A Problem of Character

Recently I wrote about the difference between personality type and personality disorders. Originally called “character disorders,” a personality disorder is “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment” (from the DSM-IV). The personality disorders we recognize today are listed here.

When most people think of the word “character,” I imagine they think first of a person’s moral fiber, his ethical nature. When clinicians talk about character disorders, they refer to problems with the aggregate qualities of an individual’s personality: who is he, when we sum him up? Over the years, my observation has been that character disorders are right behind addictions for the amount of human suffering they cause. Some people’s experiences are that they may even cause more suffering, since they are not as easily identified as other mental disorders and frequently go undiagnosed. We only know that someone causes us discomfort and pain, that being around them is hard, and that we have to watch what we say and do around them. They are not safe people, even if they are predictable over time.

Many people’s childhood wounds are caused by having had a character disordered parent. Also known as neuroses, character disorders are marked by rigidity, an inability to yield when given the choice, and an almost complete blindness to the other person’s perspective, suffering, or emotions about an event, often caused by the character disordered person.

People with character disorders or neuroses (what I call “character disorder lite”)  act in ways that cause more problems than they solve–usually for other people more often than for themselves. Almost everything they do, in fact, is about them and results in their getting what they want and need, almost always at another person’s expense. Their blindness to other people’s concerns and needs is usually the result of a deeply held belief about the world, though not necessarily a conscious belief. Their belief in the world as they see it is so strong that any evidence to the contrary is discounted: this is the hallmark behavior of the personality disordered.

Character Disorders: The First Decade

During the first decade of a character disorder’s bloom, the ill individual will have many opportunities to have her flaws pointed out to her, usually first by close friends and later by relatives. This pattern occurs mainly because a personality disorder develops out of a misbegotten childhood, in which a child’s parent or parents are themselves doing a disordered dance. The parents may play good cop-bad cop, with one parent the sick one and the other the rescuer or enabler, or each parent may have his or her own obvious disorder. In spite of their problems, though, unlike those with substance-abuse, psychotic, or even mood disorders, the personality disordered manage to keep their children in school, hold down jobs, and even to achieve socially-desirable ends such as education or advanced training, all while the character disorder ticks away like a timed bomb.

Usually, close friends or romantic partners are the first to realize that the character disordered are nutty, mainly due to the disordered person’s inability to yield, compromise, or otherwise see things the other person’s way. A romantic partner who needs a nutty spouse because of having had a nutty parent can serve as a good foil for the character disordered person: the relationship just feels right.  There will be a rush of romance, an instant connection, something bigger than life and more meaningful; the two become enmeshed and appear to others like a two-headed beast. Where one goes, the other follows; everything is romance and adventure except that the two have undertaken a quest of character without actually having any personhood at all.


Within 3-5 years of entering a relationship with a character impaired person, you know it. You know something is wrong, because the first year’s excuses and apologies have worn off  and the rigidity of your partner, friend, colleague, neighbor or loved one is remarkable. They do all the taking and demanding, and very little giving or yielding (if any). The giving they do is for appearances sake and involves no real sacrifice, for there is always something better to be gotten as the result of any “sacrifice” they do make. They are like vampires, and I’ve thought for a long time that the reason why the vampire is an enduring mythical creature is that our world is full of them. They suck the life out of others while giving nothing lively themselves.

Naturally, being the host comes to be a problem for others. The host either falls ill and becomes a vampire him- or herself, or struggles for freedom. Interpersonal conflicts are inevitable whenever the disordered come into prolonged contact with healthy people. They want to play a healthy person but they never can quite pull it off, for there are no substitutes or fakeries for realness.

The inability of the character disordered to yield sacrificially, even when appealed to in the most heartfelt ways, is a hallmark of this personality. They may be aware of the problems experienced by those around them, but they cannot make a connection between these problems and their own behavior. The problems the other person experiences are not their fault; the fault is always with the other person. This is true even when the other person is a person of reputation, experience, or quality to whom the disordered formerly turned for advice or help. Clinicians have written reams about how notoriously difficult it is to treat the personality disordered. They, of all those with mental disorders, are the most likely to get just “well” enough to function again and then to terminate therapy or any healthy relationship they have.

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