By Amy Alkon
Q: I was dating a sociopathic compulsive liar for three months. I had a gut feeling that he was lying about his work, education and finances, but I had no real proof. This allowed him to manipulate me and convince me that I was crazy, insecure and paranoid. Finally, through Internet searches and contact with his ex-wife, I got proof together and confronted him. Though I dumped him, I’ve become super edgy and suspicious that everyone’s lying to me. I even accused a co-worker of stealing my phone. I think the stress this guy put me through probably caused PTSD. How does one move on after dating a sociopath?—Burned
A: Tales from your PTSD support group:
THEM: “I was held captive with a burlap bag over my head and beaten with electrical cords.”
YOU: “I’m right there with you, bro. This dude I was dating told me his Ferrari was paid for, and it turned out to be leased!”
YOU: “My boyfriend pretended he was buying a mansion, but he really lives with his parents.”
THEM: “That’s terrible. Can you help me put on my prosthetic leg?”
Sure, according to Pat Benatar, “love is a battlefield.” But spending three months fighting with a sociopathic boyfriend doesn’t leave you ducking for cover whenever a car backfires like a guy who did three tours of I.E.D. disposal in Iraq and came home with most of the parts he went in with. Ofer Zur, a psychologist who specializes in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, explains, “To meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, the stressor experienced must involve actual or threatened death or serious injury.”
What you did experience is called “gaslighting,” a covert form of psychological bullying that leaves you doubting your perception of reality and, eventually, accepting the bully’s distorted, self-serving version. So, for example, when you question your partner on something—like their work, education or finances—instead of doing the civilized, healthy-person thing and giving you an answer, they blast you for daring to insult them by asking. (People who are cheating will often do this.) Day after day, as they treat you like you’re nuts, blind or dumb, your self-worth erodes and you feel less and less able to trust your judgment—to the point where you start using all the red flags as carwash towels.
The thing is, gaslighting isn’t like an alien spaceship with a giant vacuum hose, sucking in any person in its path. It’s the need for outside validation that makes a person susceptible, explains psychologist Robin Stern in The Gaslight Effect. Another risk factor is an overvaluing of romantic love—seeing it as a magical eraser for life’s problems and a way to duck out of the grubby work of developing a self. Believing the unbelievable is the price of maintaining a relationship that seems “more intense, more glamorous and more special.” This is basically selling yourself out for love—though all you really have is a snake charmer and a snake, all in one basket, with a boyfriend face-taped across the front.
To your credit, you had a strong enough self that you eventually crawled up through the romantic cloud cover and did some late-night Internet snake-hunting. Though you’ve given your reptile the boot (or perhaps upcycled him into a handbag), your fear of being scammed again has you going all Inspector Javert on every slightly shifty-eyed co-worker. Consider that you’re reacting to the romantic con job as if it happened randomly, like a roast chicken falling out of a private jet and cracking you on the head. To stop wildly flinging suspicion around, accept responsibility: Admit that you got duped because you wanted to believe more than you wanted to see.
Granted, it isn’t always easy to identify the liars. (You can’t just keep an eye out for those telltale pants on fire.) Stern, however, offers good advice to avoid getting taken in by gaslighters and other pathologically inventive hustlers. Instead of debating them on whether a particular piece of information is right or wrong, focus on your feelings. Ask yourself: “Do I like being treated this way … talked to this way?”
And though you don’t have PTSD, you might take a page out of Zur’s playbook—his notion that we heal from bad experiences by creating a narrative that gives them meaning for the future. You, for example, could use this experience as a giant Post-it note reminding you to take a relationship slowly, meet a person’s circle of friends and see who they are over time—instead of immediately declaring that you’ve found the love of the century. If you’re going to have a fairy tale relationship, it shouldn’t be because little or nothing in it exists in real life.