After listening for almost 25 years to the stories my patients tell me about sociopaths who have invaded and injured their lives, when I am asked, “How can I tell who not to trust?” the answer I give usually surprises people.
The natural expectation is that I will describe some sinister sounding detail of behavior or snippet of body language or threatening use of language that is the subtle giveaway. Instead, I take people aback by assuring them that the tip-off is none of these things, for none of these things is reliably present. Rather, the best clue, of all things, is the pity play. The most reliable sign, the most universal behavior of unscrupulous people is not directed, as one might image, at our fearfulness.
It is, perversely, an appeal to our sympathy.”
-From the Sociopath Next Door
I can’t say that’s how CF gained my trust. We didn’t start our relationship off with his stories of woe. Instead I heard how he had been the captain of the football team, captain of the baseball team, captain of the wrestling team. I heard stories from his mom and stepdad as well about how the paper had written an article about him when they played against the #1 team in the state and upset them. I learned he was class valedictorian, president of the National Honor Society, and, of course, class president. I heard how he had been recruited by the Cincinnati Reds, got an appointment to West Point, and was awarded a full ride scholarship to Boston College (or maybe Boston University- I never could remember) for pre-med. He could have been a doctor or a professional baseball player but he chose to serve his country and went to West Point.
His pity party didn’t come until he had been caught with Harley the first time. Then he was all about the tears and telling me how broken he was. I remember the text he sent to me telling me how he was sitting on the couch our son had bought and he was crying. I’m pretty sure he sent me a picture of the tears falling down his face.
I noticed in hindsight that any time the conversation became too tough he would resort to telling me he was worthless. He would insist he was a horrible husband and a terrible father and it was no wonder his own father had disowned him.
My all time favorite though was when he told me that all this conversation about Harley and his affair with her had ruined his hard on. That must have been terrible for him.
When he finally decided to discard me he was in full blown pity party mode. It was non-stop crying and talking about what a horrible person he was, how he had killed so many people and God would never forgive him. He couldn’t forgive himself. He told everyone I hated him.
I’m pretty sure when he decided to go visit his mom in May that what he was really going to do was meet up with Harley. For whatever reason he couldn’t do it. He sent me pictures of himself crying; he was supposedly having issues with being able to drive. He turned around and came back home. I went out the next day to switch cell phone companies and get new phones because I felt terrible that I hadn’t received his message and had no idea he was “struggling”. We had never had a problem with our cell phone company when we lived in Utah, but they did not have great coverage in our new area. There were areas I had absolutely no service and many times calls either wouldn’t go through or they would get dropped.
Towards the end we couldn’t go out to dinner without him breaking down crying. He refused to leave the bedroom. He loved telling people how I neglected him, despite the fact I was helping to make appointments with therapists and psychiatrists for him and attending those appointments with him.
It went hand in hand with all the other accusations that would follow: I hated him. I turned the kids against him. I made him leave the state. I wouldn’t let him take anything from the house. I threw him out. I tossed all of his things out.
A commenter over on Chump Lady pointed out that another way to protect yourself and to try to wade through the good and the bad was to listen closely when a person describes why they are no longer with their ex. Do they give you a short and to the point answer? Or do they offer up vague explanations with little to no detail? We grew apart sounds so much better than I cheated and he/she threw me out. She’s turned the kids against me sounds a lot better than I walked out on my kids and haven’t seen them in three years.
Generally, if a person has nothing to hide and is not the one at fault you’ll hear things like: He beat me. She slept with my best friend. He had a gambling problem. She drank too much. He had an untreated mental illness. She had a drug problem. He gave me an STD.
If they’re the one at fault though, it’s not uncommon to hear: We grew apart. I needed to find myself. She didn’t appreciate me. He wasn’t supportive of me. I loved him but I wasn’t in love with him. It was complicated.
Ironically, I think both CF and Harley are masters of the pity party. He undoubtedly treated her to his tales of woe regarding me. I was such a horrible housekeeper. I bought extra clothes instead of doing laundry. I treated him like a handyman and a wallet. We never had sex. I hated him.
She started off their relationship the first time around by letting him know that her marriage wasn’t all that rosy. She told him that she worked 60-80 hours a week because her husband spent and spent and he had bankrupted them.
They must be delighted at the idea of rescuing one another. I say, “Thank God!” because it keeps them away from innocent people.
The lesson today? Beware of those with sob stories. Sociopaths use pity to play upon your emotions. And pay attention when people talk. If you ask a direct question and get a vague answer that’s probably your cue to cut your losses.