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5 Long-Term Effects of a Relationship With a Psychopath

Emotional, behavioral, and even biological changes.

Key points

  • Despite their uncharitable personality traits, psychopaths also present as charming and irresistible.
  • Study participants who had dated psychopaths reported emotional, biological, behavioral, cognitive, and interpersonal effects.
  • In spite of the negative consequences, there were also indications that participants experienced post-traumatic growth.

Why is the seduction of the psychopath so powerful? Because it is the art of the con wrapped in the beautiful illusion of love. ―Unknown

These words of wisdom, imparted by an anonymous source, capture the often spellbinding nature of psychopaths. They are characteristically grandiose, deceitful, impulsive, without a conscience and remorse, and frequently engage in criminal activity. Yet, despite these uncharitable personality traits, they can also present as charming and irresistible. Until they show their true colors, that is. While it is estimated that psychopaths comprise a mere 1 percent of the general population, the devastation they leave in their wake can be enormous.

What are the physical and mental health consequences of being intimately involved with a psychopath? This was one focus of a study led by psychologist Adelle Forth of Carleton University in Canada. To pursue this inquiry, she and her research team recruited 457 participants (10.5 percent male and 89.5 percent female) who had romantic involvement with a psychopath before or during taking part in the study (nearly 80 percent of participants were no longer involved). Relationship length ranged from several months to more than 20 years, with most being between two and five years.

The participants were interviewed about their experiences and completed various psychological questionnaires, including those that assess for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

What did Forth and her colleagues find? The analyses for this study focus revealed five core themes, which demonstrated the deep and lasting impact of being in a toxic relationship with a psychopath. The results are summarized below.

1. Emotional Consequences

The theme of emotional consequences proved most prevalent. Participants reported feelings along the spectrum of anger (including irritability and frustration) and hatred (of self and misogyny). One survivor expressed the following:

For a while after the relationship, I was angry at having been deceived on such a deep level.

Anxiety, fear, panic, and paranoia were oft-cited feelings, as were depressive symptoms, including anhedonia, and suicidal ideation and attempts. A participant shared this:

I hit rock bottom in my life. It was the most painful experience I have ever endured. I for the first time thought of suicide as life was too painful to deal with.

2. Biological Consequences

Survivors experienced a range of somatic complaints, including gastrointestinal problems, ulcers, and headaches. Consider the repercussions as described by a participant:

I had a substantial amount of weight loss. I would gag when I would try to eat. Initially my hair did not grow. My hair fell out and is coming in gray. My nails would not grow. I would be completely dehydrated. I developed a bleeding ulcer. I would not eat sometimes for days.

Interviewees also referenced heart and respiratory problems (e.g., angina, asthma, bronchitis), a range of endocrine and urologic diseases (e.g., diabetes, hypothyroidism), and autoimmune diseases (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis). One victim said:

I now believe that my arthritis, colon issues, etc. are directly related to the stresses of living for 14 years with a psychopath. The amount of personal energies required to handle getting through day to day life with him seemed to have sucked health from me personally.

Some victims referred to physical injuries, like broken ribs and black eyes.

3. Behavioral Changes

Changes to sleeping and eating (e.g., insomnia), lack of self-care (e.g., substance abuse, smoking), and changes in social activities and/or interactions were reported. Many survivors said they had engaged in social activities much less. One participant reflected:

I was dealing with nearly constant depression for a long time after I left this woman. I would not venture out in public for too long, instead preferring to stay indoors and alone. I do not socialize anywhere as much as I once used to.

4. Cognitive Changes

Consistent with PTSD symptoms, survivors referenced intrusion (i.e., flashbacks), dissociation (i.e., rumination), concentration difficulties (i.e., loss of focus), and memory difficulties. A participant remarked:

I was unable to concentrate and nearly lost my job because my boss noticed I was forgetting things and making mistakes.

5. Interpersonal Consequences

Having an intimate relationship with a psychopath damaged victims’ interpersonal functioning more broadly. Many lost trust in others, as they questioned others’ motives, withheld personal information, and feared being betrayed or abandoned. Participants also had difficulty trusting their social judgment because they had a relationship with a psychopath. Relatedly, they also referenced feelings of loss and loneliness. One participant shared:

I feel empty and lonely, all the time. Like I’ve lost everything good in my life because I’m an idiot and fell in love with a psychopath. I have little hope for being able to find someone, or anyone who will ever understand me or want to date me.

The authors conclude their study by noting that despite the negative consequences of dating a psychopath, there were also indications that participants experienced posttraumatic growth. They reported instances of resilience and becoming a stronger person, which may be a useful area of study for the future.

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Forth, A., Sezlik, S., Lee, S., Ritchie, M., Logan, J., & Ellingwood, H. (2022). Toxic relationships: The experiences and effects of psychopathy in romantic relationships. International journal of offender therapy and comparative criminology, 66(15), 1627-1658.

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