It can be pretty tricky navigating the continuum of narcissistically disturbed individuals, attempting to separate the salvageables from the unsalvageables. Yet, there are two awfully basic, interrelated questions that can help you cut to the chase, and guide your decision to keep going, or cut bait.
Here they are:
1) Is your partner someone who genuinely recognizes he has a problem respecting you?
2) If he genuinely recognizes this, then does he have the genuine motivation to confront his disrespectful behaviors and attitudes (be they chronic or episodic; devastating in their impact or more quietly, gradually corrosive of your goodwill)?
Ultimately, it comes down to these separate, yet related, questions.
If the answer to either of them proves no, or probably not, then it’s boogie on out of the relationship time. If the answer to both questions proves yes, or probably yes (and it must be “yes!” to both questions!), then you have a basis to hope for improvement in the quality of the relationship.
But wait a second! I hear the shrieks! “How do you evaluate how genuine someone is, especially a manipulative personality?”
Well, the truth is, it’s difficult to assess how “genuine” someone is, on any level, no less a really good manipulator. But you must still make this assessment in an ongoing fashion, and you must make it without certainty of its accuracy.
Now, we always need to be clear about this: Sometimes, when you are dealing with a sociopath tremendously skilled at dissimulation (as a great many sociopaths are), it may be impossible to bust him before he’s had the chance to wreak terrible, longstanding and long-lasting levels of destruction. God knows this is too often the case. Of course, Donna Anderson in her upcoming book will arm her readers with incredible tools to do precisely this—bust these harder-to-bust sociopathic types.
But in many cases, more than one thinks, partners can be flushed-out for lacking true recognition of their disrespectful behaviors and the true motivation to modify them.
Of course I can’t stress sufficiently that it’s not enough to flush these individuals out: once flushed out, you need to be willing to overcome defenses like denial and pathological hope to heed the red flags you’ve identified. (I’m going to write about what I call pathological hope in my next article. I see it as a defense mechanism that can be almost as self-destructive as the sociopath can be destructive.)
So what are we really looking for here? What do we really need to see? Yes, we are looking for recognition, but most of all we are looking for change. Recognition without change is ultimately useless, a big tease.
And we are looking not for signs of small, itty bitty changes, but real, durable, meaningful, yes big changes. If the changes are too subtle, too slow in coming, too contingent on things like his “moods,” or the alignment of the stars, or if they’re subject to “relapses” of any sort (and especially rationalized relapses), then…bzzzzzz….it’s time to send him back to the dugout, permanently, to sit his a** on the bench with his fellow underperformers.
Why do I emphasize big changes and downplay small, subtle changes?
Because we are talking about a big problem, and big problems, on which the quality, integrity and perhaps even safety of your life literally depend, demand big changes. The evidence of the commitment to these changes needs to be absolutely unmistakable; but again I repeat: the key thing is less the evidence of such recognition than the evidence of the changes!
Let me give a small, somewhat tangential but, at least, one specific example of what I’m saying. Let’s say you’ve been feeling disrespected by your partner and for you this is a very serious problem. You’ve been feeling variously misunderstood, blown off, violated, neglected, abused, mistrustful; feeling, let’s say, relegated to a hurtfully low priority in your partner’s world.
In a word, you aren’t feeling respected, and this has become, for you, a serious problem that you share with him. You request that he join you for couples counseling to address your, and perhaps his, concerns?
His answer is “no.”
Well, the answer, “No,” to your request for his participation in couples therapy, is a “You just struck out, pal” answer. That’s a damning, indictable answer. “No” is a virtual affirmation of what you’ve shared with him you’ve been experiencing—his disregard of you and the relationship.
“No” is an utterly lame answer, especially if you’ve requested his participation in couples counseling in a non-belligerent, sincere, and utterly serious fashion.
“No” is tantamount to declaring officially, “I am uninvested in this relationship.”
It may come in countless forms, among them:
“You’re unhappy, that’s your problem.”
“Go get help yourself.”
“I don’t need help. You’re the one with the complaints.”
“Nothing makes you happy. You are insatiable.”
“It’s pointless…seriously, get your own sh*t together first and then let’s talk.”
These, and countless similar responses, which blame you and exculpate him, while simultaneously affirming his perspective of the relationship not as a unity or partnership but more as a “sole proprietorship”…these kinds of responses tell you all you need to know.
But now let’s say he says “yes,” and joins you in couples therapy. That’s nice. If he’s a sociopath, as I’ve written previously, you will hope the therapist will be shrewd enough to know that he, the therapist, is dealing with a sociopath. Because sociopaths do not belong in couples therapy. But for purposes of this argument, let’s imagine he’s not a full-blown sociopath.
In any case, as I’ve been suggesting, it is the evidence, ultimately, that will tell the tale.
He will either change meaningfully and permanently, and begin making these changes in earnest, very soon; or, he won’t.
He may or may not talk the talk effectively, persuasively. But if he doesn’t walk the walk and maintain the walk, you will have gotten your answer.
Walking the walk doesn’t mean it’s necessarily onesided; you too may have changes to make on your end. Nobody’s perfect, and even if you’re involved with a salvageable jerk (the best case scenario and hope), that doesn’t mean you too don’t have room to make some changes.
But let’s not kid ourselves, or let him kid us. If he isn’t motivated to leave you feeling more fulfilled, loved, respected and less neglected; if there isn’t evidence of his sincere desire to do this, and evidence of his willingness to work hard at doing this, and finally, evidence of his success at doing this, well then again….we have our answers.
And let me repeat this point: the changes need to be sustained. Transitory changes made from desperation are more likely to revert as complacency creeps backs in. The regression, as complacency reenters the picture, will tell you something very important, namely that the changes weren’t made from a deep, or deeply honest enough, place.
The interesting thing, here, isn’t that any of this is a news flash or rocket science, because to the contrary I’m aware how almost insultingly obvious it is. The really key thing to beware of is the pervasiveness with which we’re inclined to put, or keep, the emotional blinders on in such a fashion that we either fail to proactively seek this evidence of a parnter’s commitment to change or else, seeking and discovering the partner’s lack of commitment, we find ways to minimize and ignore the urgency of the evidence’s meaning and message!
I will write about pathological hope as a defense mechanism next week.
(This article is copyrighted © 2011 by Steve Becker, LCSW. My use of male gender pronouns is for convenience’s sake and not to suggest that females aren’t capable of the attitudes and behaviors discussed.)