Midlife Crisis? Or Character Disorder?

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All too many people continue to stay with a character disturbed partner because they themselves have character issues that are dysfunctional. Here is an example of a woman who justifies her staying with her boyfriend by finding excuses for his cheating and manipulation — maybe it’s “just midlife crisis.”

Recently I received an inquiry via email from a woman having a hard time deducing what was going on with her boyfriend. Because it speaks to so many of the character issues that I’ve written about, I thought it worth sharing (edited and with identifying information removed):

I met this guy about seven years ago. Only a few weeks into our relationship, he went out with another girl and had sex with her. I only found out about this because of a text on his phone, which he let me borrow. But he said this was a “one time thing” with a person who he’d had a relationship with before we got together. A few months later, I found out that he was constantly on dating websites, and had been sleeping with several other girls. I confronted him but He didn’t seem all that remorseful. He only said he could understand that it was probably hard for me not to be the only one.

I stopped seeing him, but he kept calling me and wanting to come over. He kept urging me to put things in the past and he tried to make me feel like I was being unreasonable for staying so “distant” and for wanting to end our relationship altogether. I finally decided to give things another shot, and we made a date for a Saturday night. After we had sex that night, he received a text from a girl, and later I learned that he’d slept with her earlier the same day of our date! I stopped seeing him again until about a year and a half ago.

He has been in a bad marriage for three years and has been trying to get out of it. From what he has told me, his wife is a manipulative b****h. I think he is going through some sort of midlife crisis. I also think he is easily taken in by manipulative women, and that he fears commitment as a result of the disappointments he’s experienced in his relationships. Whenever I press him on the issue of commitment, he says he’s afraid I’ll hurt him like all the others, so that makes some sense to me.

We finally decided to move in together, but only a few weeks after we did, I found out that he was meeting up with one of his ex-girlfriends. I confronted him about it, and he complained that he simply didn’t have the heart to break the emotional connection he’d always had with her. He agreed, however, not to see her anymore, but a few weeks later I found out they’d been texting and meeting a lot. I can’t be sure if they had sex. I called this girl up and gave her a piece of my mind for manipulating him emotionally, and told her to let go. But when she stopped calling I think he felt hurt and betrayed again, because within a few days he was flirting with another girl in our cooking class.

I’m at the age where I want to settle down and have kids. I love this man dearly but he just doesn’t seem to understand why it make me so insecure when he cheats. He’s really a lovable guy, believe me, otherwise I’m sure I’d have nothing to do with him, especially with all the heartache he’s caused me. But he never seems to feel any remorse or show any emotion. It seems like he doesn’t even care about the pain he’s caused me. And he always seems interested only in the physical aspects of sex. Is this just midlife crisis? Is it fear of commitment? I know he has ADD. Is it that? Maybe he even has a sex addiction. I’ve read a lot about these things. I don’t want to make him any more insecure than he probably already is. But I don’t think I can take it anymore. What should I do?

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Of the many enquiries I receive, I wish I could say that this was atypical. But the fact is, this woman’s questions and stated concerns are all too familiar. Hopefully, you were particularly struck by the plethora of hypotheses this woman entertained about why the person she’s been dealing with behaves the way he does (e.g., ADD, fear of commitment, gullibility to manipulative women, insecurity, sex addiction, mid-life crisis, etc.). It’s all too common that people entertain such wild notions (many of which have actually been promoted by both traditional and ‘popular’ psychology) about what makes people do the things they do. But there’s a principle in the sciences that some refer to as “Occam’s razor” or the “law of parsimony” which states: given all the possible hypotheses one might entertain, the simplest explanation, requiring the fewest assumptions, is most likely the correct explanation. And in this case, we have a man who rampantly cheats, cruises through relationships, displays no remorse upon injuring others, lies without compunction and manipulates with ease, yet has enough superficial charm to invite someone to find him “lovable.” The simplest explanation is that he is a disordered character, and quite possibly a psychopath. And the explanation for why this woman still wants to be with this man despite all her experience with him, is that she has her own character issues to deal with, not the least of which would be naivety, emotional dependency, unbalanced self-esteem, neediness, and self-deception.

Whether or not this woman found my response acceptable or helpful I might never know. But I suggested to her that, rather than speculate about what’s going on with him, she carefully reflect on her own character and strive to uncover the reasons she hadn’t fully divested herself of this relationship years ago. Interestingly, this woman also mentioned to me that she had read an article I’d written on this site (namely, “Disturbances of Character: The Most Pressing Issue of Our Age?”) and had ordered my book, Character Disturbance, as a result. I hope she not only reads the book, but finds both herself and this boyfriend in it. I also hope she finds both the motivation and the resources to deal with the character issues that have rendered her fairly dysfunctional, even in midlife.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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