What is with him? How can he believe such garbage? It’s so bad it’s not even wrong. It’s worse than wrong!

Sometimes I think he’s just clueless. He simply can’t see the truth.

But then other times I get this whiff of the devious and think he can see the truth just fine but refuses to. For selfish reasons. To get what he wants, he’s pretending he can’t see. It’s all a con. He’s manipulating me.

But then I feel bad for assuming the worst. Maybe he’s neither clueless nor lying. He’s just loyal elsewhere. To keep the people in his world happy he’s forced to believe that stuff.

You know how it is. To keep your job, to maintain harmony with your spouse you have to believe certain things. It’s not even a conscious decision. You just fall into falsehoods to keep the peace.  It’s not enough to claim to believe those things, because the people you’re around a lot, they’ll see it on your face. To be consistently and reliably diplomatic and tactful with the folks around him, he believes what he has to. You only believe what you can afford to believe.

And sure, maybe the same is true for me. Maybe my social pressures distort my reality too.  For all I know, he’s more realistic than I am.  Who am I to say what’s true.

Except for one little fact, which is that what he believes is total bullshit, and like I say, sometimes I think he’s just screwing with me. With a con artist, being empathetic is pathetic.  I should defend the truth against his lies, fight him, get right up in his face.

Though of course, not if he’s just clueless.  I mean what are you going to do?  Chew some guy out for not knowing better when it’s simply beyond him to understand?  That’s tacky.

Clueless, Lying, Loyal?

Most psychological dilemmas are, at core a choice between three mutually exclusive options.  Something feels wrong, and you’ve got three ways to interpret what it is.  Your three interpretations each point to a different response and the responses are at odds with each other.

Take a partner’s persistently and distractingly annoying habit of picking his teeth. You have three options:

1. Accommodating it requires that you learn to ignore the problem. You maintain your commitment to the partnership by getting over your annoyance.

2. Fighting it requires that you stay vigilant, paying attention to the annoyance and letting your partner know it bugs you. You maintain your commitment to the partnership by making it meet your standards.

3. Leaving it requires not working to sustain the partnership.  You don’t have to change; your partner doesn’t have to change. You just go your separate ways.

These three response options go by different names in different contexts:

  • Fight, flight and fear: In response to a predator, an organism fights for dominance, escapes interaction, or displaying fear demonstrates accommodation.
  • Exit, voice and loyalty: In politics, a frustrated citizen can leave the country, voice his opposition or, out of loyalty accommodate the frustration.

Win, lose or draw in games; Innocent, guilty and nolo contendere in law; dominance, subordination and disengagement in game theory–we choose one or another of these forks depending on how we interpret the source of the problem.

We also have names for the three core interpretations. For example, when there’s a problem between you and me, I can interpret the problem’s origin as in you, in me or in us. If I decide that the problem originates in you, I’ll fight you. If I decide I’m the problem I’ll accommodate you. If I decide the problem originates in us, and our bad chemistry, I’ll suggest that we go our separate ways. Call it the “Youmeus Point,” the point when a problem arises and you wonder “Is it you, is it me or is it us?”

And actually there are two Youmeus points, two interpretation questions:

  1. Where does the problem originate?
  2. Who should do something about it?

For example, I don’t eat onions. My aversion to onions originates in me, and yet many a cook has accommodated me by leaving out the onions. It’s my problem and yet they do something about it.

And more than a few onion-loving cooks have wondered whether it’s right to accommodate me.  They’ve asked, “Are you allergic to onions?”  In other words, is it that I absolutely can’t eat onions for health reasons?

When you’re put out by someone the three options surface as Can’t, Won’t and Shouldn’t.

Why doesn’t Jeremy eat onions? Maybe because he:

  1. Can’t (He should, would, but can’t):  He’s incapable of eating them. He’s physically handicapped by an allergy, in which case I should accommodate him.
  2. Won’t (He should, can but won’t): He’s perfectly capable of eating onions. He’s indulgent in which case I should insist he eats them.
  3. Shouldn’t (He can, would, but shouldn’t) His tastes and mine just diverge, so we’ll dine on separate dishes.

And finally, when it comes to someone else’s surprising interpretation of a situation, his perspective that diverges from yours in troubling ways, the three interpretations surface as:

  1. Clueless: He can’t help but believing falsehoods.  He is mentally limited, gullible, disabled in which case I should have compassion and accommodate him.
  2. Lying: He’s perfectly capable of seeing the truth but won’t, so it’s my responsibility to fight to see that he does.
  3. Loyal: He marches to a different drummer. He’s a member of a different tribe. He shouldn’t have to believe what I believe. We should just keep our distance in live-and-let-live mutual respect.

Liars often play a shell game between these three causing us to whipsaw between the mutually undermining strategies of accommodating, fighting and gaining distance. They’ll keep you guessing how to interpret their deliberate misinterpretations.

To name it is to tame it. If you can identify the three-pronged fork you can stop the whipsawing long enough to place a solid bet on one response or the other.

Whipsawed long enough you might decide to “agree to disagree” and go your separate ways.  Often though regrets and doubts linger, “Was I too stubborn?  Was he lying to me all along? Was I too intolerant?” I find myself falling into what I call a Sorrytaliatory Cycle, oscillating between regret and anger at the person who either couldn’t, wouldn’t, or shouldn’t have seen the truth as I saw it.

At least until I gain the consolation of thoroughness, and simply say “Whatever the origins of the problem, we didn’t agree.”  “Didn’t” is the fourth option with which you get over trying to figure out which of the other three it was.

Oh, and onions? It’s just an indulgence. I can and should eat them.  I’m getting a little better about it.