By O.N. Ward
Every week, a chapter of my book, “Husband, Liar, Sociopath: How He Lied, Why I Fell For It & The Painful Lessons Learned” (available via Amazon.com, just click on the title or book cover) will be published here on Lovefraud. To read prior chapters, please see the links at the bottom of the post.
Chapter 15: He Always Tells the Truth—Even When He Lies
Much as agents in the Men in Black movies used “neutralizers” to erase any recall of alien encounters, Paul dazzled and distracted me with brilliant linguistic gymnastics to obscure any glimpses of his true, dark, soulless self. He was masterful at talking his way out of anything and creating an alternate reality to get me to buy into his version of events and to distrust my own recollections. Sociopaths, in general, are experts at this, because they are highly motivated to succeed and have more practice at this than a nonsociopath can even imagine. The people they target typically trust the sociopath and, hence, are not prepared to counter the manipulation unleashed upon them.
Getting someone to question him or herself is easier than you think. Perception and memory are tricky, malleable things, even without the presence of malicious intent. Two well-meaning people often recall even recent events quite differently. Haven’t we all experienced this? Moreover, thanks to advances in forensic science and DNA testing, eyewitness testimony is no longer considered reliable—because, on average, it isn’t. The Innocence Project considers faulty eyewitness recall the most important factor that leads to wrongful convictions.
Our brief exchange the next day to discuss what had happened illuminated how Paul, like so many sociopaths, used language to dominate, influence, and obscure the truth. When it happened to me, I did not understand Paul’s techniques (shared by other sociopaths and fellow manipulators). Yet, a word-by-word dissection of my conversation with Paul reveals the manipulative tools he employed so often.
When I recalled that Paul had said, “Our honeymoon isn’t over until I say it’s over!” and he replied, “I’d never say something like that,” those six words comprised three techniques that are effective at creating misperceptions:
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, and
3) deceiving without technically lying.
By starting out with “I’d never … ” Paul encouraged me to frame his behavior in the context of who I believed Paul to be—a good, loving, honest, and honorable man. The fact that he made a point of presenting himself as so moral while we were dating, and I believed and loved that about him, provided a smokescreen of perceived honestly to conceal his dishonesty. This alone gave him an incredible advantage over me. For me to have shed my entrenched view of Paul’s nature was all but impossible at that moment. I had just married him and had a vested interest in believing in his inherent goodness. Before you judge me as naïve or stupid, keep in mind that we all perceive the world through a lens forged from our interpretation of past events and present expectations. For this and other reasons, it is almost impossible for us to see what we are not looking for, even when it is right in front of us.
A comical 1999 experiment conducted by psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris that became the inspiration for their book on misperceptions we have about our mental abilities, The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, demonstrates our blindness to what we are not expecting. Their study involved two teams with three players each, two basketballs, and one gorilla (actually, a person in a gorilla suit). Subjects were asked to view a short video of the two teams passing a basketball back and forth. The task was to count the number of times the team wearing white passed the ball. In the middle of the short game, a person in a gorilla suit walked into the center of the scene, stopped, faced the camera, pounded its chest several times, and then lumbered away.
When the brief video concluded, viewers were asked how many times the white team had passed the ball. Then the experimenters asked if they noticed anything unusual about the game. Believe it or not, about half of those who counted the passes as instructed did not even notice the gorilla. Even when asked if they saw a gorilla, most of those who viewed the tape laughed, because the idea of a gorilla being part of the video was preposterous. This study and its findings have been repeated consistently. It has become a classic and has been used to make several points about how our minds work, including that we tend not to see what we are not expecting to see, even when looking straight at it. After all, the task was framed as counting passes among players with white shirts, not finding a big, out-of-place, faux, hairy primate. Similarly, as Paul’s new bride, without even knowing that I was doing it, I was framing each interaction by looking for confirming evidence that I had selected a wonderful spouse. I certainly was not looking for signs that Paul was a lying, manipulative sociopath.
Still, Paul’s caustic comment that he, and he alone, determined when the honeymoon was over did not fit my “Paul is a wonderful person” framework. So, like any other human being, I was motivated to make a mental adjustment so that my perception of Paul’s behavior and my understanding of Paul’s character were in harmony once again. In other words, I had to resolve the dissonance between his statement that “I’d never … ” and the fact that I thought he had just done something he said he would never do. To this end, it was easier for me to shift my perception of what I thought Paul said the previous night to fit the assumption that my new husband was a wonderful man than to hold onto my initial, albeit correct, memory of the tense exchange. To hold onto that correct memory would have required me, within days of our wedding, to have drastically deflated my assessment of Paul’s character and to have concluded I had just made a horrible mistake by marrying him. Tall order!
In addition to framing his comment and employing cognitive dissonance to make it hard for me to conclude that Paul could ever lie to me, he actually lied to me without technically uttering any words that were untrue. Think about what Paul said and what he did not say. Paul never said, “I did not say that.” If he had, that would have been a lie. Perhaps because it made the game of deception more engaging, Paul preferred an orchestrated misperception to an outright untruth, although he was comfortable with downright lies when necessary. What did Paul say? Simply that he would “ … never say something like that.” That is not the same thing. In fact, if at the very moment he spoke that sentence Paul did not intend to say something like that, his statement would have been technically true.
Paul’s next line, “Do you really think I would say that?” employed 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?). This was another effective evasion technique. 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. Without resorting to an outright lie, Paul had cleverly diverted me from the truth, made me question my memory, and made me feel guilty for doubting him.
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.
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 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.
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 and couldn’t take a joke. “You were clearly over sensitive last night,” he said. Bullies often use this technique to shirk responsibility for their cruel acts. If the bully’s behavior hurt his target’s feelings, it was only because the target lacked a sense of humor or was neurotically defensive or sensitive, not because the bully did anything a reasonable person would have ever taken seriously. Then, to prove that he or she is not overly sensitive or lacking a sense of humor, the target of the hurtful behavior often reneges on the assertion that the bully’s behavior was caustic. Score one for bullies everywhere!
When none of these approaches sealed the deal, Paul used the sociopath’s ultimate trump card—pity. He seduced me into feeling badly for him. “But now, you’re getting me upset.” By design, this pulled at my heart strings and got me to disengage.
To buy a little extra insurance, Paul repackaged his attempt to turn the tables and to get me to sound the retreat by saying, “It seems you’re calling me a liar.” Gavin de Becker calls this type of subtle character assassination “typecasting.” By labeling me again in an unflattering way—as someone who is not only overly sensitive but who would also call her new husband a liar—Paul set me up a second time 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.
Once we reached this point, there were only two likely endings: my capitulating and apologizing for being upset and for upsetting Paul, accompanied by an unsettling “What just happened?” feeling, or Paul getting angry with me for unreasonably persecuting him. Either unsatisfying conclusion would create a negative association with my attempt to discuss an upsetting situation with Paul, thereby reducing the likelihood that I would try to have such a discussion again. It was exhausting—and it was meant to be. Final score: Paul 10 – Onna 0. The sociopath wins!
Although Paul did not use the technique in this particular conversation, another ploy he used often 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, because clearly they were not grounded in reality.
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 and leave you deflated, however, they have little to do with the truth and nothing to do with constructive conflict resolution. If you are unaware of the manipulative techniques involved (as I was), such conversations are “crazy making,” as if you are being spun on a perpetual merry-go-round. 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 beyond recognition through your sociopathic partner’s manipulations.
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Identifying names, places, events, characteristics, etc. that I discuss here and in my book have been altered to protect the identity of everyone involved.