Many people describe a long-term relationship with a sociopath as “soul-destroying?” Mine was. But, why? How does this happen. I’m still searching for all the answers, but here are some thoughts.
Perhaps some, but not all, of the answer is erosion.
Increasingly, he doesn’t come home for dinner; she’s chronically late for commitments with you; he flirts with other women in front of you, then denies it, attributing your concern to your insecurity; instead of engaging you over brunch, she’s constantly checking her phone. Sometimes, she just ignores you. He contemptuously rolls his eyes as you voice your opinion, but denies it. He says he wants to take you to dinner and wants you to pick the place. As you are leaving to go, he subtly criticizes you (“Gosh, I thought you’d want to get more dressed up. Too bad there’s not enough time to change…we’ll be late.” or “Why are you wearing a dress and heels, wouldn’t jeans have been better? I just want you to be comfortable.) Of course, you haven’t caught on yet, that no matter what you wear it will trigger a dismissive comment. Once seated, he undermines your restaurant choice. (“I hope my meal’s better than when I came here for business last week.”)
Embedded in each of these is the message you are inferior, unworthy, nothing.
The Erosion’s Source
The source of the erosion magnifies its impact, as it is delivered by a person you love and respect, perhaps above all others. You don’t leave the relationship, as each comment is either so small that it flies under your defensive radar screen or it flags your defenses, but, when you talk about it (as communication is part of a healthy relationship), you are told you are too sensitive, too emotionally immature, too needy (more criticism). To prove to yourself and to the person you love that you are strong not weak; mature, not immature; independent, not needy; you soldier on. Scrape, scrape, scrape, the erosion continues.
Gaslighting is crazy making and the source of the gaslighting makes it all the more insidious—a person you think has your back and wants the best for you. This is the person who you are sure agreed to pick up wine for a dinner party you are hosting, yet arrives empty handed. He states with unwavering confidence that you never asked him to bring home wine. If you had, of course he would have, and gosh, you can be sooooo disorganized and forgetful. This doesn’t match your memory, but his confidence makes you assume you misremembered. He then discounts the need to have wine for your guests. By doing so, if you still feel it’s necessary to serve wine, you must run out at the last minute to get it. Will he thank you? No, because he’s already deemed it unnecessary. He may even mention that you can be so controlling to insist on things being your way. He’ll be relaxed and gracious when your guests arrive. You’ll be rushed and harried, “Relax, Babe,” he’ll say, “you’re sooooo tense.” He’ll shake his head to communicate to your guests, “See what I put up with?”
Scrape, scrape, scrape your confidence wanes.
Who Am I?
Over time, you hardly recognize yourself. You ask, “How did it come to this?” “Who am I?”
As corrosive as these things are, I feel that if this is all that had happened to me, I would have rebounded faster. As evidence for this, during my toxic marriage, when I’d be away from “Paul,” for a week or so, I’d feel a resurgence of confidence and strength. I was like a wilted flower that just needed sunlight and water—I was weak, but still intact.
The idea of a self-concept is central to the personality theory of the famous psychologist Carl Rogers. He defined it as “the organized, consistent set of perceptions and beliefs about oneself.”
This “organized,”internally consistent theory of who I am and what I believe makes me me. It is my essence—my identity. Perhaps this is my soul (speaking nonreligiously). This is what Paul nearly destroyed during our separation, divorce and post-divorce aftershocks.
I can infer what some of the foundations of my belief system must have been:
- I am smart and competent
- I am safe
- If I work hard enough, I can tackle life’s problems
- Life has predictability
- Most people are fundamentally good
- The legal system makes sense, generally justice will prevail
- I am honest
The brutal realization that Paul is probably a sociopath, that I’d wasted 20 years of my life on a man who’d never loved me, and being subjected to his fury and rage and constant emotional and financial attacks set in motion a cascade of events that eventually shattered most of my basic beliefs about myself and the world and strained other beliefs close to breaking.
My Self-Concept Is Undone
My self-concept—my identity—my soul—was decimated. It was no longer organized and consistent, in fact, it hardly existed at all. So many of the pieces which once comprised it had been invalidated. The wilted flower didn’t just need water and sunlight, it was as if it had been uprooted and shredded—leaves torn from stems, petals ripped and crushed. In this situation, putting the pieces back together was not possible—they no longer fit—they no longer worked. I was no longer an integrated whole.
One Building Block—Holding On
Even as I write this, I am having a bit of an “ah-ha” moment. In the midst of despair, fear, profound sleep deprivation and searing emotional pain; I remember clinging desperately to one of these pieces—that I am honest. In my spent, totally stressed-out state while Paul relentlessly attacked me during our separation and divorce, I clung to that premise like a shipwrecked sailor clinging to a piece of driftwood—no matter what Paul did, no matter how underhanded, dishonest, scary and even illegal his behavior I would not compromise my integrity. At first, I hardly had the strength to fight at all, but when capitulating to his demands only brought more exploitation, I fought back.
Yet, even when I fought back hard, I always fought clean. Full stop, end of story. Perhaps I had such clarity on that point because it was one thing I could control, and it was one piece of my former self I could choose to retain.
A Second Building Block
Yes, it was soul-destroying. The “me” that existed prior to Paul did not just evolve, as most people do as they grow and mature, she turned to ash. She almost ceased to exist. I feared that a gust of wind would scatter the ash and what was left of me would be gone forever. Yet, that did not happen. My son’s similar undoing pushed him close to suicide. His distress and the maternal drive to save him focused me. Regardless of any previous flawed parenting, being the best mother to him that I could be had to be at the core of the new me. Full stop, end of story. So now I had two building blocks—I am honest and I will be the best mother to my son I can possibly be. The rebuilding would need to continue from there.
Driven to Understand And Reintegrate
Is this why victims of sociopathic relationships are so driven to understand? Simply putting former pieces of oneself back together is not an option. For some, being newly remade is required. To do that I had to autopsy the experience in painstaking detail. I had to know what was real, not what I wanted to be real, and to review and analyze to understand what parts of my original self were intact, which needed to be thrown out, which needed to be modified and what aspects that were never there must be added.
My own cautionary tale of unwittingly investing almost twenty years of my life into a relationship with a sociopath and sometimes diverting from the best path, is chronicled in my book Husband, Liar, Sociopath: How He Lied, Why I Fell For It & The Painful Lessons Learned (available via Amazon.com, just click on title above). As I don’t get a “do over,” hopefully some of my painful lessons can help others impacted by these toxic people.
Identifying names, places, events, characteristics, etc. that I discuss here and in my book have been altered to protect the identity of everyone involved.