The flipside of my last post is that sometimes distance brings clarity. By not being personally involved in a situation, you may be able to make a more balanced assessment of what is really going on, while the people in it are too busy and too involved to look at the big picture. That can put you in a bit of a spot: how do you tell someone that their ongoing problems with a loved one are merely symptoms of a serious underlying condition? How do you tell them that, regardless of how hard they try, they can’t fix this?
Say you have a friend who has ongoing issues with a partner/parent/child. They are constantly dealing with the same problems – inappropriate behaviours, abnormal emotional reactions, minor issues escalating into crises, you name it. They are coming to you for venting and advice. They’ve tried everything they can think of, and they can’t stop the problem reoccurring. They don’t know what else to do. They are starting to think that there is something wrong with them. The person they are having the problem with supports this view.
From your perspective, you’re able to take a better measure of where normality sits – and yes, even in this tolerant age there are parameters for normality. Because you are uninvolved in the situation, able to look at it from a distance, it’s easy for you to see that the problem is not with your friend. The party they are having problems with shows behaviours and attitudes that are consistent, and consistently out of kilter. For instance, they may be consistently paranoid, neurotic, self-involved, grandiose, controlling, destructive, self-destructive, etc. You are aware that this can be the symptom of a personality disorder. You might not be able to advance a specific diagnosis, but you’ve seen enough to believe that the situation cannot be resolved without addressing the underlying cause of the problems.
What do you do with that information? That kind of awareness can be a useful tool. In many cases, if you know what someone’s disorder is you can work around it, effectively manipulating them into a semblance of normal behaviour. It isn’t normality, though, and it requires you to constantly remind yourself that the person you are dealing with is very much unlike you, and never will be. It can help making the situation tolerable, but it creates a permanent barrier between you. Can you see yourself telling someone that their partner has antisocial personality disorder, so is effectively unable to return their love? That they will never have a normal relationship with their parent, or with their child? Can you see yourself warning them that if professional help is not obtained, their loved ones may be a danger to others?
And then there’s the other possibility – that the person coming to you with the problem is the problem, that it’s their distorted perception of the world that is causing the situation they are in, and making life hell for those around them. I’ve tried disentangling that a few times, and never managed.