Seven Strategies a Covert Abuser Uses to Create Convincing Lies

Unless you’ve been there, you simply cannot understand how well a covert abuser can lie. The stories are so cunningly crafted and so expertly delivered that even the professionals can be fooled. It’s one of the harder – and more frustrating – parts of emerging from this type of relationship, as you feel like nobody else gets what you went through or even believes what you are saying.

These manipulators all seem to follow common scripts and utilize similar tactics. These are the ones that I repeatedly see:

 

1 – They Choose Someone With Integrity

My ex knew from the beginning that I’m terrible at lying. In fact, I’m so bad at it that I would make him say “no” to an invite that we weren’t interested in and it was his role to return items to the store because I was too uncomfortable to say that it didn’t fit instead of, “It’s ugly.”

Covert abusers seek out honest people. They look for those with loyalty and integrity. Those positive traits are exactly what the abuser needs because those people will believe the best about their partners and don’t readily assume deceit.

 

2 – They Stay Close to the Truth

When my ex was in Brazil on his honeymoon, he claimed that he was working a car show. The exact same show that he worked the previous year. It was only later that I discovered that this particular dealer was no longer even a client of his. But I no reason to doubt his claim at the time, as it fit neatly into my expectations.

The best liars stay close to the truth. Not only does this make their stories more plausible, it also makes it more difficult for them to get their storylines mixed up. They may give you partial truths, leaving out critical information. Or they may replace certain facts while keeping the basic tale consistent.

 

3 – They Provide Plentiful Details

My ex walked into the kitchen with a MacBook box under his arm. And apparently with a story under his belt. For the next thirty minutes, he detailed how there was a raffle at the job fair (yes, he was unemployed) for a computer. He initially didn’t want to enter, because he didn’t think he’d win and he didn’t want to receive the endless ads that accompany such events. Finally, he said, he decided to throw his card in before he left. He was already in his car, three intersections away, when his phone rang and he learned he won. Except, years later, I found the charge for that very computer on a credit card statement.

Good fabricators use details to make their stories more believable and to distract from any implausibility. They use their words to paint a picture and to envelope you in its imagery.

 

4 – They Elicit Your Sympathy 

On that same Brazil trip, I received a short voicemail where my husband told me he had been stricken by food poisoning. He sounded terrible and, even more worrying to me, he sounded concerned about his situation. Unable to get through to him, I began to panic. For the next two days, I was so consumed with worry for him that I hardly thought of anything else.

Covert abusers like to make you feel sorry for them. Because as long as you’re sympathetic, you’re not suspicious. Additionally, these manipulators really do often see themselves as the victim and believe that life has not been fair to them.

 

5 – They Utilize Supporting Evidence

After my ex’s arrest for bigamy, I found a copy of his car insurance card in the center console of his vehicle. There was only one problem. The space where my name was on the electronic copy of the PDF, was blank on his card. He had Photoshopped my name off my card so as not to arouse the suspicions of his other wife.

Good manipulators do not only rely on words. They will use evidence, either gathered or fabricated, to support their claims. They understand that a little goes a long way here. If you have “proof” of one piece, you’re more likely to go along with the rest.

 

6 – They Employ Distractions

When interest rates dropped in the mid 2000s, we had agreed to refinance the house. He brought the paperwork to my work and had somebody cover my class so that I could sign the papers. All the while I was signing, he was trying to engage me in a conversation he was having with one of my coworkers. I was so distracted by the environment and the circumstances, that I never realized that the paperwork didn’t specify the terms that we had previously discussed.

It’s an old trick, but an effective one. When you’re busy looking at one thing, you can’t focus on another. Deceivers are experts at this technique and they make sure that you’re always looking exactly where they want you to. And then they take advantage while you’re gaze is turned elsewhere.

 

7 – They Use Gaslighting 

 

Once my ex was arrested, he turned the gaslighting up to “high,” claiming that we had been divorced for years and that I was just having trouble accepting it. He painted me as vindictive and greedy and “impossible to live with.” In other words, he tried to make me look crazy in an attempt to escape from his lies.

Covert abusers are experts at, “You didn’t see that” and “I never said that.” By making you question yourself, you get so lost that you refrain from questioning them. And even when they are caught, they will continue to lie and deny. After all, at some point it became their most fluent language.

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Speaking Out: Why Hiding Your Struggles Makes it Worse

At this point, the only real regret I have about my first marriage was that I didn’t know.

Not about the financial and sexual infidelity (although it would have been nice to have had some insider information!). And not even about his plan to leave and secure another wife.

I regret that I didn’t know about his struggles with addiction and depression.

Because when it comes down to it, that is the real tragedy.

And unlike the bizarre secret life and the bigamy, hiding battles with addiction and depression* is exceedingly common.

And the consequences of trying to conceal these struggles are far-reaching and often devastating.

*I limit my emphasis here to addiction and depression partly because I believe those are the struggles my ex faced and because those are the two areas that I still witness the most stigma around. These same ideas hold true for most struggles – from weight loss to divorce, from anxiety to dealing with loss. These are the hard parts of the human journey. And they share a common language that we all speak if we’re willing to listen.

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—–

At this point, I can only guess at what happened. At what demons my ex was wrestling with behind closed doors and only witnessed with closed eyes.

I know that he was taught from a young age the skill of hiding. He covered for his father when he was drunk at his son’s birthday party. He created stories to keep classmates away from his house and its concealed secrets. He learned to keep his tears in and his shoulders up.

I knew these things. I saw these things. But I also thought he was different with me. That he could open up. Feel safe. He showed me some secrets. I mistakenly thought he revealed them all.

I learned otherwise when I opened the cupboard doors in the basement after he left. The clutter of empty bottles spoke of another side of my husband. A darker side. A struggling side.

A side he never let me see.

Part of me wonders if is some strange way, by living this other life in secret and then leaving suddenly, he was trying to protect me. Shield me from his shadow-self. He had always seen himself as my guardian.

Or maybe he was too ashamed to reveal his internal conflicts and fears. His concern with his outward appearance and perception increased while his downward spiral accelerated. Ever afraid as being seen as less-than, something he perceived in his own father.

Perhaps he was afraid at the repercussions of speaking out about his problems. I have to admit, I would not have taken it well, especially if it had been hidden for some time. He may have been fearful of my anger. My disappointment. And my own fear.

Or maybe it was more about the fear of being judged by his family. His friends and coworkers. The world. At being distilled down to a single word – “depressed”. Or “addict”. Instead of a singularly complex man.

Conceivably, his depression or addiction had him feeling spun out of control. And so orchestrating his own magic show of misdirection and misinformation became his way of exerting control. Of making the pain somehow a little more bearable. I’m no stranger to that trick.

Of course, he may not even have possessed that level of self-awareness, simply seeking refuge from his pain wherever it could be found. Doubtful that true help could ever be obtained. And instead of seeing himself as struggling in the moment, he may have seen himself as permanently broken. Or maybe he couldn’t even bear to face himself at all.

And that’s the part that breaks my heart.

For him. And for all the others like him that are too stoic or too afraid or too ashamed to speak out.

Because no matter what his reasons were for not speaking out, not reaching out,

Keeping it in only made it worse.

—–

I Don’t Want to Hurt Them

It’s natural to want to shield those we love from excessive pain or ugliness. We care for them. We want the best for them. Even when it’s at the expense of ourselves.

There’s a magical thinking that can occur – if I can only keep this hidden from them, I’ll fix it on my own and everything will be the same. Yet upon reaching that point, things have already changed. For one, it’s impossible to be fully present when you’re presenting with a facade. You’re playacting. And that’s not fair to you or to them. Also, one of the strongest human drives is to be seen and accepted for who we are. And by wearing a mask, you’re isolating yourself.

We all need a human connection. We wither away without affection, attention and connection just as easily as we do without without food. When you make a decision to keep it in out of a sense of obligation, you’re starving yourself of the very sustenance you need to get better.

Furthermore, although you may believe you’re holding this in out of altruism, it’s ultimately a selfish act. You’ve decided that you are the one in control of their reality and you’re guiding it along based on your script alone.And when they find out – and they will eventually find out – the fact that you have kept the truth hidden from them will prompt anger, frustration, sadness and self-doubt.

Truly acting in their best interest occurs when you present them with the facts and allow them to reach their own decisions.

It is not your responsibility to ensure that others never feel pain. It is your responsibility to not willingly inflict needless suffering. And trying too hard to protect somebody often results in the pain magnifying needlessly.

I’m Afraid of Disappointing People

It’s not unusual for those stricken with depression or addiction to be people-pleasers. To want to be liked and often to find their own validation through that of others. And so when depression or addiction, with its inevitable impact on daily life and productivity, rears its ugly head, it can be easy to try to keep it under the covers for fear of letting down those around you.

You don’t want to go from being seen as “the smart one” to “the sad one.” From “the person who is always there for me” to “the person who never shows up.” Or “the responsible one” to “the don’t-trust-them-with-anything one.” And so you keep quiet. Keep the illusion.

Yet, just like you are not responsible for making sure that nobody ever feels pain, you are also not responsible for making others happy. For pleasing them. You do you and don’t worry so much about them.

Witnessing disappointment in the eyes of another is like a reflection of yourself that you have been avoiding. And maybe that’s exactly what you need to face.

I’m Afraid of Being Judged

And sadly, you will be.

By people who don’t understand, who believe that it can never happen to them and that you are somehow “less than” for letting it happen to you. By people that refuse to see you as a person with an illness rather than simply a walking label. By people who believe that strength is found in silence and that you are weak by speaking out. When in reality, their judgment is only because they’re cowardly with facing uncomfortable truths. By people that see depression and addiction as character flaws instead of character-builders. By people that have narrow minds because they are threatened by the inclusion of the unknown. By people that believe that they can control everything in their lives and are not willing to concede otherwise.

You will be judged.

Not because of who you are. But because of who the adjudicators are.

Don’t let them define your life for you. Be stronger than their fears and more forthcoming than their views.

Let them judge. And seek to prove them wrong.

I’m Ashamed of Who I Am

One of the most important things to realize about the illnesses of addiction and depression is that they lie to you. They devise reasons why it’s  imperative that you remain secretive. Not because it’s better for you. But because it’s better for the illness. They grow stronger in the dark, unchecked by outside influence.

They tell you that because you have failed at something, you are a failure. They whisper that you’re hopeless and then feed upon your despair. They convince you that you’re broken, unlovable and that anyone would recoil upon seeing your true nature.

Shame is perhaps the most malignant of human emotions. It is the root of so many bad choices and behaviors as it tries to distract from its own misery while inadvertently feeding it. It is the wound that screams at the sight of the sun, when light is the very thing that will bring healing.

And here’s the thing with shame – it tells you that you are alone in your feelings. When in reality, they are feelings we have all shared. And it’s only upon sharing them that this truth becomes evident.

—–

If you are suffering with addiction or depression currently, speak up and get the support and help you need. There is no shame in asking for help. In fact, recognizing your need for help and being brave enough to ask for it shows your strength. You are not your illness. You are so much more. Begin by refusing to listen to your illness’s orders to keep it hidden. Because that only makes it worse.

If you have suffered from addiction or depression in the past, speak out about your story. Do your part to help remove the stigma and assumptions about mental illness. Silence implies complacency with the status quo. So refuse to be silent. Allow your story to become one of understanding for those with a tendency to judge and one of inspiration for those further behind you. You don’t have to be perfect. In fact, it’s better if you show that you’re not.

If you love someone who is suffering from addiction or depression, speak with compassion. Facing a loved one’s struggles is hard. Accepting that you cannot control their decisions is scary. And setting and maintaining healthy boundaries is an on-going cycle of hope and heartbreak. Understand that they are not doing this to hurt you, they are doing this because they are hurting. So be kind. Both to them and to you. After all, we’re all in this thing together.

For all of you who have spoken out, I respect you and your courage. I hope my former husband has joined your ranks.

Related:

Hurt People Hurt People and the 7 Keys of Conscious Compassion

It’s Nice to be Important

 

Identity Theft

My stomach dropped as I read the words on the screen:

We take your privacy and your security seriously. In order to process your request, you must first complete the following identity quiz.

The last time I had to take an identity quiz, I failed.

It was just over three years ago and I was in an AT&T retail store to open up my own account. I was already nervous about committing to the higher monthly fee of a smartphone and I was worried that I would fall flat on some credit score high jump.

Those weren’t the problems.

“Okay,” the clerk said, angling the computer screen and keyboard my direction, “I just need for you to answer these quick questions to confirm your identity.”

The first question was a softball to the gut: “Which of the following is a name you have used?”

At least I knew that answer I thought, as I selected my former married name, swallowing hard at the rude intrusion of the past.

I hit “next.”

“Which of the following is an account you have had in the previous five years?”

I didn’t recognize any of the names listed. With a prickly sense of dread, I turned to the clerk, “I don’t know this one,” I explained, “My ex. There was a divorce. He lied. He hid. He’s wanted for a felony. I’ve been working hard to rebuild, but I…”

My voice caught as I feared that he would again manage to interrupt my future.

“It’s okay, honey, “she replied in a nurturing tone, “I’ve been there. Just do your best and don’t worry. We’ll make this work.”

Bolstered by her conviction, I did my best on the remaining nine questions, putting forth my best guess on account names, balances and addresses.

But my best wasn’t good enough.

I failed my own identity test.

The clerk (AKA my hero) got on the phone with the finance department and went to bat for me.

“She went through an awful divorce and doesn’t know most of the answers to the questions. I have in my hand three forms of photo ID, a checkbook and a bank statement, all in her name. It’s her.”

And I could have kissed her as she finally hung up with a triumphant smile on her face.

So you can see why I nervous about submitting to another identity test.

The first question?

“Which of the following people have you resided with?”

The answer?

My husband’s name. My current husband.

A tiny hint of a smile crept over my pursed lips.

“At which of the following addresses have you resided?”

The correct response was the address of the town home that my husband had when we first moved in together.

The pursing of the lips faded entirely.

The final question had to do with my current county.

I passed my identity test!

Once I was duly acknowledged, processed and allowed within the stronghold, I ran into the bathroom where my husband was taking a bath.

“I just had to take an identity quiz and all of the questions were from the past five years!!! Isn’t that awesome?!?”

“Sure,” he said, with an indulging smile.

I felt renewed as another layer of the past was shed.

My identity was stolen.

But I got it back.

Telling Stories: The Lesson in the Brian Williams’ Scandal

I never watch television news.

So I had no idea who Brian Williams was until the news about his false claims about his time in Iraq. All of the tidbits I read online or heard on the radio took the position that he intentionally and willfully fabricated these stories.

Until I came across this one.

It explores the universal truth of fallible and malleable memory, citing studies where false memories have been intentionally implanted and summarizing the results of interviews with memory scientists.

The data is unambiguous – our memories are not.

The article doesn’t absolve Brian Williams of any guilt. It simply asks us to consider the alternative – that perhaps what we are interpreting as an intentional manipulation of truth may in fact be a distortion of memory.

The problem is that from an outside perspective, they are indistinguishable. And according to a study a referenced in the article, people overwhelmingly assume that someone’s twisted truth has been purposely shaped for their gain (while also assuming that their own memory is somehow immune to the errors that may influence others). And the comments in the article support that research; they alternate between people claiming that they have infallible memories and people (often aggressively) concluding that Brian Williams set out to deceive.

And maybe he was. I certainly have no idea. But I do find it strange that somebody in a prominent position in media would choose to publicly tell falsehoods that could easily be disproved. It seems not only irresponsible, but dumb.

It certainly seems plausible that he believed his stories and failed to fact-check before sharing them with the world.

Perhaps it’s because we spend so much time in a digital world, but we seem to have this idea that memory acts like a recorder, filing away experiences as they happen so that they can be retrieved later with a neural click and replayed like a video on a screen.

But it’s not that simple.

If our memories are computer files, then they are filled with encoding errors, corrupt files and sketchy rewrites. Tidbits of original code may remain and the brain borrows from other memories to fill in the gaps.

Many errors in memory happen without us ever knowing. These are the unintentional changes in memory:

Fading

I no longer remember what my ex husband really looked like. The primary image I have of him is more a caricature of the facial hair he had the past few years of our marriage rather than any true visage. Time has softened the memories, faded the edges. I could probably still pick him out of a line up, but a police artist’s rendering based upon my description would probably contain some inaccuracies.

Our memories are more like cassette tapes than digital imprints; time and use damage the recordings. They’re still there, but faded and under a layer of static.

Rewriting

The Brian William’s article compares the way memories change with the retelling of a story to the childhood game of “telephone.” When we have a major event in our lives, we assume that the intensity of the memory leads to its preservation. Yet, the frequent retelling of the story often changes the memory over time. It mutates.

Another way we rewrite our memories reminds me of a documentary I saw about the making of the first season of The Real World. They collected countless hours of authentic and raw footage. Then, the show’s writers were tasked with watching the tapes, sketching out the storylines and editing the footage to match the story.

Our brains do that too. We naturally create “stories” out of our experiences. And then we select the memories that fit and discard the ones that don’t. And just like with reality television, all of that happens behind the scenes.

I’ve seen this happen with my own divorce story. As it is repeated, small errors in memory replicate and carry through. I have to edit and summarize to get the gist across and so some details are left out. It all “feels” true because it’s been repeated, but it’s not quite right. I make a habit of returning to my primary documents – texts, emails, journal entries – of that time period to refresh my memory before any interview or post which requires details from that episode.

And I’m always a bit surprised at what I read.

Because I am no longer the same woman that had those experiences.

Change in Perspective

There was a hill in my childhood neighborhood that was enormous. Until I went back after several years away. I have to assume that the neighborhood pooled their resources to have that mountain shaved down to a molehill. It’s the only reasonable explanation:)

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie and revisited it 5, 10 or 20 years later? Was it the same as you remembered? Probably not. Because you’re not the same person either. We see the world through the filter of our own perceptions and we see our memories in the same way.

No memory can ever completely reflect the moment it happened because you see it through the knowledge of today. That hill in my old neighborhood is both huge and daunting (according to my early memories) and insignificant (as I see it now). Neither recollection is necessarily wrong. My perspective has shifted.

Not all manipulations of memory are unintentional. Here are the ways that memories are deliberately changed:

To Deceive

This is your standard lie. Deliberate. Intentional. Twisting the truth for your own gain or protection. In this post, I dig down into the different types and motivations for deceptions.

Now here’s where things can get interesting. A “fact” can begin as a lie, but as it is repeated, that falsehood becomes the truth to the person reciting it. This is how researchers, therapists or others in trusted positions can either intentionally or unintentionally “plant” a false memory that grows into “truth” for the subject.

My ex stated in a text to my mother that he “started to believe his own bullshit.” It seems like he may have planted and nurtured false memories in his own mind.

To Find Peace

I stumbled across this application of deliberately changing memories accidentally. I changed the names of the people and places involved in my story to protect the identities of the innocent and not-so-innocent. Over time, I found that the fake names felt more real to me than the real ones. The shaped memories slowly suffocating the actual ones.

Once I realized the power of taking ownership of my story, I deliberately shaped other memories. These have no impact on anyone else, so their rewriting was not intended to mislead or deceive. Rather, I deliberately chose to reframe certain moments, delete others and filter some of the most painful experiences through a lens of compassion, even if it’s not fully accurate, because it brings peace to my current life and has no bearing on anyone or anything else.

When I do revisit the primary documents, this intentional rewriting is temporarily stripped away as I face the brutal reality of that period. Yet even though that is the “real” memory captured in those texts and emails, I don’t allow it to take up permanent residence in my mind. Read more about how to separate your memories from your suffering. 

As for Brian Williams, we may never know if his stories originated from an intent to deceive or if his memories mutated over time. He certainly was irresponsible for widely sharing stories that impact others without verifying the facts from other sources.

Because, as science has shown, our memories may be true to us even when they are not true.

We are not mere recorders of our experiences. We are storytellers.

The Faux Commute

In the book I’m reading right now, the main character continues her weekday commute into London months after she was terminated from her job. Part of her motivation seemed to be habit and a lack of purpose and direction. But the main reason she continued the act is because she was too ashamed to tell her landlord/flatmate that she was no longer employed.

When I drove to work Friday morning, the book fresh on my mind, I peered at my fellow commuters, wondering if any of them were burning fuel and hours on a faux commute to a job that no longer existed. If any of them were keeping up the pretense while using up the savings. I pondered spouses back home, blindly secure in the belief that their partner was gainfully employed and unaware of the daily play-act.

It seems like something meant for fiction.

But it’s not.

My ex husband did it too.

He was too ashamed to concede that he could not find work. So he pretended that he could.
For years, he simulated a job. He invented clients and projects. He manufactured payments from lines of credit. I’m pretty sure he even falsified an award. Apparently, he was the best at his pretend job.

And he’s not the only one.

A friend’s first husband pretended to be enrolled in school full time while spending time in bars.

A coworker’s husband fabricated a start-up business while engaging in an affair.

And there’s a woman in my periphery who spent her time shopping while maintaining the facade of employment.

Here is a related piece I wrote for The Good Men Project that explores how this shame around employment can grow and spread through families.

But the problem isn’t just that the secret is kept from the partners.

Often the person can’t even admit it to themselves.

Continuing the faux commute and maintaining pretense even for themselves.

Now obviously most of us will never hold down a pretend job and engage in a daily trip of make-believe.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t engage in our own faux commutes.

That there aren’t truths we’d rather not face and so we keep us the pretense, even for ourselves.

That we don’t catch a ride going nowhere because we’re afraid to admit that it’s a dead-end run.

That we don’t pretend that something is still working for even when we no longer work for it.

So take an honest look at your life.

And make sure all of your commutes are authentic.

The book is called The Girl on the Train and it is a great thriller, especially for anyone who has experienced gaslighting.