About a year
after my experience of being involved with a psychopath, I had a conversation with an acquaintance about dating and trust.
He told me that when he was much younger, he had begun dating a woman he was enamored with. He idealized her beauty, strength and intelligence, and he was very physically attracted to her. Things were going well, he said… until she lied to him. The lie she told revealed the fact that several other things she told him were also lies. I asked him what he did. His response?
“Naturally, I ended the relationship immediately.”
Naturally. That word stood out for me. Of course he ended the relationship — what else would have made sense?
And then I thought about the first lie my psychopathic ex told me. It was a lie of omission, and a whopper: he failed to tell me he was married. That’s a serious and significant lie and I should have dumped him right then and there, naturally. But he was able to manipulate me out of my anger and better judgement with a barrage of even more lies.
There was nothing psychopathic about what my acquaintance did. Ending the relationship because he learned this woman was a liar simply made good sense. Why do I say there was nothing psychopathic about it?
Because I had this conversation with a psychopath.
No, I haven’t forgotten that psychopaths are unrepentant liars and yes, I see the irony. But there is a point to this, so please bear with me.
Walking away from that relationship made sense, and it would make sense for anyone to do the same thing. But what was easy for him was impossible for me. I think it’s safe to say that none of us wanted to have a relationship with a liar. I also think it’s safe to say that all of us had a relationship with a liar anyway. How did it happen, and what can we do to avoid it in the future?
The psychopath said he was able to end the relationship so easily because he’s not capable of attachment or love, so he didn’t have the emotions that “get in the way” of seeing the truth and acting on it. He never even gave her a chance to talk her way out of it — and he broke it off without even telling her why. No excuse or explanation would have made a bit of difference to him. He was confident in his perceptions, his boundaries and his limits.
Love is a wonderful thing, and I pity anyone who can’t experience it. The only time love is not wonderful is when it clouds our judgement and makes us vulnerable to those who know that and take advantage of it without hesitation.
So how do those of us who are capable of love not let it ‘get in the way’ so we can clearly see the truth, stop doubting our perceptions, stop letting people cross our limits without consequence, stop being swayed by excuses, lies, and other manipulation, and take action to protect ourselves?
I think it comes down to three things:
Understanding our inherent cognitive biases, having clear and strong boundaries, and knowing how to trust intelligently.
1. Cognitive biases are those automatic ways our brains work that aren’t always as helpful as they were meant to be. Once we trust someone, and once we love someone and believe they love us, we see them in a different way. When this person lies to us, we subconsciously think “This is a person I love and trust, so I can believe his explanations and I will give him the benefit of the doubt.” That’s not always a bad thing, but it can be a disaster if you’re dealing with someone who isn’t trustworthy and who doesn’t love you.
“Whenever we meet new people, our brain automatically and immediately begins to categorize them in some way – male or female, same or different, friend or foe – in order to predict what is likely to happen next. In those first seconds, we unconsciously decide whether or not to trust. Once we are convinced that someone is or is not to be trusted, we will go through all sorts of mental gymnastics to reinforce that initial judgment…The first step to making better decisions about whom to trust is to realize that we are all biased. Biases result from the mental shortcuts that our brains revert to when facing otherwise overwhelming information-processing demands…While these mental shortcuts work reasonably well most of the time, they also leave us vulnerable to a variety of judgment traps. This is especially true when it comes to trust.” ~Carol Kinsey Goman, 6 Surprising Truths About Trust
“Although cognitive biases can sometimes be helpful in familiar situations or in dealing with predictable threats, they can lead to catastrophic failures in assessment of unfamiliar and unpredictable adversaries,” according to the University at Albany. The psychopath was most definitely an unfamiliar adversary.
While we may never be able to recognize or overcome all of our cognitive biases, being aware of them may help us anticipate where our thinking and decision making can go wrong.
You can read more about cognitive bias here: The Hidden Vulnerability We All Have, Revealed
2. Being clear about our boundaries (one of my favorite subjects!) is of vital importance. These ‘rules’ and limits we set for ourselves and for others can mitigate our cognitive biases if that’s what we intend for them to do. If our boundaries are undefined and sort of murky, they are easy to manipulate. For example, none of us wanted a relationship with a liar, but we probably never thought about it in terms of a clear boundary — “I will not be involved in a relationship with a liar. If someone lies to me and I let it slide or I find myself accepting implausible explanations and excuses, I will take the time to examine it closely to determine why I’m allowing this boundary to be pushed and if it makes any sense to do so.” See the difference?
The conversation with my psychopathic acquaintance reveals that he had a boundary — he would not tolerate being lied to. Since love didn’t cloud his judgement, he didn’t give her the benefit of the doubt or allow her to explain it away. He simply wasn’t going to continue a ‘relationship’ with someone who he couldn’t trust (ironic, yes). It’s a bit more complicated for the rest of us, but it’s not impossible if we determine the specifics of what we need from a partner and a relationship in advance. No one will perfectly fulfill all of our desires (at least not for long!) but I don’t think it’s too much to expect someone to be honest and forthright, to be trustworthy, and to have integrity. Every relationship requires some compromise, but not with these basics.
Would boundaries have helped when we were naive about psychopaths? Maybe…maybe not. But now they can, because of the knowledge we’ve gained.
To lean more about boundaries you can read my book, Boundaries: Loving Again After a Pathological Relationship, or read the five blog posts that inspired that book, starting with Got Boundaries? Part One: What They Are and Why You Need Them.
An excellent series of posts on personal empowerment (including limits and boundaries) can be found on Dr. George Simon’s website: Series On Personal Empowerment.
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3. Knowing how to trust intelligently. Do you trust yourself to know when to trust someone, and when not to? After the extreme betrayal of trust we experienced, we can easily mistrust our judgement. In light of what happened, I think of trust as something we need to define and a skill we need to learn, instead of some vague idea that we leave up to chance. Here are some ideas about trust, followed by some resources:
What is trust?
This definition by authors Townsend and Cloud nails it:
“Trust is the ability to be vulnerable with another person. When you trust someone, you feel certain this person will keep your best interests in mind. You believe they are who they say they are. You believe the deepest parts of you will be safe with them.”
Trustworthiness comes before trust. In other words, a person needs to prove themselves trustworthy before we give them our trust. Trust is the response
to trustworthiness. It takes time to determine if someone is trustworthy because it takes time for someone to show us if they’re truly trustworthy.
What is evidence that someone is worthy of your trust? The most useful evidence is usually in non-verbal communication. Do their words and actions align? Do they do what they say they will do? Do they fulfill their responsibilities? Can you rely on them? When you confide in them, do they show empathy and acceptance? Trusting someone inspires positive expectations. Do they fulfill those expectations or do they let you down? Can you take them at their word and depend on what they say.
Trust is essential for every relationship. There is no relationship that’s not based on trust. Emotional intimacy is based on trust.
Don’t trust blindly and naively — be assertive and ask for more credible evidence when you need it.
Trust involves taking a risk, but it’s less of a risk if you don’t trust blindly or without reason. Being and acting trustworthy should be considered the only sure way to maintain your trust. In other words, being trustworthy is an ONGOING thing. Just because someone was worthy of your trust at one time doesn’t mean they’re still worthy of it if they stop actually being trustworthy.
Who’s Never Going to Let You Down? Martha Beck shows you how to fine-tune your Trust-O-Meter
Our emotions can put us at a disadvantage when dealing with someone who doesn’t have our best interests at heart. Ideally, we can find a balance between emotion and logic that allows us to see reality more clearly.
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