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Relationships with sociopaths

I will sometimes meet a new client that is struggling to come to terms with the actions of a sociopath. The sociopath may be a member of their family — a husband or a father, for example. While the sociopaths in the following stories happen to be male, please be aware they can also be female. The prevalence of sociopathy in the general population is 3% for men and 1% for women.

(Details in the stories that follow have been changed to protect privacy.)

Donna

Donna had been happily married for 17 years to her husband, Bert. Bert had told Donna every day that he loved her. He had texted her every day to say he treasured her.

One day Donna found a letter from Bert that said he was moving out. In the letter, Bert told Donna their relationship was over. Her response was to become panicked, baffled, and bewildered.

As a psychologist, my first thoughts upon hearing this story was, “How could Bert have orchestrated his departure without showing his hand? How could Donna have been so surprised by his actions?”

These thoughts lead me to ask Donna, “Was your husband charming? Charismatic?”

Donna responded, “Yes. Absolutely. Everybody loves him”, she would likely also have taken full responsibility for the break-down of the marriage, without understanding what had happened.

I, on the other hand, suggested that this couldn’t be the case because Bert’s behaviour – that of writing Donna a letter to say he was leaving her – was not the behaviour of someone who is well-loved by everyone.

Basically, a sociopath is someone who has no conscience and lacks empathy. A sociopath doesn’t lose sleep at night when they have caused harm to another person. The diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals describes sociopaths as:

  • manipulative
  • deceitful

A person that

  • repeatedly tells lies
  • disregards the feelings of others
  • cons others for personal profit or pleasure
  • lacks remorse
  • is indifferent to having hurt or mistreated someone
  • may be exploitative in their sexual relationships

The following stories further illustrate the characteristics and behaviour of a sociopath.

Angela

Angela was the mother of five teenagers. She sought counselling when her husband left her. Not only had he cut ties with her, but he had also stopped interacting with the children just as suddenly and completely. Angela’s divorce settlement was messy, both because he fought her over the division of assets and because he was so indifferent to the feelings of Angela and the children.

Angela had discovered that her husband had had numerous affairs while they were together. More and more examples of her husband’s lies emerged as the months passed. Her extended family shared a much different picture of her husband than the one she had maintained in her mind for 17 years. Angela’s two siblings, for example, told stories about how her husband had cheated them out of substantial sums of money. Stories continued to come in from so many different sources that Angela soon realized they were not isolated events. In fact, they were staggering in how common they were.

John

John was the father of twin 4-year-old boys. He was superficially quite charming and made a good first impression. John revelled in telling his co-workers about how much he enjoyed taking his sons out for ice cream because his sons were so easy to manipulate. John said he liked to buy each child an ice-cream and then watch as they argued over whose cone was biggest. John said he would watch his sons got more and more worked up. He said he would then take a huge bite out of each ice cream cone, and tell his boys they each now had a much smaller ice cream cone because they had been fighting. John said his sons would both immediately break into tears, which entertained him.

Brian

Brian was a technician at manufacturing facility. His 9-year-old son had asked Brian to take him fishing on the weekend. Brian had told his son, “Sure, be ready at 6.00 am tomorrow and we’ll go fishing together.” Brian was clearly delighted with himself as he related this story. He said, “I sure got that kid. I made sure I left the house before 5.00 am. The kid wasn’t even awake yet. He never suspected a thing.”

The behaviour of the various main characters in these stories provides a glimpse into the behaviour of a sociopath. Perhaps the stories made you wonder what kind of a parent would purposely set out to harm their children. What kind of person would behave in these ways, with no remorse? Sociopaths have no conscience. They lack empathy.

As an undergraduate student, I remember listening to a professor describe sociopaths in a lecture. He said that the prison system is full of unsuccessful sociopaths. The professor’s description made me think about a man I had once worked for, so I raised my hand and asked whether there was such a thing as successful sociopaths. The professor replied, “Oh, yes. Absolutely. The business world is full of them.”

If you’re interested in reading about successful sociopaths, you might like to take a look at a book called Snakes and Suits, by Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare.

Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta 

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