Looking back, certain patterns tend to stand out. Once you’ve learned the pattern, you can start to see it from the front, recognizing it and avoiding it. I thought about this quite a bit as I listened to the Dirty John podcast. [Don’t worry, this post is spoiler-free]. How can such smart women be hoodwinked by a dishonest man? More to the point, how can we start to figure out what questions to ask so we can rule out the bad guys? Let’s make sure we know who we’re dealing with before we give our hearts away.
When I was young, I was in love with love. I used to write in my diary about boys I liked, boys I was dating, and the inevitable breakups. This was very fortunate because processing my seemingly endless heartache gradually led me to realize: I could have seen this coming. I won’t say I “should” have seen anything coming, because it’s not like I can fly back in time and give Past Me all the information that Today Me just figured out. It was enough for me that I realized there were red flags in people’s behavior, and that I could spot them pretty quickly after meeting someone.
Time after time, though, the root cause analysis of why I got my heart crushed was that: I bought his BS. A guy told me a story about himself, and I believed the story. Sometimes this story was the result of lack of insight on the guy’s part; he just didn’t have a very good understanding of his own motives or patterns of behavior. Other times, the story was a carefully crafted tool that an experienced manipulator used, with full knowledge that it worked better than the truth.
Let’s take my ex-husband as an example.
When we met, he was living with his mom. I was 21 and he was 24. I had been supporting myself since I was 18, so I had my opinions about this, but he had an explanation. He had just broken up with his live-in girlfriend because she had allegedly cheated on him with his best friend. There he was with nothing to his name but six boxes of possessions, two of which were fireworks. He basically had no friends, and this was explained by the bad breakup. To sum up, he had a job but no apartment, no car, no stuff, and no friends.
We moved in together two months after we started dating, and we were legally married several months after that. We eloped and didn’t tell our families.
When I look back, I ask myself, what the HECK was I thinking? I knew nothing about this guy, or rather, what I did know didn’t make a strong case for how great he was.
It wasn’t until later in the relationship that I gradually learned more about my new husband. I won’t go into it here, but all of it was troubling and none of it aligned with my personal values. Then he told me that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
(Not that there’s anything wrong with that, just that I now consider it an item of mandatory disclosure before signing a marriage contract, at minimum. It is fully unfair not to tell someone something this important about your life).
Let’s fast-forward to roughly ten years after our divorce. I sat next to a cute guy on a plane. We talked through the whole flight and then he gave me his email address. I was in a relationship at the time, but I stumbled across that email some time after the breakup. I wrote to him on a whim and we met up for a couple of dates.
This guy made some claims that had caught my attention. When we met on the plane, I told him I had just gotten my acceptance letter from Mensa. He said, “I used to be in Mensa.” Oh, really?! No way! He said his dad had him tested when he was a kid. Oh my gosh, what an astonishing coincidence. On one of our dates, he told me he was a real estate investor. I happen to know a bit about real estate investing myself, so I immediately asked, excited, “Can I see your business card?” He paused, patted his pocket, and said he didn’t have any on him. Something else weird came up. On our third date, he invited me to spend the night at a Motel 6. (IKR???) I thought, “I have my own apartment, and supposedly you do, too, so why not just invite me home or ask to stay at my place?” Not that I was anywhere even remotely in the vicinity of wanting to spend the night with this guy - it just made me wonder why he would pay for a cheap motel when he had somewhere better to go.
Or did he?
At this point in my life, I had an automatic screening process. As much as I really wanted to be in a relationship, as much as I might be physically attracted to a guy, I had a much stronger desire to know I was safe with someone. I was prospecting for certain specific information and I was not going to relax my guard until I had it.
When I look back at my first marriage, I want to slap my forehead. In fact I’m sure I have. Today Me would hear, Oh, you just had a bad breakup? And that would be enough information to pass for now. No rebound guys. If I heard that he was back living with his parents, even in our early twenties, I would have passed. Call me when you get your own place and we’ll talk.
When I look back at Motel 6 Guy, I’m proud of myself for getting out before I got emotionally hooked. I think of this guy as a “pathological liar” although he was probably just an opportunist. I’m sure he lied about being a real estate investor and even more sure that he lied about being a Mensan, partly because there’s a greater than 98% chance that he wasn’t. (By the numbers, only 2% of the population qualifies, and only about 10% of those who qualify are actual members). Why wouldn’t he invite me to his home? Could be any number of reasons, from being married or having a girlfriend, to being ashamed of where he lived, to being technically homeless. Essentially, he said a lot of things but didn’t verify any of his claims. Once I became suspicious of one thing, it cast the whole package in a different light.
What we expect from romance is the quick spark. We want to be swept off our feet. We believe in these strong waves of emotion. What I’ve come to prefer is a slow start that gradually builds into friendship. Trust and respect build slowly over time. I’ve been with my current husband for twelve years now. We were friends for about a year and a half, then dated for three years, and then got married. Slow love is the love I trust, a love for decades, not for drama.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.