Last week I wrote about the difference between personality or temperament preferences according to one’s type and moral choices. There’s no personality preference that excuses a person from moral, sane behavior. While working on this series, I was reminded of a family therapy group I co-led with a colleague some years ago. One of the indispensable tools in our tool box was the MBTI, which we used to help couples understand why they often didn’t see eye-to-eye, and what they could do to gain insight and change the way they related to one another.
An interesting byproduct of our work on personality types was a question raised by one of the group’s participants, Ned: what’s the difference between a personality type and a personality disorder? How do I know which is which when I’m dealing with problematic interpersonal relationships?
Ned was a single dad who attended the group because he was trying to heal a broken relationships with his son. After taking the MBTI and learning about personality preferences, he expressed concerns that his own preferences for introverted, intuitive thinking ran so far counter to his son’s extraverted, sensing personality that maybe he had alienated his son needlessly. Perhaps, he suggested, his son took after his ex-wife, the young man’s mother. They hadn’t gotten along very well, either. Were the problems and the falling out they’d had Ned’s fault, after all?
We found that as people learned about type and how it can affect one’s marriage and especially one’s child-rearing experiences, they often became concerned about whether they’d done their children a disservice by not fully accepting or understanding their personality preferences. Decent parents are always concerned about screwing their kids up. Unfortunately, screwed up parents are also concerned about screwing their kids up; they just can’t or won’t do what it takes to produce a healthy child, which primarily involves becoming a healthy parent first. Our work in the group was to try to separate one sort of parent from another, give the able parents the tools they needed, and get the screwed up folks into individual therapy.
I couldn’t answer Ned’s question about the estrangement with his son without knowing more details of the circumstances. Ned came in for several sessions of individual counseling so that we could try to sort things out. Ned was the adult child of an alcoholic whose early childhood was spent in a tense household occupied by an intelligent alcoholic father and dependent mother. After his parents divorced, he’d had to grow up quickly, becoming the “little man” around the house and juggling life between two households, as children of divorce must do. When he grew up, he fell in love with and married another adult child of an alcoholic, Allison, whose childhood had been chaotic and full of abuse and abandonment.
Ned and Allison believed that their love would pull them through any difficulty, and their love worked for them until Allison’s first pregnancy, which ended in a stillbirth. Ned recalled that she had never seemed to recover from the loss of their first child, and gradually developed a wine habit over the next few years. By the time their second child, Gabe, was born, Allison was drinking a bottle of wine every night. One evening while Ned worked late, Allison had passed out on the couch and Gabe had wandered out into the neighborhood. A concerned neighbor had taken the child home and notified Ned.
Ned had given Allison an ultimatum: either she got sober, or he would leave with Gabe. Allison agreed to stop drinking, and they attended AA and Al-Anon, where they learned about the addictive process, recovery, and mental and moral health. Allison had a year’s sobriety under her belt by the time Gabe was four years old.
Over time, however, Ned realized that sober Allison wasn’t much improvement over drunk Allison. She was intensely self-centered, had mood swings, and was also clingy and demanding of his time. She called Ned’s office several times a day “just to talk,” and regularly called him home for one emergency or another. She expressed many fears, including fear of strangers, fear of intruders, and suspicions about friends and family members. She was hyper-vigilant, observing and commenting on everything. Though always busy and occupied with a great many tasks that involved Gabe spending a substantial part of his time with her strapped into a car seat, stroller, or shopping cart, she was deeply lonely. She had no close friends and had alienated the few recovered family members they had. She was obsessive, driven, and tightly wound. Ned began to feel he was being choked.
In an effort to help his wife, Ned suggested she try yoga, which might calm her down, give her something to do, and expose her to other women who might befriend her. Allison loved yoga and began to practice religiously. “Emphasize ‘religiously,’” Ned had smiled wryly. Allison seemed to need an obsession to keep her from being in the present with Ned and Gabe. Though the principles taught in yoga included being present, attending to one’s breathing, and learning to be peaceful, Allison merely talked about her intentions to be present, be peaceful, and be available to others, too. No one who knew her could say that she had improved and could actually manifest her intentions, though Allison sang her own praises to heaven.
There wasn’t a single problem that led to Ned and Allison’s divorce. Rather, he explained, it was “a thousand little things, and the feeling that she was always just acting like a wife and mother but was never really in it.” She created chaos and tension out of thin air, particularly causing conflict with other women. She couldn’t seem to get along with her female bosses or with Ned’s mother or sisters, and regularly seemed to fabricate division in the workplace and family. I told Ned that she had probably been unable to confront her inner “bad mother” and so had to manifest it outwardly, demanding division, fractures, and abandonment in every intimate relationship because she had to externalize her ongoing self-abandonment.
I told Ned about research done by sociologist Jan Yager, who writes that healthy interpersonal relationships are unlikely to be had with people who grew up abused, neglected, or intensely criticized, for they are likely to act out the negative patterns of childhood and adolescence in all their subsequent relationships. People thus treated in childhood must get and act on good therapy or everyone around them will suffer the consequences, consequences the bewildered personality disordered never fully appreciate.
The courts gave Ned and Allison joint custody of Gabe, who hadn’t been well served by the traditional custodial arrangement of seeing his father only four days a month and on summer vacations. Steeped in Allisons’s chaotic, intense environment, Gabe had problems of his own.
We could see why estrangement was the nearly inevitable outcome of Ned’s relationship with his son. The question was, what (if anything) could we do about it?