There are Degrees of Conscience and Empathy: Chapter 3

Here and on, 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 3:

I’ve been asked these questions a thousand times:

  • Can my ex be a psychopath and still take care of his mom?
  • Can someone be a psychopath and still be nice to her pets?
  • Is it possible that a psychopath could attach to even just one person, like me?
  • Can psychopaths love their children?

This is when I remind people that all disorders can be seen on a spectrum—and that psychopaths are still human, just like the rest of us, so the idea that they’re all going to do the exact same things is incredibly misleading. Some psychopaths are smarter than others. Some are more sadistic. Some care about how the world sees them, and some don’t. Some thrill on motivating teams and crowds, and some would rather blow them up. Some find solid ways to contribute to the world, perhaps because it feels like a personal win. Others never will. The bottom line is that even though they lack a conscience, psychopaths are people, too. They may hurt you if they feel like it, but some of them won’t find a reason to.

And some of them will.


When I look back to our wedding, I can see myself looking for it. Trying hard. My bouquet tipped just right as I walked down the aisle. My short hair pulled up and made to look longer. The songs I requested so my whole big family would stand up and dance. The sun was setting, the tent was glowing, and I was looking for my man.

For marriage.

It was something we did. In my family, people found a partner when they were very young and then grew up and grew old together with the familiarity of siblings and the lasting heat of lovers. I didn’t know another marital dream to consider.

But when I remember us now, the way he stood in front of me that day, holding my hands, I remember realizing for the very first time that something wasn’t enough. That I was looking for more of a connection than was there. But true to my positive nature, I quickly calmed myself with my thinking—my expectations were too high. He was just nervous in front of the crowd. We were real people, not some romance novel. I stood there at the altar taking full responsibility for being let down by his vacant expression, an exercise I would repeat over and over in the coming years. I’m a woman—he’s a man. That made me more relationship-oriented. That made me crave intimacy. That made me want his admiration. That made me make excuses.

Ultimately, I was looking for more while pretending that he was making me feel loved. On our wedding day.

Honestly, the people who made me feel loved that day were my parents, who danced down the aisle and fed hundreds of guests from the caterer they situated in the old mill my dad restored next to the lake I grew up on. My siblings, who gazed at me with the kind of love and appreciation that felt like I’d just come home from the moon. My aunts, who commuted hours each way for weeks just to make sure my wedding scene was perfectly right.

And my whole extended family, who danced in a circle under the last light of the day.

A traditional bride, I worked for months in advance to perfect every detail. My fiancé, Wyatt, was in charge of the rehearsal dinner and honeymoon. His parents took the rehearsal dinner and hosted a beautiful meal. So when our wedding night came, I was sure that this love of my life—this soul mate who adored me—would surely do something to show his love. Would surely get it right.

This is where the psychopathic patterns first manifested in a way I could notice. On our wedding day, you ask? Yes. On our wedding day.

Because a wedding, for some, is apparently like game over. I’ve got her now. His personality changed in an afternoon, and our future was foretold.

Each time we were supposed to do something, like cut the cake or dance, I had to look for him. He was no where to be found.

Each time I gazed into his eyes, looking for a connection or at least that radiant heat, he would smile and laugh and make jokes with the crowd.

When we were supposed to leave, I packed the car alone.

And after we left, he took me through the McDonald’s drive through.
That was his meal for us. And maybe you like that, but here are two points about me. One, I do not eat McDonald’s. And two, I’d asked him to pack a romantic picnic or plan a nice meal for us for months before our ceremony. I was a planner. The way the night unfolded was important to me, and I communicated that clearly.

This is where the lack of empathy—the inability to care for another person’s wants, needs, and experiences—really started coming to life.

Day one of our marriage. Day one.
A psychopath can put on a show the entire time you are dating or as long as it takes to reach a goal. There’s a phase of valuation (idealization) and devaluation that is commonly used to talk about how people with personality disorders treat the rest of us. At first, we’re their idealized dream. They caress us and soulmate us and take us to the moon. Lots of attention. Then there’s the devaluation phase, where they begin to detest us and lose interest in pleasing us and even start hating us even though they keep us hanging on a string.

My devaluation phase started as soon as Wyatt sensed the game was over. We were married, so what else was there to do now?

He could’ve kept the idealization phase up for years if he’d wanted. If a psychopath wants to win, he wants to win. Some wins might be quick, and others may take some time. With Wyatt, the game he was playing to have me was over as soon as we said our vows. To keep me around (because his public side wanted nothing more than to display a perfect family life) he had to come up with a new way to win with me. For him, that win evolved into a game of controlling and abusing me—the devaluation phase. For Wyatt, the ultimate long-term goal was to tear me so far away from myself that I would exist quietly and miserably as no one at all.

Sound familiar? Maybe, maybe not. Do all psychopaths behave this way? No. And that’s my point. Some people who are just selfish jerks might act this way (and then come around). Some people who are psychopaths would never be able to fake love long enough to even make it to a wedding day. So let’s explore this idea of a personality disorders as they exist on a spectrum.

Everyone in the world lives somewhere on the spectrum between having a strong conscience and no conscience at all. Psychopaths are believed to live at the zero conscience side of things—with a complete absence of morals. People with a strong moral compass live at the opposite end of that spectrum, and every decision they make is guided by their values. Most of us exist in the middle somewhere, and it’s really normal to flex up and down the spectrum depending on whether you’re stressed out or desperate or cared for or safe.

Empathy can be viewed the same way. Imagine a second spectrum now. Highly empathetic people (who may sense others’ experiences even more than their own) exist on one end of the spectrum, while those who lack empathy entirely, such as psychopaths, exist on the other. And again, our level of empathy will be different based on our stress levels, our upbringing, our personality, and so on.

In an “all is good” world, most people would stay near the strong conscience and high empathy sides of those spectrums. Psychopaths (as currently defined) live on the opposite end—meaning conscienceless with a lack of empathy. And while there is still some public debate about whether a psychopath can have a little empathy, such as for a beloved pet, the experts tend to agree with leading researcher Kent Kiehl that in diagnosing a psychopath, the trait “Lack of Empathy” has to show up over a long period of time in multiple areas of a person’s life. You cannot score highly in “Lack of Empathy” based on one incident, even if it’s really horrid. Further, studies into the physiological aspects of psychopathy are indicating that the part of the brain related to empathy is inactive in psychopaths. Can they feel empathy if they don’t have the physiological capacity to feel empathy?


We always had two dogs, Casey and Ripley. They were Labrador Retrievers. Casey was Wyatt’s from before we started dating, and Ripley came to us later as a rescue.

Wyatt seemed to love Casey—he expressed a lot of love for all animals, really. But Casey was special because he picked her up at the dog pound when she was one; her face was covered with a hundred tiny cuts when he got her, so he told everyone he saved her life. She wasn’t housebroken or trained at the time. I wondered whether she was an outdoor hunting dog and got cut up in the brush while chasing pheasants or rabbits, but he liked to tell people that she was terribly abused and fearful when he found her, and that through his care, she regained her beautiful personality.

She was a pleaser. When people showed up for parties, Wyatt would share his heroic rescue story and show how all her scars were gone and then run her through her tricks for the crowd. People applauded and laughed out loud when he pointed his finger at her like a gun and she fell over, playing dead. But his favorite command was “sit up,” because she would throw her paws into the air so high over her head to impress him that her back would arch and she would lose her balance and come crashing down on her side. His eyes would get the same glow in them that he had when he made my heart jump in the doorframe on our first date. Then he would make her do it again, and again. He loved her enthusiasm. He loved the way a dog loves you no matter what. He loved her desire to please. Sometimes, after we were married, I wondered if he would love me again if I could act like a dog.

It was an idea born of anger, and it brewed inside me for years.


But still, Wyatt doesn’t sound so bad yet, does he. Why am I calling him a psychopath? He clearly is attached to Casey, right? He can form attachments? Maybe your ex was far more violent and easily picked out as a psychopath—maybe he called you “bitch” instead of your name and took you to the woods at knifepoint to teach you lessons when you were “bad.” That is horrifying. But both types of men may or may not be psychopathic. Violent or criminal behavior is committed by people who have the capacity for empathy every day. That doesn’t mean they’ll change, it doesn’t mean they feel remorse for that particular act, it just means that they can and have felt remorse in other situations at other times.

A psychopath never will.

Let’s get back to talking about Wyatt’s apparent dog love in relation to psychopathy. Wyatt’s public image was/is sacred to him, so he plays by certain rules in public to avoid tarnishing himself. He also doesn’t want to go to jail, because that would look bad. So his brand of physical violence was/is more careful, like choking me instead of hitting me. No marks. That being said, there have been moments throughout his life when that control breaks down.


Casey and Ripley always stayed home, even without fences. We lived on a farm, but they would rather lay on our sidewalk in the sunshine than sneak across the fields to the neighbor’s. Except we did try to adopt another rescue lab named Buddy at one point, and Buddy liked to chase birds. When buzzards or crows would fly over in groups, he would take off barking and chasing after them.

Wyatt found this to be intolerable. He did not want to round up wandering dogs. When our girls chased along after Buddy one afternoon, Wyatt had had enough.

He stormed out across the fields to get them. I wasn’t worried that he would do anything to hurt the dogs, so I stayed inside and finished washing up the dishes. I could see him marching over the rise toward them, and then he disappeared from my view.

But then there they were. Or at least I could see the top of Wyatt’s head over the rise. It was moving up and down, in and out of my vision. I couldn’t figure out what he was doing. Then I saw an arm fly up over his head and I realized he was hitting something.

I dropped the dish in the sink and ran out the door. My throat felt tight with nausea. His arms were still flying, and he was screaming at the girls to lie still. He was kicking something. It was Buddy. He had him by the collar. When he saw me running toward them, he straightened up and started dragging Buddy toward the house.

“You will stay HOME! You will stay HOME!” he shouted over and over. All three dogs cowered along with him toward me, tails between their legs and bodies hunched.


Buddy was ok, but I found a new home for him right away—a retired couple who wanted a big dog to ride around with them in their pick up truck. I was petrified by that scene, and I watched Wyatt for a few months with the hollow eyes of someone who can’t reconcile two realities. Wyatt, of course, explained away the beating by saying that dogs can’t wander or they’ll get hit by a car. So he was just protecting the dogs. Teaching them a lesson they wouldn’t forget so they could live full lives. Didn’t I know how much he loved the dogs? He did it out of concern. He did it out of worry. He spent the next few days getting down on his knees with Casey and Ripley, hugging them and wrestling with them and loving the way dogs love you no matter what.


When I left Wyatt years later, Casey stayed with him because she was his before we were married; I wasn’t allowed to take her. He didn’t hurt her or do mean things to her because she never did anything wrong, so I worked hard to convince myself she was safe. But I missed her so badly—the way she would lay behind my feet in the kitchen when I was cooking, the way she’d flop into the kiddie pool in the summer with the kids. She was truly an angelic spirit. And I loved her.

One especially cold winter when Casey was 11, our children were with Wyatt overnight during a blizzard. My daughter called me sobbing the next day. Daddy wouldn’t let Casey in last night because she was sick and he didn’t want her to make a mess. He wouldn’t let Abby call me. He wouldn’t let her take a blanket out to her. And that night, just outside the glass French door, Casey died in the blizzard on his deck.


Even today, Wyatt is a self-proclaimed animal lover who has a dog and two cats. Does he have empathy for them just because he enjoys owning them? No. Can a psychopath get a thrill out of owning a pet? Absolutely. And the relationship doesn’t have to be sadistic, as so many people would imagine. Some psychopaths are not necessarily sadistic. If you’re looking for that as an identifying trait, you’re missing the bigger picture.

Because conscience and empathy exist on a spectrum for most of us. So psychopaths may look like non-psychopaths if they, for example, get married or enjoy owning a pet.

The thing to remember is that they are the only ones who will do all of the above with no conscience and no empathy. That’s where psychopaths live when it comes to the spectrum.

They’re the ones who will lock out their beloved dog—their self-proclaimed “family member”—to die alone in a blizzard because they don’t want a mess.

They’re the ones who would do the same to you. Be your hero, run you through a series of tricks for applause, and then dump you out back to die on the deck.

Don’t waste your time wondering if someone like that can change.

Read Chapter Four: Richard Parker is Not Your Friend. Or read The Other Side of Charm: Your Memoir.


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