If there is a single category of memories that still can make me squirm, it is the remembrance of what I did to make my sociopath love me. And what I did simply to keep him from hurting me. And what I did to try to understand the things I must have done wrong, because he didn’t love me. And all the ways I pretzel-twisted my brain to excuse him for his lies, deception, disrespect and greed.
The topic of this article is the next phase of healing from a sociopathic relationship: bargaining.
We are in the process of healing from the moment we sustain any emotional trauma. Relationships with sociopaths typically involve many traumatic events, both large and small. Some of these events are the “blows” of insults, coldness and various types of violence or violation of our trust. But these blows, however painful they may be, are less damaging than the events that threaten our identities by making us question our own values and ability to trust ourselves
Bargaining is one of the two ways we negotiate with pain. The first is denial, which was discussed in the last article, Part 3. Denial enables us to postpone facing trauma, until we’re ready, or until we’ve found support that can help us think it through. In denial, we make a temporary deal with ourselves not to think about it and to block our normal feelings. It’s an interior mechanism, a way to control our own reactions.
Shifting Denial to the Outside World
Bargaining is an advance on denial because, at least, we are beginning to negotiate with the outside world, rather than our own psyches. But like denial, bargaining is magical thinking. We’re still not dealing directly with the facts as though they were real. We are finding reasons to make them unreal, and looking for ways that we can influence the situation so that it becomes we want it to be.
“She’s just acting cold, because she’s had a bad time and needs to get over it. If I am more loving, she will warm up.”
“He is being so rude to the waitress, because he came from a background of uncaring people. If I show him how much better service he’ll get if he’s courteous, he’ll see that it’s true and become the gentle, caring person I know he really is inside.”
“She’s sleeping around because she’s insecure about her looks or afraid that I don’t really love her. If I try to be more supportive and more complementary, she’ll come to recognize that no one has ever loved her more.”
“He’s telling me that I don’t deserve to be loved, because he secretly feels he doesn’t deserve to be loved. If I convince him that he’s lovable, it will open his heart.”
“He never shows up when I need him, runs profiles on dating sites, and disappears for days or weeks. He says everything would be better if I trusted him, so I’ll try to trust him more.”
In each of these examples, we are faced with evidence that the person is, at minimum, behaving in ways that we don’t like. If we want to analyze it further, we could say that this person is behaving as though they don’t care how we feel. Or if we wanted to characterize the person by his or her behavior, we could say that he or she is acting like a selfish, out-of-control sleezeball. But we don’t have to do any analysis at all to simply check our own feelings and determine that we are not happy about it. Or that it causes us pain.
In the bargaining phase, we are ready to acknowledge our own pain and the material fact that is causing us pain. However, we are not yet ready to connect all the dots in the sense of recognizing that we have a serious and unmanageable problem on our hands.
The Three Elements of Bargaining
The components of traumatic bargaining are three very different things. One is acknowledgement of the trauma. This is an important new stage in our healing process. It’s the first time since the trauma occurred that we consciously accept that something happened to us. That “something” came from outside of us. It was not something we did to ourselves.
The second component is our vision of how things ought to be. This could be how things used to be – like when we had our perfect lover. But it might be a vision of how we want things to be in the future – like when we and our perfect lover settle down in a “happily ever after” relationship. There are all kinds of possible visions of reality that we are trying to get to, or get back to. Particularly in relationships with sociopaths, where there are so many different types of trauma – identity, emotional, physical, sexual, financial, etc.— we may be holding tight to any one of a variety of visions.
The final component is the bargaining itself, which is a kind of bridge between the unwanted reality and the desired vision. That bridge is made up of all the things we are willing to do to earn that reality.
Bargaining is a basic skill of life, an everyday event in which we negotiate with family, friends, employers, customers to find satisfactory shared outcomes. We even negotiate with inanimate objects, like regularly changing the oil to get longer service from our cars. These little trades in life are so common we hardly notice them. We make little deals all day long, as we pragmatically navigate around and through all the things we have to accommodate in our lives.
However, post-traumatic bargaining has a different flavor that puts it squarely in the realm of magical thinking. Instead of negotiating for some future outcome, we are trying to change a here-and-now fact. The fact is not what our sociopaths did, but what their actions say about them. We don’t want them to be what they appear to be.
In this bargaining, we are appealing to someone or something that we imagine has the power to change that fact. In attempting to solicit its cooperation, we are hoping or believing that we can convince that power source to care about us.
Please, God, if you’ll only…
That beginning of a supplicant prayer ends with “and I promise I’ll…” Please, God, if you’ll only help me pass this test, I promise I’ll do my geography homework forever. Or we may not bring God into it. We may wear our lucky underwear to the game, so we’ll sink more basketballs. Or if I sign over my paycheck or dress like a floozy or rush to get you another beer when you toss the empty over your shoulder, maybe you’ll love me.
Doing a rain dance may not appear to equate with trying to have a happy relationship with a sociopath, but it has similarities. One of those similarities is that we are depending on formal rules that we imagine are something like infallible. So, if we are very, very, very good, and follow the rules punctiliously, then the result will be that the sociopath loves us or that the sociopath will be zapped with some cosmic healing ray that makes it possible for him to love at all.
While bargaining is a developmental advance over denial, it has one big similarity with denial. That is, we still feel like we have some power, even if we now recognize that most of the power resides elsewhere. In terms of our volunteering or collaboration, we’ve stepped up to the “can-do” plate, and we’re trying to fix the situation. Maybe this will work. Maybe that will. We’re operating on hope or faith in our own magic.
Our approach to this is childlike, in the sense that we are defining that outside power as something there to fulfill our desires. As all of us have learned one way or another, trying to elicit “love” from a sociopath is like trying to get attention from the devil. We may get the attention, but it is very, very expensive.
In fact, our very belief in these rules – whether they are the rules of courtesy or Christian behavior or how we imagine lovers are supposed to act – is something that sociopaths use against us. They make us feel guilty for not trusting them. Or concerned about how pitiful they are. Or crushed because we are doing all the right things, and still not succeeding in being loved.
The Craziest Phase
The bargaining phase is characterized by hope and frustration. It is also the first real learning phase of recovery. We have acknowledged that there is something wrong, and we are experimenting with solutions to fix it.
Until we’ve learned enough to realize that we can’t avoid the unpleasant facts, we are in what might be characterized as the “craziest” part of our recovery. We’re throwing good energy after bad. We’re doing the same things that worked for us in other relationships, over and over, without getting results. We don’t understand the rules of the game. We don’t know what else to do except be better and nicer and more giving, and our judgment about what we can afford to lose goes haywire.
Our pain and disbelief about the nature of this relationship are only one kind of bargaining trigger. We are probably in the bargaining stage with other traumas, like the loss of our money or possessions or jobs or professional credibility or our children’s safety or our privacy or our hope of simple break-up. We can become absolutely frantic with bargaining. We may feel like we’ve got so many plates in the air we can’t even remember our names.
This can be particularly true in after-effects of a sociopathic relationship, which can seem more traumatic than the relationship itself. As we detox from the hypnotic effect of the sociopath’s influence, we may finally emerge from denial about our losses. We may attempt to negotiate recovery of things we lost. We may appeal to other sources of power, like the police or the legal system, only to discover that no one believes us because the sociopath has done such a good job of characterizing us as unstable or untrustworthy. Or because no one knows anything about sociopaths, and assumes that we’re exaggerating.
In dealing with sociopaths, one of the most difficult things is to determine which situations we can control and what is out of our control. Our own histories as competent and effective people make it hard for us to give up trying to find a solution. Before we give up, we are likely to lower our expectations of fairness, understanding and support, not only from the sociopath, but from the legal system as well as our previous social support systems, like friends and family. As sad as this may seem, it is all part of the great information-gathering exercise that bargaining is.
The First Clarity
Just as denial gave us the gift of time, bargaining has its own gifts. One is a great deal of new factual knowledge about the world we live in. Many of us say that we wished we never learned what we learned in these experiences. But like them or not, these are realities about the people and circumstances we may face in our lives. Knowing them will eventually make us smarter, stronger and more confident in taking care of ourselves.
We also learn the lengths to which we’ll go, if there is something we want badly enough. Some of that is good news and other parts make us uncomfortable. But like the facts about the world, this will be useful information when we are farther in our recovery process.
The most important gift of knowledge comes from our successes and failures in bargaining with the sociopath. We learn that we “succeed” when we’re willing to give up anything we have and everything we are. We learn that we “lose” when we attempt to hold onto our own identities and independent resources.
Eventually, those of us who are going to be survivors come to recognize a very important fact. It’s a fact that was in front of us from the minute we realized that we were not happy with what was going on or that we were in pain. That fact is that the sociopath causing our pain.
There are a few additional facts that we may figure out at this point (depending on which trauma we are working on). One is that the sociopath doesn’t want to be fixed. Another is that the sociopath doesn’t care about our pain.
In this knowledge, we face the reality that nothing we can do will make the sociopath behave like a feeling human being. No matter how many opportunities we have to please the sociopath, or earn love, or prove our worth, or gain trust, we cannot change the wiring of the sociopathic emotional system. And worse, our attempts to “bargain” for love or any form of caring tend to cause us more losses. Whatever we give, whatever we do, whatever pleas we make for compassion or understanding, it is like throwing ourselves against a Teflon wall.
These insights open the doorway into the next big phase, anger, which will be the topic of the next article. In the meantime, it’s a good thing to remember that we may be experiencing various phases at the same time, especially since we are likely to be processing many different types of events. All of the phases have their reason and their importance in healing.
As the “craziest” of the phases, our bargaining phase is the time that we are most likely to be making other people crazy too — whether we’re still inside the relationship or we’ve stopped it but are still trying to fix it some part of it. Our family, our friends, anyone who cares about us may become frustrated with us or even cut us off. When everyone outside this relationship can clearly see that something is wrong – either with us or with our lovers – they become understandably impatient with us, if we are acting like we in the middle of a great work in progress, rather than in the middle of a train wreck.
If the bargaining phase can be characterized as addictive behavior on our side, because we’re totally focused on getting love or validation to “fix” our pain, it’s unlikely that we’re going to be open to intervention. Likewise, finding the power in ourselves to intervene is not likely.
But if we could, or if there is a part of us that is watching aghast at what’s going on, it would be a good time to start keeping a ledger of losses. Even if it’s only a mental record, but writing it down would be better. Start keeping a list of the betrayals, the financial losses, the insults, the lies, the sabotage, the demands to compromise our values, all the things that make us less than we formerly were.
Keeping this list may be the hardest thing we ever do when we’re inside the relationship, because it is exactly the kind of thing a sociopath would view as disloyalty or distrust. To the extent that our feelings are co-opted, we may feel guilty about doing it. But if we can do it – and it’s equally valuable to do after the relationship is over – we reestablish connection with our own identities and feelings, instead of seeing the world though the lens of the sociopath’s intentions.
Keeping the “black list” or the “sad list” or the “list of disappointments” will help us move through the bargaining stage faster. It will help us find our anger, which is where we start to regain our power over our lives and our hearts.
Namaste. The courageous healing spirit in me salutes the courageous healing spirit in you.