Assessing the character of a potential relationship partner and their capacity for forming and sustaining a truly meaningful and healthy relationship is no easy business.
Relationships are a big part of our lives. We’re inherently social creatures, so forming and maintaining healthy relationships is fundamental to our well-being. This is especially true when it comes to our more intimate partnerships. But in our increasingly character-impaired age, forming a secure, trusting, supportive bond with another human being can be quite a challenge. A person has to be of a certain kind of character to make truly safe, intimate relationships possible. All relationships take work. But you have to be of a particular mind and heart to faithfully nurture a relationship with any real depth. And to do so necessarily requires a certain level of maturity and personal integrity. That raises the question of how a person can know at the outset of a relationship whether a potential partner has the “right stuff” to forge the right kind of bond.
When writing How Did We End Up Here?, my co-author Kathy Armistead and I had in mind the many folks who’d found themselves either in the midst of or at the end of a troubled or toxic relationship and were asking themselves how a relationship that seemed to hold so much promise could end up going so horribly wrong. Survivors of dysfunctional relationships often worry that in the absence of some good answers to this all important question they’re at risk for getting into similar relationship trouble again. And they ask themselves what, if anything, they might have misjudged about their relationship partner that might have been partly to blame.
When I wrote Character Disturbance, I was trying to provide the average person a primer on personality and character pathology. I wanted folks to have a framework within which they could make some basic character assessments of the people in their lives. Almost as soon as I’d finished the book, however, I realized how many more volumes I could easily have written on how to become a better judge of character. Accurately assessing a person’s character and their potential for forming and sustaining a truly meaningful and healthy relationship is no easy business, especially in our age of more rampant character disturbance. These days, even professionals with years of training and experience can have a hard time properly sizing up a person’s character. But given the nature of our times, it couldn’t be more important to know from the earliest phases of a relationship what kind of person you’re dealing with and to be able to assess the prospects for a healthy involvement with them. And that means you need to know what to look for in their character that might signal that getting involved with them could spell trouble.
Having counseled hundreds of couples over the years, I’ve been amazed by some of the reasons folks have given me for why and how they got involved with their relationship partner. Many times there were ample “red flags” for character disturbance that for one reason or another a person simply chose to overlook or even disregard. But other times, the warning signs weren’t so glaringly apparent. As I point out in In Sheep’s Clothing, some disturbed characters are very skilled in the art of “impression management” and other aspects of interpersonal manipulation. Even a fairly conscientious person doing their best to appropriately “vet” a potential partner can get hoodwinked. Some folks simply know how to pull the wool over your eyes with respect to who they really are in character. They know just what to say and what to do to win you over. In short, they know how to get the better of you and look good while doing it. But once they have what they want, there’s less need for pretenses. That’s when all the trouble usually begins — when the impression manager drops the facade and lets their true character show. Still, there are some ways by which an astute observer can better detect a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Manipulators almost can’t help it. They rely on certain tactics to hide their true nature and advance their agendas, so just knowing what those tactics are can clue you in to the kind of character willing to use them to advance their agendas.
The surest way to avoid potential victimization in a relationship is to become a better judge of character. You have to know the basic personality types and exactly what makes each type of character “tick.” Every personality type displays specific, distinctive, and often telltale “signs” that tell you what that person is all about. These signs are more readily discernible once you know what to look for. Becoming a better judge of character involves knowing the specific behavior patterns, and the typical ways of thinking that define a person’s character and raise the red flag for possible dysfunction. Of course, it helps if you’ve dealt with your own character issues to the point that you can be objective in your assessment. I’ve known a lot of folks, for example, who had a good inclination about the risk they bore when they first got involved with their partner but were either vain enough to think they could nurse the character-deficient party to health or emotionally needy enough to treat merely being connected as more important than being prudent about their choice of partner. Time has taught me that knowing yourself — your emotional needs, blind spots, and the perceptual distortions that come along with your own character traits — is just as crucial as knowing what to look for in others when it comes to making sound judgments about the prospects for a relationship.
I’ll have more to say about how to better judge the character of someone and the prospects for a healthy relationship with them in some upcoming articles.
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