Reply To: Can they get better?

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I’m afraid the short answer is No, he’s not likely to get better. After all, he did say around the time you got married that he “was willing to go to therapy and wanted to get better”–but it never happened, did it?

But I do understand your confusion on certain points. One of them is your perception that his behavior is not as “extreme” as many of those described here, leading to the hope that “he might get better”–which is unfortunately wishful thinking. The problem is, some people seem to have the impression, or even declare it out loud, that abusers are “all the same.” I’ve even heard people say on several occasions–if it’s women sharing stories about abusive husbands for instance–things like “It sounds as if we married the same man!”

That’s all very well, but this supposed “sameness” is a limited perception due to focusing on a particular subset of behaviors common to a great many abusers: things like blameshifting (which is practically universal), rages, manipulative behaviors, giving their partners the “silent treatment” and so on. Because these behaviors seem so incomprehensible to innocent partners, those are what stands out in their minds–the similarities among so many abusers–and they’ll say things like “These abusers all went to the same school.”

But the fact is, chronic abusers are not all the same by any means! All they really have in common is abuse and manipulative behaviors. In other respects they can be as different as chalk and cheese! Some are tolerable to live with, to one degree or another; others are lethally dangerous. Some are physically violent; others only verbally and emotionally abusive. Some have frightening rages; others are just insidiously manipulative. Some are intelligent; some are dumb. Some are pillars of the community; others are lowlifes. Some are hardworking, self-sustaining and successful; others are lazy, losers and parasites who sponge off others. Some are generally perceived as “good-hearted folks”–outside their own family, that is!–while others are jerks or shrews to everyone around. Some are only abusive to their spouses or partners; others abuse their children as well. Some are addicts: to alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex; others are sober and straight. Some are financially honest; others are thieves and con artists. Some are serial cheaters; others are not. Some say they’re sorry for their abuse–though they eventually do it again; others never apologize. Some are compulsive liars, about everything under the sun; others mostly tell the truth–as long as it suits them. Some eventually devalue and dump their erstwhile partners; others are dumped themselves when their partners tire of being abused, and the abuser begs to be taken back. Some stalk their ex-partners; others never look back. And so on.

People do come here, take a look at the list of “sociopathic” traits, and while some can check off nearly every item on the list, others say “My partner only does some of these things; can he or she really be a ‘sociopath’?” In fact it’s not necessary for anyone to fulfill all the items on the list to qualify as a “sociopath,” as long as they fit the general pattern. Whether they do or not can be a judgment call. But for instance, someone may be a psychopath without being a criminal, or an addict, or a financial predator, or “leading a double life.” And as you said, your ex has been successful in life and doesn’t need money from others. He likes to flirt, but he hasn’t been a serial cheater; he was only doing that once, but that was after you’d left him, and so on. There’s a world of difference between that and having another “wife,” or even several, in some different place.

However, there’s another factor to consider. Abusers come in different “types.” Although the word “sociopath” is used here as a blanket term to cover the Cluster B personality disorders: “antisocial,” “narcissistic,” and “borderline” (oddly enough, I don’t recall any mention of histrionic personality disorder, but that’s beside the point), “sociopath” is a term I try to avoid myself for the simple reason that it has no universally recognized definition. So different people use it to mean different things. To many, it’s more or less synonymous with psychopathy, or with “antisocial personality disorder,” which is similar but not the same, and rather broader. I use the term “abuser,” as many people do, to cover all types, including some who don’t even fit Cluster B.

In your own case, your therapist thinks your ex has borderline personality disorder (along with a few other traits), and she’s very likely to be right. I’m glad you’ve got a knowledgeable therapist you can trust. While there can be much overlap in abusive behaviors, it’s important to understand that BPD is different from psychopathy (or what some people see as “sociopathy”); different not just in degree but in kind.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the borderline is any less dangerous. Some borderlines are lethally violent. It’s not clear from your post whether your ex was physically abusive or not, but he certainly raged enough to frighten you into locking yourself in the bathroom!

Apart from that, the “Jekyll and Hyde” behaviors you mentioned fit the borderline to a T. His rapid alternation between “you are my soul mate,” pleading to be taken back, and “you are a demon” reflects perfectly the title of that classic book on BPD: “I Hate You–Don’t Leave Me.” I’m not hearing so much from you about outright psychopathic behaviors, such as compulsive lying. I know he’s told you lies, but I gather that was mostly to cover up his sleeping with someone else after you’d left him. Psychopaths on the other hand can lie out of sheer habit, about everything under the sun. They often lie when they’re be better off telling the truth!

Incidentally do you know why he broke into your apartment several times? If you didn’t find out about it until later, he obviously wasn’t leaving visible signs in order to scare you, but keeping it secret instead. It could be because he was still obsessed with you and looking for signs of whether or not you were seeing someone else.

The most striking aspect is that you felt the good parts of him were real and normal, “way beyond the love bombing stuff.” You may be absolutely right–and that’s very confusing! It’s as if he really does have two opposite sides to his personality.

Many people here, without necessarily using the word, are seeing abusers as essentially psychopathic (or “sociopathic”) in nature, and there are differences between that and the borderline. The two may have similar behaviors at times, but they don’t necessarily have the same underlying motivations, which is what other people can’t see.

To start with, what’s at the root of psychopathy is the profound emotional deficit that, among other things, renders the psychopath incapable of empathy. The borderline by contrast is not necessarily lacking empathy, not all of the time. At least, practitioners dispute the issue. What is clear is that if borderlines do have empathy, it’s intermittent at best, like a flickering light bulb, depending on what mental state they’re in at the time. When they’re in a rage they’re obviously blind to empathy.

Psychopaths typically display a Jekyll and Hyde personality too, but the “good” side is usually fake, a persona they put on to appear normal in front of others. With the borderline there’s reason to suppose that both Jekyll and Hyde are genuine and sincere enough–at the time!

There’s a lot of “black and white thinking” with borderlines, polar extremes from one mental state to another. You’re either an angel or a demon. It’s been theorized that borderlines, unlike normal people, have difficulty holding an integrated “picture” of a partner in their heads. Instead, their perceptions are fragmented. If an ordinary man’s wife does something that annoys him or makes him feel disregarded, he’s still got a holistic picture in his head of his wife as a “good” person who loves him and usually treats him well. This moderates any anger or disappointment he feels, so he doesn’t fly off the handle. But the borderline can often see only what’s in the moment, overreacts and flies into a rage at any perceived slight.

Psychopaths are often cruel just because they enjoy being cruel. They don’t “feel for” others, so to them cruelty can be a form of entertainment. Many other abusers on the other hand, including borderlines, are cruel and blaming because, in their distorted perceptions, they see you as having “hurt” or “offended” them. They vent their rage or “punish” you, not for the sake of being “evil,” but because at the time and in their own minds they genuinely feel you “deserve” it.

Then there’s a lot of harping on about how psychopaths in particular are fond of “power and control,” supposedly for their own sake. That may be true, but while other kinds of abusers are “controlling” as well, much need for control and manipulation in the borderline stems from underlying fear and insecurity. Nevertheless, it’s still oppressive behavior.

I’d recommend reading Steve Becker’s article on this site, among others: Differentiating the sociopath from the borderline from the narcissist.

What about your ex’s claim that you were “the only one who brought that ‘bad’ side out in him”? That may be pure rubbish, just the usual blameshifting that all abusers practice. Alternatively it might be true that he behaved worse with you than with other partners he’s had. But if so, why was that? Not because there’s anything “wrong” with you that “brought his bad side out,” but simply as a function of time. You had a long term relationship: four years of dating, followed by marriage. Typically there’s a “honeymoon period” to start with where everything seems to go better; then things deteriorate. Your relationship with him gave his behavior plenty of time and opportunity to deteriorate. So no, you couldn’t have made him behave better by giving him more sex, more compliments and attention, or more of anything. He’s still in a honeymoon period with this new woman of his. Eventually that will deteriorate too.

As for the “stress” you mentioned, I imagine that stress is likely to make borderline personalities behave worse, by triggering their demons. But stresses in life can’t be avoided, and even if they could be, that’s still not going to make a disordered personality behave well.

In summary, you may be right that in the case of your ex, his “good side” is real enough. Unlike the psychopath, it’s not necessarily an act he’s putting on. The problem is that his bad side is equally real! And it’s not likely to get better.

That’s the catch. It’s a fatal flaw. I look at it this way. Suppose you had a car with every merit we could think of. It’s new; it came as a gift, so it’s not costing you a car payment; it’s sleek, sporty, fast, handles well and is fun to drive; it’s roomy and comfortable and has all the accessories you need; it even gets good gas mileage to boot. It has everything you’ve ever personally wanted in a car–except for one thing. You’ve discovered that the brakes and steering are prone to fail unpredictably at any time–and there’s no way they can be fixed!

No matter how “good” and desirable the car is, you can’t risk driving it, because it’s likely to kill you! And even if it doesn’t, the unremitting stress of worrying what it might do is going to wear you down and destroy your health.

It’s no different with an abuser like your ex. He may have his “good” side, but his bad side will never leave him either. You just can’t afford the risk of living with someone like that. I’m sure he and that other woman will break up eventually too–if she knows what’s good for her.

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