These are some practical and thoughtful ways of helping when a loved one seems to be at risk in relationship with a manipulative or potentially dangerous character.
Over the years, I’ve gotten many inquiries about a particular issue, and recently, because such inquiries have greatly increased in volume, I thought it must be time to address it in an article. The inquiries have come from persons of both sexes and various ages, and from several different countries. Many times, the folks inquiring are already familiar with my books In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?) and Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?), with other my other writings featured on this blog or my Dealing with Manipulative People blog, or they have made contact with me via email asking me to expand upon and/or clarify the principles I advocate in all my writings. To summarize the gist of these inquiries, people seem to be asking: “How do I save someone I love from falling under the spell of a person I think is of bad or dangerous character, manipulative to be sure — possibly even a psychopath — who will likely abuse or hurt them in some way if something isn’t done to prevent it?” Most of the folks asking this question sound both genuinely fearful and concerned, as well as desperate. They had already tried everything they knew to help the person they cared about see the danger of becoming more involved, but to no avail. And because they saw me as knowledgeable on the subject of character disturbance, they were hoping against all hope that I’d have a pearl of wisdom to offer that would enable them to ‘rescue’ their loved one from the snares of disaster.
There’s a mound of clinical research on the notion of “locus of control.” Recently an integral part of attribution theory, this term refers to where a person perceives that the power to influence or control events resides. A person who perceives the locus or point of control to be external might, for example, attribute the cause of events to happenstance or good or bad ‘luck,’ whereas a person who perceives the locus of control to be internal will more likely attribute the cause of events to some action he or she took. And while it’s generally healthy for a person to believe that they’re not simply at the mercy of their external world, it’s also potentially problematic to believe you have more power than you actually have to influence events. So I’m cautious when I advise people about just how much power they might actually have to influence the behavior of a loved one whom they perceive as perhaps making a fatal mistake about a relationship.
There’s little doubt that we have the power to influence. For one thing, we can ‘model’ or exemplify the kind of behavior we’d like to see someone else display. We can also encourage and reinforce behavior we see as desirable, as well as discourage or negatively consequent undesirable behavior. And we have the power to impart information, which is likely to be better received when our message is couched with obvious care and concern, and delivered in a palatable manner. Of course, we can also use tactics, many of which I have written about in other articles (see, for example, “Manipulation via Shaming and Guilt-Tripping: Using the Conscience of the Neurotic against Them” or other articles in the “Series on Manipulation Tactics“, to covertly coerce folks to do as we wish. But ultimately we must accept the fact that every individual holds the real control over their behavior. And, as I have written about before (see “Empowerment Tools: Invest Your Energy Where You Have Power”), when we invest too much of our time, energy, and emotional passion into an enterprise over which we don’t really have control, we end up fighting a lost cause and inviting feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and eventually depression.
Naturally, it’s quite painful to watch helplessly while someone you love succumbs to the charm of a manipulator, or invests in a relationship you fear is destined to be abusive or otherwise cause heartache. And it’s also understandable to want to do everything in your power to stop it. But realizing where you ultimately do and don’t have power is really the key, not only to personal peace of mind, but also to a sense of self-efficacy. When it comes to locus of control, it’s important to get the balance right.
When we fear that someone we care about is making a tragic mistake, we can honestly share our feelings, express our concern, encourage them to do otherwise, lend our support, model right action, and provide helpful information. Beyond that, we have little power. And we can certainly be there for that loved one if they simply have to learn a very hard lesson and later need a place of refuge or a shoulder to cry on. But we have to accept the fact that we can never truly ‘save’ someone who isn’t in a mental or emotional place to be rescued. But we can save ourselves a lot of grief and the sense of a loss of power when we accept the limits of our influence. So, my answer to the question of whether we can save a loved one from making a fatal mistake is always the same: “No, we don’t have that kind of ability, but we can save ourselves pain and depression, and we can probably do a lot more to help the person we care about when we are at peace with doing what we really can to influence them, while accepting the limits of our power.”
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