In most of our daily arguments with people we love, both sides are right. It can be mind boggling to look across the table at your partner and realize that they feel just as certain in their position as you do in yours. Some of us withdraw at the point where two “right” sides meet because we hate conflict. Some of us love that spot and try to live as much of life as possible in the state of an exciting debate. Some of us always feel we’re even more right than the other and are compelled to explain why, whether anyone else wants to hear it or not.
But regardless of our natural tendencies, the bottom line is this: our ability to work through daily conflicts and debates strongly influences the quality of our relationships.
When I know I can be in conflict with my partner and that we’ll be able to get through it without damaging each other (because we have lots of times before), then my trust grows, my love grows, and my confidence grows. Intimacy is partly about how well a couple can handle conflicts.
Think about it. If there’s one person on earth who you know you can get through disagreements with better than any other, then you can feel closer to that person and safer with that person than anyone else.
This is part of building an intimate relationship.
And even though we’re all flawed humans and most of us don’t know how to work through arguments or disagreements very well, we can learn. We can learn to look at our partner and realize that they feel right, too, and that we both want similar things. We most often want to feel our perspective is recognized, cared about, and respected. The issues are just the issues. The level of care and respect we give each other is paramount. Are we willing to care about the hurts of our partner before feeling heard ourselves?
When a small child comes to you with scraped knees in tears, does the child want you to explain how he or she messed up along with how to do better, or does the child want to be held, rocked, patted, and told that it’s ok? Which option is most calming? Most healing in that moment? The child is looking for comfort—for the feeling of being understood, respected, and cared about. It’s the opposite of being scolded or re-educated in a moment when a connection is needed most.
Then after that moment—or after the argument, in the adult world—we might talk through what happened and whether next time maybe we’d do anything different. We ideally learn from each other in positive ways in conversations that are not held during times of conflict or pain. In moments of hurt, it’s time to care.
What happens when both people are hurt at the same time? Then it’s up to each of us to care. They say it takes a bigger person to put their complaints to side momentarily for the sake of loving another. I agree. I think the most evolved people on our planet have mastered this skill. Like Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. They live as they believe. They exude empathy. We respect them, we know their values, we admire their strength.
And there are billions of people on the planet who are trying each and every day to be more like these beautiful souls. We want to be better partners to each other. We don’t want to hurt people, especially the ones closest to us. We agonize over our past mistakes and vow to try harder. We work to overcome our childhoods and to become better parents. We catch ourselves getting angry and try to learn new ways of handling ourselves in life’s toughest spots.
Enter the psychopath.
If you’re with a psychopath, you will never get to lay your head on his shoulder and cry it out and get any genuine care. You might be a prop if cameras are flashing and people are watching your “heroic” psychopath save you, but in life’s private moments, a psychopath is more likely to make you cry and then tell you to stop crying because you’re so ugly and crazy.
That’s not a very evolved way of being in a relationship, now is it.
I can tell your this. If you are in a relationship with a psychopath, sociopath, or narcissist, you are never, ever going to build the kind of intimate relationship in which you know you’re safe and will get through disagreements together. You won’t have a shoulder to cry on, and no one will stroke your hair while you soak in their warmth.
People in relationship with psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists are perhaps the loneliest people on earth.
Wyatt and I were busily trying to get our three small kiddos into the car for a trip to the zoo. Or should I say, I was busy. I rushed down the steps with our daughter on my hip and breezed through the living room into the kitchen, hollering the entire way.
“Boys! Time to get your shoes on! Please come down and get your shoes on! We’re going to go see the monkeys!”
I stepped past Wyatt and grabbed the diaper bag off the counter. It was empty.
“Wyatt, can you run up and get some diapers? I thought there were some down here.” I held open the empty bag so he could see.
He was leaning back against the counter, steaming coffee mug in hand.
He didn’t acknowledge that I’d said anything—or even blink.
“Wyatt, can you please grab some diapers? I need to get the snacks packed and stuff.” I slid open the pantry doors and pulled out some fruit leathers with my free hand.
He still didn’t blink; just stood gazing out the window and apparently enjoying his coffee.
“Hello? Can you at least acknowledge that I am speaking to you? Wyatt!”
I watched him turn to leave the room, fruit leathers still in hand, arm hanging limp by my side. My daughter, Abby, was still on my hip. She grabbed my cheek and pulled my face toward hers and then pointed at the fruit leathers.
“Ok, Abby. You can have this in the car,” I hoped Wyatt was at least getting the diapers. “We’re going to the zoo today! Are you going to see the monkeys?”
I was excited to go to the zoo as a family. Wyatt had never gone with us before. I stuffed snacks and sippie cups in the diaper bag and handed Abby a fruit leather to hold as we headed for the car, and I breezed back through the house toward the garage door.
“Are you ready boys? Did everyone go potty?”
As I passed Wyatt’s office, I could see he was at his desk, trimming his fingernails neatly over the trash can. My brain exploded.
“Wyatt, did you get the diapers?”
He didn’t acknowledge me.
“Wyatt, are you kidding? Let’s go! We have to get going or it’s going to mess up nap time!”
I marched into his office and put my hand on his forehead and pushed back gently so he would look up at me.
“What are you doing?”
He jerked back away from me, and his face instantly turned scarlet.
“What the hell is your problem, Helen?! Don’t touch me like that! Don’t even touch me!”
I started backing away from him.
“My God, Helen, I swear you are unbelievable. Unbelievable. Can you just be a normal person for five seconds? Do you have to go off and act like a psycho about everything? Everything?”
Abby’s eyes were wide, and she was gripping the fruit leather in a white knuckled fist. I kept backing out of the office.
“No, Wyatt! We just need to leave! You know I hate it when you won’t acknowledge I’m speaking.”
“Helen, not everything is about you. I swear, you are crazy. Not everything in the world is about Helen talking or about what spoiled Helen wants to do. I swear you are the most spoiled rotten princess I ever met. I mean, what’s the big deal. I need to trim my nails. Why do you have to act like a crazy psycho over that? Not getting your way? I’m just trimming my nails. You have to march in here and smack me in the face for trimming my nails?”
I started to feel ashamed. Then angry, because I knew somewhere inside that he was wrong. That I wasn’t being crazy and that I didn’t smack him at all. I knew it was normal to want to be acknowledged. But then maybe I was being too demanding. Did I need to chill? How could I resolve this so we could have a good day?
The bottom line is that I could never resolve it. Wyatt wanted to stir up the day because he derived satisfaction from sucking my energy dry in every big moment. After another hour of trying to calm him, trying to care for his feelings, trying to inspire him to care for mine, I ended up walking around the zoo that day feeling like a hollow shell of myself.
You know what he did? He laughed and skipped and raved over the monkeys with our children. He threw them up in the air and openly scolded me for not being more playful.
“We’re having fun, aren’t we guys,” he said to our boys at a picnic table while they licked ice cream cones. They nodded. I was changing Abby’s diaper in the stroller. “Too bad mommy doesn’t like to have fun like we do. Come on, mommy. Try to be fun. Like us. We’re the fun ones, aren’t we guys.”
“Yeah, Daddy. Daddy’s fun!”
I wanted to cry. Later, when I tried to explain to him how much it hurt me when he didn’t acknowledge me when I spoke to him, he rolled his eyes and groaned about why I was never happy. I thought if I explained it in just the right way, with just the right words and with just the right amount of beautiful sentiment (and no sign of craziness), then a light bulb would go off over his head and he would embrace me and say, “I’m sorry, babe. I don’t want to make you feel like that. I guess I didn’t realize what I was doing. But I see what you’re saying. And I love you. Come here.” And then he’d squeeze me tighter, and we would be a family that could last forever.
But we weren’t. I projected my values on him. The truth was and still is that he enjoyed upsetting me, he thrilled over any opportunity to make our children see me through a negative lens, and he experienced no remorse and no empathy. My value system is not and never was his value system. He faked it for a while, so I was confused. And I thought he’d respond the way I’d respond to someone I love who’s hurting—the way billions of people would respond. With the capacity for caring. We may be flawed humans who fail each other all the time, but most of us can care.
But that’s how we get caught—when we imagine that everyone can. I wasted a good part of my life trying to inspire someone to care who simply can’t and won’t ever. If you catch yourself projecting your values or your capacity for caring on someone who never steps up with any real empathy or love, it might be time to save your own life.
Follow these links to previous chapters and a community of support on Lovefraud.com:
Chapter One: Everyone’s Ex is a Psychopath
Chapter Two: Labels and Lists Might Not Help
Chapter Three: There Are Degrees of Conscience and Empathy
Chapter Four: Richard Parker is Not Your Friend
Chapter Five: Who is a Potential Victim?
Chapter Six: I Wouldn’t Let That Happen
Or you can find The Other Side of Charm: Your Memoir at major booksellers.