Serious Abusers and Psychology’s Failure to Understand Them 

by Dr. George Simon

For the past two weeks I’ve been posting on the various types of relational abuse to which disturbed characters are prone (See, for example: Narcissism and Relational Abuse – Both Active and Passive and Abusive Relationships: From Disregard to Dominance). The series is meant to help those who find themselves in abusive situations recognize the true dynamics at play and to procure the tools necessary to empower themselves. Over the years, I’ve unfortunately heard from thousands of folks dismayed at how little genuine understanding or assistance they got when seeking professional help for themselves or the disturbed character in their lives. Sometimes, that was because their relationship partner’s character disturbance was so severe or intractable that no amount or type of therapy had much chance of making a difference.  But more often it was because the therapy itself – especially the psychological paradigm guiding the therapy – was ill-suited to the task.  When it comes to understanding human aggression and the problems it can cause in relationships, many of psychology’s most time-honored models have proven to be seriously inadequate, if not fatally flawed.

We’ve all heard the explanations:  People abuse because they were abused themselves and act-out their inner pain; Bullies are really cowards “underneath;” Those who try to assert power and control over others are really insecure individuals, suffering from low-self esteem; Serial cheaters have trust wounds and are therefore “commitment-phobic,” etc.  And even though great strides have been made in recent years with respect to recognizing the true nature of character disturbance, some of these notions, derived from traditional psychology paradigms, unfortunately persist despite mounds of empirical evidence that they are in error.

I wrote In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance with the average person in mind.  I wanted to give folks a rational and comprehensible model for understanding the various disturbances and disorders of character.  I began this blog for similar reasons.  Since doing so, I’ve not only heard from thousands of individuals ecstatic because their gut feelings were finally validated but also from hundreds of therapists who wanted to let me know how grateful they were to finally understand why the approaches they had been using to deal with impaired characters weren’t working and to now have both a perspective and a set of tools that could make a real impact.

My last two articles have dealt with the dynamics at work with narcissistic characters and two of the aggressive variants of such characters: the unbridled aggressive and the channeled-aggressive personalities.  Today’s article will focus on the least well-understood aggressive personality subtypes:  the sadistic, covert-aggressive, and predatory aggressive (alt: psychopathic) personalities.

As odd as it might seem, most aggressive personalities don’t have hurting people as their primary agenda.  Rather, what they seek primarily is to have their way, including getting what they want from people.  Now, make no mistake, they certainly have no problem trampling over others and their rights to get what they want, but their main objective is securing what they desire, not inflicting injury.  Such is not the case, however, with sadistic personalities and psychopaths.

Sadistic-aggressives relish in demeaning and wielding brutal power over others (for more on this personality type see:  Understanding The Sadistic Personality, Demeaning as a Lifestyle: The Sadistic-Aggressive, Character Disturbance pp. 120-121, and In Sheep’s Clothing pp. 43-44).  They not only intend to hurt but also derive great satisfaction from so doing.  One psychopathic female with very prominent sadistic traits, and who was executed in Texas several years ago, told law enforcement officers that she actually experienced orgasm during the act of sadistically torturing and impaling the person she and her accomplice gruesomely murdered.  Sadists come in all shapes, sizes, and genders.  And how they get to be the way they are is a matter of great dispute.  The only things we know for sure are that, like all seriously disturbed characters, they lack empathy and they truly enjoy making others suffer and grovel. They’re the most poignant example of the axiom I advance with respect to the primary agenda of aggressive personalities:  It’s always about position, position, and position! As long as they’re dominant over you and you’re groveling and suffering under their oppression, they’re happy. And they’re simply miserable when there isn’t someone or something they can lord power over. Some are innately revulsed by weakness and particularly enjoy tormenting those they perceive as week or needy. They can also cause people to suffer for the pure pleasure of it, which is what makes their behavior so incomprehensible to their victims.  That’s also one reason victims (and traditionally-minded therapists) have always speculated so much about what horrific thing must have happened to the sadistic abuser to make them behave the way they do. Unfortunately, entertaining some of the traditionally-offered but never validated explanations for their behavior only makes it more likely the victim will continue to be abused.

As those familiar with my books and other writings already know, I prefer the term “predatory aggressive” for the folks who most recently have again been labeled psychopathic (and sometimes, erroneously labeled “sociopathic”) because I believe that term best describes their fundamental interpersonal modus operandi.  Psychopaths are the only known intra-species predators.  And, as I assert in my writings and have learned from years of experience with such folks, the reason for this is that they consider themselves superior creatures compared to common humans.  They have the most malignant form of narcissism.  They know all too well how different they are from the rest of us but don’t consider this a shortcoming.  Rather, they consider themselves more than “special.” They consider themselves distinctly superior to those who possess two characteristics they don’t have:  empathy and conscience.  The way they see it, folks with a heart and with those things the rest of us call “qualms” are an inferior breed, the perfect patsies, and their rightful prey.  They enjoy “toying with,” manipulating, using, and abusing others at will.  And they’re often adept at concealing their true nature from us, being capable of “mimicking” normality and exuding surface-level charm. They’re the most extreme variation of the characters I call “covert-aggressive” (and that other offers have referred to as “almost a psychopath”). The difference is that “garden variety” covert-aggressors have some capacity for empathy (although it’s seriously impaired) and some degree of conscience (and therefore they lie on a different part of the character-disordered – neurotic spectrum). There are many more covert-aggressive personalities than there are true psychopaths, which is one reason I felt compelled to write In Sheep’s Clothing.  The other reason I wrote the book is because covert-aggressives prefer a select group of tactics to get the better of others, so once you know how to recognize those tactics and appropriately deal with them, you can be substantially empowered in your dealings with such characters and avoid being manipulated.  But when it comes to a relationship with a true psychopath, there’s only one good way of dealing with things: Get out!  Run! And do so quickly!  Even a psychopath who’s come to realize the practical benefits of conforming is still extremely dangerous because of the capacity they have for heartless, remorseless abuse.

The professional community is only beginning to understand the real reasons people do the kinds of things they do.  Our aggressive tendencies are part of our evolutionary heritage.  And civilization is but a recent blip in the timeline of evolution. There was even a period when the psychopaths among us were probably the single most significant reason for our survival as a species. They were the totally fearless warriors who dominated their tribes and slew all the tribe’s foes (human and non-human foes alike) without hesitation, compunction, or remorse. A truly adequate psychology would need to set aside our outdated, well-intended but purely speculative and unverifiable notions about who we are and why we do the things we do and build on the hard science we’ve acquired about our species and the natural world around us.  That would necessarily include an honest reckoning with our animal instincts, our tribal nature, and what we really need in the way of shaping influences in our environment to enhance our ability to function in a prosocial way, given the so-called “civilized” world we’ve created for ourselves over the past few millennia.