Psychopathy

What Happens When a Psychopath Falls in Love

New research into how partners may influence each other, for better or worse.

Posted May 26, 2015

oneinchpunch/Shutterstock
Source: oneinchpunch/Shutterstock

We've all seen the stereotype of a psychopath in the media. (Think Criminal Minds.) He is a man, typically in his 20s or early 30s, whose coldness and lack of remorse compels him to commit sadistic acts, including murder. Even the outstanding profile of psychopathy provided by Jon Ronson focuses almost exclusively on men who meet the clinical definition. Is psychopathy really gender-specific, affecting men more than women? Are psychopaths really incapable of strong emotions, empathy, and the ability to relate deeply to others? Research offers new details about individuals with psychopathic personalities, including what it is really like to fall in love with one. 

Psychopathy takes many forms, including the subthreshold variety in which people score high on personality tests that measure psychopathic tendencies. When examined as a continuous dimension on which people can receive varying scores, we can see how the degree to which a person has psychopathic tendencies relates to other facets of that individual’s psyche and relationships.

There is reason to think that subthreshold psychopaths would have difficulties in their intimate relationships. As noted by Université Laval (Quebec) psychologist Claudia Savard and colleagues in a 2015 scientific study, criminals in general have the insecure attachment style of avoidance in which they find it difficult to form close relationships with others. Individuals who fit the criteria of psychopathy—whether or not they also engage in criminal behavior—exhibit behaviors associated with an avoidant attachment style, being unable to form close intimate relationships. Emotional detachment and lack of empathy—two key indicators of psychopathy—also relate to maladaptive attachment styles.

People high in psychopathy still form romantic relationships, whether or not they get married or establish a committed bond. Such a relationship, however, may not be based on psychological intimacy in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, similar to Bonnie and Clyde. a couple may enter into a relationship based on a shared view of the world in which both try to get as much out of other people as possible. Their lack of empathy and ability to express deep emotions may lead, if not to a violent end, then to dissolution based on increasingly destructive patterns of interaction with each other. 

Even these somewhat ill-fated couples, however, can develop a more positive outcome if the healthier of the two partners can influence the other. Over time, they might form an intimate bond that allows both of them to become more trusting, sharing, and able to see things from the partner’s point of view.

To find out how psychopathy and attachment style might evolve over time, Savard and her coauthors took the novel approach of tracking a sample of married couples for a one-year period. This allowed the French-Canadian team to examine the effects of one partner on another over time. The 140 couples, together for an average of seven years, ranged in age from 18 to 35.

Participants completed their questionnaires separately, rating themselves on scales designed to measure their psychopathic tendencies of low empathy and manipulativeness (“primary" psychopathy) and their degree of engaging in antisocial behavior (“secondary” psychopathy). They also rated their attachment style along the dimensions of anxiety (fear of abandonment) and avoidance (inability to get close to others).

The fact that participants rated themselves across the two test occasions allowed the Savard team to examine the effect, over time, of one partner’s effects on the other partner’s scores. All couples were heterosexual, so the design of the study allowed the researchers to examine the effects of the male partner on his wife, and vice versa. This translated into looking at the actor’s (say, the man’s) effect on his partner as well as the converse, the effect of the woman (now the actor) on the man (now the partner in the analysis).

The authors could compare, then, the strength of the relationship from "actor" to "partner" in comparison to the strength of the relationship from "partner" to "actor." The authors also had to take into account the changes over time in each man and each woman, separate from the effect they had on each other (actor-actor effects).

Would, when the dust cleared from these comparisons, there be an effect of actor A on partner B, and vice versa? Would this hold true for both men and women? The actor-actor effects showed that for men, but not women, higher levels of primary psychopathy at the time of the first test (insensitivity) predicted higher levels of attachment avoidance at time of the second test. Men also showed stronger relationships across time between primary psychopathy and attachment-related anxiety, meaning that the more psychopathic men also expressed greater fear of intimacy.

For both men and women, though, the secondary psychopathic traits (engaging in antisocial acts) predicted greater attachment-avoidance and anxiety over time. Impulsive and irresponsible behavior, over time, becomes increasingly related both to fear of rejection and a tendency to withdraw from one’s partner.

Examining the actor-partner effects for men to women demonstrated the following: If you are a woman, having a male partner higher in psychopathy along both dimensions of insensitivity and impulsivity at the outset might make you more likely to detach from him over the course of time. Conversely, men partnered to women higher only in the impulsivity dimension of psychopathy became more anxious in attachment. The antisocial women may have caused their male partners to feel more afraid of rejection, more dependent, and more emotionally unstable.

Does correlation indicate causation? Not necessarily. But the study’s design allowed these researchers to definitively test paths in which psychopathy predicted attachment and, conversely, attachment predicted psychopathy. As the authors concluded, “psychopathic personality traits should be considered as a predictor of attachment insecurities, rather than the opposite, in a dyadic perspective” (p. 133).

In summary:

  • If you’re the female partner of a man who tends toward the insensitivity or callous end of the psychopathic spectrum, be prepared for rough times ahead. His inability to empathize with you may only make you retreat further into yourself.
  • If your partner is high in the impulsive component of psychopathy, your difficulties might worsen regardless of whether you are the male or female in the relationship. If it is your own personality that is problematic (i.e. you’re high in psychopathy), your ability to relate closely to the person you committed to may itself erode over time.

Knowing about these findings, is there anything you can do to improve a relationship with a person high in psychopathy? It seems to me that, armed with this study’s findings, you can increase your resolve to seek an intervention in which you address head-on the role of both you and your partner's personality in your relationship’s eventual ability to succeed.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015

Facebook image: Pavel Ilyukhin/Shutterstock

References

Savard, C., Brassard, A., Lussier, Y., & Sabourin, S. (2015). Subclinical psychopathic traits and romantic attachment in community couples: A dyadic approach. Personality And Individual Differences, 72128-134. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2014.08.01