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Why Does It Feel Like Two Different Relationships When One Unwittingly Falls for a Psychopath?

The Two Phases of a Psychopathic Relationship

[My Reward System Theory]

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Many women and men struggle with extreme levels of pain and stress due to relationship problems. Some couples can work through their obstacles and get back on track. But, for a small number of that group, their emotional upheaval is because they fell in love with someone with psychopathy.

Why is it usually harder for people to work out their relationship issues when their mate has symptoms of this condition?

Well, let’s take a closer look at psychopathy to get some answers!

Psychopathy is a personality disorder and people with traits demonstrate similar thought patterns and behaviors that reflect:

·      Power seeking

·      A preoccupation with winning

·      Proneness to agitation, meanness, and anger

·      Exploitation

·      Lack of shame, guilt or remorse

·      Narcissism

·      Stimulation Seeking & Impulsivity

·      Low or no empathy

·      Minimal ability to bond

·      Deception & Lying

(for further information regarding the traits of psychopathy, see Robert Hare’s research.)

Those factors can easily put the brakes on a safe, mature union!

Differences in Thinking

There are many with psychopathy that filter information through a framework of, winner vs. loser; powerful vs. weak, us vs. them, me vs. you. There is a winner and a loser, and they often keep score, regardless of how minor the situation.

This binary way of interpreting the world can be bewildering to someone who has the ability to appreciate social and emotional complexities.

If we examine the verbalizations of a person with psychopathic traits, themes that reflect the presence of limited emotional range can be identified. Many express thoughts of intolerance, blame shifting, hate, superiority, anger, deception, and arrogance.

The person at the beginning of the relationship will not resemble the person at the end

There is not a one size fits all when it comes to psychopathy or their intimate relationships. However, what seems evident is that many with psychopathy have similarities due to neurobiological constraints.

We know from fMRI studies that examined the brain of subjects with psychopathy that some have a reward system that is hypersensitive.

The reward system of our brain refers to regions and circuitry related to motivation, wanting, desiring, obsession, craving, attraction, lust (and more).

It’s an excitatory system and gets us going!

Many who have experienced a psychopathic love relationship describe the beginning as pleasant and intense (e.g., moved quickly). It feels good, perhaps even great – like any relationship would!

Survivors of psychopathic relationships have commonly described three general stages and termed them idealize, devalue and discard. We see that pattern with many individuals who have Cluster B personality disorders, not only psychopathy (which is under the heading of Antisocial personality disorder in the DSM 5).

Although I agree with the observations of three stages, from a neurobiological standpoint, I think there are two phases to a psychopathic relationship. I suspect these two phases are associated with the functioning of their reward system.

Here is my hypothesis:

Two Phases of Psychopathic Relationships

Phase One

The pursuit or chase of a new partner by someone with psychopathy can be relentless. Their attraction and lust are likely genuine, because it seems they have the capacity for such motivational states. However, they may also decide to engage in grooming (manipulation), deception, and exploitation tactics during this early stage as well (this is how they are built neurobiologically).

It is often during this time of romantic bliss that their mate develops a connection with them. And who wouldn’t – this is a part of the process of falling in love!

But in unions of this type, only one person forms a deep bond.

Phase one is where we see individuals with psychopathy in the idealize stage.

During this phase the reward system of their brain is fully stimulated by their new mate. The reward system is ‘on‘ so to speak with regard to their partner. This is demonstrated by their heightened focus on the target, attention, kindness, fun, addictive like attraction, ability to engage in sex, and likely excited presentation.

 Phase Two

The person with psychopathy likely did not establish a real connection. They get bored easily and without the ability to genuinely connect, relationships are easily disposable.

After that point, for them, the worthiness of their mate is related to her (his) value from a superficial standpoint. Staying with their partner is usually more of a logical decision, than one anchored in feelings (e.g., Does she/he make me look good? Am I too bored to tolerate this? What’s the payoff for me now?)

Quite often, the relationship takes a drastic turn during this second phase, and a person might find himself or herself exposed to harshness, manipulation, and lies.

These dark and inappropriate behaviors can be perplexing to their mate because it bears no resemblance to the initial phase. It is during this time that some individuals become caught on a roller-coaster of emotional ups and downs.

Phase two is where we see individuals with psychopathy in the devalue and discard stage.

During this phase the reward system of their brain is no longer stimulated by their mate. The reward system is ‘off’‘ so to speak with regard to that partner. (It’s like a child who receives his favorite toy on Christmas – he is not likely going to have that same level of excitement or interest in June. That is the reward system and is completely normal to lose interest in an object).

Given that individuals with psychopathy are emotionally superficial and cannot move forward in the process of love toward the bonding stage – to them the relationship is over once the dopamine intensity has lessened. But the problem is this is all happening right in the middle of an intimate relationship!

They have started the ‘love process’ with a mate who has moved along to the bonding stage. This is where the problems start. Because the person with psychopathy (due to his/her inability to be accountable for their own emotions and behavior) will hold their mate responsible for their angry, callous, hateful thoughts he now has about her. The psychopathic partner assumes it must be her (his) fault that he fell out of love.

During this time when the reward system is ‘off’ – males with psychopathy will often have difficulty performing sexually with their partner due to erectile dysfunction and will blame her for the issue. For some of these males with psychopathy, their issues is related to their brain functions. Proper neurochemistry is needed to perform sexually and it involves the reward system.

These phases (I and II) and reactions of the reward system are my interpretation of the overall relationship from a neurobiological standpoint. I have not found studies yet that have explored this pattern. I will put this information into the ears of a couple of psychopathy researchers and neuroscientists I know and see if they would consider investigating my observations.

What can a person do to move forward after a relationship of this type?

Six points come to mind –

1) Realize that although it is unfortunate, individuals with strong psychopathic traits are incapable of validating or reciprocating the deep emotions of others. The mistreatment, betrayal or blindsiding was not because you were not good enough. When someone loves you, they care about your feelings and treat you with respect and kindness.

2) Recognize that there is no excuse for bullying or harming others. We are not responsible for someone’s decision to choose violating behaviors

3) Our brain thrives when it feels a connection with others. Social support with healthy, loving people can help the brain release Oxytocin – a neuropeptide associated with reducing anxiety; among its numerous other roles. Spend time with the friends and family (or animals) that love you to calm your mind.

4) Be open to help from mental health specialists if signs of conditions such as anxiety, depression or post traumatic stress disorder are present.

5) Remember it is normal to feel extremely bonded to an old partner soon after a relationship ends. It is not a sign that the person held a special status (e.g., soul-mate). The brain often generates obsessive thoughts, craving, and pain when a relationship is over due to the neurochemistry associated with separation and romantic love. Help may be required to ease these symptoms.

6) Consider art (e.g., create, music listening, write), movement (e.g., exercise, dance) and engage with nature (walk, appreciate natural surroundings). Many studies have found that these approaches have a positive impact on regions of the brain associated with emotions and stress.

It might not be easy to move forward when the one you loved completely changed to display very dark personality traits, but it is possible to reconnect with yourself and regain your peace and happiness!

Rhonda Freeman, PhD | Clinical Neuropsychologist

© 2016 NeuroInstincts | All Rights Reserved  |No Unauthorized Reproduction Permitted in any form

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References

Blair, R. J. (2013). Psychopathy: cognitive and neural dysfunction. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 15(2), 181–190.

Bratmana, G., Hamilton, P., Hahn, K., Daily, G., & Gross, J. (2015). Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. PNAS 112 (28) 8511-8512

Buckholtz, J. W., Treadway, M. T., Cowan, R. L., Woodward, N. D., Benning, S. D., Li, R., … Zald, D. H. (2010). Mesolimbic Dopamine Reward System Hypersensitivity in Individuals with Psychopathic Traits. Nature Neuroscience,13(4), 419–421.

Guzmán, Y. F., Tronson, N. C., Jovasevic, V., Sato, K., Guedea, A. L., Mizukami, H., … Radulovic, J. (2013). Fear-enhancing effects of septal oxytocin receptors. Nature Neuroscience, 16(9), 1185–1187.

Koenigs, M. (2012). The role of prefrontal cortex in psychopathy. Reviews in the Neurosciences, 23, 253-265

Marshall, T. C., Bejanyan, K., & Ferenczi, N. (2013). Attachment Styles and Personal Growth following Romantic Breakups: The Mediating Roles of Distress, Rumination, and Tendency to Rebound. PLoS ONE, 8(9)

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