Before I met “Paul,” (the man I married, who I realized about twenty years too late must be a sociopath) I had a friend who may not have known about sociopaths, but she knew to call off her engagement to “Mr. Right” because of a cold and a sandwich.
Make Your Own Damn Sandwich!
Carol was smart, motivated, kind, outgoing, upbeat, and gorgeous. She was clearly a “catch,” and she had come very close to marrying handsome, rich, well-connected “Mr. Right.”
One day, Carol was not feeling well and was lying on the couch amidst sniffles, cough drops, and tissues. Her fiancÃ© chose that moment to ask her to make him a sandwich.
“If someone’s going to expect me to make him a sandwich when I’m the one who’s sick, and he just wants to be waited on, well, that’s that,” Carol told me. In that moment, she knew she was going to end the engagement, and she did.
I remember being shocked. Ending an engagement over who’s going to make a sandwich? Maybe he wasn’t feeling well. Maybe he didn’t realize how sick she was. Maybe he just forgot she was sick. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. (See how my “empathy” is setting me up to give someone the benefit of the doubt who doesn’t deserve it? I’m learning to be better about that.)
But, maybe Carol was right. Maybe there was no excuse for her fiancÃ© asking her to make him a sandwich in that situation. None! It signaled inherent selfishness, entitlement, and perhaps a lack of empathy. It was a rare gift, as it allowed a glimpse of his real character. It was a deal breaker. Despite the lost money and dashed egos resulting from halting plans for the wedding, Carol ended their engagement. She had no regrets.
Don’t Make Excuses; Pay Attention, Connect The Dots
With Paul, I brushed off the “Could you make me a sandwich?” moments, excused them away, and then forged ahead. In fact, I even patted myself on the back for being understanding, flexible, and giving Paul the benefit of the doubt—things my family had always encouraged me to do for people when I was growing up. Big mistake!
What Happened When I Got Sick?
I got the flu before Christmas the first year Paul and I were dating. As New Year’s Eve rolled around, I was still weak and exhausted. Paul and I decided to stay in and have a quiet evening, punctuating the New Year with a champagne toast. Even when I’m feeling well, I’m not a night owl, so by 10:30, I was fighting sleep and losing badly. I knew I could not stay awake until midnight. Of course, Paul would understand.
“I can’t believe it,” Paul said, making no attempt to camouflage his cutting tone. Then, shifting to his velvety voice, which distracted me from the content of his words, he continued, “Who can’t stay up ”˜til midnight on New Year’s? I love New Year’s Eve. It’s soooo romantic. Why don’t you just make some coffee? I really want to ring in the New Year together.”
Where’s The Empathy?
Caught off-guard, I made excuses for Paul’s behavior. Maybe he was looking forward to sharing our first New Year’s Eve together so much that he was just disappointed. Maybe he didn’t realize how tired I actually was. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. Feeling guilty (as he must have intended), I made coffee, struggled to stay awake, and shared a New Year’s champagne toast with Paul before collapsing into bed.
In actuality, this was something else altogether: a red flag, although a subtle one. (After all, I was sick, but I wasn’t being rushed to the hospital.) Paul’s behavior reflected a complete lack of empathy for me. Even though I was physically and emotionally spent, Paul demanded that I prop myself up with caffeine so as not to disappoint him. He didn’t even offer to make the coffee! Someone who really cared about me would have been sympathetic to how I felt and maybe offered to make me a cup of chamomile tea and tuck me in with a gentle kiss on my forehead.
No Excuse For No Empathy
Paul’s trivial need to have me with him as the clock struck twelve on New Year’s Eve trumped my health and fatigue. Not making your ill partner or ill children the priority is apparently not just common to my experience with a sociopath, it’s common to other victims of sociopaths as well. It was a theme that replayed throughout my marriage to Paul–even in situations involving our children’s health and in future situations involving my health when the stakes were much higher.
A red flag triggered by health issues (even a small ailment) should never be ignored. It signals that someone might be a sociopath. No matter how trivial the health issue might be–Carol’s cold or my exhaustion—if your partner’s response shows a lack of empathy, run. (But, if your partner might be a sociopath, be sure to get advice so you can exit the relationship safely.)
Footnote—Discount Public Displays Of Empathy
How someone responds to you in public when you are ill isn’t a good indicator of whether or not they are sociopathic. Remember, sociopaths are great actors and they love playing the role of attentive partner when there’s an audience. Adulation from others not only fuels them, but so does your confusion and distress caused by their inconsistent behavior. Being a doting partner in public and a dismissive one in private is a win-win for a sociopath. A contrast between how a partner responds to your health needs in public versus in private may be another important red flag.
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). 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.