Can Psychopaths Change? | Can an Abuser Change?
© All Rights Reserved
It can be very difficult for an individual who abuses his intimate partner to change. The reasons for their behavior can vary. However, let’s look at one specific type of abuser that has been researched extensively – the abuser with psychopathy.
Psychopathy is a personality disorder that cannot be significantly modified with temporary effort or will. Although this disorder can fall under the general header of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), psychopathy and ASPD are not entirely congruent (there can be several reasons a person demonstrates the behavior consistent with ASPD).
Psychopathy is a unique condition with a range of traits that impact social interactions, thought processes, personality and behavior. This condition is a “distinct” subset within the general group of those with antisocial personality disorder (Gregory, Ffytche, Simmons, Kumari, Howard, Hodgins, & Blackwood, 2012).
Neuroscience has identified some of the underlying neurological (brain) correlates of this disorder and consistently found differences (at times subtle) of those with psychopathy in comparison to normal control groups. Research findings consistently support the presence of dysfunction within the brain (varying in range) of individuals with psychopathy – particularly the criminal subgroup (Calzada-Reyes, Alvarez-Amador, Galán-García, Valdés-Sosa, 2013; Yang, Raine, Joshi, Joshi, Chang, Schug, Wheland, Leahy, Narr 2012; Blair, 2007).
But what about this disorder with regard to their intimate relationships? Can psychopaths change if they exert effort, could they become safe romantic partners? If they promise to change, can’t they do that by investing in themselves.
Well … unfortunately, changing the way they process information, view social interactions, and ‘feel’ for others can be quite difficult for those with this disorder.
However, it is not uncommon for an individual with strong psychopathic traits to tell their intimate partners that they will change, get better, or do better. This is usually short-lived. The brain disorder often predominates and the psychopathic manner of thinking and functioning re-emerges.
Example – You love and bond with him across the span of the relationship, however the individual with psychopathy disconnects, becomes disinterested and antagonistic, perhaps even hateful across that same time period. His behavior is in complete opposition to what ‘normals’ do when they are intimately involved and care about someone.
This is explained by the specific manner the psychopathic brain operates. Unfortunately, neurobiological abnormalities of this magnitude cannot be altered by a person’s promise to change or “be better.”
Certain neurological processes are outside of a psychopath’s control to change voluntarily. Improvement is via intense treatment with a specialist or team of specialists, whose expertise lies within the area of psychopathy.
Even under such circumstances research indicates that the changes tend to be in relation to behavior rather than emotional processing (Skeem, Monahan, & Mulvey, 2002). This suggests their ability to form empathy, care, demonstrate morality, and bonding are likely to remain unchanged.
They will still be a callous partner … therapy cannot create love or give an individual the ability to love in the face of a severe disorder.
Can much be done?
We are still learning about this disorder, especially regarding treatment – where the research is minimal at best.
Psychopathy is a condition that desperately warrants intervention, however at this time neuroscience has no cure to offer. Blair (2008 & 2007) suggested that exploration of a treatment that activate the amygdala (i.e., “Yohimbine”) or raises “noradrenergic activities”, may be a direction for researchers to consider.
Some scientists recommend investigating the impact of intranasal administered oxytocin (the bonding neuropeptide) as a route of symptom improvement (Krueger, Parasuraman, Moody, Twieg, de Visser, McCabe, O’Hara, & Lee, 2013). However, this can come with a host of problems, particularly given that those with psychopathy could potentially respond differently from someone without a brain disorder.
Unfortunately, researchers are still within the exploratory stage with respect to treatments. And the number of research groups taking on this challenge is small. There are gains being made, but there is not a program or pharmaceutical at this time that manages primary psychopathy.
Sadly, the neurobiological systems that are responsible for morality, emotional empathy, care for others, impulse control, bonding, fear responsivity, and reward are faulty. Those brain systems do not operate the way they should. Hence, the reason many with psychopathy do not function in a prosocial manner or interact appropriately.
Science continues to explore possible options to address this condition. The impact of successful psychopathy treatment will be profound, as it could lead to a safer society.
© 2013 Rhonda Freeman, PhD | All Rights Reserved
Blair, R. J. R. 2007 Dysfunctions of medial and lateral orbitofrontal cortex in psychopathy. Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. 1121, 461–479.
Blair, RJ. (2008). The amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex: functional contributions and dysfunction in psychopathy. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 363, 2557–2565
Calzada-Reyes A, Alvarez-Amador A, Galán-García L, Valdés-Sosa M. (2013). EEG abnormalities in psychopath and non-psychopath violent offenders. Journal of Forensic Legal Med. Jan;20(1):19-26.
Gregory S, Ffytche D, Simmons A, Kumari V, Howard M, Hodgins S, Blackwood N. (2012). The antisocial brain: psychopathy matters. Archives of General Psychiatry Sep;69(9):962-72.
Krueger, F., Parasuraman, R., Moody, L., Twieg, P., de Visser, E., McCabe, K., O’Hara, M., & Lee, M. (2013). Oxytocin selectively increases perceptions of harm for victims but not the desire to punish offenders of criminal offenses. Social Cognition and Affective Neuroscience. Jun;8(5):494-8.
Skeem, J., Monahan, J., & Mulvey, E. (2002). Psychopathy, Treatment Involvement, and Subsequent Violence Among Civil Psychiatric Patients. Law and Human Behavior, Vol. 26, No. 6, 577 – 603.
Yang Y, Raine A, Joshi AA, Joshi S, Chang YT, Schug RA, Wheland D, Leahy R, Narr KL. (2012). Frontal information flow and connectivity in psychopathy. British Journal of Psychiatry. Nov;201(5):408-9.