Recently "Tom" became hostile and defensive with me when I made the statement "Marriage is the hardest work we ever do." He was very adamant - angry even - in his reply, "No, life is the hardest work we ever do!" His statement has stayed with me because this was not a minor disagreement in his mind, but I had challenged the core of his belief system. He could not believe that anyone would have a different opinion and in hearing this began to unravel. During the conversation I witnessed a downward mood swing that sunk into the depth of his being. Over the next thirty minutes I witnessed instability in his mood that was uncomfortable and unpleasant to watch in reaction to an ordinary and innocent statement. Tom became depressed, confrontational, irritable, and his thought process appeared irrational.
Now, understand that while this happened in a non-law enforcement context, you know Tom, as well. You respond to his fights, mediate his conflicts, listen to his complaints and, frankly, take him into custody when his irrationality crosses the law. Tom is as familiar to cops as he is to therapists.
The reason Tom became offensive when his belief "life is hard" was challenged is because he is stuck in a victim mode. He believes life circumstances have control over him rather than seeing he has choices over his behaviors and moods that can create happiness. He is egotistical in thinking that life is only ghastly for him and he cannot conceptualize others go through similar experiences but choose different results. Tom lacks the needed skill of empathy to understand and recognize the pain of others except to manipulate them to his own advantage. He does this to inflict emotional pain onto someone else in a way that they will either pity him into acceptance or become so outraged they leave.
Another reason Tom felt challenged is he believes his belief system gives him the right to blame others when he feels emotionally uncomfortable and restless. He internalizes his discomfort as others attacking him, instead of recognizing that everyone has times of low self-esteem. As a result, Tom is looking for someone to give him self-esteem or to fulfill him. He is trying to find someone to fill a deep, dark endless void that has existed since childhood. It makes him feel unloved, defective, and discarded. Tom knows emotionally healthy people do not have this void and believes if he can only find someone to love him, it would go away. It exists because in the first two years of his life, he did not experience a loving nurturing caretaker. The irony is Tom cannot accept love when it is given; instead he begins a self-destructive cycle that pushes that person away.
In looking into Tom's relationship history there are a string of broken, enmeshed, and destructive relationships in his family of origin, past girlfriends, and close friends. Growing up his Mother was abusive towards Tom and emotionally dependent on him all at the same time. His Father was distant and emotionally weak. In talking with him a theme is revealed of people being viewed as "all good" or "all bad." He experiences the world in very concrete terms; everything is black or white. This way of thinking creates a world of chaos much like the Tasmanian Devil. It is a whirlwind of highs and lows that eventually wears people into exhaustion so they leave. However, when they start to leave, he expresses emotional dependence on them which may confuse someone into staying. The relationship becomes entangled as each person loses their identity which is also known as enmeshment. Tom also has a history of splitting people against one another in order to maintain control and a feeling of self-worth. Another trait you may find in Tom is a history of non-lethal suicide attempts when a relationship is on the verge of obliteration. It is the ultimate manipulation in gaining control and dependence. He does this because he fears abandonment.
The biggest reason Tom became angry at the statement "marriage is the hardest work we ever do" is that he did not want to be held responsible for his words and actions towards his wife. In his closest relationship, he needs to live life unfiltered and uncensored. Being held accountable for his inappropriate anger and mood swings triggers a string of self-deprecating thoughts inside his head that are never ending except when he turns his anger onto someone else. However, when his wife is about to walk away because she has had enough, Tom knows how to make her stay by expressing how he could never live without her. This is a continuous cycle as Tom repeatedly tests her love for him. In an attempt to fill his emotional void he provokes fights with his wife by jumping her boundaries physically and emotionally. He needs to know whether she will come back to him or abandon him like everyone else. Even his excessive encounters with the police due to his impulsive and abusive behaviors do not drive her away.
Tom was also angry since he knew he could not maintain a healthy relationship because of his mood swings, anger, self-absorption, and victim beliefs. He knew he needed to deflect the attention away from his behavior choices and onto how life has mistreated him, so that his wife would excuse the nasty harsh words he says to her every day. He would rather point out how his wife has failed him than to say I am sorry. For this person, life is going to be hard because his basic relationship skills are destructive and he will continue to encounter hardships in most environments where relationships are a key element to success.
We know you have a lot of personal and practical experience with Tom. You have encountered him often. Tom has a Personality Disorder at the root of his chaos. What we would love for you to do is to take a stab in the comment section below as to your experiences with Tom and, if you feel adventurous, what personality disorder you believe Tom has and why. Is he Antisocial, Borderline, Histrionic, Narcissistic, or Dependent Personality Disorder as classified by diagnostic criteria in the DSM-IV? Our next article goes live later this month on the 29th. In that article we will present our argument to Tom's diagnosis and Mike will describe the types of calls you would most likely encounter him on, and give practical tips on how to best respond.