While there are no sure-proof ways to avoid exploitive partners (short of entering the monastery), we can reduce our risk of getting too deeply involved with them. Why do I say too deeply? Because if getting involved with an exploiter at all isn’t bad enough, getting in too deeply is the disaster we hope to avoid.
One of the best (and most under-utilized) strategies to protect yourself is to properly“vet” your prospective (or new) partner. What I have to say ahead is especially applicable if you’ve been burned by a sociopath previously, and even moreso if you suspect in yourself a tendency to enter relationships with bad-news characters.
What do I mean by “vetting” your partner? I mean, of course, getting to know him as thoroughly as possible before deepening your investment in him. But here’s the rub: it’s the getting to know him through others.
By others I mean his friends, family, relatives and, indeed, anyone in his social orbit from whom you stand a chance to learn, or confirm, something meaningful about him.
And so while we can agree that no strategy alone guarantees protection against exploitation, I’d propose that vetting your partner intelligently increases your protection, and is much wiser than depending exlusively on him (especially if he’s exploitive) to furnish a candid history of himself.
In other words, your partner’s history of himself will be much less informative than, and dangerously incomplete without, others’ complementary history of him.
How exactly do you vet a prospective partner? It’s true you could take any number of draconian measures—like hiring a team of private investigators—to assist you in the process and, indeed, there may be circumstances where you feel this is necessary.
However, I’m going to restrict myself in this discussion to vetting strategies that might be described as “natural”—meaning, you have access to them in the natural course of your evolving relationship.
And it begins with several absolutes: for instance, you absolutely must meet his family. You must meet his friends. And if he has kids, you must meet them, too.
Really, your aim to meet anyone and everyone in his life from whom it’s feasible to derive, piece by piece, a more complete, validating (or invalidating) profile of him.
If he has no family with whom he’s in contact, and no friends, or, if he has them but discourages you from meeting them, or, worse, is unwilling to let you meet them, well then…Houston, we have a problem.
If his parents are in fact deceased (and he hasn’t killed them), there’s nothing doing there. But what about his siblings? And other relatives? And, I repeat, his kids (whether younger or older)? And vitally, his friends!?
My point is that it’s on you to ensure that you neither confine yourself, nor let him confine you, into discovering him within an informational vacuum. I can’t stress this point enough: you absolutely must not allow yourself to be confined, in your discovery of who he is, within an informational vacuum.
Translation, and again at the risk of repeating myself: sooner than later, you’ll want to meet as many people as possible in his life, past and present, who, collectively, can shed light on who your partner is.
Then, if he stonewalls you; if in anyway he restricts or censors your access to feeback through the human beings who’ve comprised, and comprise, his social network, well then…I repeat, Houston, we’ve got a very serious problem.
And so, for instance if, in your efforts to move the vetting process forward at a natural, efficient pace, he strings you along and is saying, week after week, I’ll introduce you to my family, just not quite yet, baby…I’ll know when the time’s right, trust me….this portends disaster.
Similarly, if he says, ostensibly to protect you, “Trust me, baby, you don’t want to meet my family. They’re a bunch of lunatics,” trust me: you’ll want to meet them. He may be right—they may be lunatics, but you’ll want to meet them to assess the risk that he’s one, too.
Because when his brother Billy Bob, who’s had a few too many pops, tells you on an unscheduled tour of the family property, “Phil tell you how me and him used to set them cats on fire and watch ’em burn to a crisp? Damn, them was the good old days,” this feedback just might not square with Phil’s having told you what an animal lover he was as a kid?
In other words, even dysfunctional, unhinged family and friends can cough up really IMPORTANT information.
Like this, from his mentally challenged, but not necessarily delusional, sister, Crystal: “Good luck with Harold. You seem nice, honey. Maybe now he’s got a girlfriend, he’ll keep his hands off me.”
Okaaay, Crystal…thanks for the blessing.
And please, if he has no longterm friendships, do yourself a favor: Don’t rationalize this. Ask yourself, say, hmmm…why?
Why does this 40-year-old man have no longterm friendships? What could explain the fact that he has no contact with anyone from his past? (Incidentally, “They’re dead to me,” isn’t a reassuring explanation, especially when a lot of people, it seems, are dead to him.)
It’s probably unncessary to get mired down in defining precisely how far back you’ll want to mine his past? Maybe it’s unnecessary to go all the way back to elementary school? Or even junior high? But what about high school? College? Old colleagues? Cousins? Hell, even old prison buddies (sorry, I know that’s not funny).
Speaking of prison, here’s a concept I ask you to entertain: if you should happen to establish, through your due diligence, that your Romeo has a prison record, how can I say this diplomatically? Remember the books See Dick RUN! See Jane RUN!
Well this circumstance—a prison history—dictates that, just like Dick and Jane, you run! Because it’s amazing what a good, smart, well-timed flight can protect you from!!
Back to the longterm friendship matter: If, in the course of the vetting process, you discover that, alas, your new partner has, indeed, maintained friendships since childhood, or made and maintained solid friendships as an adult, this is a good, positive sign. Is it certification of his integrity and authenticity? Of course not. But it belongs in the plus column of your assessment. It’s the kind of discovery, among others, you’re glad to make.
Let’s say your new partner’s alleged best friend and, for that matter, all his important “peeps,” allegedly live scattered across the country, thereby, he laments, complicating your opportunities to meet them face to face. What now?
Well, where geography deters you from breaking bread with them in person, technology to the rescue! Use skype! Talk to them, see them, interact with them on the computer! At the very least, talk to them on the phone!
There are plenty of feasible ways, in other words, in this technology-enabling world, to connect with those in his life whose geographical situations make for impractical face to face meetings. And so, if he keeps you at arms’ length from them, he’s telling you something very ominous that you need to heed carefully and proactively.
Let me stress: you aren’t just evaluating the dish you get on him from those who’ve known, and know, him (ostensibly) best; you are also evaluating the dishers! You are evaluating the evaluators!
Who are those who comprise his social network? What are their values? What’s their integrity level, as best your instincts tell you? Do they strike you as—even if not admirable in their own right—credible character references?
The answers to these questions matter a lot. It may be nice that Don, his best buddy since third grade, swears on his own family’s life that your boyfriend’s character and integrity are beyond reproach. But if Don’s done time for armed robbery, the credibility of his glowing reference suffers.
You are also evaluating how your new partner relates within his social circle. Does he maintain his “integrity” around them? Does he treat you with a consistent level of attentiveness and respect regardless of the audience? Conversely, does he become a different person around different people, revealing unexpected, disarming sides of himself?
Again, please remember: The vetting process I’m suggesting needn’t be, or seem, formal or contrived; rather, it should be entirely unforced, entirely natural. And your new partner should enable this process by welcoming you into the lives of those with whom he’s shared, and shares, his life!
If he doesn’t make this process natural and seamless—if he filibusters or stonewalls you—this is, I repeat, a serious problem.
What are you looking for in all of this? You are looking to confirm that, by and large, others’ history and experience of him line up with yours! Because if they don’t align, that’s a fatal sign. (Yes, I’m channeling my inner Johnny Cochrane!) If they don’t align, that’s a fatal sign.
So what do you with reasonably unfettered access to these valuable, potential Judas figures in his life? At the risk of overkill, you listen to them, listen to their stories of him. As we’ve established, they will tell you stories. And if they don’t tell you stories, you can ask for stories. And when he says, glowering at his buddy, “Let’s not go there, Al,” you know that’s a place you want to go.
And when he says, even more sinisterly, “I’m not f’ing kidding, Al. Let’s not go there,” you know that’s exactly one of the many places you may need to go.
Sometime the stories aren’t verbalized, they’re just implicit; and sometimes the stories come in the form of questions, like, why doesn’t Tom have relationships with any of his kids?
Listen for the excuses and heed their meanings. Their mother poisoned them against me. Even worse, their mothers poisoned them against me.
In other words, if he’s been married more than once, and hates all his ex’s, and all his ex’s hate him, and all his kids hate him, then 2+2 doesn’t equal he, poor guy, has been repeatedly victimized.
Beware of the partner who’s a lousy parent. While it’s not a guarantee he’ll be a lousy partner, it’s a warning that the same self-centeredness that corrupted his relationships with his kids will surface in his relationship with you.
More generally, beware of the partner who has a history of discarding others in his life. You want to assess this history very carefully, because this is a history that will repeat itself, you can be quite sure of that.
You may be the passion flavor of the month, or year, even five years, but when the edge of his passion fades, watch out. He will cast you off as he’s cast off the sundry others in his life, perhaps even his kids from an earlier first marriage.
Do not be fooled for one second into believing that you are who he’s been looking for all his life. He may delude himself, again and again, with this fantasy, but it’s your obligation to yourself not to collude in this delusion.
(I thank Lovefraud poster Silvermoon, who, while she may or may not subcribe to my ideas, sparked my thinking for this article with her extremely stimulating feedback. As always, my use of male gender pronouns in this article was for convenience’s sake, and not to suggest that females are exempted from the attitudes and behaviors discussed. This article is copyrighted © 2010 by Steve Becker, LCSW.)