Jan asks: I met “Ryan, 35” on Tinder and we hit it off right away. Within a few dates, I asked why a guy like him (handsome, smart and funny) would be online and he admitted that his wife had died of ovarian cancer two years before. I took his baggage into consideration as our relationship progressed because I felt that our connection was too good to pass up. This meant giving up stuff like him spending the night at my house regularly and I wasn’t invited to his. He attended therapy twice a week to “move on” and “get over the guilt he had felt for her passing and him moving on.” With trouble, I let this go.
Within six months, he told me he loved me and that I was the love of his life. Our connection and feelings were something I’ve never felt before. We discussed moving in together and set a goal of Christmas. He met my family, my friends, but I had never met his. Maybe this was stupid and my fault, but I kept thinking, Well, they live in another state, so whats the big deal? I also rationalised that like me, he doesn’t have many close friends in the area. I kept brushing away my unease.
After 15 months, I snooped by entering his email into Facebook and discovered a completely different person—same photos, different name. His name is Brian. I was stunned. He came clean and admitted that he’d made up the entire story. Separated for two years and a father of two, his family, friends and therapist had no idea I existed! My conversations with ‘them’ were fabricated. I believed his story—who was I to question it? I believe that people are kind and good. I believed that people do not lie about death and cancer. Ultimately, after planning my life with him, I am shattered and devastated to know that I do not even know this person. Nor does the person I love even exist. So here I am, trying to recover and move on, but its so difficult because I can’t separate the “Ryan” that I knew and loved from the Brian, who manipulated and lied to me over 15 months. Natalie, I am at a loss. What do I do? How do I move on? And how do I not hate myself for letting this happen? I fear I will never trust anyone again. Have you heard of anything such as this?
Jan, I understand how deeply painful the revelation of this deception must be for you but you are being way too hard on yourself. You are failing to recognise that he’s a con artist. His actions are what has in recent years become known as being ‘catfished’—this is where someone sets up a fake identity (typically on Facebook but not limited to there) to trick you into being in a relationship. There’s even a show about it on MTV (Catfish) and what you have experienced is far from being unusual in a world where you can effectively be whoever you want to be with the right social media account and technology at your disposal.
He told a series of lies that were plausible when put together. In a different context, you might have felt extra suspicious. To be plausible, a lie has to have a grain or few of possible truths. When the recipient of the lie has doubts due to what might seem more obvious lies, it’s the plausibility of the original lie that causes them to vacillate between doubting and believing.
He’s ensured that he’s told the kind of lie that typically causes doubters to feel guilty for even momentary suspicion, repeatedly overriding their judgement and their fight/flight response, in turn making it even easier for other lies to slip through, after all, if someone’s a widower who feels guilty about moving on, you’ll convince yourself that he’s finding the right moment to introduce you to his friends, that he’s worried about alienating his family, that the home they shared is full of memories, and that each time you sleep together, that he’s haunted by his dead wife.
Most people don’t fabricate dead spouses in order to lead a double life or get laid– They just tell you that they’re really into you, intimate or promise that they’ll leave, it’s just, ‘You know [their] situation’ and ‘Be patient’ etc. While this version of events would undoubtedly still be crappy, at least you wouldn’t be robbed of your right to choose. This guy is pretty twisted. He couldn’t just cheat; he had to garner sympathy and let you believe that his sock puppets were real people. I don’t know what the hell he talks about with his therapist but he needs to start with his deep-seated issues with women.
From the outset you were a bit dazzled. You querying why a “guy like him” would be online, hints at your pinch-yourself luck at having met him. Brian or whatever the frick he’s calling himself right now, has taken advantage of what can be a rather dangerous cocktail of being too nice, non-confrontational and a little naive. You’re not alone—lots of people who are of the people pleasing inclination are exactly this way. We—yes I am a reformed pleaser—misuse our good qualities and invest them in the wrong people, often overriding our gut out of fear of looking ‘rude’, ‘mean’, ‘demanding’ and other such things that we’re definitely not in any danger of becoming.
You also have your moral outlook and expect people to think, feel and behave similarly, and this sets you up for pain because instead of acknowledging the truth, you opt to hold onto the illusion that everyone is operating off of the same rule book.
Being mad at you for being conned isn’t fair or reasonable, but I suspect that where your anger really stems from is recognising that you’d picked up on clues but didn’t act on them. You gave up basics in the relationship and missed what you in retrospect recognise as opt-out points because you kept denying, rationalising and minimising your concerns along with making excuses for him. You wanted to believe that this man existed and that he was going to come through. When he revealed his so-called backstory, whatever gut responses you’d felt at that point got pushed down and he fit a picture in your head. As time passed, you didn’t want to believe what you suspected deep down.
When you finally looked him up, it’s because you were ready for the truth. It’s the old adage that the truth hurts but it will also set you free.
It’s important to acknowledge that regardless of an any overriding of concerns or due diligence skipped, this man repeatedly manipulated you. I can’t overstate this enough: you were conned. Sure, there are things that you can learn from this experience for your own safety and well-being and there is that natural period of anger, blame and shame that follows, but you, as someone who recognises that people are kind and good, must surely recognise that there are many people who have been victims of other people’s shadiness and I doubt you blame them for what happened. Have some compassion for you.
You trusted him too much because you did not trust yourself enough. There may have been an element of loneliness and so when this man who at the same time as saying how guilty he felt about his wife’s passing was telling you within months that you were the “love of his life”, you soaked it up.
This connection you felt between you represented really all the things not being said or done. There’s an almost electricity that can come about when there’s an energy between two people that’s based on an unacknowledged deceit and illusion.
The world has lots of good and kind people in it and most people would not do what this man has done, but some people would. You don’t need to harden up against the world but you needed to lose your moral outlook blind spot.
You are someone who would not lie about cancer and death nor would you pretend to be someone else, but acknowledging that people are different means that you gather evidence based on who people are, not on who you are.
When you get it down on paper about exactly what ‘Ryan’ did to earn your trust, you will see that there isn’t anything concrete on there. You are a good, loving woman but you sacrificed yourself and the relationship you needed for a ‘connection’ and what you truly needed was consistent actions. It’s much harder to be misled by a combination of consistent and congruent actions, mentality and feelings. It’s all too easy to project what we want to on to feelings and call it a ‘connection’, whereas with actions, mentality and feelings working together, we co-create.
It’s OK to admit that you lied to yourself about this man. We have all done this at one point or another in our quest to be liked and loved.
If this experience has awakened you to the need to give you more than just feelings and to take care of you by reining in your people pleaser and by doing due diligence, this relationship has done its job.
Often it is only through what are at the time, deeply painful experiences, that we are forced to confront feelings and truths that we run from. When you recognise the journey that you made to the point of meeting him, you will see that a series of earlier experiences led you to this one. You are likely to find that there are similarities in this connection you had with ‘Ryan’ to someone else in your past hence why you’re finding it difficult to reconcile the illusion with the truth.
It’s understandable to be guarded now but the answer isn’t to erect a wall but to take the time to go to therapy so that you can forgive you by having compassion and developing healthier boundaries so that you can move forward with trust and the ability to do due diligence in future.
Any relationship that keeps bringing up doubts is a relationship that’s asking you to do your checks and balances before proceeding. Never ignore your gut no matter what story anyone has told you.
Have you been catfished or duped? How would you begin to recover from this situation?
Each Wednesday, I help a reader to solve a dilemma. To submit a question, please email advicewednesdayAT baggagereclaim.com. If you would prefer your question to be featured on the podcast, drop a line to podcast AT baggagereclaim.com. Keep questions below 200 words.