There’s a joke on Twitter — in that “ha ha but no, seriously” sense — that goes “every day one person becomes the main character on the Internet. Your goal is to avoid being that person.” On December 20, 2020, when Elle published their long-form piece, “The Journalist and The Pharma Bro“, Christie Smythe became The Main Character of the Internet. The article detailed how Smythe, a respected and experienced reporter for Bloomberg News tossed aside her entire life — her husband, her career, her credibility — for notorious securities fraudster and Big Pharma price-gouger Martin Shkreli.
It’s the sort of story designed to set segments of Twitter on fire; a professional woman throwing away her entire life for someone who stalked and harassed numerous other journalists, raised the price of life-saving anti-parasitic medicine by 5000% and famously disrespected the Wu-Tang Clan. People wanted to know how the hell someone who actually had a brain in her head would be willing to not just give up everything in her life, but freeze her eggs… all for a guy who she was never intimate with and who — plot twist — ghosted her from prison and dumped her via a statement to the press.
It seems almost comically absurd; how could anyone fall for this bullshit? It was hardly as though Shkreli’s trolling, stalking and harassment were going under the radar — especially considering how frequently he targeted other female journalists. And it was hardly as though Smythe were some naive thing, some babe lost in the woods who was just too pure, innocent or oblivious to recognize Shkreli for the posturing, entitled, faux-alpha-male-fronting, wannabe edgelord he is.
That’s why it’s important to recognize what a toxic relationship looks like… and how smart people get caught up in them.
It Starts Out Small
The first misconception that many people have about toxic and abusive relationships is that they are obvious from the jump… and they never are. It’s easy to think of abusers or toxic manipulators as self-aware supervillains who play their victims like a harp.
The common conception of someone straight out of The Company of Wolves, rubbing their hands together with glee over how much they plain to screw over some young, innocent thing is a compelling image. In reality, that’s rarely the case; as often as not, they’re control freaks, entitled assholes who feel like they’re the victim. They just want what they want… and that includes making sure the people in their lives only care about their needs.
However, that doesn’t mean that they wear their shittiness on their sleeves. One of the common laments of self-declared Nice Guys is that women only want “bad boys”; that they’re drawn to the allure of some asshole precisely because they know that he’ll treat her awfully. But if toxic or abusive people were that easily caught out, they would never be able to entice people in the first place. Nobody goes into a relationship hoping that their partner is going to suck the life out of them, drain their self-esteem and leave them feeling like they’re the worst person ever. Nor do they go in hoping that this guy is going to isolate them from their friends and loved-ones, gaslight them or physically abuse them.
Instead, just as Scientology doesn’t start off telling the curious about space aliens, volcanoes and billion-year contracts, or NXIVM didn’t lead with “we’re going to make you brand your vagoo”, a toxic relationship starts small. It starts, often enough, with giving the potential victim exactly what they want.
In the case of Smythe, it started with access. In the first conversations she ever had with Shkreli, rather than brushing her off like she expected, he gave her an actual interview. It was self-serving and full of shit — he was being charged with securities fraud and he was insisting that she was completely wrong — but it was more than she expected. That was, in a lot of ways, the crack in her defenses that could be leveraged into more.
It was after this that Shkreli tried to cast himself as the Bad Boy Raconteur of the Pharma World, picking Twitter fights and making livestreams like a chan-troll trying to get Outrage Bucks by attacking video game journalists and railing against feminist superhero movies. It was the exact sort of behavior that you would think would repel… pretty much everyone, really. Nobody honestly thinks that “Twitter troll” is a sexy stereotype after all. But it was Shkreli’s behavior after his arraignment that made the difference for Smythe.
From the article:
The next month, Shkreli called Smythe. I was sitting next to her in the Brooklyn pressroom, where I covered courts and the Shkreli case for the New York Times, when she took the call. I overheard her startled conversation with him, in which he told her, “I should’ve listened to you,” referring to the first time they spoke about the investigation, back when he said she didn’t know what she was talking about.
That moment right there? This is was a strategic show of vulnerability. In this moment, he’s giving her just a hint of the “real” him — this young man who got in over his head. Telling her that she was right and he should have listened is especially powerful — not only because he’s contrasting this version of himself vs. his Hedge Fund Enfant Terrible persona but because he’s creating a conspiracy of just the two of them. He is, in effect, framing her as ultimately being on his side.
By giving that supposed crack in his shell, he sets the stage for bringing her more fully into alignment with him. Her next meeting with Shkreli is what gave her permission to see him as something other than a human pizza cutter.
Again, from the article:
When Shkreli walked in for the one o’clock meeting, this time wearing a black hoodie, his hair greasy, he immediately “started giving me a spiel,” she says. He wanted the talk off the record, and proceeded to show Smythe spreadsheet after spreadsheet with investors’ holdings in his funds. He argued that they were all ultimately paid back. “You could see his earnestness,” Smythe says. “It just didn’t match this idea of a fraudster.”
As insane as it can sound, this is literally all it can take. It’s not that this was the moment that she started to fall for him; it’s that this was what gave her permission to ignore what common sense should have been telling her. This behavior — seeming to open up, show the “real” him and seeming to crave her approval and belief — created the permission structure that allowed her to believe that she had insight into him that nobody else did. That she saw a version of him that he never showed anyone else. And more importantly… he wanted her to think well of him. He craved her good opinion.
That is a powerful feeling — made all the more so when someone in an obvious position of wealth and influence seems to crave it. It’s the sort of thing that romance novels are built on. And almost anyone can fall for it.
It’s also what makes people vulnerable to being manipulated further. Which is precisely what happened next.
The Toxic Addiction
After that seeming moment of vulnerability, Smythe describes how Shkreli immediately began to screw with her — like he would any other journalist. He would dangle the prospect of something she wanted — an on-the-record interview, for example — before snubbing her or giving it to someone else. He would have moments where he solicited her help — asking for advice on choosing a lawyer, for example — or take her out for a fancy dinner, where he would reveal tidbits of his childhood. Then immediately afterwards, he would ignore her, presumably because she had done something wrong.
This became a constant in their relationship as reporter and subject; he would give her little moments of access and validation — inviting her to a talk he was giving, calling her “an honest reporter” in front of an audience — but continuing to ghost her, ignore her or otherwise refuse to come across with those promises.
It can sound maddening… but it’s also the sort of thing that abusers and manipulators do to their victims. This is what’s known as intermittent reinforcement — leavening neglect or abuse with moments of approval or affection at seemingly random and unpredictable intervals. It relies on a quirk of psychology; we value things less when we don’t have to work for them. When we get a steady stream of rewards or know that those rewards are going to come at regular, predictable times, we don’t work quite as hard for them. After all, we know it’s probably going to come regardless of what we do. Why put more effort in than we absolutely need to?
But when those rewards are inconstant, or are given at erratic and variable moments, we actually work harder for them. Because we’re pattern-seeking creatures, there is a part of us that’s convinced that if we hang in there long enough, we can figure out what will trigger that reward. And since we’re working harder to get that reward, we value and crave it more.
What makes this so sinister is that literally anyone can fall for it; it’s built into our brains. Casinos and game developers like King Games use this exact pattern to hook people in and get them to spend absurds amount of money on slot machines and microtransactions in Candy Crush or Farm Hero Saga.
It’s also the sort of behavior that causes victims to bond to their abusers. Those little rewards — moments of approval or affection or validation — hit all the harder because the victim has been starved of them. Their brain latches onto the little hits of dopamine, and craves even more. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it gets addictive.
There are emotional aspects to it as well. The victim or a toxic manipulator craves that approval or that affection because it’s a sign that maybe things are improving. They want to believe that these are signs that things are turning around, that the abuse or shitty treatment were a glitch, a fluke. They want to believe that they can get back to the honeymoon period, where things were all candy hearts and cartoon cherubs.
In the case of Smythe and Shkreli, these moments played out from the start and continued throughout their relationship. He would yell at her for asking the wrong questions… but also be the first to be lovey-dovey, even in prison. This was mixed in with other troubling ways of getting Smythe on his side. Besides those moments of seeming vulnerability, Shkreli plays to what’s known as the Ben Franklin Effect — asking Smythe for a favor and exploiting that bit of code in our brains that says “we only do favors for people we like, so we must like this person.” He keeps the promise of access — to him, to his friends, to evidence — just out of reach, causing her to work even more towards it.
And of course, he presents a version of himself that she ultimately wants to see… and that’s precisely the problem.
Permission to Ignore Reality
One of the eternal questions about people in toxic or abusive relationships is “how do they not see what’s going on?” Setting aside the folks who know they’re in an abusive relationship but can’t leave for various reasons, the answer is often “because they don’t want to.” It’s perverse… but it’s also incredibly common. And it’s something that literally everybody is vulnerable to.
In fact, the smarter, stronger willed or more defiant you are, the more likely you are to not admit that you’re in a horrible situation. This is in no small part because, frankly, there’s stigma attached to being gulled like this. All you have to do is search Twitter for either Smythe or Shkreli’s names; you’ll find a deluge of memes, snark, schadenfreude and disbelief about how anyone could freeze their goddamn eggs for this dude. Nobody wants to admit that they’re the sort of person who could fall for this. Nobody wants to have to admit that they are the sort of person who’d be vulnerable to this sort of manipulation. It’s far easier to insist that it’s not happening, that it’s not as bad as people say or that people have the wrong idea.
That same rationale applies to, say, ignoring or excusing glaringly awful behavior. As I said earlier: Shkreli was famous for, amongst other things, stalking and harassing various female journalists. He — or his followers — created fake social media profiles for NY Post reporter Emily Saul, claiming that they were in a relationship. He also famously harassed writer Lauren Duca, Photoshopping her into images of himself and sharing them on Twitter.
Again, this is the sort of behavior that you think would make anyone pause or peace-out at speed. But again, Smythe waves it away. From the article:
Smythe’s take on this is, “He trolls because he’s anxious,” she tells me, and “he really, really wants to be somebody.”
Photoshopping a person you’re harassing into pictures with you or buying dozens of personal domain names to mock and insult the reporters covering you is a hell of a thing to wave away as anxiety, but go off I guess…
But what can be most insidious — and what can keep people in horrible relationships, long past the point of sanity — is simply feeling like you’ve come this far already that you can’t back out now. This is what’s known as The Sunk Cost Fallacy, which causes people to give more emotional importance to what they may lose rather than what they stand to gain. The easiest way to think of it is the tendency to throw good money after bad because you’ve already invested it. If, for example, you’ve gone on a trip or to see a movie despite being sick as hell because you already paid for the tickets, then you’ve experienced the sunk-cost fallacy.
In relationships, the thing that you stand to lose most is (usually) time. When you’ve invested months or years of your life in a person, it’s incredibly hard to turn around and say “well, time to let all this go.” To give up now would make you happier, yes. But it would also mean that the last X number of years had ultimately been wasted. That’s much harder to face, even when the rewards of leaving — being free of them, having your life back, being able to date someone who isn’t a price-gouging, reporter-stalking malignant narcissist — are demonstrably greater. That potential loss still hits you harder and makes you hold back.
It’s harder still when you’ve sacrificed more than time. This is precisely what makes it difficult for people to leave cults. Scientology and NXIVM both require literal investment from its members — often to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars — as well as becoming the center of the members’ lives. Knowing that you’re having to give all of that up is a daunting thing to face. Similarly, it’s very, very hard for folks to leave QAnon because of how thoroughly they’ve damaged their relationships with friends and family. When the choice is to either confront the fact that you’ve alienated the people closest to you or pretend that they were too corrupt or not ready to Wake Up (but they will when The Storm arrives)… the it’s easier to choose the latter.
Smythe is in a similar position. She has literally tossed aside her entire life over her relationship with Shkreli. She was fired from her job at Bloomberg News, she divorced her husband, even lost out on publishing deals… all over a relationship with a man in prison. In a very real way, it’s less painful to double and triple down than it is to admit that she got used by somebody who liked having a tame journalist around.
The fact that she got ghosted from prison and dumped via public statement is the “fuck you” cherry on the top of that humiliation sundae.
The Only Way Out Is Through. But The Only Way To Win Is Not to Play.
One of the things I can’t emphasize enough is that this isn’t a case of Shkreli being some chess grandmaster, playing people like pawns in some grand game. He’s a chan-troll, better able to provoke reactions out of people rather than a master manipulator. Toxic people, malignant narcissists and abusers aren’t Hannibal Lecter, they’re people who — more often than not — figured out ways of pushing people to do what they want, usually through blunt force. It doesn’t take a Machiavellian genius to do freeze-outs or throw tantrums.
Nor is Smythe stupid, naive, blind or uniquely vulnerable in ways that other people aren’t. Nobody is immune to being caught in a toxic or abusive relationship. In fact, believing that you’re too smart, too strong-willed, too whatever can make you more likely to get caught. Con men love smart people; they’re the easiest to fool because they believe they can’t be fooled. Smythe even mentioned this herself:
“Maybe I was being charmed by a master manipulator,” Smythe tells me. But she felt she could maintain control.
The key isn’t being smart enough or not being gullible enough to fall for a master manipulator, it’s about not playing the game in the first place. One of the ways that DOS — the secretive, master-slave subgroup of NXIVM — would pull people in was by describing things in terms of being ethical or non-ethical; an ethical person would never need to worry about their blackmail material getting out, so what’s the harm in giving it? The problem is that if you start to discuss or debate the need for the blackmail, then you’re tacitly buying into their frame. When you debate the terms that they set out, you are intrinsically agreeing that they have the authority to decide who (or what) is ethical or not. Trying to pull back from that point just makes it easier for them to pressure you about being an ethical person. The key to escaping that particular rhetorical trap is to not give accept the premise in the first place.
The same applies to much of the way toxic people will try to leverage your own best intentions against you. It’s not about being “resistant” to their manipulations or being able to out think or out play them; it’s about not giving them an in at all. Having strong boundaries and being willing to walk away from a bad scene — even if the “reward” is something you really want — is vital. When you reward a toxic person for their behavior — through your playing along, continuing to give them your time or attention or even just keeping them in your life — you give them both power and precedent over you. Each maltreatment you agree to makes it easier for them to treat you worse down the line. Strong boundaries keep toxic people from getting the finger-hold that they need to keep you around and worm their way in.
But what about when you’re already in a toxic relationship? What is the key to getting out?
Well — and I speak from experience here — people will only leave when they’re ready to leave. And being ready to leave can be hard. As I said: getting out of a toxic or abusive relationship means being willing to face the embarrassment and humiliation of having been in it in the first place. It means being willing to admit that yes, the people who warned you were right. It means facing up to the bad decisions that you made — both that led you there and that you made while in the relationship. And that includes a willingness to eat crow and bear the slings and arrows of the judgment of others.
And I’m not gonna lie, it can suck. A lot. Sometimes getting out of a shitty situation means that you’re going to have to rebuild… well, damn near everything. But even then, it will still be better than being stuck in that relationship.
Avoiding and escaping toxic relationships isn’t about playing the game better than the other person. It’s about recognizing the game for what it is from the start.
And then refusing to play.