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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Treatment Tuesday - Misogyny & Dependent Personality Disorder

Treatment Tuesday is brought to you today by Cathy. Always one to stretch my goal of helping writers make their characterizations and plots more meaningful from a psychological perspective, Cathy threw me a question that will broaden the perimeters of my service. So thanks, Cathy!

Cathy is considering writing a book about a male misogynist. She wrote in wanting to know what kind of woman would fall get caught in this cyclical trap of emotional abuse.

Well, to know that, we first have to consider what a misogynist is. For those who were about to type it in your online dictionary program, most people think of a misogynist as a man who hates women. This hate is not always manifested by physical abuse, but almost always involves emotional and psychological abuse.

What might not be as common a definition, but that is completely t
rue, is that misogynists often have an irrational fear of women. And we all know how common it is for someone to automatically hate what he or she fears. Misogyny can be found on a continuum, and some versions can be quite subtle. For example, insisting a woman do all domestic chores. Or a culture that believes women should be seen and not heard. The other end of the extreme is violent treatment. And because a man might hold some misogynist views doesn’t mean he couldn’t have a positive relationship with a woman. The reverse is true, as well, in that having positive relationships with women doesn’t necessarily preclude a man from having misogynistic views.

So, Cathy, the first thing I’d advise you to do is decide where on the continuum you’re going to write this man.

Now, onto the woman. Based on our emails, you’re envisioning a woman who is drawn to a guy even after he treats her terribly. She feels called to be merciful to him, but why does she keep putting herself in a position for him to treat her so badly?

To figure this out, we have to look at HER issues. What’s going onside her that would make her stay? The most obvious (and easiest) answer is that she’s afraid of being abandoned. That fear would suspend your reader’s belief enough that they would understand why she stays, despite the poor treatment. Another possibility is she has extremely low self-esteem, and feels she must take what she is given either a) because she deserves it or b) it’s better being with him than the alternative of being alone (which is really another way of stating she’s scared of abandonment).

So what would this look like played out in every day actions? To answer this, I went to my handy Diagnostic and Statistical M
anual of Mental Disorders (4th edition, text revision) that we use to diagnose mental disorders. My fingers immediately went to Dependent Personality Disorder.

You mentioned you were thinking of having her be the only child of an abusive, alcoholic father and codepe
ndent mom. You wrote that the misogynist reminds the woman of her father, which is very telling of abusive childhoods. Typically, women abused as children will often choose a man who also abuses them. A great angle to play up for this woman is to have her somehow abandoned (or the very real feel of abandonment) by her parents. She might have felt abandoned by her father every time he turned to the bottle and abandoned by her mother every time she turned a blind eye to the abuse. That sort of thing would make for a very believable backstory for your heroine.

[Just an aside here, but I don’t want to confuse anyone. Codependency is NOT the same thing as Dependent Personality Disorder (DPD). I can write another post on the difference later, if you're interested.]

A woman with DPD would have difficulty expressing disagreement with ot
hers because of a fear of losing support or approval. She’s not going to stand up to the man while he’s berating her, for example, which fits perfectly with a wallflower, fade-into-the-background kind of woman. She would have difficulty initiating projects of doing things on her own because of a lack of confidence in her judgment and abilities. She would go to extra lengths to volunteer to do things that are unpleasant simply to obtain nurturance and support from others.

She would have difficulty making every day decisions without an excessive amount of advice and reassurance from others. This could fit with the analytical personality, as she could absolutely over-analyze things to a point that renders her useless. She’d want others to assume responsibility for most major areas of her life, and this would fit with his tendency to be take-charge and controlling.

The tricky part with working within this type framework would be to include some part of her background that lent itself toward exaggerated fears of being unable to take care of herself. She’s overly cautious, you wrote, so I could see how that might fit. But this type personality would feel uncomfortable or helpless when alone because of these fears. So not so sure that would fit, depending on her history leading up to when she meets this man. She might even be so desperate to have care and support that as soon as one close relationship ends, she would urgently seek another. Perhaps her backstory could h
ave this in it.

Bear in mind that not every characteristic in bold would be required to diagnose someone with Dependent Personality Disorder. Mental illnesses have several diagnostic criteria, and usually only some are required for diagnosis. In this case, of the eight symptoms, five would have to be evident. So you can pick and choose, even.

As always, please email with further questions if this sparks something. And if it’s totally not the direction you want to go, email me back and I can come up with something else!

One thing to check out is Al-Anon, the group of people with relatives who are alcoholics. It doesn’t matter who you are or what their relationship to you, the group is based on the idea that alcoholism affects the entire family. So you might find some good information about how children of alcoholics grow up. (And I know there are several books on the subject, many of which I own but are in storage due to the move!) But that’s another idea to look into.

That’s it for today…hope this helps, Cathy.

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