“Sociopath.” It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot. “Psychopath,” or the abbreviated version, “psycho” are used even more. People usually use these words to describe someone who they maybe don’t like, someone who has behaved in a rude or cruel way, someone who has harmed someone else, or sometimes simply someone who is exhibiting signs of an active psychotic disorder.
Most people don’t realize that psychopathy is an actual personality disorder, and not generally one characterized by psychotic symptoms. An actual “psycho” is not someone who is in psychosis-they don’t talk to themselves or fight with hallucinations. The term really refers to someone with antisocial personality disorder, which is marked by an inability to feel empathy for others.
Of course, no mental health professional is going to go around calling people with this disorder a “psycho,” or even a “psychopath” or “sociopath.” Those terms are considered colloquial, but they do in fact describe a real personality disorder that some people have. My ex boyfriend was one of those people.
Here’s the big post disclaimer: The Ex has not, to my knowledge, actually been diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. My therapist and I were recently discussing the difficulties in diagnosing a sociopath; they are generally loathe to admit their disorder-or perceived personal flaws in general-so it usually takes a while to spot in a client.
I am also not a mental health professional. While in undergrad I took some abnormal psychology classes and read the entire DSM-IV (not the V..yet), that doesn’t qualify me to make a diagnosis. So this assertion, that The Ex is a sociopath, is based solely on my knowledge of the disorder and my extensive observations of his symptomatic behavior. That being said, I am fairly damn certain he genuinely has antisocial personality disorder. And for about four years, I was really, really in love with him.
Before I get to the “what it was like” part of this article, let’s do a general overview of the disorder, for those of you who may not know much about it beyond the everyday lexicon.
What is Antisocial Personality Disorder?
A personalty disorder, in general, is an inflexible (i.e: essentially unchanged by environment or circumstance) pattern of behaviors which affects thinking, behavior, relationships, and impulses. People with Antisocial Personality Disorder display the following behaviors:
- Breaking social norms for their own benefit; this often includes breaking minor or major laws
- Lying, manipulating facts, or other forms of intentional deception, often to avoid acknowledging personal responsibility
- Impulsive behavior
- Aggressive behavior
- Disregard for others’ safety, choices, feelings, and general autonomy
- Repeated irresponsibility and fickleness toward social, financial, legal, romantic, familial, or other obligations if it does not actively benefit them to maintain (for example, a sociopath could keep a job for a sustained period if he needed the income)
- Lack of remorse for harmful or criminal acts
It can’t be diagnosed in children under age 18, though people with this disorder often exhibit troubling behavior during childhood, such as burning down a portable at their high school or middle school. I personally think more efforts should be made to identify sociopathy in adolescents; early identification could lead to early intervention, and caregivers would thus be better equipped to teach them how to integrate into society in ways they could understand. Maybe doing some Pavlovian style social training, or something.
How did these symptoms manifest in The Ex?
- Disregard for social norms: The Ex was a major drug addict, with a special penchant for methamphetamine. Besides consuming drugs himself, he sold them to minors, spent a lot of time with minors, and had sex with minors. Beyond that, he was homeless, often sleeping and drugging in abandoned buildings, construction sites, homes that were being repaired, uninhabited apartments, and building hallways or lobbies. He was adept at breaking and entering. He stole and sold property, especially bicycles; he cheated profusely and often had multiple girlfriends while claiming exclusivity; and he verbally, sometimes even physically, abused public services workers, such as bus drivers, medical professionals, and police officers.
- Deception: Any time he was arrested, he would lie to officers, lawyers, and judges alike. He constantly lied to me about his infidelities, claiming he “loved only me,” even while saying the exact same things to other women. He went so far as to actively maintain a romantic online relationship with his daughter’s mother, while impregnating me and making plans to marry. Often, he would lie about his drug use, even when I offered to help him. During our current custody battle he has lied in the face of facts and blamed me or others for anything he was forced to admit. I gave him the opportunity to show even an ounce of honesty, and he continued to deceive and deflect blame.
- Impulsivity: The most obvious ways in which he displayed impulsivity, that I could observe, were through compulsive drug use, and promiscuous sex. He had unprotected sex with just about anyone, regardless of the risk to himself and others, or the personal consequences. He also engaged in random acts of rage, such as throwing sour cream on a friend of mine, or pushing all the plates and cups off of a table at a restaurant.
- Aggressiveness: Strangling girls and women. Holding girls and women hostage in various locations for up to three days. Beating girls and women with open palms and fists. Rape. Biting. Threatening with knives. Verbal threats to kill, torture, and burn down property. Destruction of property. Abusing animals. That burning down a high school portable example I gave earlier? He claimed to have done that as a kid.
- Disregard for others: The cheating, domestic violence, and theft pretty much cover this one. Besides these acts, however, he has also said hurtful things which show a general disregard for the feelings or lives of others. For example, insulting the bodies and appearances of people who considered him a friend or with whom he had slept with. He has also repeatedly abandoned and then re-entered or attempted to re-enter the lives of his children, partners, and friends, with seemingly no sympathy for the emotional havoc imposed by this touch-and-go behavior.
- Irresponsibility: He has fathered three children that I know of, but has never actively parented any of them. He has no idea what real parenting is; his only involvement has been visitations, gift giving, and text messages; simple responsibilities which he abandons at his leisure. As far as I know, he doesn’t even attempt to see the child whose mother he never had a long-term relationship with.
- Remorselessness: He refuses to acknowledge or genuinely apologize for his violence. Throughout our court proceedings he has intentionally re-traumatized me by victim-blaming and gaslighting; he even recruited his father and another of my son’s part-time caretakers to do the same on his behalf. Despite my diagnosis, which I have received from multiple providers, he insists he did not cause me to develop PTSD. His go-to tactics are denial, blaming others, and lying. He shows no remorse.
What it’s like to love a sociopath
I look back on my abusive relationship and I am baffled. I can remember how I felt and I can’t deny it: I did love him. But I can no longer understand why. He was silly to the point of being stupid. His selfishness was beyond compare. He was arrogant, entitled, and careless. I guess what drew me to him was his independence. I was a teenager. I liked that he didn’t conform to social norms; I just didn’t understand how far his nonconformity went. It probably also helped that he kinda looked like Kurt Cobain.
So what did it feel like? To love someone incapable of loving me back? It felt like absolute, utter desperation. Often, he would profess his love for me, then disappear for days. It got to the point that I was literally asking the trees if he still loved me, because I simply had no way of quantifying it. I’d imagine answers out of the movement of wind in the branches. Or, I would obsessively consult my tarot deck. Did he still love me? Had he just broken up with me without saying anything? Would he do that? Would he break up with me at all? I was obsessed-I’ll admit that, but I had been groomed into the obsession. He had taken a fourteen year old girl with no romantic interest in him and played a vicious back and forth with my self-esteem; skyrocketing it with declarations of perfect love, then completely destroying it, until I saw no place for myself in this world besides as his girlfriend.
Even when he wasn’t disappearing for days, I always lacked for something. I was fueled by desperation. Desperate for him to look at me without seeming like he was looking through me. Desperate to feel I was enough for him; pretty enough or sexy enough or just enough! Desperate to be able to rely on him when I needed him. Desperate to feel I could joke and play around and be myself without worrying I’d say the wrong thing and get beaten up.
My needs never mattered. Romantically, sexually, physically; not even on a basic level. He would come to my mom’s house and eat all my food. He reciprocated oral sex maybe five times in four years. I remember spending my seventeenth birthday crying on the couch next to my mom while I waited hours for him to show up and take me out as planned. When I finally gave up and went for a walk, I found him down the street, digging through a dumpster. My eighteenth birthday was even worse.
I hated women. All of them. Even my friends I secretly despised, because The Ex had turned them into competitors for his affection. His affection became the only thing I cared about, and it was something I could never truly get. Sure, he’d caress me or say the right words; he was pretty good at shows of affection, but I always wanted for true affection; the knowledge that I was beloved as I was, and without compromise.
Throughout the entire relationship I was plagued by anxiety and self-doubt. I never believed I was pretty enough to deserve love. My eccentricities, which I once valued as parts of my unique self, became loathe. If only I were better at wearing makeup, or cared more about fashion, or walked better in heels, or had more experience with sex, or had more “normal” interests, or, or, or…The self-doubt was endless,and if he knew about it, he fed it. It was his way of controlling me.
I was his slave. I am not without shame when I admit this. He manipulated me, but he didn’t force me to stay. There were moments when I could have paused and noticed he was not who I so passionately wanted him to be. Part of the problem was my own obvious innocence, which he exploited. I was a child; I still believed in the inherent goodness of people and the world, as much as I said otherwise in fits of angst. When he admitted aloud to having raped a woman, I though he was telling a weird joke. When he said he wanted a slave, I never imagined he meant me. He was disturbed, but he was also charming. I should have suspected him, but I didn’t. That is what it’s like to be with a sociopath: Your worldview becomes so warped, you cannot tell reality from fantasy, or decipher the importance of actions versus words. Those four years were a labyrinth. Sometimes I still feel like I am trying to escape.
Empathy is crucial to healthy relationships. Whether it’s a romantic relationship, a familial relationship, a friendly relationship, or even a business relationship, empathy allows us to recognize the inherent value in the other person’s feelings, so that we can negotiate a mutually favorable experience. A sociopath lacks empathy, and thus sees no reason to compromise his wants. He will only give if giving gains him something which he values more than what he is giving up. Because a sociopath ultimately values his ego above everything, he will never compromise it. That is what I saw in The Ex when we were together, and it’s what I see in him now, while we engage in this custody case.
Not everyone with antisocial personality disorder is a criminal. Another marker of the disorder is a charming personality, at least superficially. Many people with this disorder use their wit and charm to further themselves into places of prominence within business or society. I can’t imagine a sociopath ever being a pleasant romantic partner, except perhaps to another sociopath, but they don’t all behave like my ex. I imagine that, as with any mental illness, the “bad” sociopaths, people like The Ex, ruin the reputation of the functional sociopaths. Are you a functional sociopath? Would you like to participate in a stigma fighting project? Please e-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you have ever dated a sociopath, or someone you suspect of sociopathy, leave your experiences in the comments.
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Thanks for reading. Til next time!