A crazy-making, confidence-eroding weapon many sociopaths wield is their skill with words. Below is an edited excerpt from my book that highlights how my ex-husband (“Paul”) manipulated our marital therapist.
…The therapist looked at me and said, “Have you ever asked Paul if he’s having an affair?”
“No, I guess not,” I responded.
“Maybe you should.”
“Why not?” the therapist replied.
“Paul,” I said, “are you having an affair with Anne-Marie?”
Turning the Tables
“I am so hurt that you would even think that,” Paul replied, appearing genuinely concerned.
Notice, he did not answer the question. Instead, he used the diversion tactics of trying to elicit pity and putting me on the defensive and implicitly attacking my character for hurting him.
“Paul, I hope you understand why I need to know,” I said.
I’m Not THAT Kind of Person
“You know how honest I am and how much I value my integrity. I’m not that kind of person,” Paul said.
To add support for this, he told the therapist about his many accomplishments and past volunteer work. Once again, while Paul appeared to address my concern, he had actually released a smokescreen of evasion, misleading by providing evidence of his character, as if a person who “does good” in one setting cannot be a lying, scheming, cheater in another. Trust me, they can.
“Paul,” I said, “I need to know.”
I’m The Problem; Not Paul
“I can’t believe you think that I’m cheating on you,” Paul said, appearing convincingly hurt by the accusation. “Anne-Marie and I are working ‘round the clock to make this company a success, to give our employees paychecks, to give the kids and us the life we want. It’s that simple. It’s your obsession with her and your jealousy of her that have me worried.”
Again, Paul had not addressed the question. Instead, he tried to elicit pity, to put me on the defensive by suggesting that my question demonstrated I did not appreciate him and that I am inappropriately paranoid about his behavior. Yet, in truth, my question remained unanswered.
What Does “Sleeping With” Really Mean Anyway?
“Paul, are you sleeping with Anne-Marie or not?”
With the most humble, honest, “great guy,” hurt look in his arsenal, Paul turned to the therapist and then to me. “No, I’m not sleeping with Anne-Marie.”
By trying to ask a highly specific question to counteract all the times Paul responded to my questions without actually answering them, I fell into another of Paul’s traps. Clearly, I wanted to know whether Paul was currently or ever involved in a sexual relationship with Anne-Marie. By Paul not really answering my questions, I asked a more specific question, but I did not ask the “perfect” question. This enabled Paul to answer in a way that misled and misrepresented without actually lying, in his own mind, anyway—one of his favorite techniques and one at which he excelled. In retrospect, I know this was almost a game to him, to see if he could lie by telling selective truths and by the thinnest definitions of what words really meant.
His logic likely went something like this…Is he sleeping with Anne-Marie? Of course not, because that would imply it was happening right now, and right now, Paul was in a therapy session with me. Also, it was possible that they actually never fell asleep together but just had sex, so Paul could argue that his interpretation of the phrase “sleeping with” could “honestly” have been different than the intended meaning in my sentence (i.e., having sex). If he could argue, even in his own mind, that he understood my question to be asking if he and Anne-Marie were asleep somewhere together at that very moment, then his answer was not a lie. “Honest” Paul had prevailed again.
A Kernel Of Truth And A Side Of Word Salad—Our Therapist Buys What’s On The Menu
Words and language are not universal constants. They mean different things to different people, and meaning depends on context. As a result, sociopaths orchestrate words to obfuscate through selective “truth telling.” This also gives them “plausible deniability” so that, if caught in a lie, they can argue that they really misunderstood, that you misunderstood, the communication was unclear, etc. They have years of practice honing the skill of telling undetectable lies and diverting, deflating, and discrediting those who glimpse the truth.
By offering a totally different representation of our relationship, Paul twisted our therapist into viewing him as the doting, caring husband whose kindness and compassion were evident in the fact that he still loved and was concerned about helping his depressed, anxious wife. No matter what example I used to explain my sense of being minimized and dismissed, calm, collected, manipulative Paul always had a different twist.
Paul was able to tell his version with complete conviction, devoid of tension or agitation. Meanwhile, my version was laced with hurt and sadness and occasional tears I no longer had the strength to contain. This only made Paul look like a rock and made me seem like shifting sand. In addition, I appeared the shrew for battering poor, kind, sweet, caring, honest Paul. After all, didn’t it seem that he answered my question the first time?
Even If I Said That, How Could You Think I Really Meant It? Really…How?
When all else failed, I used the example of Paul insisting that we purchase a house I hated as indicative of how off kilter our relationship and ability to communicate had become. Paul twisted even that to his advantage.
“Yes, I’d wanted to buy that house,” Paul said, “and yes, I knew Onna had reservations, but I never knew her reservations were so serious. I just thought they were part of a healthy discussion, and we had to weigh the pros and cons.”
“But Paul,” I said, “I told you I hated the house, and I gave you all my reasons for feeling that way. You said you were going to get it without me, leaving me and the kids if necessary.”
With the most caring, compassionate look, Paul leaned forward and touched me gently. His eyes connected with our therapist’s and then switched soulfully back to me. “Onna, I was just joking if I ever said anything like that. How could you think I was serious? I’d never do that. I can’t believe we bought a house that you didn’t like. Don’t you remember I was worried so much about this and your happiness that I told you that we didn’t have to buy this house if you didn’t want to? You remember that, don’t you, honey?”
Paul Was Too Good
Like so many sociopaths, Paul’s misrepresentation was built on a kernel of truth. He had actually uttered the words “We don’t have to buy this house.” But, he’d likely done it only to create ‘plausible deniability,’ and he’d done it when getting out of the contract with the builder would have been a legal and financial nightmare. His story was simple, my explanation complicated. He seemed steady and caring. I seemed unnerved and in denial. Paul’s version prevailed. Our therapist never questioned Paul’s steady, clear, confident version of events.
And so the charade continued…
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.