By Quinn Pierce
Lately, when I look back over certain events in my life, it’s a lot like watching the same scene from a movie play over and over. You know, the part where the unsuspecting soon-to-be-victim is about to go into the none-too-welcoming basement where the deranged ax-wielding maniac lies in wait. It’s the scene we all watch wondering why she had to go down there in the first place, and why isn’t she concerned by the sudden power outage and strange noises? Why wouldn’t she go get the neighbor she just waved to seconds before, the one who was outside watering the flowers? We watch clue after clue slip past the victim’s senses while the ominous music plays in the background. By the end of the scene, when she walks into the danger that is more than obvious to everyone watching, we almost feel like she deserved what she got for being so careless and frustratingly naïve. I mean, what was she thinking?
And that is the question that has taken permanent residence in my thoughts since my divorce, what was I thinking?
Enjoying the Attention
But the reality is much different from the movie. There was no ominous music every time I stepped into a trap, and the signs were so well hidden under contrasts and contradictions, that even now, it’s like searching for pieces of a puzzle that is constantly changing shape. One thing I’ve learned about sociopaths is that they are exceptional con artists. They figure out what someone needs or wants and present themselves as the one who can provide that exclusively.
Twenty years later, I’m still trying to figure out what my need was that made me such a beacon of vulnerability. I certainly wasn’t looking for a lifelong commitment, but I remember experiencing for the first time an overwhelming sense of feeling adored. I would never consider myself to be a romantic person, but I enjoyed feeling cherished and admired, like I was the most wonderful person in the world. And it wasn’t something that changed right away.
Our first year of marriage was relatively uneventful. Maybe we were still getting used to the idea of being married and navigating all the new responsibilities, or maybe he was getting to know my strengths and weaknesses. I always described him as ‘nurturing’; he had a caring and paternal quality that I found endearing. And that was one of the many contradictions of his personality. The truth is, those are good qualities in a partner, and a healthy person would not think these would be tools of manipulation used to control another. So, in that first year, he was laying down the groundwork to feed my self-doubt. The pattern quickly became: I was nurtured and praised when I needed him, and I was belittled and scolded when feeling strong. Again, I misinterpreted the positive attention and labeled it love and caring.
The Mask Begins to Slip
By the second year of marriage, he seemed less capable of holding the façade daily and his true personality started to surface. He pushed every limit to see how much control he could assert, but at the same time, he made it seem as though I was in control.
For example, I was in charge of the finances. That is not the typical case in abusive relationships. However, I was also the one responsible for all things financial— meaning, any time there was a problem or if we couldn’t afford to do certain things, it was my fault. I was constantly saving, scrimping, going without in order to make sure we had enough for our needs. He, on the other hand, began keeping out small amount of cash, buying things for himself, and setting the precedence for acceptable behavior.
In the meantime, he balanced the scales by doing things like sending me flowers regularly, and buying me things that other people could comment on. That was always a requirement; he tended to shower me with gifts that made others ooh and aah. It was a constant PR ploy, and he was polishing his image. I received two types of gifts over the years: the first was to make him look good while distracting me from his other behaviors; the second were apologies for some type of abuse that I hadn’t yet understood to be abuse.
The Comfortable Role
And there was one major component of my life that kept me from questioning his behaviors while constantly questioning my own, and that was having people close to me who reinforced everything my husband said and did. If my trusted sources of unconditional love and support were telling me that this is ok, why would I have any reason to think otherwise? And herein lies a major flaw of my foundational design, and the reason I walked into the basement without noticing the obvious warning signs: he was not the only sociopath in my life. My husband had simply stepped into a role that was familiar and comfortable to both of us.
There is a certain paradox of emotion associated with the sociopathic relationship. My husband could put me on a pedestal and make me feel like a queen, only to kick the pedestal out from under me at whim leaving me face down in the dirt. Maybe I was used to this rollercoaster of emotion, or maybe I craved those moments on the pedestal and that feeling of elation enough to accept the falls. Many times, I would make excuses for him, simply so I could enjoy that adoration when it came; it’s difficult to harbor anger towards someone who always seems so remorseful and sincere. And I no longer ask myself: why did you believe him? I had no reason not to. I had no idea he was insincere, and I trusted him.
Maybe if I were more aware of the character traits, or flaws, of someone without empathy, I would have known what to look for. For example, my husband cried at the drop of a hat. At first, it was startling to see, and I was overwhelmed with sympathy when he apologized under a flood of tears. Over the years, he would make remarks here and there about my ‘lack of emotion’. Eventually, he would resort to calling me ‘cold’ and ‘unfeeling’.
In reality, nothing was farther from the truth. I had learned at a very young age to conceal emotions or run the risk of being yelled at and reprimanded by a mother accusing me of being dramatic. It wouldn’t be until I had my own children that many of these issues would finally come into a rational light, but early on in my marriage, I was trying desperately to please two individuals who could never be pleased.
Avoiding His Anger
Other missed warning signs were his escalating fits of anger. My husband would have tantrums that included slamming cabinet drawers, stomping around the house, throwing small objects and mumbling angrily under his breath. As uncomfortable as it always made me feel, I developed the coping skill of avoidance. I would stay out of his way until the storm passed, and then pretend it never happened.
The problem with avoidance is that it actually encouraged the behavior I was trying to avoid. He knew I dreaded the tantrums and he manipulated my decisions and my freedom with threat of this stressful, anxiety-inducing act. It was so much easier for me to give in to his wishes and avoid the fit all together.
So, over the course of 15 years, you can imagine how his control also escalated as he would push the limits each time. I suddenly found myself asking permission to go to dinner with my friends. In addition, I was now faced with the possibility of ‘punishment’ afterwards, even if he agreed to the activity. I would return home to the silent treatment, accusations, put-downs, or maybe he would save the repercussions for a later date when he could bring up my excursions to justify his plans for going out with friends. For some reason, it made sense to him that my two-hour dinner in the evening was equivalent to his overnight trip to places unknown.
Maybe, if the behavior presented itself this way from the start, I would have been smart enough to run the other way, but the baby steps of control and manipulation led me slowly down the basement stairs. And when I reached the bottom, I couldn’t see the ax-wielding maniac underneath the mask of the man who promised to love me forever.