Toxic relationships disrupt life and can introduce infinite waves of abuse and pain. It is not uncommon for individuals who have never been involved in this type of romance to wonder if their partner has a disorder. Could there be an underlying neurological cause for the violating or dangerous behaviors? For some, the answer is yes.
Individuals with personality disorders have difficulty relating to others, resulting in rocky relationships. There are some with these conditions that have a high potential to traumatize their mates due to their symptom profile (Mager, Bresin, and Verona, 2014; Lawson and Brossart, 2013). The partners of individuals with psychopathy, narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder are often left with emotional and physical scars.
For many of us, it can be difficult to determine if our partner is healthy or if their behavior patterns are indicative of a problem. Below are a few red flags that many with psychopathy have in their past or demonstrate when they interact with others. It is important to note that this is not a list of diagnostic criteria of psychopathy.
"I am superior to you."
Individuals with psychopathy often convey to their mate that they are superior and their partner is not good enough. (e.g., "You're stupid," too emotional," fat," insecure," always holding on to the past,"paranoid," crazy.") Within relationships of this type, their partners often feel inferior, worthless or 'less than.' Their mates are often kept off balance chasing after what they think will appease the disordered partner.
"You bore me. I hate you. I love you. No—I hate you."
After the honeymoon stage, they are often disinterested, disrespectful and abusive. Some will introduce their partner to a roller-coaster style relationship (break up, and then reunite - repeat). For many involved with a psychopath, the disrespect immediately shifts into abuse and creates a traumatic relationship for their victim. Given that the brain has a reaction and can be changed by trauma and abuse, many of their partners are left with depression, anxiety, substance use, alcoholism, and complex PTSD. Sadly, some individuals have resorted to suicide after these relationships.
"I'm never responsible for anything bad that happens or anything bad I have done. That's the rule."
Externalizing blame is quite common for individuals with this personality style. When a problem cannot be wiggled out of with deception, then reframing the violation as a mistake, joke, misunderstanding, or your hypersensitivity lessens their responsibility for the act.
New partners are groomed rather than courted. The difference is that one is a game or ploy (grooming) while the other approach attempts to make a genuine connection. Many with psychopathy have a grooming stage when they are pursuing a new partnership. Grooming is intentional manipulation. Their kindness, attention, money, time, trips, and presents come with strings attached. They expect their partners to fall in line and repay when the honeymoon stage is over.
Their past may include many romantic partners
Due to a tendency to become bored easily and an inability to bond after their excitement has worn off, they seek out new partners. There may be overlap between mates or affairs while still within a serious relationship.
When in the act of grooming a new target, they might refer to ex-mates as "good friends" (their code for an ex-partner they feel does not hold them accountable or bother them regarding the abuse they inflicted). Or "crazy" (their code for an ex-partner they traumatized who wants closure, revenge, or currently seeks to hold them accountable for the abuse).
Extremely hypersensitive toward self | Extremely insensitive toward others ("I matter, you do not. And since you don't matter, don't think of giving an opinion about me.")
Although they usually come across as powerful, narcissistic, and callous. It is often surprising to others when they witness the extreme hypersensitivity psychopaths demonstrate when they feel criticized, slighted, or challenged. It does not stem from insecurity, and they are not interested in appeasing others. It is primarily associated with their belief in their superiority and power. They are intolerant of their weaknesses being highlighted or anyone speaking to them in a manner that implies they are inferior or weak. Many with psychopathy will attack anyone they feel committed such an infraction.
"I'm the winner! Always."
For individuals with psychopathy, there has to be a winner and a loser. Being a winner is very important to them. They rarely accept being in a lesser position, regardless of how small the situation. This, of course, poses a problem, given that relationships of all types, require cooperation and at times submission or contrition.
You might feel like you're losing your mind. Thinking abilities and confidence begin to weaken.
For those who have been in relations of this kind for extended periods, it is not uncommon to experience problems with thinking. Memory, concentration, attention, motivation and organization may begin to feel compromised. You might feel scatterbrained, less efficient overall and flooded with anxiety.
Power, control, and domination
They enjoy degrading, humiliating, dominating, damaging, and belittling others. However, most will not tolerate those traits being pointed out to them. This could easily result in an aggressive reaction (rage) and punishment.
Lies, secrets, and deception
Deceptive and manipulation are common for those with psychopathy. They lie overtly, as well as by omission. The lies can be minor or of significant magnitude (e.g., secret children, current marriage or mate, an identity that is not true.)
There is often a longstanding pattern of social transgressions and poor morals. Examples include (but not limited to) cheating, lying, copyright infringement, stealing, harassment, stalking, or punishing anyone that stands in the way of their goals.
Shallow and superficial emotions
Their superficial interactions are often stellar and far exceed their capacity for deep relationships. (e.g., They will treat a stranger better than their spouse if it makes them look powerful and a source of envy).
"But I'm the victim here!"
This form of manipulation is often implemented when they interact with empathic individuals. When we have compassion for someone, we are primed to excuse their transgressions. Individuals with the capacity for empathy could potentially be manipulated to adopt the stance of "hurt people, hurt people." Individuals with psychopathy use this mode of manipulation for precisely this reason. It lets them off the hook for behavior they intentionally engaged in for their own gain.
New partners may find themselves in competition with old partners.
Requires lessons in basic social skills regarding kindness, trust & respect.
You find yourself telling him or her the bare basics of human kindness, fairness and how to treat you. (e.g., "Don't speak to me that way." | "Please stop lying!" | "Why do you have to be so harsh and mean to me?") If a person has empathy and an absence of psychopathology, we do not need to do this type of 'teaching' for anyone over 7 years old.
Very little you do is right. No matter how hard you try.
There may be accusations regarding your sensitivity, lack of understanding, intrusiveness, or unworthiness as a supportive partner (e.g., Your outfit is trampy, The house isn't clean, You don't look good anymore! Why are you so sensitive, it's annoying!) Any requests or demands you make on the relationship are reframed as attempts at control. For example, normal concern and acceptable 'checking in' that is common between couples (associated with respect and love) might not be tolerated by someone with this personality style.
[The above list is not a diagnostic tool. The diagnosis of psychopathy should only be made by a licensed specialist].
Mager, KL., Bresin, K., & Verona, E. (2014). Gender, psychopathy factor, and intimate partner violence. Personality Disorder, Jul;5(3):357-67.
Lawson, DM and Brossart, DF. (2013). Interpersonal problems and personality features as mediators between attachment and intimate partner violence. Violence and Victims, 28(3): 414-28.
This article is adapted from a post on my psychopathy website Neuroinstincts - Are You Dating a Psychopath | 16 Warning Signs of Psychopathic Traits (April, 2015)