When your romantic partner is a psychopath
Though the lies started right away, it wasn’t until much later that Sandra realized how badly she’d been conned.
They met at a mutual friend’s birthday in 2012, sharing a bottle of wine at a restaurant when everyone else on the guest list was late. She mentioned she was starting a woodworking class; he was considering the same one.
“He started with the ‘me too’-ing and it felt like we had so much in common,” says Sandra, who is now 35 and lives in Toronto.
Soon followed a phase of what she calls “love-bombing,” where it seemed she’d met her perfect match. There were unbelievable, magical coincidences: he “just knew” when she couldn’t sleep, calling late at night to keep her company. She’d once fantasized about a dream date with a scavenger hunt in a library using books as clues. She couldn’t believe when he made it happen.
“It felt like it naturally unfolded,” she says. “I was like, ‘This is my soulmate.’ ”
By the time he started to drift away just a few weeks later, Sandra was hooked. (Sandra is a pseudonym, which the Star is using to protect her identity and the identity of others involved.)
The pattern, she would later discover, is common and linked to psychopathic traits. While pop culture — the TV show Dexter, the movie American Psycho — suggests psychopaths are cold-blooded killers, there’s a growing awareness of the damage the subtler variety can inflict on others. Romantic partners are especially vulnerable.
According to victims, it starts with idealization, which could include personality mirroring and over-the-top affection. Then follows devaluation, lies, infidelity and poking at insecurities; then an eventual discarding, replacing one unwitting victim for another.
Countless people say they’ve experienced something similar, sharing their stories in online forums — such as PsychopathFree.com, Aftermath: Surviving Psychopathy and LoveFraud.com. These have become support networks for people who believe they’ve been caught up with a psychopath — someone who, despite appearances, is unable to experience love or empathy, who is charming but insincere, lacking in remorse and pathologically egocentric.
About 1 per cent of the population may fit the criteria. That means about 27,000 people in the city of Toronto could be considered a psychopath.
The forums are a source of data for academics, providing some of the only research on the potentially devastating impact.
“These are not people who are axe-murderers, but they are sort of torturing somebody. That emotional manipulation is not what normal human beings engage in. Usually we have a degree of empathy,” says Toronto therapist Sheila Willson, who counsels victims of these toxic partners.
“It’s enraging, distressing, traumatizing and causes so much self-doubt. So many people simply can’t understand how they could get so deceived. It erodes their trust in humanity,” Willson says.
About a year into her tumultuous relationship, Sandra found herself Googling the warning signs and came across one such forum, where many recognize the erratic behaviour that left them heartbroken and searching for answers.
Charm, lies and manipulations. Having to explain obvious human emotions to him. His crushing boredom, leading to recklessness. Check, check and check.
Many said their partners would leave, quit jobs and abandon apartments with no notice. Sandra’s boyfriend disappeared three times, ditched countless jobs and moved several times over the next two and a half years. She is now convinced he had taken up with other women, piecing together fragments and clues from Facebook and elsewhere.
Once, after discussing graphic novels, he stole one of hers, later thanking her for the thoughtful gift. She now thinks that was “gaslighting,” a strategy of manipulation designed to make someone question their sanity.
Get out, her online friends advised. Break off all contact.
Sandra eventually accepted she’d been duped. He never signed up for that woodworking class. She now thinks he’d been driving past her apartment at 2 a.m., checking to see if the lights were on; that he’d found a long-forgotten blog post about the library date and used it to win her over.
“When you’re given your dream, you don’t want to question it,” she says. “It felt like I was high all the time.”
The message boards, she says, felt like therapy or an AA meeting. At one point she was spending four hours a day online.
“You’d confess if you backslid one day, if you reached out and talked to him. And 15 people would be like, ‘That’s OK. Here’s how you get back on track.’ It felt so good,” she says.
It can be chilling to identify these traits in a boss, partner or — these days — political leader. Recent headlines and op-eds have mused whether Donald Trump is a psychopath, sociopath or narcissist. The shared trait is callousness, an innate indifference to others.
A narcissist shares overlapping characteristics with a psychopath, which many experts agree is the same as sociopath — though the latter downplays the connotation of danger.
In other words, although “psycho” is a casual accusation, true psychopaths represent a specific identity. The most common diagnostic tool for psychopathy is a checklist of traits, which include: lack of remorse or guilt; lack of empathy; glib and superficial manner; deceitfulness and manipulation; impulsivity; need for excitement; egocentricity, among others.
Everyone has a dark personality trait or two. A maximum score on the checklist is 40, psychopaths score 30 or above, and regular people score around 5.
Diagnosis is difficult, let alone from afar. Forums are some of the few resources for victims, and are more about affirmation and support than clinical accuracy.
Carleton University psychology professor Adelle Forth recently tapped into these online forums, a deep well of anecdotal reports, for a series of forthcoming qualitative studies on the effect of psychopaths in personal relationships.
For one study she expects to publish later this year, Forth and her graduate students posted a survey on Lovefraud.com and other forums. They received 623 responses, 474 from the intimate partners of alleged psychopaths. Most were from North America. About a third met online, one in five met at work and one in 10 met through friends or in a bar.
Eighty per cent of respondents talked about their “extreme mental health effects,” including depression, suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder, Forth told the Star. About a third said they had been physically abused.
“These people suffered a substantial, profound impact of being involved with these individuals,” Forth said.
Some reported no warning signs, but others said their partner was evasive; arrogant; excessively adoring; controlling and aggressive; had an intense but empty stare; or told sympathetic but far-fetched life stories.
When Jackson MacKenzie, now a 27-year-old IT worker based in Boston, was coping in 2010 with his own failed relationship involving a man he suspected of being a psychopath, he founded a recovery community he called PsychopathFree.com. It grew to 18,000 registered users and 16 million annual visits by 2016.
Most of the dozens of articles he posts online — with titles such as “30 red flags of manipulative people” and “Why does it take so long to get over a relationship with a psychopath?” — are written not by a psychology expert but by MacKenzie.
“If you found a website about psychopaths, you probably weren’t in the best relationship ever,” he says in an interview.
In 2015, he released a self-help book, Psychopath Free: Recovering from Emotionally Abusive Relationships with Narcissists, Sociopaths, and Other Toxic People, based mostly on a survey of 1,200 users of the forum. He recently transferred everything to Facebook, where the Psychopath Free page is now followed by more than 453,000 people.
On other forums, threads might cover “Is my partner a sociopath, narcissist, psychopath or some other type of exploiter?” or “How do you deal with a sociopath in court?”
Therapist Willson sees the impact first-hand — it makes up a quarter of her practice. For many of her clients, mostly women, stumbling upon these sites is an entry point to healing.
“It’s usually how they begin to put it all together,” Willson says. “There’s a big a-ha.”
When a victim addresses their suspicions, they may be accused of being crazy, jealous or sick, and start to doubt their own sanity, Willson says. The psychopath walks away with no remorse.
Accepting that the love and flattery were part of a strategy to get sex, shelter, money or entertainment, can cause rage, distress and major self-doubt in victims, who may blame themselves for falling for it.
The forums are useful, but only to a point, Willson says. Victims need to get out of their situation, not stay mired in it. In many cases, she says, they should seek one-on-one therapy to address anger and self-esteem issues.
Sandra eventually took the advice of her anonymous online friends and refused all contact with her boyfriend.
Though many victims struggle to disentangle completely due to family, financial or emotional ties, Sandra’s ex died in Toronto in late 2015, several months after she’d broken it off. She’ll never know if he was truly a psychopath, had a few traits, or was just a really bad boyfriend.
“Yes, psychopaths can wreak havoc on the lives of others, but ordinary people are perfectly capable of being bad partners, too,” says Daniel Krupp, a Queen’s University adjunct professor of psychology who has studied the evolutionary basis for psychopathy.
But for Sandra, finding a forum to share her experience was life-changing, and she hopes others who feel trapped by a relationship with a psychopath realize they aren’t as isolated as they think.
“I hate social media. I can’t stand it. This is the only website on the planet where I made an account and talked in the forums after lurking for a year,” she says today. “I felt compelled to tell other women it was going to be OK.”
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