All of us, at one time or another, will have a close, if not intimate, relationship with a sociopath. Some will break this relationship before it gets terribly destructive; others will not. They will find ways to deceive themselves about the true nature of the relationship so that it can persist.
We encounter numerous Bernie Madoff types in our lives. Some like Madoff take our money; some plunder our friendship; and still others eviscerate our heart. The victims of sociopaths are numerous and the stuff of good stories, but even more numerous are those who walked away, who avoided entrapment, and who are never written about. There is no 60 Minutes about the guys who saw right through Madoff and took a hike. Remember, only twenty-five people and organizations provided half of Madoff’s capital.
Normalcy does not make for a good story; the psychopathology of everyday life does. Similarly, there are many who cannot live with the equilibrium of every day existence. For them, life needs a step function or two, a qualitative change from time to time. And unlike the sociopath, they are incapable of moving to the edge and testing the boundaries of what they can get away with while being oblivious to the consequences; they live vicariously through the destructive sociopath who can do all that. This is the attraction. The sociopath provides the soundtrack for other people’s existence. Whether through the vicarious experience of watching the sociopath push life to limits that they could not imagine or periodically going along for the ride with him at the wheel, those who tie themselves to sociopaths find the narrative of their own existence in the relationship.
As a teenager, there is the one fearless friend who gets you to do the things you wouldn’t ordinarily do that ultimately get you in trouble. And if the trouble didn’t totally destroy you, years later it is the stuff you laugh about and tell your close friends. But, you might be oblivious to the fact that as an adult, you are repeating this behavior, just in a more subtle and less obvious way.
There are those that believe that they can be in a relationship with a sociopath and stay in control. Even some therapists will tell you that if you are going to be in such a relationship and can’t break it, then you must become like the sociopath. You must have an agenda for the relationship that you manipulate to your ends. You must see the relationship as an exploitive relationship and become the exploiter.
There is a major flaw in such advice. The sociopath neither loses sight of his ultimate goal nor of his self-interest. Ordinary people do. They succumb to the bonds of friendship or intimacy. Ordinary people have feelings. Sociopaths don’t. Ordinary people establish feelings of altruism, which the sociopaths do not, and which he ultimately manipulates when others are least ready to resist.