Hi, I’m Clarisse. You may already know me as a feminist sex writer, and Role/Reboot’s Sex + Relationships editor. I met Internet Sociopath years ago, when he started commenting on my blog. At first I didn’t take him seriously; then he unsettled me; eventually I started to think he was kinda smart, and then I realized that his lack of innate empathy or remorse gives him a weirdly fascinating perspective. So, I convinced him to do a joint advice column, and to see where our advice diverges. (Please note that I am not an expert in psychology, and I cannot attest that this person is a “real sociopath.” Also, the makers of this product do not recommend taking advice from sociopaths you meet on the Internet. Terms and conditions apply. Not valid in some states.)
To ask a question, you can email it to me at clarisse.thorn at rolereboot dot org. You can also find him on Twitter @AskASociopath.
Dear Internet Sociopath,
I have been dating a great guy who I really like—he’s smart, funny, shares my interests, etc. We just had our third date and things are going well, but I can’t shake the feeling that he’s hiding something from me. I can’t explain where my instinct comes from, but I’m sure of it. I think it might have something to do with his family. How can I find out what he’s hiding?
Internet Sociopath says:
He is hiding stuff from you. A lot of stuff. Probably as much as you’re hiding from him, and for the same reasons. I mean, it’s not like you’ve told him about all the ways your relationships with your parents are weird, right?
Before we get into this, a few points. One: Whatever he’s hiding is probably not very important. Two: If it is very important, it’s probably embarrassing to the point that he thinks it’ll seriously damage the relationship. So finding out will either be a waste of time, or it’ll wreck things for both of you. And if he thinks you’re snooping, he’ll probably react poorly. Unless snooping is one of those “interests” you two share, in which case go for it.
You could just ask him up front what he’s hiding. Your letter seems to indicate that you already decided not to do that, perhaps because you think you’re not a drama queen. (Note: there are approximately zero drama queens who can admit to themselves that they’re drama queens; if you want to know if you are, ask someone who doesn’t like you very much.)
So, barring that, snoop. Google is a useful first resource, and if his family has something spectacularly wrong with it, something might come up there. The best part is that he probably won’t notice snooping that’s that mild.
That last part was a test. If you’re afraid to Google him, find a new guy.
Another good place to start is mutual friends, if you have any. Asking them can be useful, but you’re mostly doing it to see how defensive they get. If they seem genuinely confused like they have no idea what you’re talking about, give some thought to the possibility that this “instinct” you’re having is completely unrelated to him or his family. Or it’s something he hasn’t shared even with them; at that point, I’d start thinking about serial killers.
If this guy’s friends start laughing but won’t share the joke, then it’s harmless. If they get angry or guarded, then either it’s a real problem or they’re thinking: “There he goes again, getting involved with another crazy-paranoid chick. Jeez. This gets old.”
But what kind of family issue do you think it’s likely to be? You could make a list of everything you imagine he could be hiding. Then decide which of those you’d actually care about. That second step shortens the list a lot, doesn’t it? And don’t let him see the list until much later. Paranoia isn’t usually an attractive trait, is it? Though I almost wish you’d included that list of shared interests, now.
For example, you don’t mention exes … if you’re the age where kids with an ex are an issue, then consider asking him about that after deciding for yourself whether it would be a problem for you. (And you are that age. Although, for the benefit of people who’d prefer to stay in the dark about the sexual fun-having of their own kids, we can pretend the cut-off age is 26. Your kids, unlike the children of those other, bad parents, totally didn’t figure out what their junk is for until three months after their 25th birthday, parents. Trust me. Because you’re such good parents, aren’t you?)
The bottom line is that if he’s hiding something, he’s hiding it because he thinks he has to. Either he’s right, and you should bail out now, or he’s wrong, and you should help him understand that you and him is about you and him, and not about whatever annoying crap his family makes him put up with. And either way, it doesn’t matter yet. Three dates is a little short of Full Disclosure Time. I hope he’s hiding something from you … and you from him. If either of you are so boring that it’s even possible to reveal everything worth knowing about either of you in only three dates, then dating is probably not for you.
In Conclusion, from Clarisse:
I actually think Internet Sociopath is right when he says that your best attitude going in should make it clear that you’re into this guy, and your relationship is about you and him. I also like Internet Sociopath’s list idea, because it will help you set boundaries. Once you have a list of family matters that would be “deal breakers” for you, think about it carefully. If you find out that one of your deal-breaker items is true, you are gonna have to leave—and for minimal drama, do it quickly, without drawing out the process. Don’t designate a deal-breaker item if it won’t actually break the deal for you.
But please do talk to this guy straightforwardly. Otherwise, it will keep eating you up, and you’ll spend all your time deconstructing tiny signals for clues rather than working on the important thing: a mutual relationship.
A scary conversation can be so hard to start, though. I’ve been there. So here are some ideas:
* Do it when you’re both relaxed, and have just had a nice cup of tea or something. Maybe you’ve just done something that makes you feel connected, like watch a really good movie or play an interesting game. Try offering a compliment first, like “I loved watching that movie with you—your reactions were so spot-on.”
* Ideas for things to say: “Can we talk about something? … I get kind of a funny feeling when you talk about your family. Is everything OK?” Or be more specific: “Earlier today, you kind of got quiet and looked away when you mentioned your mom. Is everything OK with her?”
* If he answers straightforwardly and you have a Real Conversation, then great! If he gets defensive or evasive, just say: “Hey, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to invade your space. I care about you, and I was just wondering if this was something I can support you with.” If he seems really upset and unable to answer, then try saying: “We can talk about this later if you need time to think.”
If he seems legitimately mystified, maybe nothing’s going on. In the end, though, I do encourage you to go with your gut. If you’re constantly feeling uncomfortable with this guy … then there’s probably a reason for that, even if it’s not his family. We have those instincts for a reason.
Clarisse Thorn is Role/Reboot’s Sex + Relationships Editor.