We learn about others and ourselves through our intimate relationship experiences. What if an experience was traumatic, and left behind psychological scars that require healing or professional intervention?
This is the reality for many who have found themselves in an intimate relationship with a psychopath.
Psychopathy is such a commonly used word online and in the media, making the symptoms for the general public ambiguous. Psychopathy is a disorder related to specific faulty brain functions. A few such areas include the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and anterior cingulate cortex.
Let's address some basics: Psychopathy is a deeply ingrained constellation of personality traits and behaviors. The symptoms reflect an emotional processing disorder, with a strong genetic foundation (Neuman & Hare, 2008; Viding, Blair, Moffitt, & Plomin, 2005). The condition makes up approximately 1-to-2% of the population and is present in both sexes, although unevenly.
Psychopathy is a complex condition with:
a specific underlying neurological dysfunction;
a range of intensity (i.e., on a continuum or spectrum);
positive symptoms (e.g., adaptability/ability to conceal dark traits); and
the presence of subtypes (i.e., primary and secondary).
Psychopaths are prone to interact through manipulation and to use others for their sole benefit, even if this creates pain and devastation for the target. Extending love and care to them will not impact the expression of pathology from the psychopathic partner.
The vast symptoms of this condition include traits such as:
- lack of or minimal empathy
- pathological lying
- a tendency toward boredom
- blame shifting
In companies, individuals with psychopathy can orchestrate the loss of jobs, turn people against each other, or divide a team. Within intimate relationships, they can leave partners and family members struggling with the impact of trauma, betrayal, and abuse, potentially lasting years after they are gone.
It's important to know that psychopathy is a condition on a spectrum—there is a gradient or range. Some individuals with psychopathy are more disordered than others. Evidence indicates that there are two variants of psychopathy—primary and secondary. The core symptoms tend to be present in both variants, but it is suspected the underlying etiology is different.
Those considered primary psychopaths have the symptoms we typically associate with this disorder: They are emotionally under-reactive, lack anxiety, and have high narcissism. Research correlates this form of psychopathy with a genetic foundation (Hicks, Carlson, Blonigen, Patric, Iacono, & MGue, 2012; Neuman & Hare, 2008; Viding, Blair, Moffitt, & Plomin, 2005). This suggests that it is unlikely that mistreatment during their childhood was the primary contributor to their affective deficits. There is a biological predisposition to this neurodevelopmental condition.
Conversely, those with secondary psychopathy tend to be emotionally reactive and tense individuals. This form of psychopathy is typically described as emotionally dysregulated and anxious. Studies support that past trauma, abuse, and environmental factors are highly correlated with this form of psychopathy (Hicks et al., 2012). (Some researchers do not consider secondary psychopathy truly psychopathy at all.)
Even within these variants of psychopathy, one will often exhibit two sides or two faces. For example, many individuals appear charming, exciting, and loaded with charisma in public. People might feel drawn to them, finding their magnetic persona and achievements admirable. At home, however, these same individuals may instill fear, causing those who love them most to walk on eggshells in attempts to avoid their hair-trigger temper.
Obstacles to a Safe, Happy Relationship
Aside from problems such as minimal empathy, antagonism, manipulation, and anger, 6 additional factors that hinder safe relationships with a psychopath:
Minimal capacity to bond.
- At the beginning of their intimate relationships, they are typically excited and stimulated by their new partner. This state can easily be mistaken as bonding and deep caring for their mate. However, this tends to be the dopamine-driven stage of romantic love that can feel like addictive attraction. Once that fades, so does their interest. It is often at this point that they display disdain for their partner.
Dysfunctional relationship cycle.
- They often demonstrate a predictable cyclical style of intimate relationships that are common for those with cluster B personality disorders. They idealize, devalue, and then discard their partners, with no concern for the pain they leave behind. Given that they never had a bond with their mate in the first place, walking away from the relationship causes them little to no discomfort. Many are happy to move along to the next target, particularly if they left their former mate in the "loser" position.
Inability to offer a genuine apology.
- Psychopathy is a disorder that hampers the ability to feel guilt and remorse. Due to faulty brain functions, there is a tendency to engage in immoral behavior. When they hurt someone or cause damage, they usually will not offer an apology. If what appears to be an apology is offered, it is rarely beyond words and tends to include an element of distancing and minimizing (“I made a mistake”). The feelings of guilt and remorse are missing because these emotional states are not within their capacity. Therefore, the typical contrition that would naturally follow when one has caused harm to another will be absent. Their stance is typically, "Move on," "Let it go," "You're too sensitive," or, "Why are you still talking about that—it's in the past!"
Presence of high narcissism.
- For those with primary psychopathy, it is in their nature to have an incredibly inflated, grandiose sense of self. They do not need or care about the approval of others. Any desire they have for control or worship is associated with feelings of superiority, not insecurity. Unfortunately, for the individual with psychopathy, there tends to be no genuine interest in friendships.
Everyone is assigned a role and has a use: "You're my object."
- They have a strong need for power and control and often place others in the role of "loser," even those who demonstrate loyalty, trust and love toward them. Psychopathic individuals usually have a "use" for those they keep close. They consider some people puppets, who will defend them, agree with them, or sacrifice their reputation to protect them. It is often their preference to have numerous puppets. For many with psychopathy, this role is also assigned to their intimate partner.
- Psychopathy is a disorder that has immorality as a core feature. When there is immorality, harm to others tends to follow. It would not be uncommon for someone with this condition to have secret/dual lives, pervasive hateful thoughts, or a consistent pattern of violating behaviors. Examples include Internet trolling, using children as pawns, abusing/bullying others, or forcing a partner to have sex.
A healthy intimate relationship is extremely difficult to establish with an adult who seeks to control and demean another. Their lack of care or concern regarding the impact of their actions can further exacerbate the pain for their mates. It can be difficult for loved ones to move past their flippant manner of inflicting harm: "He hurt me and he didn't seem to care."
Within relationships, the behaviors demonstrated by an individual with psychopathy can quickly create distance, anxiety, and a power differential. Quite often, then, psychopathic relationships are traumatic for the non-psychopathic partner. Naturally, domination and control obstructs normal bonding for the person involved in these relationships. Instead, the type of bond created is one based on fluctuating abuse and dependence—a trauma bond. This form of intense attachment can be difficult for the non-psychopathic partner to break, thereby placing him or her in an unsafe and dysfunctional relationship.