I recently met a man in a work context, and I took to him immediately. He was a dream to work with and we really hit it off. I found him inspiring, charismatic, funny; his ideas were brilliant, and he really energised me. I wanted to continue working with him, but just at the point when I was about to sign a new contract with him, I was warned against him by someone who had worked with him before. Apparently, according to her, he was a compulsive liar. In particular, she warned me, he faked illnesses to cover long absences from work.
In the months that followed, he disappeared from work a couple of times, and sure enough, he has recently told me that the reason for his mysterious absences is maybe-terminal cancer. However, many, many details of his story just don’t add up, and I now have proof that he lied about some of the crucial details, e.g. what hospital he was in for his cancer treatment.
It’s clear from the reactions of everyone around me that I *ought* at this point to think, ‘He’s a liar, he’s manipulative, he’s making me worry about his fake cancer – time to kick him to the curb’, but for some reason, I still adore him, and now I feel sorry for him too. How sad, to have to pretend to have cancer! What psychological pain must he be in to do that? I don’t want to desert him. And for me the crucial thing is this: if his lying is a problem he has, and nothing to do with how he feels about me, then I still want him as a friend and colleague – because that would mean his feelings for me would be genuine, and we would still have the friendship we appear to have on the surface, which is a very close one that I enjoy and value. But since he’s a regular liar, I have no way of knowing if, secretly, he’s sitting at home thinking, ‘I don’t give a damn about her; I’m just using her for professional advantage’. If I knew he was thinking entirely cynically about me, I’d drop him like a hot brick, but how can I drop him when our bond might be genuine on his part? And it really does feel like a bond to me. On the other hand, I know psychopaths are very good at faking such intimacy.
I no longer trust him, but we have this quite intense friendship that involves long emails back and forth every day, and (although I know this sounds crazy) I like the person he pretends to be so much more than I like most real people, I don’t really want to distance myself from him. I disapprove of his lying and making me lose sleep and cry about his fake cancer, but…weirdly, I don’t feel any anger. I still love him very much as a friend, even though I’m aware the person I love might be a total fabrication.
At the moment, he thinks I have believed all his lies. I’ve been pretending to believe them while I decide what to do. I really want to talk to him and say, ‘I know you’ve been lying, I’m not judging you, but please tell me what’s really going on with you,’ but I’m scared that he’d react really badly, make up some new lie, and make me doubt myself.
Please psychoanalyse me and tell me if I’m being a) an idiot, or b) a responsible friend who is not willing to give up on the friendship unless she absolutely has to.
I received this by email.
The first paragraph is fascinating. Your attraction to this man sounds quite manic to begin with – ‘immediately’, ‘dream,’ ‘hit it off,’ ‘inspiring, charismatic, funny,’ ‘brilliant,’ ‘energised.’ The superlatives almost immediately make this relationship hard to believe, though I’m not sure whether they come from him or from you. Perhaps his charm is intense enough to be blinding and you are caught up in his mania. However, not everyone would be so attracted, so there must be a part of you wanting to believe in his apparent perfection. Obviously, the relationship is very exciting for you. The work element comes as a surprise as, from the intensity of your reaction to him, I would assume the relationship was no longer work-based. But then you say ‘about to sign a new contract with him’ rather than the more expected ‘I was about to marry him.’ Then we have the warning, and a different language – ‘warned,’ ‘liar’, ‘faked’, ‘warned’ (again). It is interesting that the warning comes from another woman – a potential rival, someone you do not want to believe.
In the first paragraph you are clearly sceptical about the warning you received but you then become convinced that he is lying to you around ‘mysterious’ absences. Here the threat of death lurches into a narrative that began with a slightly hysterical affirmation of life. You say you ‘have proof’ which means that you must have checked up on him, a sure sign that you already did not trust him.
You then say that you know, because people have told you, what you ought at this point to think and do but that ‘for some reason’ you still adore him. From the charismatic charmer he has become a lost little boy who needs you all the more. Your fantasy is that he would feel ‘deserted’ if you abandon him. You speak of the friendship you ‘appear to have’ and ask how you can drop him when the bond ‘might be genuine on his part’ as it is on yours. I think you are right that you would drop him ‘like a hot brick’ if you were certain he had no feelings for you – it is the exciting sado-masochism of uncertainty that his keeping you hooked. This is not about whether or not this man is lying (because we know he is and you are right that this is a serious problem he clearly needs help with) – this is about whether or not he likes you as much as you like him.
Towards the end you finally write what was clear from the first paragraph – that you love this man and you say yourself that you would prefer to love a person who might not be real than to admit to yourself that ordinary people are the best you can hope for. Then, bizarrely, it turns out that YOU are lying to HIM! You have let him believe that you believe him and you say you are ‘scared’ of what would happen if you told him the truth.
We can’t know what this man is playing at, but we can try to have a think about what you are doing here. You have fallen in love with what for you is a particularly toxic combination of charm and helplessness (it will be no surprise to you that I am going to wonder whether your father possessed these attributes). It seems that his psychopathology is actually an attraction rather than a deterrent. Perhaps you feel that it brings you closer to him because you might, uniquely for him, be understanding rather than rejecting. This would, of course, put you in a powerful position and this is a power game. Who is playing whom and who is winning. He presumably feels terribly helpless and lies to cover what is a genuine illness, but a psychological one. He feels powerful when someone believes his lies and the relationship between him and that person (in this case, you) becomes very intense because he believes himself to be in control and this gives him (I imagine, speculating wildly) an erotic charge. You, as the masochist at this point in the S and M scenario, also feel the erotic charge of possible helplessness. However, you then play back, allowing him to believe he has the power when, in fact, you now view him as small and powerless, ill and in need, putting you now in the powerful position. The erotic charge is back.
It is interesting that this relationship is not physical, but perhaps it doesn’t need to be because the sexual tension is all in the power play. It also points to some kind of father-daughter dynamic where you become the beloved special one who understands him more than his detractors (the woman with the warning who is perhaps playing your mother in this Oedipal reenactment?). You say you are scared of how he might react if you let him know you are lying to him, but I think you are scared that he may not truly love you as he seems to, and you would prefer to go on being unsure and keeping the relationship on an even keel than to know what you suspect might be the truth or, perhaps, even know is the truth. Maintaining uncertainty might be a much-needed defence against reality.
You can’t find out what another person thinks without asking them and feeling sure that they will tell the truth to the best of their ability. You can, however, find out what you think and what you are doing. The fact that what this man does works so well on you might point to some kind of familiarity, to some acting out of an earlier scenario. Perhaps your charismatic father made you feel very shut out and you hoped to have exclusive access to a secret side of him that made you uniquely important to him? Or perhaps you did have access to such a side of him? It may be that you had an absent father and desperately needed to believe that he still loved you in the face of evidence to the contrary?
Significantly, you don’t say how old you are or whether you have been married or have children. It is striking that you developed such an intense relationship with a work colleague and that it didn’t become physical. I assume you are single but I wonder what has stopped you being even closer to this man you adore. Fear of genuine intimacy? As you say, you prefer what you suspect is a fantasy to the reality of ordinary people. This, I would suggest, is a defence against a painful reality of isolation. You want to have a secret connection with someone disturbed precisely because it is not quite real – much more exciting but much more toxic.
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