On our first date, he showed me who he was — a successful immigration attorney. He regaled me with heroic tales of helping people reunite with their families, and I admired his passion and altruism. Sure, he was very attractive and charming. But that’s not what hooked me. My mom always taught me, “You only find gold when you see into someone’s heart.”
On our second date, he again showed me who he was — a grieved father separated from his wife, going through a contentious divorce. And then he dropped the first cherry bomb…his wife had cheated on him with a close friend.
I took a big sip of my martini. And listened.
A few months ago, he had fallen down the stairs and injured his head. And his wife never cared.
I took a bigger sip. And listened.
His wife never hugged or touched him. She never cooked him a meal or asked about his day.
I downed the rest of my martini and parroted his contempt for his ex. This woman sounded horrid.
I am a sucker for someone’s suffering. When strays appear at my door, I not only invite them in but let them tear up the furniture. So naturally, I felt really sorry for Othello.*
But Othello was not showing me who he was. He was showing me who he wanted me to believe he was — a victim.
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” — Maya Angelou
There’s a reason that Maya Angelou’s quote gets repeated ad nauseam. When people show you who they are, we often don’t want to believe them. Or we only pay attention to the parts that fit our contrived narrative.
This is why I always ask the same hard-hitting questions more than once. The reason I repeat my questions is simple —liars tend to mix up their stories and tell on themselves.
Eventually…everyone shows you who they are.
But it won’t always be the first time.
By the third date, I started asking questions.
Othello confessed he had cheated on his wife multiple times, including having sex with hundreds of prostitutes. (Already told that tragic portion of this tale.)
That fall down the stairs? Yeah, that was from drinking, not from klutziness. Duh.
And as for his wife’s lack of affection, he eventually admitted there was plenty of neglect on his side.
It took asking the right question for Othello to show me who he was. Othello wasn’t the victim. Nor had his wife caused all of his misery. He had also played his part on that sad stage.
Understanding the power of victim signaling
After I said my goodbyes and wished Othello the best with his prostitute sex addiction (his words, not mine), anger set in.
I felt duped. Why had I felt sorry for someone who didn’t deserve my pity?
The answer is victim signaling.
According to psychologists, victim signaling is “a public and intentional expression of one’s disadvantages, suffering, oppression, or personal limitations.” Research has found some people play the victim to extract resources beyond mere sympathy.
But not everyone who tells you their sad tale is trying to manipulate you. So how do you tell the difference between crocodile tears and real tears?
One recent study found that those with the dark triad personality traits — narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy — are more likely to weaponize their victimhood to manipulate others. So if you see signs of the dark triad, expect victim signaling to follow.
Another obvious sign is they bash their ex. When relationships end, we often see the person who left as the rejector and the person who stayed as the rejected. But these narratives are never black and white.
Except for abusive relationships, it takes two to break a relationship. So when someone confesses to an unhealthy relationship, do they take responsibility for its ending? Or are they blaming the other person? It is how someone confesses relationship sins that matters most.
If they play the victim…beware. That cliche advice to run from those that speak ill of their ex is cliche advice for a reason.
But when someone takes responsibility for their role in a relationship’s demise, it demonstrates maturity. Most importantly, they must first acknowledge that they altered their circumstances through their own agency. If they don’t take that vital step, they risk staying in victim mode and never learning from their mistakes.
“Why, who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch? — Act IV, Scene III, Othello
When Othello confessed to cheating on his wife with prostitutes, I asked the obvious — “Why did you feel the need to tell me that?”
His answer — “Because I wanted to be honest.”
Honesty. That little label people attach to their words when it belongs to their actions. Honesty is like a fine wine — you should drink it when it is first uncorked, or it loses its potency.
In this case, Othello revealed the truth after first omitting it. And as a result, I felt sorry for someone who didn’t completely deserve my pity. And that made me feel manipulated.
If he had told me from day one that there were infidelities on both sides, I would not have judged him. People make mistakes. And I try not to throw stones from my precious glass castle.
Because let’s face it…we all have our demons. But self-aware people keep their demons on a short leash. Never judge someone by the size of their demons. Judge them by the length of their leash.
*Names changed to protect my tragic Shakespearean heroes.