I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.
— Frederic Nietzsche
In recovering from a sociopathic relationship, one of our greatest challenges is to rediscover the meaning of trust. Trust is a kind of glue in our lives. If we are going to be vibrant human beings, living with healthy curiosity and developing ourselves through calculated risks and learning from our experiences, we have to be able to depend on some background truths. When our lives are rocked by unexpected disaster, the impact on our ability to trust our perceptions or our world around us can be massive.
This issue comes up over and over on LoveFraud. We hear it most clearly from the people in early recovery. But it’s an issue at every stage of healing, including the process of forgiving discussed in the last article.
This article will look at some issues around trust, and offer some thoughts about why a relationship with a sociopath illuminates this issue, and what we can do to recover.
Catching the sociopath’s disease
As readers of my writing know, I have my own perspective of the psychology of sociopaths. It sometimes overlaps current theories, but is based more on what I have observed and lived through. I believe that the core issue in the sociopathic dysfunction is a virtually total blockage of interpersonal trust.
I settled on this, because it can explain other symptoms they exhibit. It also matches the personal stories of everyone I’ve known who arguably could be diagnosed as a sociopath, a psychopath, a malignant narcissist or a decompensating borderline. Their personal stories tend to be about the social isolation caused by their differences in temperament or circumstances, or about massive breakdown in their safety or nurture, especially as infants or toddlers. I believe they skew toward the independent, rather than dependent side of the disorder spectrum because of the developmental timing of these crises, as well as lack of support and validation at a crucial time.
Be that as it may, they not only gave up trusting, but blocked off need for it as dangerous to their physical and psychological survival. And they became chronic, eternal loners, living by their wits on the “mean streets,” and viewing any part of the world based on trust-related structures with envy, bitterness and disdain. Their highest sense of the outcome of relationships is winning, because it supports their survival needs and because getting what they want is the only type of interpersonal exchange they can regard as both safe and pleasurable.
With only transient and shallow human connections, they live with emotional starvation, grasping after anything that makes them feel “real” or rewarded. Except for expediency, they have no stake in the world of mutual agreements, like laws or social contracts, and no motivation to behave altruistically. As eternal outsiders, they assume that anything they own or build is vulnerable. So, they are highly concerned with neutralizing threats and building invulnerability (wealth, social acceptance, etc.). But jumping ship, when necessary, is relatively easy, because their need to feel like they are winning or in control is more essential to their internal stability than their attachment to any person or thing.
All of this is important in the context of contagion. Feelings and feelings-connected ideas are contagious. We know this from mob psychology. Peer pressure. The way the character of an authority figure, like a CEO, can shape an entire organization. Many of us have gotten involved in “project” relationships where we feel like we have the resources to help someone out of depression, addiction or some kind of life failure, and discovered they’ve dragged us down as much as we’ve dragged them up. And of course, we are influenced by emotional vocabularies of our families of origin, as well as our intimate relationships, because we strongly desire to stay bonded.
Relationships with sociopaths put a special spin on the issue of contagion. The sociopath urgently wants to influence us. On our side, we are typically comfortable with sacrificing some personal independence for a positive and intense connection. (All relationships involve some compromise, but people who evade or escape early from sociopathic relationships may more resistant to early concessions.) So we have one partner, the sociopath, who needs us to give up our autonomy and another partner, us, who is willing to do so in exchange for the benefits of intensely positive relationship.
We feel like we are in agreement. We feel like winners. But as the relationship progresses, our objectives begin to conflict. We are looking for ongoing emotional support and validation, to feel loved and to know our wellbeing is important to our partner. They are looking for control of resources in their ongoing struggle to survive as unconnected loners. Once they have won with us, they turn their attention to new sources, unless we threaten to revolt. Then, they may re-groom us with loving attention or try to diminish our will through verbal, emotional or physical abuse. For them, the choice of technique isn’t meaningful, as long as it works. Over time, they are more openly annoyed at “wasting” energy on us, unless they are getting something new out of it.
For us, living with a sociopath’s reality is both a radical re-education and an ongoing demolition of beliefs we need to be true. LoveFraud is peppered with statements that begin with “How could he…?” and “I can’t believe that…” and “What kind of person would…?” One of the core pieces of our learning the sociopath’s reality is feeling alone, unsupported and unable to depend on a supposedly trusted connection. Another piece is the feeling of emotional starvation and being in a game designed to keep us in the loser role. Another is the discovery that trust is a fool’s game, and we have to stop if we’re going to survive.
That’s not all. There is the chronic bitterness, envy and resentfulness. There is the aggrieved entitlement to any behavior that serves them, as payback for whatever forced them to jam their ability to trust into the locked basement of their psyches. There is the whole mechanical modus operandi, rigidly designed to avoid the fear and grief of abandonment. There is frantic need to keep busy, developing new schemes to avoid slipping into a pit of depression that they equate with suicide. Ruthless survivors, at whatever cost to themselves or anyone else, is probably the most accurate way to describe them.
All this is what we have been exposed to.
Understanding the lesson
“When the student is ready, the teacher will arrive,” is a well-known Buddhist saying. Another bit of Buddhist wisdom is that we fall in love with our teachers.
When it comes to relationships with sociopaths, this perspective can be a hard pill to swallow. However, we can agree that falling in love with these people initiates one of the most costly and painful lessons of our lives. For those of us who are vulnerable to these relationships, the lesson is also difficult to untangle and ultimately profound. Eventually, it leads many of us to question some of our deepest beliefs and to find the courage to let go of beliefs that have outlived their usefulness, even though they once gave us comfort and feelings of safety in the world.
Fortunately, that courage pays off for us, though we may not know it while we’re grieving something we loved. The greatest achievements of our lives often involve surmounting fear to take huge risks. There is no more fearful risk than letting go of a foundation belief that we trusted for our survival. But we let it go when we have no choice, because it is clearly no longer adequate to support our survival.
In a relationship with a sociopath, we are immersed in an entirely different human reality than our own. The mutual attraction between people of a sociopathic type and people who have codependent tendencies is a cliché that is probably not accurate to all the people and situations described on LoveFraud, but it does describe an interpersonal dynamic that is reasonably consistent. Even people who have been blindsided by out-of-the-blue personality changes face the challenges of dealing with sociopathic relationships with our non-sociopathic beliefs and survival strategies.
This interpersonal dynamic is a kind of head-on collision of radically different survival styles. The sociopathic partner is committed to depending on himself, no matter what temporary dependencies he or she might arrange. The other partner is oriented toward depending on agreements of mutual support. This doesn’t mean that non-sociopaths cannot survive outside an intimate relationship, anyone who would attract them or even consider a relationship with one of them probably is the type of person who feels they do better in reciprocal, committed and trust-based partnership with another person.
The reason codependency comes into this is that codependents and others on the dependent side of the personality spectrum experience needs (rather than wants) in their preference for mutual support as a survival strategy. The more intimate the relationship, the more they need the other person to become actively involved in the preservation their wellbeing, especially in the emotional realm. Those perceived needs (rather than wants) make it more likely they will bargain away important aspects of their identity, resources and plans into order to obtain that caring attention.
Sociopathic survival depends on other people’s agreements to provide them with resources. We could argue that they are just as dependent as we are, but the key difference is the way we make decisions about our lives. Sociopathic decisions are “me” oriented, whether they are impulsive in-the-moment choices or important long-term choices of change in life direction. Their partners – who are both targeted by the sociopath and self-selected by their tolerance or inability to escape the sociopath’s treatment in relationship – have the tendency to put “us” first in their decision-making.
At this point, I can hear rumbling out there of “Tell me something I don’t know.” I know you know. But I hope this long description clarifies the real nature of our challenge. We have been closely involved with someone who doesn’t trust or connect emotionally, and who uses our need or desire for a trustworthy partner to enforce our involvement and extract resources that he or she has no intention of repaying. We have immigrated to planet Sociopath and our visas are all stamped “loser.”
Since this is their world, what would they tell us if we asked them about how to get this loser stamp off our visa? If we caught them at a moment when they were blissed out with anti-anxiety drugs stolen from their last girlfriend or feeling generous because they were feeling flush after some big win, they might say, “Don’t be such a dope. The world is full of people and situations in which other people win by using you. If you don’t care enough about you to protect yourself and your resources, this is what you get. Save your whining for your victim friends. You must like it or you wouldn’t volunteer for it.”
Ouch. Well, the Buddhists don’t say anything about the teacher being a nice guy.
Power and Resilience
The meaning of this lesson changes as we move through our phases of healing. People in early-stage recovery are terrified by the prospect of a world without trust. People in the angry stage are fighting back, sharpening their skills at identifying situations and people that cannot be trusted, building better boundaries against aggressive users, and getting active in neutralizing threats to them and people they care about.
After we develop and practice these skills, we earn some confidence about our ability to deal with incoming threats. This enables us to gradually shift our focus from vigilance against threats (what we don’t want) to interest recreating our lives (what we do want). We don’t forget what happened or minimize its importance. But we build on what we learned about our power and entitlement to make choices. Maybe for the first time since we were teenagers, we invest serious thought on how we want to feel, who we want to be, and the way we want our lives to play out in this new world.
With our power to choose comes increased emotional independence. We start viewing our lives as something we create and our results as something we earned. We still value relationships, but we are less willing to compromise our identities, give away our resources or change our plans. We become more interested in less dramatic relationships with other people who are learning through living. We share stories, validation and encouragement, but we are also conscious of each other’s limited resources. A relationship may naturally deepen. But we don’t need that to survive, and we are cautious, because we don’t want to discover too late that our great friendship did not prepare us for the different needs of a love affair.
When we face the idea of never trusting again in the way we once did, it can be very scary. The scariest thing is what might happen inside us. We don’t want to become suspicious, angry people. We don’t want to live in a constant state of anxious alert.
But we’re not giving up the ability to trust. We’re giving up something else, the trust of a child who has no choice but to trust, because it is dependent. And so that child turns to magical thinking to preserve belief in the trustworthiness of its parents or the safety of its environment, no matter how much evidence there may be to the contrary. This is the mirror-reverse of the sociopath’s survival strategy of blocking of trust. If we are still doing this magical thinking as adults, we also are dealing with blocked development that keeps us in a childlike reality. In learning to trust conditionally, and to limit our investments in other people’s lives to match what we get out of it, we are transitioning to the world of grown-up trust.
The childlike trust is a trust in being loved and supported, no matter what. In truth, we haven’t really believed in this for a long time. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have kept paying more and more to be accepted and loved. Even though we can live in ways that reduce our risk, we already know that no one can really buy an insurance policy against things changing. Everything changes. An awake, aware life creates itself with the knowledge of change. But it doesn’t mean that there is nothing we can trust.
It just means that we trust conditionally. We trust what is consistent, until it isn’t consistent anymore. This makes almost everything in our lives trustworthy. The sun rises and sets. Snarling dogs are likely to bite. Cars eat gas and steel bumpers are stronger but more expensive to replace that plastic ones. Roses like a lot of rain. Tomatoe plants don’t. The leftovers in the refrigerator that smell icky are bad to eat. People who don’t share our ethics or world views are interesting at dinner parties, but risky to do business with or marry. These are background truths we can conditionally trust until something changes.
These smaller, conditional trusts serve the same purpose as our desire for larger, unconditional trusts did before. The real difference is that we trust now in a way that leaves more room for life. Knowing that trust may be transient makes it that much more lovely. We have limited resources – intellectual and emotional – and one of the risks of life is to trust what appears to be stable, so that we can use our resources to make new things grow.
For readers who are not anywhere near ready to feel powerful about their choices, here is a simple rule you can use until you are. Guard your trust as though it were an extension cord from your heart. Don’t give it away to anyone you don’t firmly believe deserves it. And be prepared to unplug the cord at a moment’s notice. You can always plug it back in again, if you find you’ve made a mistake by unplugging it. No one who really cares (or who is capable of caring) about you will mind you taking care of yourself. But your trust in other people and in the world should be a conduit for good into your life. That’s what it’s for.
If it brings anything else, don’t thing twice. Unplug it. A good life should have lots of these extension cords, some heavier duty than others, leading to all kinds of things that bring us good. People, institutions, books, artists, blogs. If unplugging one or two makes us feel lost or destabilized, it probably means we need to find more things we enjoy without our lives depending on it.
In conclusion, you’ve probably all figured out that this is really about “becoming the sociopath,” but in a good way. We use the contagion to strengthen some of our weak spots, and to gain access to the “inner sociopath” when it’s appropriate. There is fundamentally nothing wrong with what sociopaths do, except that it’s all that they do. They can’t respond to love. They can’t trust anything but themselves. They can’t stop replaying their primal drama, because their lack of trust blocks them from ever learning that they are not alone.
Fortunately for us, more dependent types are open to input. We not only can learn, but many of us are truly excited by anything that breaks us out of our limitations. We know we’re not losers, but sometimes it takes a long time to overcome our training. In getting involved with a sociopath, we took the biggest risk of our lives. We stuck our heads into the mouth of the lion, and if you’ve gotten this far, you’ve taken a good look around and said, “Hey, I can do that.”
Next time, unless I get distracted, we will discuss love. This week I will not be available to follow the thread, so I hope you enjoy it, that it makes some sense to everyone, and it makes you feel good about wherever you are now. If you are on LoveFraud, I think you deserve to feel proud of yourself.
Namaste. The spirit of enlightened self-caring in me salutes the spirit of enlightened self-caring in you.