There’s this corner of the internet where people go to get over their exes; forums and blogs and support groups dedicated to recruiting women (and much more occasionally men) as professional victims. They are easy to spot. ‘Living with a Narcissist’, they’re sometimes called, or: ‘Surviving a Sociopath’. According to these sites men don’t just behave really badly because we can all be selfish dicks and our culture has no respect for women. Women don’t just sometimes get swept away in unwise love affairs because we are all lonely and broken and have readily accepted the lie that the love of a good man will fix us. No. The central philosophy of this particular underside of the internet is this: if a man has treated you like shit it is as a result of his clinical psychopathy. He is a sociopath. That’s why he didn’t love you how you deserve to be loved. There is no other explanation.
I am fascinated by the online psychopath movement and the (mostly) women who subscribe to it. I can’t get enough. I just scroll and scroll through the sites and the blogs and the forums, riveted; my mouth slightly open, a faint string of drool hanging from my bottom lip, like a car-crash voyeur, except more judgemental.
The movement is populated by women too smart or too beautiful for your common or garden variety arsehole. They gather online in their hundreds (thousands, maybe?) convinced they’ve been duped by Machiavellian con-artists. Absolutely certain they have been done-over by charismatic psychopaths so skilled at manipulation it would have been impossible for even the most highly attuned psychologist to see through the act.
They take to the internet, these hapless victims, and they comfort each other with inspirational stories of ‘growth’ and ‘truth’ and ‘healing’; they take to the internet and they pen heartfelt words of advice for readers who have suffered a similar fate. It’s ok, they want you to realise: it wasn’t your fault. His cheating (and it is usually cheating that ends the relationship even when his jealousy/drug abuse/violence had long played a starring role in the romance) was nothing you could have predicted from his behaviour or his track record with friends and lovers. If a man has treated you badly it is all on him. You shoulder none of the blame whatsoever.
On the one hand, I get it. Of course I do. I’ve been there. Rejection is cruel. It is embarrassing to admit you’ve been dumped or duped; painful to face up to the fact he found someone else who was better looking or better company than you are. You were not enough. How can you possibly love again in the face of this brutal truth? What if the next one and the one after that fuck off with someone else too? What will you do? It’s too frightening. Believing a sociopath trapped you in his inescapable web is easier than accepting that people are unpredictable and that even the best of us is capable of behaving terribly.
On the other hand: I hate to break it to you babe, but your ex is probably not a psychopath.
You know how he lied to your face for pretty much the entire relationship — how he went all weird about you getting a lift from that bloke at work and then it turned out he was going down on his own colleague, for months and months and you suspected nothing? You know how he wouldn’t introduce you to friends or family and it transpired he was living a double-life with a wife and kid tucked away in Donegal when you thought he was just travelling for work? You know how you loved him so much and he broke your heart and now he doesn’t care one little bit? Yes, it’s shit. But it is, I am afraid, life. It happens all the time. People are fucked up and, frankly, if your husband cheating is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you then you are very lucky.
I know you feel sad. And yes, your trust is shot to shit and, yes, it is going to be a very very long while before you’ll let go and love with all your heart again, if ever. But you do not need to cultivate a career as a professional victim. You do not need to join a support group for survivors of narcissistic lovers. That’s the kind of self-delusion that made you ripe for a con in the first place.
None of us likes to get our heart broken. And none of us are immune to slagging off our exes. I’ve definitely done my fair share of that, and I have definitely used the term ‘psycho’ — but always with self-awareness, I hope. Always with tongue in cheek and in the full knowledge that however badly I have or haven’t been treated I have played willing role in my own downfall. I saw what he was and I picked him. He played the game and I played right back. I heard the lies and I believed them because it was easier than the faff and upheaval that truth (whatever that is) would bring. (I am flawed, but I am nobody’s fool, except occasionally alcohol’s.)
Let me end with an anecdote:
Once upon a time I sat at a Harvester somewhere in urban Kent eating a microwave lasagne opposite my ex-boyfriend. We were at a crossroads in our on again off-again relationship (and I was at a crossroads in my life: Bored in my job and desperate for stimulation, even the distressing stimulation that comes of romantic drama). I had recently written to his live-in lover to tell her that we were sleeping together again and maybe she ought to think about that before she had a baby with him (leave me alone. I was watching a lot of EastEnders at the time and, anyway, I never said I was a nice person). ‘I can’t believe she hasn’t left you,’ I told him. ‘What did you say to convince her to stay?’ He shoved a chip into his fat mouth. ‘What do you think I said?’ he laughed, ‘I told her you were crazy.’
And he was right. I was. We all were. Not a one of us was sane in that particular triangle. But I forgive myself, and I even forgive my ex-boyfriend. Because nobody is sane in the face of a future that involves certain death. Very few of us are secure enough to love one man or one woman forever and ever amen. We all behave badly. But that doesn’t make us psychopaths. It makes us human.