Psychopathy

What Happens When a Psychopath Marries a Psychopath

Research shows the poor prognosis when psychopath marries psychopath.

Posted Jun 19, 2018

Lipatova Maryna/Shutterstock
Source: Lipatova Maryna/Shutterstock

An intimate relationship between two people who are each incapable of true emotions may seem completely out of the realm of possibility. When one partner is a psychopath and the other is not, there may be some hope that a basis for intimacy can be established, particularly if the non-psychopathic individual is willing to make endless compromises and has a strong (if not unrealistic) sense of optimism. It’s just as likely, though, that the optimism will be ill-founded, and the psychopath will walk out, leaving behind shattered hopes of a partner who thought that true love would conquer all.

Some of the optimism you might have, if you’re in such a relationship, can stem from your belief that your partner has had a tough life as a child and teen. Your partner’s parents were extremely harsh, if not abusive, causing your partner to have to grow up in conditions that could not possibly have fostered the development of a healthy personality. These conditions would furthermore have made it difficult for your partner to trust others, even someone as caring as you, who shows unconditional love.

When a psychopath becomes involved with another psychopath, however, neither partner is able to provide this type of emotional support. Manipulative and unfeeling, both members of the couple lie whenever it’s convenient to do so and take advantage of opportunities for personal gain. Their personal goals outweigh their goals as a couple, even if puts the other person at risk of material or emotional loss. According to University of Georgia’s Brandon Weiss and colleagues (2018), citing previous studies, people high in the trait of psychopathy “desire and/or experience less intimacy in their relationships and are more likely to engage in sexual infidelity ... psychopathy is negatively associated with overall romantic relationship quality as well as lower relationship satisfaction and commitment” (pp. 239-240). With all of these factors stacked against them, it’s hard to see how two psychopaths could stay in a relationship very long at all. The research by Weiss et al. was intended to investigate whether this prediction would hold true.

Using a longitudinal design, the University of Georgia researchers followed 172 couples over the first 10 years of marriage. At the beginning of the 10-year period, both partners completed ratings of themselves and their partners on a measure of psychopathy. This procedure allowed Weiss and his coauthors to study “homophily,” or correspondence between psychopathic traits, as well as the agreement between self and participant on ratings of psychopathy. Additionally, at the beginning of the study, couples engaged in discussions about conflict in their relationship. Four years later, the couples were once again studied; this time, they completed measures of marital satisfaction. Finally, at the 10-year mark, the researchers obtained information about whether the couple had divorced or not.

This ingenious design made it possible for the researchers to examine the extent to which both self and partner ratings of psychopathy and their agreement predicted how well couples would resolve conflict and then, subsequently, whether their initial psychopathy ratings of self and other would predict long-term outcomes.

At the outset of the study, there was a small degree of homophily in that self-ratings of psychopathic traits were slightly (but significantly) correlated. Interestingly, as the authors observed based on previous research, homophily in psychopathy is stronger in dating than married couples. While dating, people high in psychopathy may therefore find that they cannot form long-term commitments. Some of them do make it to marriage, but the odds are against them. A second and more striking finding among the married couples was the high self-other correlations observed for both husbands and wives. In other words, if a partner was high in psychopathy, the other partner was able to accurately make this judgment.

Once married, the Weiss et al. study found that people high in psychopathy start to show relationship problems very early. At that six-month point of the investigation, wives high in psychopathy were less likely to show positive approaches to conflict resolution, such as humor, affection, and interest. They were more likely to show the negative conflict approaches of anger and contempt. These negative behaviors during conflict were also reflected in the behaviors of their husbands. As the authors concluded, those high in psychopathy “may not be concerned if their communication approach causes their partner distress, and even if they are, they may be less capable of detecting these affective states and changing course so as to mitigate these experiences, resulting in the more aversive emotional states (more negativity, less positivity) observed here” (p. 246).

Not surprisingly, the problems related to high levels of psychopathic traits early in relationships only worsened over time, but more so when wives rated their husbands as high in psychopathy. The four-year follow-up showed that wife-rated psychopathy in husbands predicted a steep decline in the husband’s own level of marital satisfaction. It is possible that when wives saw their husbands as unfeeling and impulsive, they found it increasingly difficult to sustain a positive relationship with them, causing the husband to feel unsupported. The authors suggested, further, that men high in psychopathy may just be less interested in maintaining an intimate relationship over time, finding it increasingly less gratifying.

In any case, those early difficulties in conflict resolution strategies seemed to play out over the course of that initial study period. These findings add weight to the “enduring dynamics” pathway of long-term relationships, which proposes that whatever difficulties exist in a couples’ interaction patterns in their first months of marriage continue to play out over time. Couples who get along well early in a relationship are likely to do so throughout, and those who don’t will continue to show poor conflict resolution over the course of their time together.  The divorce statistics from this study bear out these proposed mechanisms in that here as well, it was the wives’ rating of their husbands’ psychopathic traits at the beginning of the study that predicted the ending of the marriage.

This well-conducted investigation shows not only that psychopathy (particularly in men) predicts the evolution of problems in marriages, but that the way you view your partner ultimately influences the course of your relationship. Self and other ratings did correspond quite highly to each other, indicating that the belief that your partner has certain personality traits is likely to have some basis in reality. If you’re not yet committed to your partner, the Weiss et al findings suggest you might want to reassess the future of the relationship. If your relationship is one that you would like to see continue, though, it may be advisable to take a good hard look at how you can make a course correction so things don’t come to what would be an unfortunate end.

References

Weiss, B., Lavner, J. A., & Miller, J. D. (2018). Self- and partner-reported psychopathic traits’ relations with couples’ communication, marital satisfaction trajectories, and divorce in a longitudinal sample. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, And Treatment, 9(3), 239-249. doi:10.1037/per0000233