Editor’s note: This article was submitted by Steve Becker, LCSW, CH.T, who has a private psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, and clinical consulting practice in New Jersey, USA. For more information, visit his website, powercommunicating.com.
In my work with clients involved with exploitative personalities, it’s not unusual to learn, together, that detectable, early warning signals went unrecognized, minimized, or both.
This isn’t to blame the subsequent victims of abusive partners; there are many instances where such clues were lacking (and even when not, blame is inappropriate). But it’s to appreciate, undefensively, that the honeymoon phase of a relationship is almost, by definition, one that invites a level of denial. The denial helps protect our fantasy that we’ve finally met our perfect love partner. It’s in the honeymoon phase, especially, that our need to idealize a prospective partner is at its strongest, correspondingly leaving our objectivity—and sobriety—at its weakest. This makes for a worrisome combination, specifically encouraging the ignoring of ominous signals that, even if subtle, are no less invaluable and critical.
In retrospect, my clients are often surprised to admit that the exploiter in whom they chose to invest really did “tip his hand” more than they wanted, later, to admit. Not all, but many sociopaths aren’t clever enough to fully disguise, even in the early stages of a relationship, their core self-centeredness and insensitivity, if our radar is sufficiently non-compromised.
The key, of course, is first to recognize these signs. But interestingly this isn’t the hardest challenge. The hardest challenge is then to heed them.
I find that many of my clients were in fact cognizant of odd, disconcerting behaviors/attitudes that their exploitative partners were reckless enough to reveal (or incapable of concealing). They may have even felt troubled by them. But in their intense need to want the relationship, and the partner, to be the elusive fit they so hungrily sought, they found ways to suppress their uneasiness: to ignore and/or minimize the significance of these signals; and rationalize the alarms their instincts triggered.
In other words, it’s not so much that their antennae are necessarily impaired (because often they aren’t); rather, it’s their weak response to what their antennae properly register that is the problem. It’s like a smoke detector that goes off in a distant room in the house. You hear it, or think you do, but you’re so slumberously inebriated that you convince yourself you’re not hearing what’s inconvenient to hear—maybe it’s not really the smoke detector—and so rationalize, at great personal risk, your inaction. The inconvenient, much less pleasant reaction (and action) would be to confront—and not ignore—the dimly perceived, but potentially lifesaving, signal. Among other lessons, this suggests just how inconvenient and unpleasant it sometimes is to have to take the steps necessary to protect ourselves.
When I work with clients who find themselves in, or recovering from, victimizing relationships, this theme takes on great meaning and becomes a source of self-empowerment. My clients are determined to become more confident, not only in their radar for uncovering the first dubious chinks in their partners; they are even more determined to learn how to heed these earliest warnings in present, and future relationships.
Whether the warning is more jarring, like a flash of previously unseen rage or coldness, or more subtle, like a disarming expression of entitlement, they’ll want to notice it (the first, and easier task); and then, confronting their powers of rationalization, they’ll want to examine it seriously and soberly for precisely the implications they’re so fearful of seeing.