I was struck by an article written by columnist David Brooks in the March 19th New York Times, “When the Good do Bad.” This is a theme I often come across in my work as a psychologist. Brooks was writing about Sergeant Bales, the man accused of murdering 17 people in Afghanistan. Brooks writes of the fact that Bales’ neighbors and friends thought of him as a caring and compassionate man; that his ability to act in this way was unimaginable. It is a story we sometimes hear when someone is arrested for a dramatic crime of violence.
Movies, TV and literature lead us to think that good and evil do not exist in the same person. Characters in fiction are generally one or the other, fundamentally good or primarily villainous. But human beings are very complex and some people we perceive as good can behave in terrible ways. This is shocking and disconcerting to loved ones. I think we all try to make sense of this and unfortunately we often do it, for the people we care about, in ways that excuse their behavior. We think, “she had such a terrible childhood…he had too much to drink….she had a bad day at work…he really cares inside….she’s under so much pressure.” These rationalizations can lead us to forgive and tolerate behavior that should be intolerable. It can be intensely confusing in personal relationships where much of day to day life with this person might be very pleasant and the bad behavior is infrequent. We think of the “evil” as the aberration and may learn to live with it because it is only occasionally or the person may be very sorry afterward.
This is frequently the case in physically or emotionally abusive relationships. The abuser may be kind and considerate a large percent of the time-or at a minimum reasonable and acceptable. How do you draw the line? When do you say it’s enough? Yes, Mom loses it and screams at me and says terrible things sometimes, but most of the time she is genuinely nice and concerned. She lost her job, no wonder she is acting this way. I guess I will just live with it. Often I have seen couples where one person (most commonly, but certainly not always, the man) is seen by his relatives, his co-workers and his friends as a great guy, a lot of fun. What does the woman do when sometimes he gets furious about something and knocks her down. Often the decision is to put up with it because it’s “only once or twice a year.”
Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that it is so confusing to see evil behavior in someone who seems fundamentally like a good person. Because it seems so impossible that those qualities exist together we suffer from what is called cognitive dissonance; trying to hold two incompatible beliefs at the same time. Our thinking naturally tries to resolve this dissonance and often it is by rationalizing away our views of the person that are incompatible with other things we think about them. This is a very natural tendency for people, especially in long term relationships where the social, familial or financial connections are strong. Often this acceptance leads to the situation becoming worse. We can end up tolerating behavior that is harmful to us and that diminishes our ability to protect ourselves.
The reality is that people are very complex and good and bad qualities can and often do coexist in the same person. Different circumstances bring out these conflicting attitudes and behaviors. Absolutely one of the most difficult things we have to do in life is walk away from people that we love. Doing so is often essential to our well being and at times our survival. It is very difficult to do and often it is because the presence of very good things in people who cause us harm confuses us and interferes with our ability to make decisions in our own best interests. No one is really ALL good or ALL bad. When we are involved in relationships we will always have the difficulty of deciding when those limits have been reached. When is it time to give up on someone we love-whether it is a friend, a spouse, a child or a parent.
When we watch TV or a movie it can be easy to make these decisions. We watch Dr. Phil and want to yell at the man, “can’t you see how she is ruining your life?!” When it is our own life the decisions feel much more complex and difficult-and in fact they are.