Dear Drama Observers,
I’d like to tell you the story of a couple I worked with once who are not unlike many other couples I’ve seen over the years. Actually, the wife was the one I ended up helping after the husband quickly opted out. More on that in a moment.
Fred and Wilma (not their real names) had what was, by all appearances, a great marriage. Wilma considered herself to have won the lottery when she snagged Fred—or it may be more accurate to say that he snagged her. He was well-educated, had a pleasant personality, and came from what seemed to be a nice family. They both acquired good jobs, moved into a nice neighborhood, and began their own family. All was right with the world—a real American Dream story as it were.
But, as the saying goes, all that glitters is not gold. Underneath Fred’s thin veneer of Fool’s Gold was a collection of masks. Like a disguise artist who can change appearances to pull off a con, Wilma discovered that the actual Fred was not the Fred she thought she had married. Quite by accident, she stumbled across evidence of his extramarital relationships, pornography addictions, and aspects of a secret life that left her head spinning like a top on a granite counter.
At Wilma’s insistence, Fred agreed to go with her to marital counseling. Things seemed to go well during our initial intake session and when we ended, Fred shook my hand firmly and proclaimed, “Thank you so much, doctor. This will be a great fit and I’m very encouraged about your ability to help us. See you next week.”
I found out later that on the way home, Fred told Wilma, “Well, that was awful. You can see that quack if you want to, but I’ll never go back.” I actually wasn’t surprised when Wilma told me that because something about Fred felt disingenuous. My uneasy feelings were later validated when it became clear that Fred had simply slipped into his cooperative-guy-in-a-therapist’s-office disguise hoping I would buy the schtick. When he sensed his ruse wasn’t working, he quickly labeled me a quack and decided to never come back.
A few weeks later, Fred filed for divorce and from that point forward, his one goal was to win at all costs. Winning became more important to him than his marriage, his children, and truth itself. Fred hadn’t changed into someone different—he had been that person all along. It’s just that his nasty vindictive self became evident once his nice-guy disguise was discarded.
Several features characterized Fred’s win-at-all-costs strategy that are common to all those that use them.
First, there was Fred’s willingness to distort reality and egregiously lie. In his re-telling of events, none of Wilma’s charges were true—she had simply made them all up. He had never been unfaithful, never used pornography, and had no “secret” life. But he went a step further and accused her of the very things he had done. She was—in his alternate-reality universe—the unfaithful one and was simply trying to make him the possessor of her own faults. He told her repeatedly, “If I had known who you really were, I would’ve never married you. Your lies are just mind-boggling.”
Second, Fred had revised reality to such an extent that he genuinely seemed to believe his own revisions. He had convinced himself that lies were truth and saw himself in this tale as the noble truth-defender. But this was simply the latest masquerade pulled from his internal wardrobe of disguises. Only it seemed now that when he looked in the mirror wearing the mask, he was convinced that the face reflected was the real him.
Third, Fred was such a skilled con artist that he had this unnerving ability to convince others of the con. People who knew Fred and Wilma would hear her side of the story and express empathy for all she had endured. But when they heard Fred’s side (which he made sure to tell them), they were confused because his description sounded just as plausible as hers. Worse yet, many of their friends joined Team Fred and lavished him with the empathy he so craved. “We’re with you, buddy, and we’ll get you through this,” they would say reassuringly.” This produced a toxic feedback loop that worked like this:
- “I’m the good guy in this story.”
- “I’ve convinced you that I’m the good guy.”
- “And since you think I’m the good guy, I must be.”
Tomorrow: (Repeat 1-3)
It all became a self-referential reality with no grounding in objective truth. But Fred and those he’d duped assumed it to be actual reality because everything seemed to reinforce it.
I wish this was an obscure drama but it’s not and may sound like one in which you’ve been cast to play a role. Someone telling bald-faced lies is disconcerting. Convincing themselves of those lies is mind-boggling. But having a gross misrepresentation of yourself accepted by people you care about is beyond frustrating and carries with it a profound sense of injustice that’s near impossible to move off the centerstage of your life.
Much havoc is wreaked when truth takes a backseat to winning.
Till next week.