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 13: Knowing, Without Knowing We Know
A chronic, subtle sense of unease, anxiety, and feeling that something is “off” are classic symptoms of being in a relationship with a sociopath. These feelings became my constant companions.
The Iowa Gambling Task is a classic study designed by neuroscientists at the University of Iowa and discussed at length in a book by Antonio Damasio, one of the researchers. It demonstrates how we can sense that something is wrong and feel anxious without understanding what is making us feel that way.
In their study, subjects were given four decks of cards, play money, and instructions to draw cards from any of the four decks until they were told to stop. Each card in the deck triggered a payout or a loss of varying amounts. The decks were rigged so that two of the decks had positive expected payouts while the other two were downright punitive and would result in large losses for the participant. Players’ anxiety and tension were measured via the electrical conductance of their skin, the same technique used in many lie-detector tests.
At first, a player’s choice of decks appeared random. But soon, players experienced tension and anxiety while reaching for the decks with negative expected payouts. Players also started avoiding these decks long before they had a logical explanation for their choices. One of the things this experiment shows is that our anxiety and tension can signal that something is legitimately wrong long before we realize it consciously or can offer some sort of explanation.
What do the results of this card experiment have to do with living with a sociopath? A relationship with a sociopath is just like thinking you are drawing cards from a fair deck when, in fact, you are drawing cards from a deck that is stacked against you. You will feel anxious and on edge. Although participants in psychology experiments are debriefed so they understand what has actually transpired, in real life there is no guarantee that you will ever understand the root cause of your negative feelings. Without understanding the root cause, you may never remove yourself from the person or situation triggering the feelings, hence feeling anxious and on edge become chronic.
Let me elaborate on this finding by conducting a simple thought experiment. Imagine the tension in the study’s participants if they had been required to keep choosing from the punitive deck, not all the time but as frequently as they did from the nonpunitive decks. Their anxiety and tension would have persisted and likely escalated. Imagine now that, due to heightened tension and anxiety, a player asks to avoid these decks. When the experimenter asks why, the player explains that certain decks seem associated with big losses.
Imagine if the experimenter appears to listen with great empathy and compassion (as a sociopath would) but then explains that the decks have been balanced carefully. If the player perceives differences, it is just a matter of being unlucky early on in the study or that she is one of those people who is overly sensitive to negative feedback. In fact, the experimenter was just like her; he had a similar impression when he went through the experiment himself, but almost no other player has made that comment. Further, it is important to the study for her to continue, and the lead experimenter will not pay her for doing the study unless she completes it—although the assistant experimenter would be happy to help her out if he could.
In light of the information that there is no valid reason to be upset, and with her ego on the line to prove she is not “overly sensitive,” the player persists. Several outcomes, none of them good, are now likely. Her anxiety and tension will persist and build as she is required to take actions she senses, accurately, are contrary to her interests. As her anxiety mounts, maybe she will stop the experiment again and reiterate that she is sure two of the decks are minefields and ask permission to avoid them. To reassure her that the decks are, in fact, balanced, the assistant will offer (although he suggests he might get in trouble for it) to take the decks aside and check them. Maybe they got scrambled. She waits. He returns, assuring her that the decks are even. Again, maybe it is just randomness that made some decks appear more or less favorable than others.
Alternatively, maybe, as the assistant suggested earlier, she is just overly sensitive to negative feedback. In fact, another experimenter is looking for people who consider themselves exceptionally sensitive and tend to “over react.” Maybe she would like to sign up for this study as well. Not wanting to appear unusually weak or overly sensitive, she persists with the experiment in spite of mounting anxiety every time her hand reaches for the two punitive decks.
In this scenario, her body is in constant “fight or flight” mode, because she is in a negative situation. But since someone she trusts, someone who seems to show considerable empathy for her, is telling her she is misreading the situation, she does not leave. By the experimenter discounting the player’s perceptions and reasoning, not only does she experience ongoing anxiety, she has less confidence in her ability to perceive and assess the friendliness or hostility of her environment. Her self-confidence and self-esteem take a hit. Her hard-wired fight or flight mechanism, crafted over millions of years of evolution to signal danger, is dampened.
If this is truly just an experiment that takes a half-hour of her day, no long-term damage is likely. But living with a sociopath is like being stuck in a rigged experiment that never ends. Being in fight or flight mode is great if you are trying to outrun a nasty dog. Living in fight or flight mode constantly is profoundly unhealthy—both physically and emotionally. In addition, having someone you trust continually contradict your perceptions and undermine your decisions is intellectually and emotionally corrosive.
Other potential outcomes to this thought experiment exist. Choosing not to experience constant anxiety and having all of her efforts to understand what is going on fail, our player might continue to go through the motions but give up emotionally as she realizes she can do nothing to control a situation she perceives as negative. This possibility sounds a lot like “learned helplessness,” a term introduced by psychologists Steven F. Maier and Martin Seligman. Learned helplessness is linked strongly with depression. To avoid expending energy in an unwinnable situation, it might be best to just resign oneself to one’s unpleasant fate—to give up, to not care, to disconnect. The problem is that once a person learns that it is futile to try, this behavior is not easily unlearned. As a result, the person does not attempt to exert effort to advance his or her interests in future situations, even when the situation is different and new efforts are likely to yield positive results.
Being in an environment for an extended time in which the connection between effort and results is severed can change a person, leaving him or her chronically depressed. Is it any wonder that more than ninety percent of women involved in long-term relationships with sociopaths become depressed or anxious?
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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.