Let’s get down to basics
© Rhonda Freeman, PhD
If you were intimately involved with a psychopath, keep these things in mind regarding this personality disorder:
• A psychopath can demonstrate a full range of behaviors and emotional displays that are often positive. It would not be uncommon to experience them in a favorable manner, particularly when interactions are on a superficial basis or if they consider someone ‘new’ and stimulating. Yep – you can actually have a blast with them. And sure, you can fall in love with them.
• In fact, this is often how someone with psychopathy is able to easily engage in relationships with amazing, empathic, nurturing partners. In their excitement of ‘something new‘ psychopaths are able to demonstrate traits anyone would attribute to a good mate. However, unlike normal individuals, psychopaths have a hidden dark side.
• They have dark traits that most human beings rarely function within or demonstrate. They can easily hurt their loved ones, strangers, work mates, and society, and do so on a steady, consistent basis without remorse, guilt or regret. They are unable to feel badly about their behavior – ever.
• I’d like to make it clear that the information I share on this site is not applicable to individuals who are merely “jerks”, “players,” “immature,”or “arrogant.” Psychopaths fall within the category of a Cluster B personality disorder. Refer to the work of Dr. Robert Hare if you would like to explore the diagnostic criteria of psychopathy.
What are some of the traits demonstrated by psychopaths?
Psychopaths have a large range of behaviors. Individuals with psychopathy demonstrate an enduring set of thought styles and behaviors that usually include many of the following:
- Lacks empathy
- Fails to implement morals
- Blame shifts
- Punitive with partners
- Treads boundaries
- Imposes their will on others (dominates)
You might find this article helpful regarding psychopathy. What is Psychopathy? Go
Will I be able to recover from my relationship with a psychopath?
Oh yes! You can make it through this! Healing is definitely possible after a relationship with a Cluster B disordered partner. Survivors who have gone through the healing process report that these relationships change them. There are positives and negatives to the changes, which depends on the amount of abuse experienced, survivor’s personality style, and presence of psychological problems suffered from the abuse. However, it is possible to come through this with strength and courage many did not realize they had.
I won’t sugar-coat this, it takes guts and determination to stay on a path of recovery in the aftermath of a psychopathic relationship (i.e., not seeking out nurturance from the ex; accepting there will be no closure or support from the psychopathic partner). This is something that an individual with psychopathy would likely never be able to do. They would use others to get what they need (i.e., supply) if they were feeling alone or without a partner. Most would not be able to tolerate large periods of time working on themselves and managing (and being responsible for) their own emotions.
You are clearly working on your healing and just know that you are not alone. Myself and many other survivors are with you.
Simply standing on your own and seeking out a healthy support system and answers takes incredible courage. There are many positives that can be gained from the aftermath of a relationship with a psychopath, after the raw pain has passed.
The road to healing can be difficult for some survivors. However, It is possible to feel whole again. Often with effort, resources, and established safety, you can get past the pain, emerging with greater insight and a stronger version of themselves.
Moving toward acceptance of the reality that there are dangerous people in this world that look no different from the rest of us, is one step toward avoidance of a new psychopathic relationship.
There are many good people out there. However, there are some individuals (psychopaths) who have a persistent longstanding pattern of manipulation, immorality, antagonism, aggressiveness, blame shifting, deception, and in most cases pose a danger to others (emotionally, financially, physically).
You might find this article helpful regarding healing. Healing Go
Sometimes I think he (she) was a narcissist, then other times I think perhaps it was psychopathy. Is it hard for others to distinguish those two conditions?
Yes, for the individual who does not work with these populations from a professional or diagnostic standpoint (e.g., psychologist, psychiatrist, neuroscientist), on the surface these two disorders can seem very similar. Therefore, it’s easy to understand why a person might vacillate back and forth and think narcissist … no psychopath.
The fact is, there is a significant overlay between those with narcissistic personality disorder and psychopathy. There has been research on this topic to support this. Bottom line, without a diagnostic background and exposure to hundreds of patients/ individuals with these conditions, it will be a little tough to distinguish the two. Particular if your partner had severe narcissistic personality disorder symptoms. Because one would easily wonder, is this solely narcissism or is this mild psychopathy?
These conditions essentially lie on a spectrum, with narcissistic personality at one end and psychopathy at the other. Along that spectrum they are blended. Then of course we have to add ‘individual differences’ simply because we are dealing with people and people are complex. For example, some with these disorders will have abuse in their background, while others will have been the prize of the family. There are many variable to ‘mix’ to make your partner. It is not always a one size fits all.
Just know that this confusion regarding determining what he/she has is not uncommon for the people who love them. People with narcissistic personality disorder and psychopathy have the potential to hurt their mates tremendously because of their disorder. The psychopath tends to be more dangerous, as they are often linked with violent crimes toward their partners (e.g., Scott Peterson). Neither group makes a good intimate partner simply due to their symptom profile – low empathy, antagonism. They cannot give their partners the love, kindness, and respect that is required of a intimate relationship.
You might find this article regarding the differences between these conditions helpful. NPD or Psychopathy? Go
Why is he or she like this?
The brain, the brain, the brain. The main reason that psychopaths demonstrate very similar behaviors and attitudes is because of their neurobiology. Their brains are disordered in very similar ways and as a result their behavior can be quite the same (varying in intensity).
Therefore, on a psychopath message forum, Jane in Oregon’s description of her psychopathic ex-husband sounds very much like Mary’s description of her New York boyfriend.
This disorder ‘presents’ similarly because it is a disorder associated with specific patterns of poor functioning within the brain. The brain of a psychopath is different from the brain of a non-psychopathic individual. It is that difference that makes them
- Incapable of Accountability
You might find the article, Why does he behave like that? helpful. Go
Why did he seem so likable and fun in the beginning? He definitely wasn’t what I would think of when I think of the word “psychopath.”
Oh yes, it can be confusing to have someone who initially seems like an awesome person, turn out to be dangerous and cruel. She/he might even be a leader in their field, occupationally accomplished, academically gifted, yet their personality has the potential to destroy your life.
The truth about psychopathy is that they can have many positive characteristics. But of course they also demonstrate dark traits that are highly resistant to change. It is those dark traits that can cause extreme harm to those who care deeply for the psychopathic individual. Normal or non-psychopathic individual do not have a large constellation of persistent/ enduring violating and harmful (dark) traits that drive their personality and functioning.
Due to their disorder a psychopath has a skewed way of interpreting information and social interactions. Therefore, their disorder not only impacts how they are experienced from an emotional standpoint, but one also witnesses a thinking style that reflects their immorality and preoccupation with control and power.
If looking at psychopathy through the lens of, “he was all bad“, one could easily feel a bit confused. Particularly when they know the person was at some point fun, kind, and engaging with them. The reason for this discrepancy in what we think of when we picture a psychopath is that in reality, psychopaths have many positive traits.
However, given that the person is a psychopath, even those positive traits have a dark side (i.e., in how they use them). It is with their positive traits that psychopaths are able to get access to what they want. They can manipulate others through the presence of their positive traits. This is the method they use to gain access to new romantic partners.
Psychopaths are not aggressive, angry, hateful, intimidating, vile, immoral, and heartless 100% of the time. They certainly withhold those characteristics from their new partners. They know that if they demonstrated who they really are early on, it would repel any potential mate. They would not be able to get anyone to bond to them if they exposed their dark side.
Unlike their ability to conceal their dark traits, their emotional processing problems are always present, without variation (i.e., inability to bond). Here is a sample list of positive traits often found among psychopaths.
Common positive traits of a psychopath:
Lack of anxiety/ fear
Motivation to achieve
Attentiveness to their children (some)
Hold leadership positions
Strong decision making abilities
Comfortable in leadership positions (e.g., politician, CEO, church leader, guru)
You might find this article regarding emotions helpful. Do psychopaths have emotions? Go
What are some misinterpretations that are commonly made in observing a psychopath’s behavior?
Given that normal individuals tend to want to explain why they are observing strange behaviors from a psychopath, they tend to offer excuses that would only be applicable for a non-psychopathic person.
Many with psychopathy use the victim angle to manipulate others (“I’ve been hurt” |”I’ve been wounded.” | “I had a bad childhood.” | “I’ve been abused.”)
For psychopaths, the following statements would probably be inaccurate:
- “Deep down she is loving.”
- “If only he would let down that wall, things would be better.”
- “He’s repressing his feelings to cope with pain.”
- “He’s afraid of commitment.”
- “I know he’s really angry sometimes, but he doesn’t mean it.”
- “He said he was only joking.”
- “She apologized and told me she will change.”
- “It’s only because he loves me so much that he gets that way. It’s passion.”
To make attempts to change a psychopath could easily place their partner at risk (emotionally and/or physically) and prolong pain and distress.
Is it a bad idea to tell a psychopath that they probably have a personality disorder?
Yes – bad idea! Diagnosing and presenting that information to someone with suspected psychopathy should be done by a licensed, trained specialist that has no personal connection to the psychopath. This likely means the person with psychopathy sought out those appointments (or was legally forced), therefore hearing a diagnosis from a doctor regarding their personality would be expected under such circumstances.
However, this should be avoided by loved ones. Confronting, educating, or informing a psychopath about his or her symptoms can be a highly dangerous activity for the intimate partner. It could place her safety at risk and potentially launch the psychopath into a retaliation or punitive mode. They may smear your reputation, convince your support system something is wrong with you, or harm you in some other manner. Besides, telling them the suspected diagnosis is not going to change the condition.
Most domestic violence advocates and organizations strongly advise survivors, victims, and targets, against such actions (e.g., confrontation).
Psychopaths are a high risk population. We suspect this condition is resistant to change or improvement, particularly if they have not sought out the help. Confrontation from the victim, target, or survivor tends to be fruitless and could be dangerous.
You might find this article regarding educating your psychopath helpful. Should I tell him/her? Go
Can Women Be Psychopaths?
Yes, absolutely. In fact, my first encounters with this disorder was with women. Often, it is a disorder that is easier ‘accepted’ and labeled as such if the disordered individual is a male. However, psychopathic traits can be demonstrated in both sexes. Both cause severe pain to their families and partners. Many of the same general patterns of behavior and personality traits are present. She also demonstrates manipulation, callousness, arrogance, charm, pathological lying, hypersexuality and so forth. She often uses her physical attributes to manipulate.
Just like with her male counterpart, she has many masks to choose from (e.g., the sweetheart, bad/tough girl, diva princess, helpless angel, intellectual). Some individuals who witness psychopathic behaviors in a woman tend to assume it must not be true. Society is more apt to label her a trauma survivor or one with borderline personality disorder. Many are often stunned by her lack of concern for her children or disinterest in their well being.
You might find the section regarding the female psychopath helpful. Men’s Corner / Female Psychopaths Go
Could I easily spot a psychopath? Do they look sinister?
No, it is not easy to spot a psychopath. Most do not look disturbed and will give very little indication of their condition upon meeting them. Psychopaths ‘look’ no different than anyone else. They have no distinguishing physical characteristics.
They also have spent a lifetime of perfecting a mask and mimicking emotions. You have spent (at most) a few years, in the body of ‘a normal’, trying to understand them. You are out-matched there. Most will be able to deceive you.
There are a few psychopaths that have extremely low charisma and minimal social ease. They ‘look’ cold and detached. Their piercing stare may send chills down your spine. For this group, concealing their disorder is more difficult – they lack the social tools to do so. Their arrogance and emotional detachment is blatantly evident.
For those of us who work with this population regularly (e.g., psychologists/ psychiatrists/ neuroscientists), it typically requires significant interaction, evaluation, review of history/behavior, and testing to arrive at a conclusion regarding their personality disorder diagnosis. Those tools and experiences are usually not available to the general public. Even under such circumstances, at times, we miss the diagnoses due to their natural ability to manipulate, charm, and conceal (this occurrence is likely extremely low, however it could happen).
Psychopaths can be successful, attractive, intelligent, charismatic, and fun to be around (before the mask falls). Those positive attributes and qualities are not isolated to normal or non-psychopathic individuals only.
The white collar criminal, who scams for millions and the petty thief can both be psychopaths?
Absolutely! Often their socioeconomic status (SES) and intellectual level (IQ) impacts the type of antisocial behaviors they demonstrate (Blair, Mitchell, Blair, 2005). For example, psychopaths with higher IQs and SES may be more prone to commit corporate or white collar crimes. Acts involving large amounts of money and the manipulation of large groups of individuals (e.g., cities / nations). It is not uncommon for them to be in charge (e.g., politicians, CEOs, company managers, religious leaders, self help/ spiritual gurus).
Conversely, their less intelligent/ lower SES counterparts typically engage in lower level criminal acts and/ or have less social influence and therefore tend to manipulate a smaller number of individuals at a time. For example, they may rob a woman on the street for the $30 in her purse, manipulate a girlfriend into buying him a new car, or try to pull off a credit card scheme while working at a store.
Regardless of IQ, occupation, sex, race, or socioeconomic status, those with psychopathy all have problems associated with morals, social rules, empathy, and relationships. Some are criminals, but most are not. They are goal directed and purposeful with respect to antisocial behaviors and thought styles (but again, not always necessarily criminal). They demonstrate both instrumental (e.g., planned/ goal directed) and reactive aggression (e.g., spontaneous rage often in response to frustration | Blair, 2008).
Why is neuroscience important to consider when we discuss the behavior of a psychopath?
Neuroscience helps us to understand a great deal of why certain behaviors and thought styles of psychopaths are present across this population, regardless of their parental influences. This field will hopefully also lead us to finding treatments that can reduce many of the harmful symptoms of psychopathy.
But let’s be clear – knowing the why is not the same as saying their behavior can be excused – never. Psychopaths are always considered responsible for their behavior. Our prison system is filled with psychopaths because
1) they must be held accountable for what they have done.
2) Simply because psychopaths are prone to break the rules, does not excuse them from following the rules like the rest of us.
3) Society must be protected, because of all criminals, psychopaths are the ones with the highest probability of repeating their crimes with escalation of their prior deeds.
5) We cannot get through to them emotionally because they have no internal braking system that gives them feedback to “stop” when they are hurting someone one. In fact, many of them enjoy it. Treatment that would help them feel for others could make the rest of us safe (which would also help them lead an emotionally healthy/ happy life). But we do not seem to be at that point yet from a medical intervention standpoint.
6) Psychopaths do not feel badly about causing harm and due to their neurobiology, they are ‘built’ to transgress. If the day comes that our legal system ceases to hold them accountable for their crimes of murder, animal cruelty, rape, stalking, arson, pedophilia, financial exploitation, child and domestic abuse – we will all be in danger.
Neuroscience is still expanding, particularly with regard to the structure/function of the brain and psychopathy. At this time, we do have a great deal of information about psychopaths based on numerous fmri studies of their brains, as well as contributions from research of lesion analysis.
Neurobiology is a large part of the puzzle in understanding psychopathy. A psychopath with primary psychopathy seems to have a strong genetic foundation that accounts for the condition. Substance abuse and alcohol use also complicate the picture as well. Just like those without psychopathy, those factors magnify their personality problems. (Note: Substance use and alcoholism are outside the scope of this site.)
Wrap up message
Much of the information you will find on this site is based on research from the fields of neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry, and law. However, a portion of the information will originate from my clinical work with patients who were either
1) victimized and survived these relationships or
2) diagnosed with a Cluster B personality disorder – narcissistic, borderline, histrionic, & antisocial personality disorder/ psychopathy. [Psychopaths]
You will be provided with information regarding psychopathy. However, this website is not equipped to address or evaluate your risk of harm from your partner, determine his/her diagnosis, offer guidance regarding methods to leave, or any possible legal, co-parenting / parenting, divorce, childcare, or (any) personal issues. These are matters best addressed and managed via other means (e.g., attorney, law enforcement, your healthcare provider).
© 2013 Rhonda Freeman, PhD | All Rights Reserved