This is the first of a series of articles about psychopaths, narcissists and other lovers and the contribution they make to Intimate Partner Violence.
Perhaps you are familiar with the story about the frog placed in a pan of cold water on a cooker with the heat turned up gradually. The frog will stay there until it is gradually boiled to death. The same frog, if placed straight into boiling water would immediately leap out.
Unfortunately most people getting involved with Psychopaths and Narcissists are like the frog in the cold water. It is not until it is too late that they discover they are in hot water and unable to get themselves out. Many women after being in a relationship with a psychopath (or almost psychopath) berate themselves and ask, “How could I have been so stupid as to get into that, and stay for so long?” Nobody teaches us this stuff.
According to Professor Robert Hare of British Colombia University, the current expert regarding Psychopathy, in his book called “Without Conscience”, if you don’t know how to spot a psychopath you are doomed to be their victim. Hare has made it his life’s work to study psychopaths, their world and how they operate. The reality is that psychopaths make their own rules and have their own reality.
Confusion has abounded in the mental health field mainly because psychopathy is not a mental illness; it is a personality disorder and as such it is deemed to be untreatable. Furthermore, psychopaths are unlikely to present themselves for therapy since they are perfectly happy with themselves just as they are. The problem is that they leave a trail of carnage, (sometimes literally), in their wake.
Hare points out that the diagnoses of psychopath, sociopath and narcissistic personality disorder are often used interchangeably and the whole issue is marked by a lack of clarity amongst laypeople and professionals alike. Quite rightly, he saw the lack of assessment tools as a crucial issue in assessing the risk of violent behaviour.
In a bid to address this issue, Hare created the PCL or the psychopath checklist, not as a diagnostic tool but to provide guidance to those professionals who find it difficult to decide if someone was actually a psychopath or not. One of the reasons for this was that many treatment programmes where scarce resources would have psychopaths as participants when actually the chances of them changing were very slim and they would take up a place using up scare resources. The PCL highlights a number of signs considered indicative of a psychopathic personality disorder. But, what about those who do not meet the PCL criteria?
The Almost Affect
For those who definitely do not fall in the “normal” range, nor meet the PCL diagnostic criteria, there is "The Almost Effect". This is a concept created by Harvard Medical School that reveals a paradigm shift in the mental health field, recognizing as it does, sub-clinical groups in various areas of mental health arena. A series of books has been launched one of which is by Ronald Schouten and James Silver, “Almost A Psychopath”, which builds on Robert Hare’s work. The authors make the point that there exists a sub category of people who whilst not meeting the PCL full criteria, but whose behaviour is definitely problematic. These they refer to as “Almost A Psychopath”
Their coldness, total self absorption and deceitfulness corrodes every relationship that they touch, from marriage, work or business partnership, while their superficial charm, moral inconsistency and lack of remorse often allows them to climb their way to become very successful in today's society.
It is estimated 100,000 in New York, and in America there’s about two million psychopaths. In the UK, it is estimated that between 4-11% of the population may be psychopaths, so it’s likely that you or someone you love will be involved with a psychopath at some point in their life. In a recent television series in the UK Reece Shearsmith portrayed Malcolm Webster “The Widower”, described by his second wife Felicity Drumm as a psychopath.
So how can you spot a psychopath? Here are the signs, which Hare highlighted in his PCL with the admonishment not to use this list to label someone as a psychopath. However, I think you can regard them as amber lights. One thing to note is that it is better to avoid getting into a relationship with a psychopath because one feature of these relationships is the difficulty in getting free of them.
Felicity Drumm, speaking of Malcolm Webster, stated,
"I think that one of his skills, and one of the reasons for such success is that he makes a study of the people he's around, establishes what their interests are and then adopts them so that you find all these things that you have in common."
One of the main features about psychopaths, apart from their ability to sweep people off their feet with their charm, is their deeply disturbing inability to care about the pain and the suffering of other people. One of the essential ingredients of a successful relationship is empathy, which is that capacity to be able to put yourself in another person’s position.
Psychopaths tend to be glib and superficial, and very plausible in their conversation. They talk “at” people like they are cardboard cutouts. They tell a lot of funny stories usually about themselves in some kind of a hero scenario, or sometimes they give a hard luck story. They are very egocentric and grandiose. Hare says,
“Psychopaths often come across as arrogant, shameless braggarts, self assured, opinionated, domineering, cocky. They love to have power and control over others and seem unable to believe that other people have valid opinions different from theirs.”
Also they lack remorse or guilt. This is connected to their lack of empathy and their inability to put themselves in another’s position and their view that to be weak is to ask for it. They are deceitful, manipulative and considered to lie as easily as breathing. If they ever admit to lying, it is usually in the hope that this will make other lies appear to be more treatable.
They tend to lack emotional depth or awareness and they don’t have what would be considered normal affect. Other than extreme anger, their emotions tend to be shallow because fundamentally they just don’t care about anything.
Another trait exhibited by psychopaths is their impulsivity and according to Hare they dislike any kind of delay in gratification and they tend to not weigh out the pros and cons of their behaviours and actions. They are likely to be reactive to any perceived slight and to take offence very easily. Their behaviour control is poor and they see their aggressive displays as natural responses to provocation. (Page 60)
They have a need for excitement and are easily bored and have low tolerance for any kind of monotony or routine. They also tend to be unreliable and unpredictable and will tend to do what they think they can get away with. They will lie, cheat, steal and when you’re no longer of any use to them, they will move on probably without saying goodbye.
It’s estimated that 20% to 30% of prison inmates are psychopaths and a study on the treatment programmes for perpetrators of domestic violence showed that 25% were psychopaths, although it’s been found that the behaviour of psychopaths is highly resistant to change and often when they engage in therapy or treatment programmes they simply learn more ways to deceive by learning the language of therapy and the jargon and also because of their grandiosity they tend to be very disruptive in groups.
Hare and his colleague Bob Babiak wrote the book Snakes in Suits about psychopaths who managed to not only avoid prison but are actually highly successful in the corporate world, mainly by means of greed, bullying, emotional abuse and other unscrupulous behaviour which violates conventional, ethical behaviour.
Where I come from there is a saying that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure and in the case of those with psychopathic behaviour this couldn’t be truer.
Psychopaths do not present looking like mad axe men. They tend to be intelligent, charming and always on the lookout for opportunities to enhance self interest. People simply represent resources or objects to achieve this. To this end, they will frequent places where lonely and vulnerable people, particularly singles, are to be found such as singles clubs, cruise ships and airports. They are predatory and can spot the lonely and vulnerable, who are sitting targets for a charming and helpful companion. So if you find yourself travelling alone or at a singles club, consider these to be high-risk situations and be on your guard for charming, helpful strangers. This is particularly the case if you happen to have money and disposable assets and wealth of any kind.
Normally I would advocate openness and honesty as an essential ingredient for successful relationships and psychopaths certainly give the impression of this. They appear to be open and honest. I constantly bang on about the importance of self-awareness and self-acceptance. It is important to know your own particular weak spot and until you really get to know someone, don’t disclose it because psychopaths tend to want to suss out your areas of vulnerability often by disclosing their own which may be entirely made up.
For example, they may tell you a hard luck story of a very unfortunate and difficult childhood and the struggle that they’ve had. This has a number of hooks. Firstly, it engages your empathy (which they know about to exploit, but don’t possess themselves) and secondly it makes you more willing to be open.
Don’t ever disclose too much too soon to anyone in one of these high-risk situations. Psychopaths can use this information to take advantage of you in ways you never would have dreamt of. Be wary of anyone who zeroes in your areas of vulnerability.
Also be very wary of flattery that goes beyond a few compliments. Psychopaths will often after a couple of dates start to talk about how they’ve never met anyone like you in their whole lives and they also start to talk about when we are married.
They’ve never met anybody like you before so be very wary if someone starts to talk to you along these lines because it’s a bit like sitting in the sun for too long, you’ll get burnt, in particular, as I’ve said before, if you have money or assets. These are very high-risk situations because psychopaths will probably manage to relieve you of most or all of it.
Already in a relationship?
If you have already become involved with a psychopath (or almost a psychopath), it is as well to cut your losses and get out but you’ll probably need some support to do that. See my article on “How To Leave An Abusive Relationship”. Seek out professional help but first of all ascertain that whomever you consult knows about and understands how psychopaths operate. This is vital.
Often in couple relationship work the psychopath can put on such a good show and charm the therapist so much that the partner, (usually the wife), is not believed because the psychopath convinces the therapist that they are actually the victim. If the person you’re in a relationship with has all or most of the traits mentioned above, whatever label you give them, it’s unlikely that they will ever change.
Look out for my next article on Loving A Narcissist.
Grace Chatting is a senior accredited member of the British Association of Counseling and Psychotherapy, a qualified Social Worker, Family Mediator, and a Life and Relationship Coach.
She lives and works in the UK, Spain and Ireland, teaching and empowering people to become all that they can be.
For the past 30 years Grace has immersed herself in studying all aspects of what makes people, couples and families tick. During this time she has worked with literally tens of thousands of people and has built up considerable expertise in successful couple relationships and prevention of family breakdown. She also has a high level of expertise in working with women in recovery from Domestic Violence and Abusive Relationships.
So many of her clients would say "Why don't they teach this stuff in school?" and Grace agreed. The idea gradually took root and resulted in the Relationship Academy http://relationshipacademy.co.uk