Book Recommendations, Emotional abuse, Relationships, Uncategorized

On the recommendation of my colleague Wendy Kenrick, I’m currently reading Bill Eddy & Megan Hunter’s Dating Radar: Why Your Brain Says Yes to “The One” Who Will Make Your Life Hell (Unhooked Books, Scottsdale AZ, 2017). I’m reading it less for my own dating purposes, and more because it provides an an unparalleled introduction in simple language to four common “high-conflict personality” types, and what it’s like to start a relationship with one of them… generally without knowing until it’s too late that this is what you’re in for.

Billy Eddy was a therapist for 12 years before becoming a lawyer and mediator. Megan Hunter is the CEO of Unhooked Books, an expert in “high-conflict disputes and complicated relationships.” Together they are the founders of High Conflict Institute, authoring and co-authoring several books on working with, surviving, or exiting relationships with High-Conflict Personalities (HCPs). Both authors have worked often with relationships struggling in the face of uncovering one or both parties embody behavioural patterns that create chaos and upheaval when pursuing intimacy. This is just one of the books they have written to illustrate how complicated and perilous relationship with certain personality types can be, what makes them so easy to fall into (what jams a person’s “dating radar” when early warning signs might otherwise start appearing), and what it’s likely to take to stay safe within, or safely exit, such relationships.

“High-conflict people (HCPs) tend toward all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, extreme behaviours or threats, and blaming others. But all of this may be well-hidden from you at the start, because of their ability to jam your radar and because of your own dating blind spots (we all have them). Our goal is to help you in three ways, by showing you how to recognize:

  1. Warning signs of certain personalities that can spell love relationship danger.
  2. Ways that they can jam your radar (deceive you).
  3. Where your own blind spots might be.

We focus on four high-conflict personality types, their common characteristics in romantic relationships, their common deceptions, and their targets’ common blind spots. We give examples of how they deceive their targets and how the targets fool themselves–despite the warning signs. We want to help you steer clear of those reefs.” (pg. 2-3)

The authors approach this topic in two parts: the first examines the mechanism of relational development from the perspective of someone inadvertently involved with an HCP, while the latter half of the book looks at how each of their four identified HCP types specifically functions during initial attachment development, and on into/through the “bait and switch” turning points of the relationship once things settle into commitment and routine.

They break down their four main HCP types as follows:

Narcissist HCP Borderline HCP Antisocial/Sociopath HCP Histrionic HCP
Overly friendly
Shifts to anger
Sudden mood swings
Breaks rules & laws
Con artist
Superficial & helpless
Needs to be superior Needs to be attached Needs to dominate Needs to be center of attention

There are several factors contributing to the origin of HCPs:

    • genetic and temperament they are born with
    • early childhood upbringing
    • experiential traumas
    • the cultures into which they are born or raised

(pg. 35)

Attachment injuries or entitlements can also have a huge impact on development of dysfunctional insecurities underlying most HCP behaviours. Often HCPs aren’t even aware of their own behaviours, and don’t intend maliciousness; they simply have no tolerance for their own fears when those core insecurities get triggered by normal pairing mechanisms and relationship developments. There are similarities in their engagement styles, however, that “jam the radar” for people getting involved with them, blinding them to the chaos that’s about to ensue:

  • charm (attraction, chemistry, “spark”–the intensity of the initial courtship dance); the more lonely or desperate the target is for that attention and attachment, especially in people with low self esteem, the harder and faster they will fall victim to this jamming tactic
  • extreme compatibility and adaptability to you, your interests and values (at least initially)
  • overt/extreme sexuality/sensuality (sexual aspects of the relationship move VERY quickly, using the chemistry of sexual desire to cement the intensity of the initial bond)
  • protectiveness (of the target, specifically; a high degree of knight-in-shining-armourism can be powerful cement to a target with a history of feeling insecure and unprotected)
  • assertiveness (sometimes bordering on aggressiveness)

If these factors can jam a target’s radar, what keeps the signal clear for them?

  • Skepticism, and alert awareness; trusting your gut when it suggests that something is “too good to be true”; odds are good, it probably is. Don’t mistake the warning signs for love.
  • Watching for extremes, especially in the jamming factors listed above. There’s a heightened level of attachment and affection that is normal in the courtship phase, but if your gut tells you “This seems like a little TOO much,” then you may be unconsciously picking up on an HCP’s unconscious extreme need for coupledom.
  • Slowing things down; HCPs need a strong attachment formed quickly in order to feel like their end of the attachment is viable, and they get as swept up in the intensity of New Relationship Energy (NRE) as they want to to be. “Speed is the biggest, reddest flag.” (pg 59)

The book also offers insights into other factors that can contribute to high-conflict relationships, including addictions, certain mental health issues such as bipolar or autism spectrum disorders, paranoia (which may also exist as a factor in all of the four common HCP types).

The issue with being in relationship with HCPs is that the radar jamming means you won’t realize how bad the relationship is, until it’s so bad that there’s no way to continue rationalizing or justifying the pain and chaos you’re experiencing. The “big reveal” in some cases is swift, but in others it may be a slowly-eroding process over time. Sometimes there are signs right from the beginning, but in the spirit of swept-away NRE, we choose (at our peril) to ignore them.

“People (especially dating partners) are often totally stunned when they start seeing these patterns. “He was so nice,” they say. Or, “She was so easygoing!” It’s as if another person emerges out of their body. But the reality is that this person was always there, just covered up temporarily by their sugar-coated public persona and ability to fly under their dating partner’s radar.

In most relationships the patterns emerge gradually, while in others the transition from wonderful to awful happens overnight.” (pg. 21)

One of the final chapters details the effective strategies required to escape from a relationship with an HCP. Much of this seems drawn from Bill’s own experience as both therapist and eventually lawyer to high-conflict couples. The authors discuss how to prepare for possible (common) HCP reactions, up to and including the risks of domestic violence and harassment, and how these might escalate, providing a “field guide” to the common breakup behaviour patterns of HCPs. They also provide a step-by-step guide for managing the process as effectively as possible, including a frank discussion about restraining orders should the proverbial fecal matter hit the fan.

Overall this book is an excellent, plain-language resource about dealing with specific difficult personality types; while recognizing that all personalities exist on a spectrum, and even with HCPs not everything devolves to terrifying worst-case scenarios, the authors pull no punches. They remain empathetic to the plight of the dating partner at all times, but also reiterate frequently that HCPS simply DO NOT RECOGNIZE their own behaviours. They generally are not capable of the self-observation and reflection required to face their inner demons, their vulnerabilities and insecurities. Change is exceptionally difficult for HCPs because change first requires acknowledging there is a problem and they may be in the wrong, then making space for them to face their own indescribably intense shame and embarrassment. Remember, high-conflict behaviours develop almost exclusively as cover-up mechanisms to protect the HCP from *EVER* having to face those difficult feelings. So the onus for recognizing and choosing a healthier path by necessity lies on the dating partner. Eddy and Hunter have created an impressive body of work, both in this book and in others, for individuals and professionals supporting individuals trying to manage their HCP-entangled situations.

The small print:
Personally, I have a lot of complicated feelings about the book, if only because I recognize so many of the described behaviours from the demise of pretty much every long-term relationship I have ever had… and as my therapist once so cunningly pointed out to me, “If the only common denominator across all your failed relationships is you, then perhaps the biggest issue was NOT the other people.” (After the demise of my second marriage, I actually looked into a borderline diagnosis for myself because so much of the description rang true; not enough for diagnostics at the psychological level, but enough to give me a massive wake-up call.) Unsurprisingly, being the Adult Child of Alcoholics leaves one with dysfunctional coping mechanism–many of which fit the descriptions in this book TO A T. My largest, possibly singular, saving grace has almost certainly been some amount of hard-won capacity for self-observation and self-reflection, and the slowly-and-gracelessly increasing ?willingness? to own and correct my mistakes… and six years of remaining single until I could believe that I would be OK on my own, and not keep throwing myself into relationships because I *NEEDED* to attach to feel secure. So this book reads like a VERY uncomfortable, shame-laden personal memoir, but ultimately the value it provides as a clinical or client-facing tool for supporting those finding themselves in such relationships is certainly worth my own burning discomforts.

Book Recommendations

But in the postfeminist turmoil of relationship landscapes, men have been struggling to find a way to relate intelligently, parent sensitively, and manage their emotional needs with more consciousness and depth. It’s just that many men haven’t exactly figured out a way to do all these things and still really feel like a man, or at least feel like they are integrating these higher-level qualities in a way that suits men. … [In therapy, w]e ask them to recognize that something is wrong, admit that they need help, openly discuss and express emotions, get vulnerable, and depend on someone else to help them. Unfortunately these tasks don’t typically fit with the Guy Code.
Part of what makes it even more challenging to treat men is that male psychic pain is not always broadcast as articulately as is that of women. Author William Pollack describes men’s anger as their “way of weeping.” And men also weep by drinking, withdrawing, getting irritable, developing somatic complaints, acting competitive, and philandering. ~ David Wexler, Preface, “Men In Therapy”

David Wexler was my first introduction to the specific work of inviting men into the therapeutic process, with the language of how men divert a great deal of their emotional experiences into a tiny number of limited channels of expression. It wasn’t until a few years later, coinciding with my more recent exposure and involvement in whatever wave of feminism we’re currently swimming in, that I first hear and understood the phrase, “toxic masculinity”.

I’m currently embarking on a reading binge to open up more understanding and avenues of approach that will (hopefully) provide better ways of engaging with men in the counselling office. Wexler is a great place for therapists to start, and I will be coming back to his books in future reviews. But today I am deep into a surprisingly insightful book on toxic masculinity written by a young Brit (now residing in Toronto, apparently) who lost his father to an unexpected illness about which the family knew nothing. Exploring the underpinnings of “what happened” in an effort to understand his father’s inexplicable silence, Jack Urwin wrote an article in 2014 for VICE, entitled “A Stiff Upper Lip is Killing British Men”. Overwhelming response to that article eventually pushed the 24 year old writer to expand his research and his writing into his 2016 book, “Man Up: Surviving Modern Masculinity.”

There’s a level of self-awareness that is required for an author to recognize the patterns of a culture in which they are themselves immersed, and yet find ways of holding up a mirror that allows sufficient reflection to observe the impacts and implications of cultural patterns and values on its participants. In looking for ways to understand why his father never disclosed his health problems to his family before his unexpected death when the author was ten, Urwin takes a microscope to the aspects of masculine behaviour and the way in which expectations any society places on men will inevitably decree what is “right and wrong” for men’s behaviour.

He starts off with neatly skewering the tradition write-off for masculine behaviours on a biological basis, and jumps fairly early into looking at how shifting economic realities helped create a landscape that has sped up the need for men to find new definitions for themselves. Urwin is British; his focus is predominantly on masculine cultural development in England, but his views extrapolate out to most Western countries, and indeed he does often look at American, at least, cultural similarities and differences in gendered development. He looks at how militarism has impacted the perception of “what is masculine” around the globe, and the ways in which popular culture have reinforced the notions of what is masculine and what is not. He also spends a great deal of time bringing in additional resources to back up his own observations on how these factors, reinforcing the ideal of masculinity prevalent in Britain’s “lad culture” (and similar masculine ideals on this side of the pond), are increasingly contributing to patterns of toxicity that cripple men who try to step aside from those limited ideals and into something more like what Wexler describes trying to achieve with men in the therapy room. In short: men are often “more scared of being uncool than dying” (pg. 66):

Men fear emasculation ? perhaps more than anything else ? so they do anything they can to ensure that the image they project to others is one of masculinity, and to reassure themselves of their own social standing as men. If someone comes along and proves me wrong, and can conclusively demonstrate that violence and aggression and risk and dangerous behaviour in men is all down to testosterone, then so be it. For now, I’ll bet you every last penny in my bank account that if all men were taught emasculation wasn’t something to fear, we’d have a much better world for everyone. ~pg. 77

One of the things that makes this book more engaging for the layperson than, say, Wexler’s textbook for therapists, is Urwin’s genuine willingness to look at his own experiences. He is aware of his own bias and narrative perspectives, and he approaches them with a blend of grace and humour that allows the reader to see the experiences he describes through his eyes. His writing style is also very crisp with some hefty doses of British humour thrown in to help temper the desperateness of the situations and statistics he’s backing up with both anecdotes and research. He admits out of the starting gate that his way of dealing with his father’s untimely death was to develop what Virginia Satir would call the “irreverent” stance; Urwin became the class clown, diverting intense sadness and grief off the boards with humour. Fourteen years later as an author, he has found his way back to an authentic vulnerability he balances against those moments of witty distraction, and the result is an engaging tone that delivers horrifying statistics in a very matter-of-fact tone, while also recognizing that humour allows his readers a safe place to decompress and process the tension of these insights before moving on to the next thing.

The biggest challenge with acknowledging and deconstructing toxic masculinity is its commonality in human culture. (There’s a whole sidebar conversation we’re only starting to have on the corresponding rise of toxic femininity, but that’s for another day.) Being able to allow men a safe place to explore having emotions beyond the limited scope allowed by “lad culture” while also educating them on the impact of their behaviour on others, is a hugely challenging task. It’s especially challenging for women, therapists or partners, because to some extent we have to recognize and step outside the recognition of our own perceptions of experiences in being on the receiving end of some of those more toxic behavioural aspects. Being able to start a conversation around what Wexler refers to as Masculine Gender Role Stress (MGRS) requires first finding out if the men in question are even aware of a performative aspect to their masculine self-identity. This is one place where a therapist can help start the conversations, at least. Furthermore, in this day and age there is still a strongly-gendered belief that men are defining themselves by their ability to earn a good living and be good providers for themselves and their families, and increasingly precarious employment situations are part of a contextual shift happening across our culture in the 21st century; those impacts on gendered definitions and coping mechanisms must also be considered.

Jack Urwin’s book provides a hugely-valuable window of insight into the costs being borne by men in the late 20th and 21st centuries as the world shifts faster than their security in their self-definitions does. Traditional supports for those definitions are eroding, and clinging harder to “traditional masculinity” (as witnessed by the rise of Men’s Rights Activists [MRAs]) is producing only bigger, hotter fights than ever. It also provides some new language for women struggling to understand the behaviours of the men in their lives, some perspective that helps explain why men keep entering into intimate relationships yet not participating on the emotional levels their partners ask of them. If you don’t mind the occasional spicy language (Urwin is free with his swearing, on occasion), then “Man Up” is going to be a handy reference guide and road map for anyone beginning to look at both the history and current scope of the issues men face, and the challenges of interacting with them in the place of greatest difficulty: their own emotional development.