Are You Trying Too Hard to Understand?
As dangerous as it can be to be in a relationship with a disturbed or disordered character, perhaps an even more dangerous thing is to try too hard to understand why they behave the way they do.
Having worked with many victims of various types of physical, emotional, or verbal abuse over the years, I came to appreciate how desperately these individuals wanted to make some sense of the madness they experienced on a daily basis. I also came to appreciate the additional danger abuse victims invite into their lives when they try too hard to understand. While no victim ever bears a shred of responsibility for the abuse they they might sustain at the hands of a disturbed or disordered character, some victims unwittingly help to keep themselves trapped in their destructive relationships because instead of merely judging behavior for what it is and taking appropriate action in response, they try to understand.
When I was doing clinical case study research prior to publishing my first book In Sheep’s Clothing, I encountered several examples of individuals who inadvertently “enabled” abuse by seeking to understand it. Two examples stand out as particularly illustrative. (As always, names, places, circumstances, and any potentially identifying details have been altered to preserve anonymity.)
“Marla” was a bright, capable career woman in her early 30’s when she finally put an end to her relationship with “Sam.” I remember her telling me how she never thought of him as fitting the profile of an abuser. He wasn’t the jealous or “controlling” type she’d read about and didn’t try to isolate her from her family and friends. But he was always putting her down, sometimes in subtle ways. She’d almost gotten used to the insults after awhile but it was his temper that really terrified her. He’d thrown things and smashed things on the floor before. He’d also punched his fist through a wall more than once. Still, he wasn’t always volatile. There seemed to be a few things in particular that would set him off. So she tried to understand. And she would ask herself things like: “What is it that gets under his skin so badly?” “What am I doing that comes across as such a threat to him?” One day, she said something that hit a nerve, and he shoved her against a wall so hard she got a contusion on the back of her head. That’s when she knew she had to take some action, which fortunately she did. Still, even on the way to her sister’s house where she would stay until her formal separation, she was racking her brain not only about what it was she said or did that set Sam off but also about what was going on in Sam’s mind or heart that made this otherwise very likable guy (everyone at work and in their small community thought the world of Sam) lose it sometimes.
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“Jake” only seemed to get out of control when he was drinking, so “Sarah” knew not to upset him when he was “in one of those moods.” And because of his moodiness she thought he might be suffering from an illness like Bipolar Disorder. She’d read that some people “self-medicate” this illness with substance use. But Jake had made it clear he wasn’t going to let any “head shrinks mess with [his] head.” After all, most of them were crazier than he was, at least that’s what he’d insisted plenty of times. Jake didn’t drink all the time, so Sarah didn’t think it right to consider him an alcoholic. Then one day after returning from a lunch during which he had also had a few drinks, he got suspended from work for getting out of line with a co-worker. Naturally, he was upset when he got home. He got even more upset that there wasn’t any beer in the refrigerator. He got downright ugly when Sarah just didn’t seem to be understanding enough of his side of the story. At first Sarah did what she always did: she tried to understand. Perhaps if she’d shown more sympathy for his side of things he wouldn’t have gone off on her. But fortunately, that day helped provide Sarah with a rude awakening: it wasn’t just the alcohol, or some underlying condition prompting its misuse. It was Jake and how willing he was not only to shirk his own responsibility for things but also to blame and take out his frustration on others. Worse than that, he wasn’t willing to do what was necessary to make things better. That’s the day Sarah finally had enough. For the first time in her life, she felt truly empowered.
I wish I could say that the examples above represent rare circumstances, but in fact, the scenarios are all too common. Victims of abusive relationships will often try so hard to understand the various reasons why the disturbed characters in their lives behave the way they do that they end up enabling all sorts of destructive behavior and entrapping themselves further in a no-win and potentially very dangerous situation. (For more on inadvertent enabling and cultivating personal power see “The Secrets of Personal Empowerment”.) As I illustrate through several examples in Character Disturbance, neither party to an abusive relationship ever finds the motivation to change the status quo unless the principles of responsible behavior somehow take precedence over the desire to understand. So I always give the same advice to folks struggling in abusive relationships of all types: stop musing about all the possible explanations for things and enforce strict limits and boundaries. Above and beyond all else, judge behavior purely on its merits — not on what you imagine might be prompting it — and hold folks accountable for it. After all, the best single predictor that someone will do something again is if they’ve done it before. As always, behavior is what really counts. There’s plenty of time for understanding what might have contributed to someone’s behavioral problems once they’ve accepted those problems and fully accepted the responsibility to do something about them. That’s why I assert that as dangerous as it can be to be in a relationship with a disturbed or disordered character, perhaps an even more dangerous thing is to try too hard to understand.
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 Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by
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