The Buddhists say that we fall in love with our teachers. I know that in my relationship with the man I now belief is a sociopath, I realized early that I was in a sort of classroom.
He clearly saw the world differently than I did, and operated on principles that were so foreign to me that I couldn’t begin to connect the dots. I was truly in love with this man, had a clear vision of the benefits a good relationship would bring to both of us, and wanted to make it work. So I tried to understand. I kept trying through all the emotional pain that started very early in the relationship. I worked at getting him to appreciate and trust me more than he did. I also experimented with mimicking his behaviors, even though they were outside my comfort zone.
In all of this, I learned one basic lesson. No matter what I did, I lost. I didn’t get what I wanted from him. In negotiations or trades, I came out on the short end of the stick. I invested more than he did. Any temporary gain I won cost me more down the road. I lost money. Career equity. Personal connections. Self-respect. My expectations of the relationship kept diminishing through the five years I knew him, until my efforts were mainly centered on avoiding pain.
Through all this I was still profoundly attached to him. Part of me knew this was crazy, but I couldn’t break away. He was like a powerful magnet. Oddly, there was also a little voice in my mind that popped up occasionally, telling me, “Pay attention. This is important.” I had no idea what it meant, but in a way, it was the thing that kept me sane. It was telling me that this was happening for a reason.
This article is about one of the most important aspects of trauma processing. It is about what we learn as we realize that there is some other reality on the other side of healing. We play with this idea all the way through our healing. Certainly, the angry phase is about learning to be different than we were, working on not being a victim anymore. But there is more than that. There is also learning the lessons that sociopaths can teach us about winning.
The difference between sociopaths and us
In Strategy of the Dolphin, the book I mentioned in the first of these articles, the authors divided the world into two types of people, sharks and carps. Sharks are addicted to winning. Carps are addicted to being loved. These rough generalizations offer us a wealth of understanding about the differences between empaths (feeling people) and people who cannot bond.
There is another, related concept in this book about the nature of human interactions. That is, in all interactions, we act on what is most important to us — either the relationship or the outcome. If we are more concerned about the relationship, we are willing to compromise or give in to keep things friendly between us. If we are more concerned about the outcome, we will do whatever we have to do to get what we want. Outcome-oriented interactions may include a lot of apparent relationship-building but it is all part of the plan to get the desired outcome.
In the last year of our relationship, after being flattered, charmed and seduced for a few weeks by my ex, I agreed to a new arrangement that equated to paying for him living with me. Once he had the agreement, he reverted to his old cruel, distant and domineering self. (And I was stuck with supporting him, while he treated me like this.) When I asked him why he was so nice when he was leading up to a deal, he looked at me as though I were stupid and said, “We were in a negotiation. How did you think I’d behave?”
What I wanted to say to him was, “I expect you to not use my feelings against me.” But it was pointless. He regarded my feelings toward him as an annoyance. To him, everything was deals. He viewed people in terms of relative power. As long as I had the power in the relationship — such as when he was trying to get me to agree to something — he was going to suck up. When I didn’t have anything further that he wanted, my feelings or desires were unimportant. If I wanted something from him, he had the power and it was my job to offer him enough payment to make it worth his while.
I can write this very clearly now, but at the time, it was simply incomprehensible. My life was about love and all its permutations. I wanted to be liked and accepted. I was highly aware of other people’s insecurities and needs. Most of my relationships had some element of helping and I even made my living helping other people achieve their dreams. I tended to over-perform, because I was worried about meeting other people’s expectations. I worked too hard, over-committed, and took responsibility for everything — other people’s feelings, when things didn’t work out perfectly, and for my inability to take care of myself very well.
Naturally, my clients and lovers enjoyed the intense effort and creativity I put into their satisfaction. And naturally, I attracted a certain type of person, people who needed more than they could get from providers with healthier boundaries. I was perfect for my sociopath. He needed someone who would care about him enough to help him achieve his personal goals. That was me. And he was clever enough to give me exactly the minimum attention necessary to keep me thinking I was in a romantic relationship.
Learning another strategy
The authors of Strategy of the Dolphin talk about a third type, the dolphin, which has two characteristics that are different from the carp and the shark. The dolphin experiments with new strategies, when its standard behaviors aren’t working in a situation. Second, the dolphin will generally act like a peaceable, relationship-oriented carp unless circumstances require acting like a shark. When it is necessary to place outcome over relationship, the dolphin has no problem doing that.
In our healing from relationships with sociopaths, we practice outcome-over-relationship in many ways. We make the decision to end these relationships and then cut off contact. We place our health and survival first.
Our difficulty in doing this — and most of us have a very hard time of it — is evidence of more than the expertise of the sociopath in placing a hook in our hearts. That hook is not of their creation but ours. They take advantage of our internal rules and feelings of need or insecurity. Some of those rules might be that we must be nice people, kind or generous, and we must be fair or tolerant. Some of our needs might be that we want to be liked or appreciated, or that we expect something back from all the investments we made in the relationship. Some of our insecurities might be that we are not really attractive or lovable, or that if we leave this relationship, we’ll never be able to recoup all that we’ve lost. Sociopaths take advantage of all that, but they couldn’t take advantage of these issues, if we were inclined to feel these things in the first place.
But the most important thing that sociopaths take advantage of is our inclination to give up our power. We are willing to allow other people to lead us. We are willing to believe that other people know more about us than we do. We are willing to give up things we care about in order to keep the peace. We imagine that maintaining our boundaries is something burdensome that we only do when faced with “bad” people, and we prefer to be wide open to everyone and hope for the best.
In going no contact, we take back our power at very fundamental level. We make a choice about what we allow in our lives. Later, as we mull through the relationship and start to become clearer about the way that it was structured — that they won and we lost at every juncture — we begin to call it exploitation. Then we get angry, and we begin to pay much closer attention to the quality of our boundaries. Over time, in a successful recovery, we become much, much better at recognizing threats and defending ourselves.
Transitioning from defensive to creative living
A friend of mine who is just starting to go through trauma processing said to me that he feels frustrated because he can’t answer the question, “What do you want?” None of us can really answer that question in any practical sense until we have some feeling of what we’re capable of. In our angry, boundary-building, self-defensive phase, we learn a lot.
Probably the most important thing is that we learn that we’re capable of saying no. And thinking it, too. We say no, when things don’t feel right to us, or when someone offers us a deal that is clearly wrong for us. We think no, when we have an opportunity to do something that leads somewhere we don’t want to go. We start making judgments about what is bad for us. We get better at doing the blessed trio of self-defensive behaviors — avoiding problems, getting rid of them, and doing battle, if necessary.
At some point, we realize that there is a flip side to all this. Because in learning to recognize what we don’t want, we learn about what we do want. We don’t want disrespectful relationships. That might mean we do want respectful ones. We don’t want lies. That might mean that we want truth from people we deal with. We don’t want chaos in our lives. That might mean that we want to be able to work on our own plans, and enjoy the fruits of our labor.
Developing positive objectives, after we have developed good boundaries and defensive skills, brings us around to having potential characteristics that are very much like those that so frustrated me when I was dealing with my sociopath. Everything was about him. What he wanted. In negotiations, he never lost sight of his personal plans and objectives. He cared about my feelings when they mattered to him, in terms of getting what we wanted. He didn’t waste time or energy on issues that had nothing to do with him.
Many of us wonder if we are becoming sociopaths when we are recovering from these relationships. It is so foreign to us to fight for what we want. When we’re in the angry phase, it’s common for us to feel like we want revenge, because we feel like we’ve been victimized. But later, when we are less inclined to feel like victims, we realize that there are better places to put our energy. That living well is really the best revenge.
I am not suggesting that we become sociopaths. But that they have something to teach us that we, as the particular kind of people who get involved with sociopaths, can profit from learning. Sociopaths are like sharks. They don’t have the capacity to make the choice between relationship and outcome in a personal interaction. They will always look to win. As dolphins, we can choose to be accommodating or take care of ourselves, depending on the circumstances.
In practical terms, what does this mean about our relationships? It means we start viewing our relationships not just as good in themselves, but as means to get what we want. This may sound cynical, but it’s really not when it comes to our good relationships. Good relationships are good because they give us what we want and need. In dealing with people who are more problematic, we become more practical. Not everyone in the world is meant to be our close friend or lover. But sometimes people are good for something else, and so we use them for that. We moderate our involvement. But because we are feeling people, we don’t engage in behavior that is hurtful. If pain starts to be part of either side of a relationship, we either do what we can to fix it or we get out of it.
More than that, we become honest. First with ourselves, about what we want from the relationship and how it fits into the bigger picture of our lives. Sharing this information is done in a context of trust. If we don’t know if we can trust someone, we don’t expose all our dreams and motivations. But in our close relationships, we become honest and take the risk of an argument. Good relationships include disagreements. If a relationship won’t survive an argument, someone is demanding control and/or hiding their true intentions. Telling the truth enables the argument to be about us and what we want, not historical blaming or personal attacks.
We learn to make important statements that begin with “I want,” “I feel” and “I like.” When the other person is making similar statements, we discover intimacy. The conversation naturally becomes deeper and more rewarding. Yes, it’s risky to expose ourselves in this way. Yes, we have to be prepared for disagreement, rejection and possibly the end of the relationship. But for the right reasons. We don’t want close personal relationships with people who don’t like or can’t understand us. But in learning to become more open — and being capable of defending ourselves at the same time — we may discover intimacy even with passing strangers.
Confidence in our ability to defend ourselves, commitment to our own goals and objectives, and honesty are a powerful combination. It can transform our world, our relationships, and our sense of the trajectory of our lives. If this is what we gain from the sociopath’s classroom, we have learned well.