Two weeks ago, my machiavellian ex bamboozled me into signing an enrollment agreement for my daughter's new private school, making me liable for half of the $33,000 tuition. He did this despite the fact that he had not signed the stipulation I sent him requiring him to cover all the tuition, which I can't afford. He did this despite the fact that I had told him I would not be signing any enrollment agreement before we had finalized our legal agreement. He did this despite the fact that I didn't even read the enrollment papers. He got me to do something I had sworn I would not do, which put me at the brink of financial disaster.
When I posted a story about this latest bamboozlement on Facebook, explaining that I signed the enrollment because Prince assured me it was just an agreement to hold Franny's spot in the new school, one person asked the obvious question I've been asking myself since:
Why did you trust a master manipulator?
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My relationship with Prince has been a series of cons, starting from the prenup that materialized after the wedding invitations had gone out. His lies are woven so seamlessly and so unflinchingly into every conversation that I never know what's the truth. Part of the reason I continue to fall for his shenanigans is that I live by the golden rule: not only is my mind not configured to lie, but I also have personal ethics. I can't fathom manipulating people into doing things that would hurt them. In the eyes of my ex, this makes me a dope, worthy of being exploited and picked off, like an unsuspecting gazelle grazing upon the savannah.
Honest people are easy marks for smooth-talking narcissists. Yet that's only part of the reason they pull off their shell games. The other reason is that they have honed their machiavellian skills into an art form.
I've spent the last two weeks since I fell for my ex's latest stunt deconstructing his hat tricks. And I think I've figured out the techniques he uses to snooker me every time. Below are the top five.
1. Creating Urgency
Manipulators are masters at manufacturing urgency. They do this through stall tactics that are often preposterous. Some of the more outlandish ones my ex has used include: "My file cabinet is jammed and I can't get the papers"; "I can't read your e-mail, you will have to change your font"; "I'm going out of town" -- always somewhere off the grid, like Siberia Adjacent -- and won't have access to e-mail, cell phone, fax, or messenger. After the umpteenth stall, there truly is urgency to close the deal.
2. Fast Talk
Manipulators are verbal Ninjas. They chatter away, sometimes calmly, sometimes histrionically, but always with utter conviction. They deflect your every question and statement by assuring you they're telling the truth ("You're paranoid!"); you're imagining things ("I never said there wouldn't be a prenup!"); you don't remember ("I told you there would be a prenup!"); it's no big deal; it is a big deal and if you don't say yes RIGHT NOW the world will blow up. They bombard you with wordplay until your head is spinning like a lazy susan and you're so exhausted that you doubt your own reality.
3. Creating Diversions aka Look Over There!
Manipulators are like magicians; they get you looking over there so you don't notice what's going on over here. After Prince created urgency ("This has to be signed before I go out of town!") and used Fast Talk ("If you don't sign this she'll lose her spot!"), he choreographed a distraction. While I stood in his driveway, he had Franny come out of the house and flutter around my car with excitement ("I love the uniforms!"), while he chattered away, telling me to initial here, here, here, and oops, you missed a page, sign here. When I got home, he e-mailed me a video of Franny riding her bike down the sun-dappled street, creating the perception that we were an amicably divorced couple sharing a proud, co-parenting moment. All of this was just smoke to keep me from noticing that I was signing an enrollment agreement that made me liable for half of Franny's tuition.
4. Emotional Manipulation
Manipulators get you to do what they want by hooking you emotionally. Guilt trips and triangulating children are tricks that deliver. Why are you singlehandedly jeopardizing your child's future success? How can you be so unreasonable? So irresponsible? So selfish? The morning of the fated Enrollment Finagling, Franny called me, her sweet little voice quavering, "Mom? Can I go?" I could hear Prince's voice murmuring in the background, like Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate.
What was I to do? If I said the truth -- I don't know -- I would be the dream-dashing parent, a thought that, to my people-pleasing, I'm-responsible-for-everyone's-happiness mind, was intolerable. So I chose to believe that, this time, Prince was telling the truth. And I drove off to his house to sign the agreement.
Manipulators love to ratchet up your blood pressure with threats: If you don't sign the enrollment agreement, I'll go into court on an ex parte! If you don't do x,y, or z, I'll file a motion to yadayadayada! You don't know if they're just trying to yank your chain or if they intend to follow through. The uncertainty creates a climate of fear. You become hypervigilant or frozen. You anticipate and walk on egg shells. For the manipulator, the fun lies in the harrassment. They issue a steady stream of threats to wear you down emotionally, thus making it more likely that you'll cave. The problem is, they care more about torturing you than getting what they profess to want. So the more you cave, the more they'll threaten. They're not happy unless you're unhappy. They won't stop until you're adequately punished, which is never.
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Prince's lawyer and I have been negotiating the terms of the enrollment agreement. I have been told that Prince will pay for everything except lunches and bus fare. I'll believe it when I have a signed stipulation in my hand. I've told the attorney that if that doesn't happen in the next week, I'll be forced to break the school contract. Sometimes, the only way to get a manipulator to listen is to threaten back.
The manipulation will never stop, but I'm trying to understand the techniques so that I can avoid another debacle. Because the only way to survive a Master Manipulator is to be a Master Manipulator Avoider.
What techniques has your Master Manipulator used on you?