Poisonous relationships disturb life plans and introduce endless waves of exploitation and agony into an otherwise normal life. It’s not unusual for folks who have never been involved in this type of relationship to think that their partner might have a disorder of some kind. You might wonder if there is an essential neurological reason for the disturbing or/or risky activities.
For more than a few, the answer is yes.
A few months back I wrote a blog about this very subject. Lately I have received a few questions about it so I thought I would take another crack at the issue. There is more than enough material out there to fill a library and enough people to benefit from various articles on the subject.
The term “psychopath” gets tossed around quite a bit these days, but to a psychiatrist (I’m a coach, so I will follow their lead here) it has a specific meaning. To them, psychopaths are aggressively narcissistic and impulsive, suffering from a never-ending drive for sensation seeking. They lack what we think of as empathy and instinctively influence others around them through lies and bullying. They believe that they are free from the rules the rest of us live by and show an obvious penchant for lying, even when it is not to their advantage.
Psychopathy is one of the most difficult disorders there is to diagnose. A psychopath will often seem quite normal, even fascinating. Inside though, they lack a fundamental conscience and empathy, allowing them to be manipulative, volatile, and often—but by no means always—criminal. They are objects of widespread fascination and clinical torment. Adult psychopathy is, for the most part, unreceptive to treatment. Contemporary programs are in place to treat callous, unemotional young people in hopes of precluding their maturation into psychopaths, but the jury is still out on that one.
In 2009, Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Ronald Schouten published a book, Almost a Psychopath. Mr. Schouten and his co-author Jim Silver write about the ways people show symptoms of psychopathy and still don’t meet the full diagnostic criteria.
These people can be really deceptive, manipulative, callous, self-serving, and still maintain the appearance of being normal. One of their goals in writing the book was to show how easy it is for the person’s workmates, friends, and life partners to not suspect for years, if ever, plus there is a profound psychological disorder so close to where they live. Perhaps in the bed next to them.
Psychopath vs. Sociopath
The terms “psychopath” and “sociopath” are often used interchangeably, but used correctly, a “sociopath” refers to a person with antisocial tendencies caused by social or environmental reasons. Psychopathic traits, on the other hand, are more at the core of a person. A chaotic or violent upbringing or experiences can tip the scales to the bad side for someone already inclined to behave psychopathically.
What this means is that people with this kind of personality have a terribly difficult time relating to people around them. Due to their symptoms, these are some of the people that have a high potential to hurt their partners. The partners of people with psychopathy are regularly left with emotional pain and sometimes even physical scars.
All Psychopaths Raise Your Hand
Don’t feel bad if you can’t recognize the would-be psychopaths in your world. If you ask psychiatrists if they often run into those kinds of people at cocktail parties or business meetings, they’ll usually tell you that they’re really hard to recognize, even for experts. Their thin veil of normalcy is too well developed to detect at first.
So for most of us, it’s really hard to figure out if your partner’s behavior patterns indicate some sort of problem or not. I’m going to list below some of the red flags to look for. Think of them when they show up as demonstrations of their condition when they are around other people. It’s very important to remember that this is not a list of “diagnostic criteria” but rather an anecdotal list of things to look for in the people around you.
The Red Flags
- “I am better than you.”
People with these traits tend to say to their partner that they are in some way better and that their partner is just not good enough. They say things like:
- you’re too emotional
- you’re too fat
- you’re paranoid
- you’re crazy
- you’re stupid
- you’re not telling the truth
This leads to their partners feeling worthless, or “less than.” Inside of these kinds of relationships, the more balanced partner is usually kept off-balance in pursuit of what they think will satisfy the partner with the disorder.
- “You bore me. I hate you. I love No—I hate you.”
They often become disinterested when the honeymoon period ends. At this point, they can become disrespectful and abusive. The relationship can become a rollercoaster-like experience where they break up, then reunite, and break up again, repeated until exhaustion. Some people involved in the psychopaths’ fun find that it soon turns to disrespect and quickly changes to abuse, then on to a traumatic relationship. When you take into account that your brain can be changed by trauma and abuse, lots of people surviving these relationships are left with behaviors ranging from alcoholism to PTSD.
- “Here’s my rule: “I’m not responsible for anything bad that happens or that I have ever done.”
They are masters at shifting blame. They can externalize blame with the best of them; it’s a skill of their personality style. When they can’t squeeze out of a problem using creative lies they’ll try and reframe the offense as:
- just a joke
- only a misunderstanding
- it must be your mistake
- it’s all your fault because you’re too sensitive
You see how this goes? It’s like a really bad circle that doesn’t stop until you do.
- “Grooming” of their partners
Did you ever feel not so much courted as groomed? This is a big deal for them. The difference for you is that grooming is a game, while being courted is an effort to make a real connection. Their attention, their money, their time, the trips you enjoy, and their gifts, just like their attention, always comes with strings attached. Some of their strings are very serious since they expect their relationship partners to behave and repay all of it in one way or another when their honeymoon stage is over. Here is the bottom line; they didn’t really care about you. It was all about grooming you for your part in their life.
- Their past includes lots of romantic partners…maybe too many
So here is a weakness that they have; they get bored easily and since they don’t bond really well after all the excitement is worn off, they go out looking for new partners. Too bad for you if there’s an overlap between partners or affairs while they’re still in what their more balanced partner thinks is a serious relationship.
Listen for things like this while you’re being groomed. As their newest target, they’re likely to describe their “previous partner” as just “good friends.” When they call them just good friends they’re describing the person that doesn’t hold them accountable or follow up with them very much. If they use a term like “crazy” to describe their former partner, the one they traumatized, that partner is probably trying to hold them accountable and wants closure, or maybe even revenge for the abuse.
- Overtly hypersensitive toward themselves | Overly insensitive toward others
Think of this is their way of saying, ”I matter and you don’t… and since you don’t matter, why don’t you just shut your pie hole about me.”
You might be surprised to discover how hypersensitive psychopaths can be when they feel challenged or criticized. Even though they come across as callous, narcissistic, and in some ways, powerful when they’re slighted, their oversensitivity always shows up. They’re not really interested in pleasing other people so it’s not about their insecurity. It really comes from their belief in their own power and desire for control. They really don’t like anyone pointing out their weaknesses or addressing them in any fashion that implies that they’re weak. If you make the mistake of committing this kind of infraction, you take the risk of being attacked in one way or another.
- “I’m the winner! I’m always the winner! Yea me!”
When you run into a person with psychopathy, be aware that there always has to be a winner and a loser…always. Keep in mind that being the winner is very important to them, so much so they will almost never willingly accept being in the losing position. Regardless of how unimportant the issue might be, they just won’t tolerate it. I’m sure you can see the problems that can crop up in relationships that require cooperation, or at times contrition, or submission to the desires of other people around you.
- You feel like you’re losing your mind. You feel like your ability to think and that your confidence are weakening. Who are you?
When you’re involved with this kind of person, there will be times that you will feel distracted and drowning in anxiety. If your relationship has been going on for a long time, you may very well feel like it’s hard to concentrate. You lack motivation, like your memory is failing you, and your ability to organize anything around you is gone.
- Domination, power, and control is their comfort zone
Do you remember earlier when I said they like belittling and hurting other people? It really goes farther than that; degradation, humiliation, and mindfully doing damage are things they enjoy. But don’t think you can just be intolerant of those traits; intolerance could easily wind up getting an aggressive reaction and perhaps even punishment.
- Lies, lies, lies, secrets, deception, and lies again
It’s really dangerous pattern. They lie just as easily through omission as through commission. They just can’t help themselves as they deceive and manipulate the people around them. It just doesn’t matter to them; the lies can be really big, like a secret family or they can be small, like ready put your keys. In the end, you just can’t trust the things that they say or do the way you would other people.
- Dubious morality or none at all
If you’re around them long enough, you’ll see a pattern of this behavior and poor morals. It might be lying, or stealing, harassment, stalking, cheating, or any number ways of punishing people standing in the way of what they think are their goals. They do it because of the rush they feel in the moment of deception. Sometimes they do it just to see if they can.
- Insincere and shallow emotionality
Their initial interactions are usually fabulous and surpass their ability for deep and rich relationships. They will treat a stranger better than you if it makes them look good to the people around them
- The strain of their refrain, “But I’m the victim here!”
They save this manipulation tool for when they’re relating with empathetic people. They know inherently when you have compassion for someone that you’re ready to excuse their mistakes. People with the capacity for empathy can usually be manipulated to take a stance that labels the psychopath for someone who’s been hurt. They use this type of manipulation for just that reason. It gets them off the hook for things they did for their own gain. Here are some of the manipulative things that you’ll find at your doorstep in this kind of relationship:
- Newer partners in competition with other older partners
- Teach me how
- They seem to need lessons in basic social skills regarding kindness, trust, and respect
You discover that you are trying to teach them the basics of human kindness, fair-mindedness, and how to treat you. Listen to yourself when you wind up saying things like:
- “Don’t speak to me that way”
- “Please stop lying!”
- “Why do you have to be so insensitive and cruel to me?”
Don’t fool yourself; any person that has empathy and no psychopathology will not need to this type of “training” unless they are five years old.
- Nothing you do is ever right, no matter how hard you work at it.
You can look forward to being accused of insensitivity, not having any understanding, being intrusive, or a terrible partner. Don’t worry, they aren’t going to support you either. You are likely to hear things like:
- Your outfit is trashy
- The house is messy
- You don’t look good anymore
- Why are you so sensitive?
- You are annoying to me
Be prepared for your demands—or even the mildest of requests—to be reframed as attempts by you to control them. How many of us “check in” with our wife or husband? That kind of thing is not likely to be accepted by a person with this personality style; they will see it as an attempt to control them, limit their freedom, steal their power.
And life successes work to intensify their worst traits. This kind of profound disorder, however, is not compatible with long-term success in life. Eventually, in work as in their personal life, a psychopath’s relationships begin to shred due to accumulated toxicity.
So keep your eyes open and be aware. They are out there and there are indeed more of them than you think.
The above list is not a diagnostic tool. The diagnosis of psychopathy should only be made by a licensed specialist.
Mager, K.L., Bresin, K., & Verona, E. Gender, psychopathy factor, and intimate partner violence. Personality Disorder.
Lawson, D.M. and Brossart, D.F. Interpersonal problems and personality features as mediators between attachment and intimate partner violence. Violence and Victims.
Schouten, R. Almost a Psychopath