The Sociopath We All Know and Sometimes Love

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.

Sociopaths tell you how they are going to destroy you.  They tell you stories of the relationships they have left in wreckage.  It’s just subtle.  You have to listen.  I would bet that if people listened carefully to even a great exploiter like Madoff, there were hints of what he was really about. The sociopath can’t resist bragging.  It is, next to lying, intrinsic to his very existence.

The most difficult relationship to extricate oneself from with a sociopath is a sexual relationship, for the sociopath uses sex as the ultimate form of manipulation and control, but feels little to no emotion in the process.

For some men, there is a strange attraction to a personality type that displays the characteristics of commonly referred to hysterical drama, but does not have what modern psychiatrists call a conversion disorder.  This is a woman who is not only exceptionally attractive physically, but is also a sociopath that indulges in hysterical outbursts and behaviors.   The physical attraction is the bait; the hysterical or dramatic outburst keeps the relationship going by precipitating conflict that is the gateway to seemingly apocalyptic, but very controlled, sex. As some therapists will tell you, men who are drawn to such women most likely had mothers who displayed similar kinds of outbursts.  Intellectually, these men can know the relationship is dysfunctional, but they find the emotional content so familiar that they can’t resist it. The sex is the ultimate sinew that ties them to it.

The “dramatic,” like other sociopaths, provides glimmers of past abuses in past relationships, which really is bragging about past bad behaviors and promises of new ones yet to come.  Men drawn to these women ignore those warnings, and think they have the power to change such women.  Clearly, the problem exists on both sides of the gender divide, but the sexual behavior of male sociopaths is another story.

Such a woman subtly displays her sexuality in a way that is more understood by women than by men. She wants to walk into a room to dominate the other women, telling them by her presence that their men are theirs only as long as the “dramatic” decides not to take them.  Sexuality is not to be ostentatiously displayed, but to be conveyed in subtle and tasteful elegance.  The kind of woman says, “I dress to attract the attention of other women and to dominate them. I let them know their men are mine for the taking. The men, of course, will look at me, but the women will look at me and hate me. I thrive on it!”

There is no breaking up with such a woman.  She breaks relationships when she pleases.  If you precipitate the break, prepare for a campaign that in its most extreme form will be right out of Fatal Attraction.  But in any event, it will be a campaign that simmers for a long time and involves organizing and manipulating other people against you into a cycle of vengeance, which becomes another and inexorable phase of the drama.

Despite propensities to find sociopaths enticing, there are ways to avoid them.  First and foremost, listen to what they say.  They can’t help brag of past bad behaviors and promise future ones.  Infidelity is not shame; it is triumph. They lie incessantly.  When their lies ask you to suspend disbelief, don’t. If you challenge a lie, it will predictably be covered up with an even greater lie. You really can’t change them.  Don’t identify with them.  Try identifying with their victims. Think about the people they hurt, the lives they’ve upset, if not ruined.  Think about the emotional and often financial carnage they’ve left in their paths.  You will be one of those victims.  Ask yourself if the rollercoaster ride of such a relationship is worth it.

And remember if you do need a soundtrack in your life, buy an iPod; it’s going to be a lot cheaper and a lot less destructive.