Have You Been Groomed?

The Road to Reconciliation

It’s bad enough to contemplate that someone who should have loved you, hurt you instead; but if you want to prevent it from happening again, there’s something even worse to think about. He might have groomed you to be a victim.

By groomed, I mean the process that an offender uses to prepare you to accept something you would not otherwise accept. It’s usually used to describe the way pedophiles befriend a child, and sometimes the family, with the objective of sexual abuse; but here I’m using it in reference to the groundwork laid to commit any offense.

This is how offenders groom a victim:

  1. First, you’re targeted
    If you’re emotionally needy, isolated, or have low self-esteem, this makes you easy pickings. Offenders like to select desperate people to be their victims.
  2. Then the offender gains trust
    The offender establishes herself to you and others who would protect you as someone who is safe and reliable. As you allow the offender to get close, she acquires information about you she can exploit.
  3. The offender fills a need
    Once the offender detects a need, he positions himself as someone who can fill it. He cultivates your dependency.
  4. The offender isolates you from others
    The offender cuts you off from others who might protect you. She forges a connection like no other. You start to think you and the offender have something special.
  5. The offender desensitizes you
    The offender starts with things you won’t object to, then moves on to more risky behaviors while maintaining plausible deniability. As less risky behaviors are accepted, they prepare you to accept what you would never initially accept.
  6. Lastly, the offender maintains control
    The offender uses threats, secrecy, and blame to maintain your continued participation and silence.

For example, Vernon owned a dairy farm that was passed down to him after his father died in a farming accident. Molly was shy and didn’t like to leave the house. They both believed in old fashioned family values. Vernon said she would make a perfect farm wife. They would get married and she would be in charge of everything inside the home: cooking and raising the kids. He would handle everything outside the home. Molly agreed but said that even though most farm wives keep the books for the farm, she had no head for numbers and found dealing with money made her anxious. Vernon said he would keep the books himself.

Vernon’s one fault was he liked to play poker with friends every Saturday night. He asked Molly to not begrudge him his one pleasure when he was so hard working the rest of the week.

As the kids got older and could do more chores, Vernon began to travel for days at a time. He said he was going to farm shows, but she found evidence he was visiting a casino. He had an excuse for every visit, and he said she hadn’t been concerned about the poker games, so why should trips to a casino be different. She began to notice the herd of cows slowly dwindling as he would sell one here and there to pay for gambling debts; but he said he was culling the herd. When creditors started calling the house, he got rid of the phone so they couldn’t bother her anymore. Then one day she saw a letter from the bank, saying they were in foreclosure. He yelled at her for snooping and said he had to go off on these trips because her lack of trust in him made it intolerable to be at home.

Let’s break down this story and see how Molly was groomed:

  1. Target
    Vernon chose Molly in part because she was fine with being a traditional wife who would not question his authority.
  2. Gain trust
    Vernon was hard working. He owned a farm. Her parents liked him. He promised to take care of her.
  3. Fill a need
    Molly believed she was unable to do the accounting for the farm. Vernon was willing to do it.
  4. Isolate
    They lived far out in the country, so Molly rarely saw friends and family. She was financially dependent on Vernon.
  5. Desensitize
    Molly learned to accept the weekly poker games before he moved on to the trips to a casino. He had an explanation for the trips and selling the cows. She was also gradually desensitized to Vernon getting domineering.
  6. Control
    Vernon evoked traditional values to keep her silenced and to continue to accept his gambling. He eliminated the phone, her one connection to the outside world. He even tried to blame her for losing the farm.

The problem most people have with the concept of grooming is that it’s sometimes hard to believe that the offender, Vernon in this case, deliberately chose his victim, and went through the stages systematically, knowing full well what he was doing. It would be chilling if that’s how it happened. We usually say that the offender unconsciously grooms the victim. What do we mean by that?

We mean a pattern develops. Choosing to live out on the farm in a traditional arrangement, taking charge of the finances, and gambling small amounts before moving on to big ones does not have to be part of a master plan to be part of a pattern. One thing simply creates the conditions that lead to another as Vernon drifts from one stage to the next because of opportunity and lack of restraint. In other words, Vernon groomed himself while he was grooming Molly. Rather, his gambling addiction groomed him.

When I claim an addiction groomed Vernon, as if it was a person, I’m not suggesting there is a demon afoot, nor am I saying he has a split or multiple personality. Addiction is not an actual creature; it’s an emergent phenomenon, a process that organizes itself naturally out of properties inherent in the situation. Other examples of emergence are the Market, Evolution, the Self, or Life itself. We often personify them, too, in the same way I have personified addiction. So, relax. I haven’t gone flaky on you. It’s a natural process.

How Vernon got groomed by his addiction to gambling
Let’s look at the stages of grooming and see how addiction might have used them to have its way with Vernon.

  1. Target
    Vernon may have been predisposed to have a gambling problem by some genetic factors. His father was not a gambler, but he was a risk taker who died trying to clear a jam in the corn picker with the machine still running and bled to death alone in a corn field.
  2. Gain Trust
    Vernon never gambled a lot in the beginning, so he never lost much at first. He would win every so often, so it seemed safe. He met ordinary, likeable people who gambled, so it didn’t seem weird or especially dangerous.
  3. Fill a need
    Gambling gave him a thrill he never got the rest of the week. It was an escape from the drudgery of farm work.
  4. Isolate
    As he began to gamble more and more, he spent more time with people who fed the gambling bug, casino employees and other gamblers, and avoided those who could give him a hard time about it, his wife and other people who don’t gamble. As his gambling got more serious, he migrated away from the games with friends who might restrain him, to high stakes games with strangers.
  5. Desensitize
    In the beginning, he got used to gambling small amounts, before moving on to big ones. Indeed, he needed to move on to high stakes games in the casino because the low stakes games with friends weren’t giving him enough of a thrill anymore.

Vernon also gradually desensitized himself to treating his wife poorly. He did not start off being so domineering. He started by having a separate area of responsibility, which facilitated keeping secrets. It was easy then to move on to lying, and making excuses before he cut off her ability to communicate with the outside world and blamed her for the problem.

  1. Maintain Control
    The shame and stigma of losing money gambling silenced Vernon and made him feel different from everyone. These are, of course, uncomfortable feelings from which more gambling can help him escape.


If you’ve been groomed, how do you get ungroomed?
So, how about it? If you’re the victim, did your offender groom you? If you’re the offender, were you groomed by an emergent problem that you failed to recognize and resist? The answer is almost always yes. That’s because hurtful actions don’t ever really come out of nowhere, they arise from a context, there’s a pattern. If you can detect a pattern to a problem, that would be tremendously valuable. Patterns give you warning, they show the connections the problem has to everything else, and they hint at how the problem can be defeated.

How can Molly and Vernon defeat the gambling problem that had caused so much harm to their relationship? They can work backwards through the stages of grooming and undo the conditions that lead to them losing their farm.

  1. Renounce Control
    Vernon can relinquish control that the shame and stigma of gambling has by refusing to let it silence him. He should admit that he has a gambling problem and admit that he has essentially taken Molly hostage.

Molly can escape the control Vernon, and his gambling problem, have on her by taking steps towards becoming more self-reliant.

  1. Sensitize
    Vernon must become more sensitized to gambling and the triggers to gamble. This means that even small bets should be a big deal. It also means that all the approaches to gambling should set off trip wires and alarms. He should be careful when talking about big wins, playing Yahtzee with the kids, and watching the Poker Channel. No more trips alone, casino or not. For most, sensitization is achieved by making abstinence an objective.

Vernon also needs to be sensitized to how he treats Molly by learning to respect her independence and acknowledge her worth. He should become scrupulously honest, especially about his dealings with money.

Molly can become sensitized by recognizing the signs and the triggers of Vernon’s gambling and the signs of when he is becoming domineering. She could be a lookout and learn how to warn Vernon effectively when she sees trouble coming.

  1. Expand your view
    Vernon must find other forms of recreation that don’t involve gambling and develop friendships with non-gamblers.

Molly also needs to develop relationships with people who demonstrate ways to live, other than the one she’s used to.

  1. Fill the need another way
    If Vernon needs a thrill, there are a hundred other ways to get one besides gambling. Even better, he can tune into the joy and wonder that can be found in ordinary activities.

Molly needs to overcome her math anxiety and monitor their finances.

  1. Develop self-reliance
    Both Vernon and Molly got into trouble because they trusted that something or someone else would bail them out of a problem that was only theirs to solve. Vernon trusted gambling to solve his problem of being bored with farm work. There is nothing inherently boring about farm work; it is his attitude towards it that made him bored. Molly trusted Vernon to solve her math anxiety by eliminating the need to ever having to do any math. In both cases, they trusted too much and did not challenge their own abilities to face their problems.
  2. Protecting the target
    There isn’t a lot Vernon can do to change the predisposition he was born with; but he can be aware he has a tendency to take risks and a willingness to sacrifice everything for a thrill. He should keep that in mind just as he knows that a cow can kick, or a corn picker can chew up his hand. He can safely live with that predisposition if he knows to be careful with it.


Molly needs to know how letting her fears control her put her at risk. If she faced her fears of leaving the house and of handling the finances, then not only will she be keeping herself safe, she would also be helping Vernon.

Research on How to Make an Effective Apology

I didn’t see this research until after I completed my book, The Road to Reconciliation, so I couldn’t include it; but I’m happy to report that the findings support what I said about how to make and screw up an apology. Most people screw them up.

In Apologies of the Rich and Famous: Cultural, Cognitive, and Social Explanations of Why We Care and Why We Forgive, sociologists Karen Cerulo and Janet Ruane, analyzed and studied the effectiveness of 183 celebrity apologies that occurred between October 2000 and October 2012.

They categorized each apology as utilizing denial, evasion, reduction, corrective action, and mortification. They identified seven sequences. Some, for instance, start out by focusing on the offender; some on the victim; others on the context. Once they categorized each apology, the researchers measured the apology’s effectiveness as indicated by opinion polls conducted shortly thereafter. An effective apology was defined as one that resulted in an improved opinion of the apologizer. In other words, Cerulo and Ruane only studied changes in public opinion, not the transformation of the character of the apologizer.

Less than a third of the apologies they looked at were effective with the public. In other words, at least two-thirds of apologies resulted in the apologizer digging a deeper hole for himself and becoming more contemptible. Cerulo and Ruane are able to say what works in making an apology.

  • Don’t wait, make an apology right away.
  • The first words in an apology matter. Don’t start by talking about how your life has been made more difficult since you got in trouble. Start by showing empathy for the victim.
  • Don’t apologize for what people think; apologize for what you did. Don’t say, “I’m sorry you misunderstood me.” Say, “I’m sorry I touched you without permission.”
  • No one wants to hear why you did it because it sounds like you’re making excuses.
  • Express regret and remorse.
  • If you express regret and remorse, actually feel regret and remorse. People can tell when you’re faking it.
  • Say what you’re doing to make restitution, but don’t say you’re going to rehab to make restitution. Rehab is not restitution. Rehab helps you, not the victim. Say what you’re doing to help the victim if you are able to make direct amends, or people like your victim, if you are not.
  • End your apology the same way you started it. The last words matter, too. End by showing empathy for the victim.
  • If you have already made your apology, but botched it, somehow; make a better one. You can still improve another’s opinion of you.

Like I said, Cerulo and Ruane only studied changes in public opinion, but, had they studied whether the apologizer repeated the offense after apologizing, in my experience I think they would have gotten the same results. I am eagerly awaiting the results of such a study.

What Breathing Can Teach Us About Relationships

Old PostsSometimes people have trouble grasping what it means to let go. If that’s the case, I have metaphors. Lots of metaphors. Here’s another one. Letting go is as simple as breathing; exhaling, to be precise.

The entire breathing cycle can be seen as a metaphor of relationships. You start off in need. You have desires. You believe that if you do not have this person, you will die. That’s like inhaling. You expand yourself to take this person in. You incorporate him or her into your life. You feel full.

Once you inhale, try to hold your breath. Fresh oxygen inevitably becomes suffocating carbon dioxide. You get dizzy, confused, desperate. If you persist, you will pass out. If you still don’t inhale, you will die.

The very person you desired will sooner or later becomes the source of aggravation. That thing that you once found so charming will drive you nuts. The personal quality that you did not possess, but thought your partner could provide, will not be as important as you once thought. It never really was important to you. If it was, you would’ve developed it in yourself. There will be meddlesome in-laws, misunderstandings, mismatched goals, competing careers, money problems, poor timing in sex, squally children that may not even be yours, incongruent tastes, all the foibles that never become evident until two people live together. There will be minor betrayals and maybe major ones. There will be things to forgive. You’ll act dizzy, confused, desperate. If it persists, you’ll be out of there. If you don’t leave, something will die inside.

Exhale. Expel. Forgive. Let go. It feels good, doesn’t it? You were tense, holding it in, and you may not have even known it. Now you’re ready and able to desire again.

There are some who believe they can avoid this cycle in their relationships. They believe that if they find the perfect person, the relationship will never sour. They think that, if they can change their partner, everything will be all right. You might just as well wish for oxygen that will never become carbon dioxide.

By the way, oxygen does not become carbon dioxide by itself. It’s you that does it; and it’s you who turns what she does into aggravation, resentment, anger, and hurt. They’re your emotions. You made them.

To be sure, just as there is poisonous air, there are also poisonous relationships, affiliations that should be avoided. Your relationship might be making you sick. If that is the case, it may have to be ended. Even if that’s the case. Even if you are in a poisonous relationship, like poisonous air, you still need to exhale. Let go, let the poison out. You might even desire another again.

The Dance of Relationship: A Guide to the Positions

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When we think about love, we may picture something like this: <>

This position is called Turning Towards. You’re facing each other, open to each other, and paying attention to no one but each other. You may be touching.

You might believe this is the most desirable of the positions, but it’s very intense. It’s hard to do anything else when you are Turning Towards. It’s also hard to sustain attention totally to your partner, and it may feel threatening to have someone pay attention to you, not missing a thing. Still, the moments in which we are Turning Towards are meaningful, tender, and warm.

It’s also the position you are in when you are in a fight.

The second position looks something like this: > <

This is Turning Away. Most of life in a relationship is like this. You may be mad at one another, but, more likely, you’re just busy and doing other things. Love can look like this, too. It may be a picture of two people who feel so secure in one another that they can let each other go and pay attention to other things. When you are permitted to turn away, you are free to explore.

Watch what happens when one partner changes position and turns toward. You get the third and forth positions: < < and > >

Turning Towards/Turning Away. In these positions, one partner is paying attention to the other while the other is attentive to something or someone else.

Sometimes, the Turning Toward partner is content watching. He simply admires his spouse, enjoys seeing her interact with others. He has no need for attention.

The Turning Away partner may feel her spouse has her back. He’s there if she needs him. She’s comfortable being the object of his attention.

Often, though, there’s an insecurity in this position. They’re the most unstable. Turning Towards/Turning Away can be very uncomfortable for both parties.

The Turning Towards one may feel ignored, neglected, and abandoned. He might feel jealous of the object of the partner’s attention. He may blame himself for being sticky, dependent, and needing excessive reassurance.

The Turning Away partner may feel clung to, limited by him. She may believe her partner has excessive demands. She may have the urge to flee.

These positions are sometimes the beginning of a ghastly dance. One partner clings, while the other breaks away. The more the one clings, the more the other needs to escape. The more the one avoids, the more the other hangs on.

There is a final position that should be noted. It looks like this: < O >

In this one, both partners are focused on the same thing. It could be a show they’re watching, a problem they’re trying to solve, or a child they’re raising. Having an important common purpose can be the most compelling reason to be in a relationship. You do more together than you could possibly do alone. However, the thing you are both focused on can be the thing that separates you and forces you apart.

Spend a few days noticing these positions in the natural world. See what it feels like for you to be in each position and see what you instinctively do next.

When You Need Your Space

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Some days, you just need your space.

The trouble is, your partner is there, too, and if you try to get some space, they may take it personally. You don’t want to get into a long discussion over why you need your space when you need your space. It may not be good to get into discussions when you need your space. They seldom go well, then.

What you need, at times like that, is a hat.

Not just any ordinary hat, but a hat that is easily recognizable and officially designated as the I Need My Space Hat.

So, some time when you don’t need your space, pick out a hat and talk with your partner. Put the hat in a common area where both of you can find it. Whenever you need your space, put on the hat. Only use this hat for that one purpose. The hat communicates something to your partner, so you don’t have to. It says, I need my space. It’s not about you, it’s about me. I’ll tell you why when I take off the hat.

It’s important that you have this discussion first, before you need it, so both of you understand what the hat means. It’s also important to obey the hat, no matter which one of you is using it. Finally, it’s important to talk after you take the hat off. Tell your partner why you think you needed your space and was going on with you.

Some days, you just need your space and it’s hard to get it. Unless you use a hat.

Love: The Prisoner’s Dilemma

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I can guess how this sounds, but love relationships remind me of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Two conspirators are arrested and brought into separate interview rooms. They are both given the opportunity to turn state’s witness against the other. The one that takes the deal goes free, and the other gets ten years. If both confess, each gets six years. If they both refuse, they both get six months.

If I was in this situation, my answer would depend on the nature of the alliance I had developed with my partner in crime. In every relationship there are multiple opportunities in which we choose to either cooperate with the other or go our own way. Most of these occasions don’t have the consequence of being sentenced to prison for ten years, but you get the sense of a person’s loyalty if they pick up the check at the diner when you plan the crime, bring their own burglary tools, and take off in the getaway car before you get in. You also get an idea of the cost of betrayal when you scarf up the tip he left, bend his best lock pick, and arrive late because you couldn’t decide on a color for a ski mask.

Every one of these tests is a miniature prisoner’s dilemma and every one of these tests is found almost continuously in every kind of relationship. Temptations abound, no matter where you are, especially in love. Do you steal the blanket? Put the seat down for her? Do you give her the first piece of toast in the morning? Do the dishes? Get up to answer the phone even when you know it’s for her? When she tells you about that dress she’s going to buy do you really pay attention, or just nod and smile? When she’s not listening do you talk about her with respect? Do you flirt when she’s not looking? Are you adult enough to admit there’s adultery afoot?

We form alliances because we get a better reward when we both cooperate, but it’s inevitable that every alliance is going to be violated in some way. It is impossible to go along with every little thing your partner wants. How are these inevitable violations handled? When you tug the blanket, does she tug back? Does she go all ape shit when you pee on the seat? When you put the seat down for her, does she put it up for you? Does she put the flirting in perspective, forgive the adultery? If she does, does it make her a patsy? If she doesn’t, is she just being a bitch?

Scientists have studied the prisoner’s dilemma by having players adopt certain strategies to see which win most often. Some will always cooperate, no matter how strong the temptation. Those players end up exploited. Their partners have no reason to play along since there is no penalty for failing. Others never work together with their partners, they give in to temptation every time. No one ends up trusting them. They say the winning strategy is called Tit-for-Tat: cooperate every time until your partner fails to, then punish him by withholding cooperation at the next opportunity. This will teach him a thing or two.

There’s one problem with that, though. We believe we are much better at detecting when we lose our partner’s engagement than we really are. The next time you are having a conversation with someone, watch her and you will see there are moments that she does not appear to pay attention, a minor violation in the alliance that could really piss you off. The thing is, she might actually be paying attention, or she might be the kind that can pay attention to two things at once. Ask her what you just said and you might be surprised that she can repeat it word for word.

There are times, though, that she can’t. You lost her; she tuned out, spaced out, went blank. It happens. If you taped it, hit the rewind, and play it back, you might discover something. You were boring. You went on and on and were inattentive to non-verbal cues that she wanted to participate in the conversation. Or you made your point in such a way that she couldn’t follow. Each of these errors is a violation of the alliance. You broke faith before she did.

We have built in, exquisite instruments that detect betrayal so sensitively calibrated that we are always chasing false alarms. What’s more, the instrument does not work on the operator. You don’t know when you are doing it. There’s a moral to the story. When you believe that your partner is violating your alliance, look to see if maybe you did so first.



The Rock Tumbler

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Back when my son was a child, he used to dig holes in the back yard. He would adopt stones that he liked and would line the shelves of his room with them. His mother used to complain of the grime he brought into the house, until, noting a sustained interest in geology; we got him a rock tumbler.

You may have had some dealings with a rock tumbler. It’s basically a drum attached to a small motor by way of a belt that rotates incessantly all the live long day. Put a few dull, brown, craggy, soil caked rocks in the drum, add a bit of water, shut the hatch, turn on the motor, and you can keep the whole family from sleeping for a week. When your Dad yells at you to turn the damn thing off so he can get some rest, you open it, reach in, and your unremarkable stones have transformed into smooth, radiant gems.

There’s a rock tumbler for people, too; a people tumbler. We call it love. Continue reading