parents who live with them. It is kind of hard to divorce your kids or even for people to believe that those sweet little kids even at 17 and 18 would do such a thing. Fine, just don’t come running to me when you finally wake up to the fake that your poor little victim is actually doing the victimizing.