Here and on Lovefraud.com, I’ve published chapters of a new book that shares my healing journey after leaving a sociopath/psychopath. I talk about things like co-parenting , failed support systems, and how I ultimately recovered peace and happiness despite all obstacles.
Here’s Chapter 2:
Confused about the differences between a psychopath and a sociopath? For my purposes, I use the term psychopath. Because while I can’t solve the national challenge of aligning our labels and definitions of psychopathy, sociopathy, and ASPD here today, I still need to talk about what we’re dealing with in these conscienceless people. Here are the Symptoms of Psychopathy, according to Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist:
- glib and superficial
- egocentric and grandiose
- lack of remorse or guilt
- lack of empathy
- deceitful and manipulative
- shallow emotions
- poor behavior controls
- need for excitement
- lack of responsibility
- early behavior problems
- adult antisocial behavior
If a person displays these symptoms, he or she may be a psychopath. But what does “need for excitement” look like in a 24 year old urban caucasian male vs. a 32 year old rural hispanic female? Can they possibly have varying thresholds for excitement? Everyone is different. So we can’t expect all psychopaths to look the same. There are rich psychopaths and poor psychopaths. Psychopaths who like to surf and psychopaths who aspire to run a drug empire. Psychopathic preachers, teachers, doctors, nurses, and guides. And the bottom line is that we usually just can’t tell who they are.
And they’re not crazy.
I know when you hear “psycho,” you’re probably thinking crazy. Psychopaths are thought of as serial killers or Wall Street executives who rape women, murder competitors, and steal millions. Crazy. But Hollywood has misled us by playing up these stereotypes. A psychopath can also live in a small cottage on a quiet street where he enjoys rocking on the front porch with a dog at his feet. A psychopath can be the woman who taught in your Sunday School for the past fifteen years—the one who rushed for Band-aids and ice any time a child scraped a knee. A psychopath can be the nicest, most married-for-life person you know.
So if you’re looking for a strange feeling to stir in your gut when a psychopath settles on you with a cold gaze, you might not find it. If you’re thinking that a background check will keep your organization safe, I’d say you’re wrong.
The scary truth is that by the time you’ve pulled out your list of warning signs, it’s often much too late.
Why? Because even though psychopaths all have some things in common, many if not most of them are really good at hiding the behaviors that would give them away. What you see instead is a well-oiled facade; the man of your dreams.
My ex is a Midwestern charmer who showed up at my door for our first date in a soft flannel shirt tucked into his jeans. When I looked out at him, he ducked his head to the side bashfully and looked up with playful eyes; as he admired me for a moment, I could feel their radiating heat.
I felt a rush.
He stepped almost instantly into the doorframe with me to come inside, pressing but not really pressing himself against me as he looked down with eyes that I thought were now glowing with flirtatiousness. Only in hindsight can I see that he was enjoying his own power more than any imagined connection with me. He owned my responses in those moments and loved making me jump—the giddiness of control—because everything I did or experienced right then was in reaction to his next move. And he loved making moves, like staring down at me for a second there in the doorframe just to watch me become overwhelmed.
He touched my elbow as he went on by, and his touch felt alive.
Does that little encounter sound like I was meeting a psychopath? To me it does, but only because I can see now what I couldn’t see then—the thrill of control, the lack of boundaries, the bold moves. At the time, it felt like a dream. Like a romance. Coming close, finding me irresistible, giving me a rush up my spine and back down to my toes, looking playful, and stepping right past me into my home. There’s that irresistible sensation of being boldly taken by someone we want to be taken by. This was the beginning of something like that.
After our first date, we never missed a day together again—unless work took him out of town, and then we’d talk on the phone all night. When he was home, we planted flowers and took long walks and held hands as we chased the sunset. We waded through creeks arm in arm and watched the tadpoles swirl around our feet. We took long evening naps after cocktails and made dinner at midnight before sleeping again—always side by side. Matching bodies, matching hearts, matching breath.
I felt so safe by him at night.
These little stories illustrate why it’s hard or even impossible to tell whether someone’s a psychopath in few or even many dates—and that’s what a lot of people want to know. They want to know how to tell. But what kind of warning list would you keep in your pocket?
- A person might be a psychopath if he/she makes you feel incredibly good about yourself.
- A person might be a psychopath if he/she is very, very attracted to you. Like very.
- A person might be a psychopath if he/she understands you like no one before.
- A person might be a psychopath if he/she seems like your soulmate.
- A person might be a psychopath if he/she makes you feel protected.
Check out that list. Are we identifying a psychopath or the romance of a lifetime?
Maybe I’m scaring you. That’s not the point. The point is that you’re probably going to run into a psychopath in your life, and odds are you won’t know it. So don’t blame yourself and shame yourself for the next 50 years if you get taken. Instead, invest your energy in recovering from the dark experiences that inevitably come if you stick around for what’s next.
So considering that psychopaths all look a little different, are hardly ever labeled, and are likely to fool you, what is the one big warning sign you can look for if you’re dating a psychopath?
Martha Stout says that the number one red flag is the pity play. I agree. If someone you’re dating inspires your pity repeatedly and then asks you in those empathetic moments to do something, you are probably being played. You might be asked to forgive him for not showing up last night because he’s so incredibly sorry and it hurts so much to make you upset, so please don’t be upset, please because his last girlfriend was so psych-controlling and he just can’t exist like that anymore and so please don’t be upset because it hurts him. It’s just been so hard for him to recover from that last one.
I’m being sarcastic here, so you might not feel the kind of empathy you’d feel if a psychopath was presenting the story.
There’s always a hard childhood, a difficult ex, a failed relationship, an unfair boss, a lost job, or a betrayal that can be mourned, discussed, and empathized with. We all have difficult experiences. Empathy is really, really good; but when we’re empathetic, we’re also very open and vulnerable. So the warning sign is when there’s consistently a need coming out of these “pity” moments, especially if you’re being exploited (giving and never receiving), and especially if you’re uncomfortable with the request. And don’t just watch for it in your own relationship—watch to see if he/she does it with everyone else.
Otherwise, your psychopathic partner might be entirely charming. Perfect. Except that while they ask for your empathy, you can never expect theirs. But honestly, I can’t say “lack of empathy” is a reliable warning sign, because so many psychopaths can fake it so well.
It’s a tricky situation. Yes, there are consistent patterns of behavior to expect from psychopaths. Common symptoms. But considering the natural differences between humans combined with the current professional confusion and debate over diagnostic labels, we live in a nation in which the legal, mental health, and protective institutions are not capable of identifying psychopaths very well—let alone you or any other person in love. If you begin to suspect you’re dating a conscienceless person, you need clarity despite chaos. You need understanding, recovery, and options to protect yourself.
I was in that exact situation, but I didn’t realize my ex was a psychopath until after I left. All those torturous years and all that education—and I still couldn’t see it. Not one of the many professionals involved in my ongoing divorce could see. But I had my “a-ha” moment while reading a book, and it changed my life direction. It empowered me, because I could finally understand and begin to alter the dynamic between us. That’s what I hope to share with you here—so that you can begin to care for and protect yourself, even if the world’s still catching up.
Read Chapter Three: There are Degrees of Conscience and Empathy.