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The Silver Bullet in a Custody Battle with a Sociopath

Using calm, indifference, and boredom against them.

Some of the most heart-wrenching letters I’ve received from people seeking help in dealing with sociopaths are from those embroiled in a custody battle with an ex-spouse. There are two principal reasons that sociopaths fight for child custody. One is that he, or sometimes she, is enraged by the thought that you and the court could take away his possessions, which is how he thinks of you and the children. Tragically, there is nothing you can do about what he feels—and does not feel—concerning the children and you. To protect their future and yours, you will need to accept this sad truth: the part of his brain that would allow him or her to love is broken.

His second and even more compelling reason to fight for custody is that, as a sociopath, he is constantly and intolerably bored. This ever-present boredom creates in him a huge need for stimulation and entertainment. And, in this situation, you are the entertainment. He is using his children’s vulnerability to make you jump, and each time you show anger or fear, you stimulate and entertain him—and worse, you make him feel powerful and in control.

As I explain in Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door, I promise you that understanding the following counterintuitive fact is the key to your success in this struggle: the sociopath’s campaign to acquire custody of the children is not primarily about the children; it is mostly about you. His or her focus on you means that, all on your own, you can put an end to the excitement and exhilarating sense of control a sociopath experiences during a custody battle. You can stop looking infuriated, fearful, and thus entertaining for this empty person. Instead you can be thoroughly boring.

Being boring is absolutely your best ammunition against the sociopath. If you want him to go away and leave you and your children in peace (which I define as the “win”), I urge you to learn about this silver bullet and develop your skill at using it. Whenever he or she does something or says something to you that is frightening or enraging—in that moment, respond as if you simply do not care.

Naturally, you do care, a great deal, and when you are out of his presence, you may need to do damage control on behalf of the children and make preparations against whatever latest emergency he has concocted—but, in the moment, while he can see or hear you, act as if your emotions have not been touched at all. Rather than allowing him to see your alarm, your fear, or your anger, behave as if you are completely unconcerned.

Seeing you jump is by far the largest part of why he spends so much time and energy scheming to acquire children he does not really want to be bothered with, much less co-parent. Think of your alarm, fear, and anger as his psychological drugs. He needs these drugs badly; your job is to deprive him of his high. While he or she is on the phone with you, or standing before you in person, be utterly indifferent. Use your silver bullet: Give unruffled, dismissive, and matter-of-fact responses.

To illustrate: He comes to your door and insists he wants to come in and talk to you. You say, “Well, I guess you can come in if you really want to. Mind if I do the dishes while we talk?”

Then you walk casually to the kitchen and begin to wash the dishes.

He follows and tells you about something incredibly upsetting he is going to do where the children are concerned. You say, “What’s your point?” or “I see” —or you reply with a distracted “Uh huh.”

Frustrated because he did not get the emotional reaction he anticipated, he asks whether you correctly heard what he just said. You say, “Yes, I heard what you said. Is there anything else?”—or “You came here just to tell me that?”

He doubles down on his threat and tries to make the situation sound even more menacing. But, not long into his embellishment of this newest scare tactic, you announce, “I’m getting ready to go out. Maybe we can talk some other time.”

Drying your hands, you calmly go to the door and open it for him. He is not pleased at being directed to leave, but, as he tries (perhaps angrily) to keep the discussion going, you remain standing, seemingly emotionless, by the open door. Any time you cannot think of a fitting (which is to say, a totally uninterested) reply to something he says, you give him a bored-stiff sigh and wordless eye rolls.

In such a situation, you do not have to be clever. (unless you want to be). Just look apathetic.

You may well protest that these tactics are similar to the acting techniques used by the sociopath himself. But, though you are wearing a misleading mask, you are not using it to dominate and torment others, as he does. This is not a game or an addictive drug for you, as it is for him. Rather, you are fighting to protect the wellbeing of your children. Arguably, your children’s future is worth your pretending for a while that you feel calmer than you really do in the face of insults and eviscerating legal threats. In the end, this quandary over the acceptable uses of guile is not strictly a psychological issue; instead, it is a moral question, and I hope you will answer it for yourself in a way that allows you to shield your family from harm.

Perhaps you imagine that you are much too openly emotional to use this strategy, especially in front of someone who has known you for a long time and has learned what you are like, but please be assured that many extremely emotional people have used this approach effectively. Becoming skilled at appearing unfazed may require some work, but, with preparation, it is doable, even for those who think they are much too openly emotional to use this strategy. In factFurthermore, this method sometimes succeeds more dramatically for people who tend to respond with emotion than for those who customarily hold their feelings close to the vest, owing to the unnerving disparity between what the “audience” (in this case, your opponent in a custody case) expects of you and the indifferent response he or she now gets—an example of a potent phenomenon psychologists refer to as a “contrast effect.”

If you decide to use this “indifference method,” rehearse ahead of time. Imagine possible conversations. Think of blasé replies and repeat them out loud to yourself. Practice in front of a mirror, or ask a trusted friend to role-play with you. Remind yourself of how good it will feel to preserve your privacy, to finish a discussion with a sociopath without allowing him to uncover your feelings. He is addicted to unambiguous evidence that he is able to rock your world, and you have just deprived him of his drug of choice.

You do not have to be a dazzling actor or even an especially believable one; you have only to deprive him of the emotional “payoff” you used to supply. All you need to be is bland enough to bore him, and the easiest way to accomplish this is to behave as if he is boring you. No matter what he says or does, In other words, each time he does or says something he thinks will rock your world, react with boredom, like someone forced to view yet another episode of an especially predictable and mind-numbing TV drama. And, perhaps, if you act this way long enough, you may even come to feel bored by him in reality. The game he is playing is, after all, repetitive and tedious.

Intentionally showing only bored (and boring) reactions to an adult sociopath’s schemes and threats is based on the same psychological model as instituting a contingency program for a conduct disorder child. Both approaches allow you to be, in a manner of speaking, a teacher who requires a disruptive “student” to learn the relationship (or the lack thereof) between certain behaviors and subsequent reward. The conduct disorder child learns that clearly specified behaviors will bring him goodies that he likes, such as sweets and action figures. In other words, in a contingency program, the child learns that there is a link between his or her positive behaviors and what psychologists refer to as reinforcement (meaningful reward). Conversely, the adult sociopath learns that the goodies he once enjoyed (your overt anger, fear, and—to his way of thinking—“hysteria”) do not follow his negative actions and verbalizations anymore. In other words, he learns that there is no longer a link between the threatening behaviors he exhibits and the reinforcement he desires.

To ensure that a certain behavior (such as harassing you) is no longer linked to reward (the opportunity to watch you jump emotionally) is to place that behavior on extinction. I can illustrate the concept of extinction with a classic animal experiment in psychology, in which a lab rat learns to press a small lever to get pellets of food. When the experimenter turns off the mechanism that delivers a food pellet to the rat each time it presses the lever, the rat will soon stop pressing. By disabling the link between lever-pressing and food, the experimenter is putting the behavior of lever-pressing “on extinction.“

By remaining calm—or at least giving the appearance of calm—whenever a conscienceless person harasses or threatens you, you are putting his harassing and threatening behaviors “on extinction,” as you weaken the conditioned response. Probably (and you need to be prepared for this) you will have to endure a few more attempts on his part, even after he appears to have given up, while he tries different varieties of threat, or perhaps more intense ones, just in case doing things a little differently might restore the former situation. (Likewise, a lab rat will go over to a disconnected lever and press furiously from time to time.) Post-extinction eruptions of this kind are referred to as “extinction bursts.” Understandably, after all your hard work, his “bursts” may discourage you; but, provided they are not rewarded by visible distress on your part, these last-ditch efforts, too, will cease. If you are consistently unemotional, or can appear to be, in your responses to even the most shocking of the sociopath’s provocations, you will eventually succeed in extinguishing putting his behaviors. on total extinction. (Like a lab rat who has learned to press a lever for food, he will completely stop pressing that particular lever when nothing results.)

But your final goal is for him or her much more than just extinction. You want him or her to realize that you are no fun anymore, and so go away in search of more and better psychological “drugs.” When you are completely boring, he will begin to lust for a situation he can control more easily than this vexing one with you—and without having to endure the annoyance of sharing his home with the children, an outcome he never really wanted to begin with.

He is an “emotion-eater,” an addict, and his life revolves around finding a source for his next fix—someone whose strings he can pull to generate desperation and “hysteria.” To rescue your children’s future and your own, your job is to disconnect those strings from your emotions, so that you are no longer an easy source of entertainment and power thrills. You have little control over whether or not the court will reward sociopathic behavior, but you have a great deal of control over whether or not you will reward it. Even when family court fails you, by using practiced detachment and calm you can break your ex-spouse’s focus on you, and free yourself from the sociopath’s game. By using practiced detachment and calm, you can break his or her focus on you and free yourself from the sociopath’s game, even when the family court fails you.

Adapted from OUTSMARTING THE SOCIOPATH NEXT DOOR by Martha Stout, Ph.D, copyright © 2020 Martha Stout, Ph.D. Used with permission of Harmony Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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