By Jennifer Young, LMHC, Director of Survivor Services
“Staring at the blank page before you, open up the dirty window,
Let the sun illuminate the words that you could not find.” ~ Unwritten by Natasha Bedingfield
“I was in a relationship with a psychopath.” What an opener, right? Starting with the harsh truth isn’t always the best way to begin a conversation. One of the most difficult parts of moving on with your life is figuring out how you are going to tell your story. The truth doesn’t always come easy. And let’s face it, the vast majority of people in your life will never understand. But their lack of understanding does not prevent them from asking what happened to you. So, you might as well figure out what you are going to tell them.
There are a couple things to consider when deciding what you are going to tell others. You might be tempted to tell everyone the severity of the manipulation, or the details of every gaslighting incident, or the shame he made you feel for HIS affair. But this temptation is often driven by your need for validation. You can temper this desire by validating yourself. You have to come to accept that he is what he is. When you fully understand Cluster B, you will know that it is a complicated disorder. You will know that, really, it is a disorder of social hiding.
Cluster Bs, by nature, do not make themselves known as such. The disorder is marked by a perfectly placed mask. This is what they want others to see. They have worked their whole lives creating that mask. It was created through a process of learning what works, what can be believed and what is socially acceptable for their environment. It is pure survival for them—life or death. It is not intended that someone outside of their intimate partnership will see who they are. And it certainly is not intended that someone outside of their intimate partnership will understand the two sides.
If they don’t show it, how are others expected to understand it? Because of this mask, only you might know. You will know the good and the bad, the sweet and the sour, the lies and the truth. You saw the behaviors, you heard the contradictions, you felt the fear. Essentially, you don’t need anyone to tell you that. And if you believe yourself, the need for validation ends.
Once you have established a pattern of self-validation, you can begin to determine who needs to know what. First, consider your audience. Everyone does not need to know everything. You might want to evaluate who needs to know what. Your co-worker might not need to know as many details as your sister. Your boss may not need to know as much as your co-worker. Your acquaintances may not need to know what your neighbor needs to know.
Each of these groups may have very different experiences of your Cluster B; therefore, proving to them who he is may put you in a defensive position. That’s the last place you need to be in the recovery process. So, be honest with yourself about what your Cluster B gave to the people in his life and the people in your life.
Think about telling some people nothing. What a novel idea—not talking about your trauma. This strategy can be helpful in keeping your mind in a place of validation and away from defensiveness.
You can maintain recovery thinking by not looking outside of yourself for answers once a traumatic memory has been resolved. You have done the work; you know what you know, so now use it to validate yourself.
To say nothing can also protect your recovery. The co-worker who questions, “Why didn’t you leave sooner?” might not need to know all the horrible things that he did which prevented you from leaving. But worse than that, the co-worker may not need to know that you did not leave because he continued to build a fantasy for you. That every time you finally decided to leave, he pulled you back in with roses, a romantic getaway or a sentimental recounting of your first Christmas together.
If you decide to launch into positive memories with your co-workers… you are re-traumatizing yourself. You have now taken the leap back into cognitive dissonance just to explain to someone else what you already understand. What if you just said to your co-worker, “I left when I was ready to leave and I’m glad he’s gone. How was your weekend?”
Once you’ve determined who to tell what, you can then begin to craft the language that you will use. Some people can understand the clinical words and explanation. These are the people who can understand what it means to be with a psychopath—someone who might read some of the books you’ve read or read an article about pathological relationships.
Other people may need more common phrases like, “I was in a dangerous relationship,” or “I was psychologically manipulated.” Still others may respond to the use of a metaphor. Sometimes it helps just to say, “He’s like a little child,” or “He’s like a bad case of the flu … I just can’t shake him.”
There is never really a script that can convey what you should say or even could say to help those around you understand. Truth be told, most won’t ever understand. They can’t validate you. Sometimes it’s best to just find one person who might get it, or at the very least, is willing to listen when you need to talk. The rest of the time, the focus doesn’t have to be on telling your story, but rather, living your life.
As singer Natasha Bedingfield says—your story is “unwritten.” In every moment you decide what to say and what NOT to say. There are so many layers and intricacies to a pathological relationship. And each moment, each experience that you had, was traumatic.
It is crucial that you manage the story you tell. With a blank page before you at each new opportunity to speak about what happened, remind yourself that speaking the words represents your power. That should not be considered lightly, and with each word that leaves your mouth, you are risking your power.
(**If we can support you in your recovery process, please let us know. The Institute is the largest provider of recovery-based services for survivors of pathological love relationships. Information about pathological love relationships is in our award-winning book, Women Who Love Psychopaths, and is also available in our retreats, 1:1s, or phone sessions. See the website for more information.)