Sociopaths have many tools in their deceptive toolkit. Last week, in Part 1, I explored three techniques “Paul,” my husband of about 20 years who I now believe is a sociopath, used the day after our honeymoon. (This is taken from my book, Husband, Liar, Sociopath: How He Lied, Why I Fell For It & The Painful Lessons Learned , available via Amazon.com). The three techniques were:
1) framing the conversation to blind me to what was in clear view,
2) creating cognitive dissonance that I would likely resolve in his favor,
3) deceiving without uttering a single word that was untrue.
A barrage of other deceptive techniques, likely common to other liars and sociopaths, followed.
“Our Honeymoon Isn’t Over Until I Say It’s Over!”
It all started the night we returned from our honeymoon; Paul became furious with me when I needed to make a business-related call. He snapped, “Our honeymoon isn’t over until I say it’s over!” His remark and anger upset me and I discussed the unsettling interaction with Paul the next day. I started by repeating his comment and letting him know how I’d felt.
Answering A Question With A Question And Putting Me On The Defensive
After the first three techniques (above) did not get me to drop the subject, Paul added, “Do you really think I would say that?” This is the technique of answering a question with a question. And it was not just any question but a question that redirected my focus away from Paul’s behavior to defending my character (i.e., Am I the kind of person who accuses my husband of being purposely hurtful?).
Without being aware of this tactic, I was immobilized. Paul succeeded in getting me to feel defensive, as if I needed to explain and justify my words. Now, I felt guilty for doubting him.
Imperfect Memory and Gaslighting
Imperfect memory is another technique Paul used to obfuscate. When I pressed the point, he countered with, “I don’t remember saying that …” Again, that was true, technically. Neither Paul nor I have a photographic memory. Absent a recording, neither of us could have remembered exactly what was said the previous day. Gaslighting, named after the movie Gaslight, also involves simply denying facts that one knows to be true. As memory is imperfect, getting someone to question his or her own memory is easier than most of us think.
I Was Just Joking
When I persisted and commented that I remembered him saying something like that, Paul employed the “I was just joking” defense.
In other words, if I was correct that Paul had said anything even close to what I thought he’d said, it could only have been a joke, because Paul was such a nice person that he would never have done something hurtful on purpose.
Bullies use the “I was just joking defense” a lot. They assert that any normal person, who is not neurotically over sensitive, would have known they were joking. So, if you persist in the perception that they were not joking, it could only mean that you are a terribly flawed person, with no sense of humor. To avoid appearing too oversensitive, those bullied often renege on the original assertion that the bully’s behavior was caustic and hurtful.
Score one for sociopaths and bullies everywhere!
When I clung to my correct perception that Paul had not been kidding, Paul’s defense turned to subtle character assassination that made me question myself by suggesting that I was oversensitive. “You were clearly over sensitive last night,” he said. Again, this diverted my focus to defending my character, and away from Paul’s behavior and his lies.
To buy a little extra insurance, Paul added, “It seems you’re calling me a liar.” Gavin de Becker, author of The Gift of Fear, calls this type of subtle character assassination “typecasting.” By labeling me again in an unflattering way—as someone who would call her new husband a liar—Paul set me up to prove an unflattering label untrue.
The ultimate irony here was that, although he had lied, I had not called him a liar.
By accusing me of doing so, he distracted me yet again from his lie and put me on my heels as I sought to reassure my new husband that, as a kind person who loved him, I would never call him a liar.
When none of these approaches sealed the deal, Paul used the pity play. By employing this tactic, Paul seduced me into feeling badly for him. “But now, you’re getting me upset,” he said. By design, this pulled at my heart strings and got me to disengage.
Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, regards the pity play as a key tool in the sociopath’s toolkit.
Distracting And Discrediting With Irrelevant Details
Although Paul did not use the technique in this particular conversation, another ploy he often used was to distract and discredit with irrelevant details.
As if in a court of law, once he established that he believed I had misremembered something trivial (like recalling that we had started dinner at 6:30 p.m. when he was sure, whether or not he was actually correct, it was closer to 6:10) then, by implication, the rest of my memory was also flawed, rendering all of my concerns and observations moot.
It’s Crazy Making—By Design
Many sociopaths are wordsmith wizards, skilled storytellers, and expert debaters. Beware, because the yarns they spin and the arguments they win tie you up in knots, divert you from the truth and leave you deflated, but they have nothing to do with a healthy discussion or productive conflict resolution.
Your negative feelings are an internal alarm signal that “something’s wrong here,” yet you are being encouraged to disconnect that internal warning system, as the sociopath gets you to associate the negative feelings with your own failings, not something wrong with the sociopath or relationship.
Are you necessarily aware of this dynamic? Probably not.
Over time you are likely to become increasingly unsure of your own observations and judgements as well as to give up trying to engage in a productive discussion, since trying to do that only makes you feel worse. After all, when you do, your observations are invalidated and your negative feelings are twisted around so that your character flaws are the source of them all. The end result is that the sociopath is honest and perfect but that you are over sensitive, insensitive, accusatory, have a terrible memory, have no sense of humor, make your partner feel bad, etc.
Now that was fun!
Keep A Journal
If this is how you feel after trying to resolve conflicts with your partner, start keeping a journal, because befuddling, unsatisfying, and chronically one-sided resolutions to conflicts may be a strong indicator you are dealing with a sociopath. Your written record will help establish that fact long after your memory of past events begins to fade or is distorted.
BUT, it’s best to keep your journaling private and the journal itself safe. Sociopaths live to control and manipulate others. Your own journal will provide the sociopath with powerful weaponry to use against you.
Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way. As a “happy divorce” present, my ex-husband sent me a copy of my own journal. Apparently, he surreptitiously gained access to my home months earlier, copied the journal and replaced it without me ever knowing he’d been there. Nice man!
(Identifying names, places, events and characteristics of “Paul”—not his real name—and others I discuss here and in my book have been altered to protect their and my identity.)