By Quinn Pierce
Two weeks ago, my older son was admitted to the hospital due to his anxiety. He was unable to overcome the panic attacks and overwhelming fear that has plagued him since the end of the summer, and we decided it was time for a higher level of care.
As traumatic as the decision was for me, I knew in my heart it was the best decision for him; and it truly was. It may have been the most difficult day of my life, but I kept in mind the healing that would finally begin for my son.
The Constant Drama Takes a Toll
I also kept in mind the fact that all of this might not have happened if it were not for my ex-husband, my son’s father, who has riddled our lives with such chaos lately, that I think it’s a testament to my son’s strength that he was not in the hospital sooner. My heart breaks when I see what a toll it takes on my children to have a father who is a sociopath.
But, at the same time, I began to see that children are much better at processing information and truths when dealing with sociopaths than many adults. I think it’s because they haven’t yet learned the unhealthy skill of trying to rationalize everything so that it fits into a box someone else created. They need to make sense of things in their own way, and if they have enough support, they will let themselves feel the emotions as they process what they learn and make sense of it.
That’s why it made sense to me that both of my boys began to have such a strong response once they were able to see through the mask of their father. I know that a sociopath, and my ex-husband did this all the time, will state his (I use his in reference to my ex-husband, but it can just as easily be a female sociopath) beliefs as fact and try to de-value or discredit other people in order to make himself look or feel better.
Sometimes, this behavior is easy to ignore, sometimes it is confusing, and sometimes, it causes something called ‘cognitive dissonance’. Cognitive dissonance happens when we hold two conflicting beliefs.
For example, if you were told by a parent that someone is a terrible, mean person and you believed it, but then you spent time with that person and saw they were nothing like your parent described, you would feel very uneasy and uncomfortable because you know both can’t be true. In that case, either you decide to not trust your own experience, or you no longer believe your parent.
The Act of Triangulation
For my sons, this occurred slowly over the past couple of years when my ex-husband began saying more and more cruel and defamatory lies about me. I was able, at the time, to tell my children not to worry about anything that was said, because I wasn’t bothered by his words any longer, and I didn’t want them wasting their energy on being upset about things they knew weren’t true.
Eventually, however, my ex-husband began acting in a way that none of us could ignore. He involved other family members, health care providers, the legal system, and child services. So, now, my children were experiencing all of these negative effects of their father’s lies and accusations.
It showed me that he did not think his own children were capable of understanding what was happening, and that he believed he controlled them enough through intimidation and fear that they would not stand up to him.
For my boys, it put an end to all cognitive dissonance.
No Longer Victims
For one thing, before these events, they both felt tremendous guilt for thinking they would hurt their father’s feelings if they didn’t do what he wanted. Also, they held on to the hope that there was some good inside of him that would eventually kick in and love them unconditionally. My younger son, especially, spent a great deal of time and energy trying to gain the approval of his father, and would embrace any positive feedback his father gave him, thinking it was sincere and would continue.
The dissonance happened when they believed their father was capable of things he will never be capable of, for instance: honesty, humility, empathy, unconditional love, trust…
But, all of this went out the window as my ex-husband tried to use another favorite tactic: splitting.
The Act of Splitting
When a sociopath wants to remain in good light without getting his hands dirty, he will try to play one family member against another by painting one in a bad light to the other, telling lies and making up motives for the un-favored member, or say that one (in the case of my son) was brainwashed to believe horrible lies about the sociopath.
It is a defense mechanism he will use to put himself in the victim role and not allow anyone else to look sympathetic, especially someone who is angry or upset with him for his cruel acts or abuse.
My ex-husband actually tried to use these tactics to play one son against the other.
It was the one time when he did all the work for me. All I had to do was sit back and watch my boys figure out every ploy, tactic, game, and lie day after day. That was the irony; he believed I was ‘poisoning’ my boys against him, when in reality, I wasn’t saying a word; his actions did all the talking.
Reflection Leads to Understanding
At one time, I would have actually defended his actions by making excuses for him to the boys. I thought this would make it easier for them. My reasoning was: it’s better for the boys to think they have a father who is capable of loving them and who does love them unconditionally, but one who is just going through a bad time.
I now understand that this was adding to the cognitive dissonance. I was giving them a message that was a contradiction to what they were experiencing first hand. Once it became clear that I could no longer cover for him, my boys actually became much more at peace. Their world of what they saw and what they heard and what they believed all made sense, because all three things matched up, for once.
Loud and Clear
While in the hospital, my son refused to allow his father up to the unit to visit him. Unluckily for my ex-husband, I was not there at the time when he did so…twice. Therefore, I could not be the easy scapegoat to blame for that decision. Of course, my ex called the hospital in his irate fashion demanding this and that, which did nothing to change the policy of giving the patients a voice.
I was extremely proud of my son for standing up for himself, and for my other son who followed the lead of his brother when it came to speaking up for himself, as well.
The funny thing is, at almost every meeting we had over the past three months when my ex-husband was trying to take custody from me and destroy my character, his campaign slogan became: I just want my boys to have a voice. He was, of course, implying that I had taken their voices and was speaking for them.
It turns out they each have a very strong, very clear voice. My ex-husband just doesn’t like what they have to say.
*Author’s note: I apologize for not keeping up with responding to comments much these past few weeks. I’ve been writing on the go, so to speak, and haven’t had much time to sit at the computer and respond, but I have enjoyed reading all of your comments, and I thank you all for your thoughtfulness and support 🙂 -Quinn