Rhonda Freeman Ph.D.

NeuroSagacity

Why We May Fall for Psychopaths

The two phases of psychopathic love relationships.

Posted Jan 07, 2017

Love activates and excites the brain better than any drug. Which is why, when love goes wrong, it can be emotionally devastating and lead to psychological problems for some people (e.g., depression, anxiety, PTSD). 

Many women and men struggle with extreme levels of pain and stress due to relationship issues. Some couples can work through obstacles and get back on track. However, for a small number of individuals, their emotional upheaval stems from having fallen in love with someone with psychopathy. 

How do you know if the person you love has a disorder that prevents them from bonding, but makes them prone to harming? In this video, I touch on six red flags that could indicate a toxic, possibly dangerous partner—a psychopath.

Psychopathy is a personality disorder; people who have it demonstrate thought patterns and behaviors that reflect: 

  • Power-seeking.
  • A preoccupation with winning.
  • Proneness to agitation, meanness, and anger.
  • Exploitation.
  • Lack of shame, guilt, or remorse.
  • Narcissism.
  • Stimulation-seeking and impulsivity.
  • Low or no empathy.
  • Minimal ability to bond.
  • Deception and lying.

Any of these factors can put the brakes on a safe, mature union.

Further, many people with psychopathy who filter information through a basic framework of: 

  • Winner vs. loser.
  • Powerful vs. weak.
  • Us vs. them.
  • Me vs. you.

There are winners and losers, and they often keep score, regardless of how unimportant the situation may be. In the view of a psychopath, someone has to be on top, and they tend to rank their interactions and the people they know. They hurt other people emotionally, financially, or physically based on those beliefs, which are rarely changeable. This binary way of interpreting the world can be bewildering to someone who appreciates social and emotional complexity. 

Psychopaths cannot be taught (based on current treatment interventions) to shift out of this basic level of processing information. Complex and more advanced emotional processing and maturity relies heavily upon the ventromedial prefrontal cortex of the brain. In people with psychopathy, that region (in addition to others) is not functioning as it should. So the people in their lives—partners, children, employees, or co-workers—may be at risk of getting hurt.

If we examine the verbalizations of a person with psychopathic traits, we can identify themes that reflect the presence of a limited emotional range. Many people with psychopathy express thoughts of intolerance, exclusion, blame-shifting, hate, superiority, anger, deception, manipulation, arrogance, and wanting to harm or do away with an enemy (not necessarily physically—it could be through humiliation or social shaming).

Often the person at the beginning of a relationship with a psychopath will not resemble the person at the end of it. Many survivors of psychopathic abuse will wonder, "Where did the great guy (woman) go? I fell in love with someone who was generous, kind and respectful."

There is no formula when it comes to psychopaths or their intimate relationships. However, what seems evident is that many with psychopathy have similarities due to neurobiological constraints

We know from fMRI studies on the brains of those with psychopathy that some have a reward system that is hypersensitive. The "reward system" of our brain refers to its regions and circuitry related to motivation, wanting, desiring, obsession, craving, attraction, lust (and more)—it's an excitatory system and gets us going. 

Maksim Fesenko/Shutterstock
Source: Maksim Fesenko/Shutterstock

Many who have experienced a psychopathic love relationship report the beginning as pleasant and intense (e.g., moved quickly). It feels good, perhaps even great. Survivors commonly describe three general relationship stages—idealize, devalue, and discard. We see this same pattern in many individuals who have Cluster B personality disorders, not just psychopathy (which is under the heading of antisocial personality disorder in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). 

Although I agree with the observations of three stages from a neurobiological standpoint, I believe there are two basic phases to a psychopathic relationship, and I suspect these two phases are associated with the functioning of the reward system. 

Phase One. The pursuit or chase of a new partner by someone with psychopathy can be unrelenting. Their attraction and lust are likely genuine; it seems they have the capacity for such motivational states. However, they may also decide to engage in grooming (manipulation), deception, and exploitation tactics as well. It is often during this time of romantic bliss that their partner develops a connection with them. Who wouldn’t? This is the natural process of falling in love. But in unions of this type, only one person forms a deep bond. (Hint: It is not the person with psychopathy.)

Phase Two. The person with psychopathy does not establish a real connection. They are bored easily, and, lacking the ability to genuinely connect, their relationships are disposable. After that point, for them, the worthiness of their mate is related to his or her value from a superficial standpoint. Staying with their partner is usually more of a logical decision, rather than one anchored in feelings—e.g., Does she/he make me look good? Am I too bored to tolerate this? What's the payoff for me now?

Quite often, the relationship takes a drastic turn during this second phase, and a partner/victim might find himself or herself exposed to abuse, manipulation, and lies. These dark, inappropriate behaviors can be perplexing because they bear no resemblance to the initial phase. It is during this time that individuals can become caught on a roller-coaster of emotional ups and downs.

The Aftermath

What can a person do to move forward after getting out of a relationship with a psychopath?

  1. Realize that although it is unfortunate, individuals with strong psychopathic traits are incapable of validating or reciprocating the deep emotions of others. The mistreatment, betrayal, or blindsiding was not because you were not good enough. When someone loves you, they care about your feelings and treat you with respect and kindness.
  2. Recognize that there is no excuse for bullying or harming others. We are not responsible for someone else's decision to choose violating behaviors. Those with psychopathy are neurobiologically prone to cause harm but they are choosing to engage in bad behavior: They know the difference between right and wrong.
  3. Our brain thrives when it feels a connection with others. Social support with healthy, loving people can help the brain release oxytocin, a neuropeptide associated with reducing anxiety—among numerous other roles. Spend time with the friends and family (or even pets) who love you to calm your mind.
  4. Be open to help from mental-health specialists if signs of anxiety, depression, or PTSD are present.
  5. Remember: It's normal to feel extremely bonded to a former partner soon after a relationship ends. It is not a sign that the person held a "special" status or was your soul mate. The brain often generates obsessive thoughts, cravings, and pain when a relationship is over due to the neurochemistry associated with separation and romantic love. Professional help may help ease these symptoms.
  6. Consider art (e.g., creating, listening to music, writing), movement (e.g., exercising, dancing), or engaging with nature (walking, appreciating natural surroundings). Many studies show that these approaches have a positive impact on the regions of the brain associated with emotions and stress.

It might not be easy to move forward when the one you loved completely changes and displays very dark personality traits, but it is possible to reconnect with yourself and regain peace and happiness.

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Adapted from my article on Neuroinstincts: Why Does it Feel Like Two Different Relationships When Someone Unwittingly Falls for a Psychopath? (Freeman, 2017) For more information regarding psychopathy and intimate relationships, visit Neuroinstincts or the non-profit organization, Aftermath Surviving Psychopathy.

© 2017 Dr. Rhonda Freeman | Clinical Neuropsychologist

References

Blair, R. J. (2013). Psychopathy: cognitive and neural dysfunction. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 15(2), 181–190.

Bratmana, G., Hamilton, P., Hahn, K., Daily, G., & Gross, J. (2015). Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. PNAS 112 (28) 8511-8512

Buckholtz, J. W., Treadway, M. T., Cowan, R. L., Woodward, N. D., Benning, S. D., Li, R., … Zald, D. H. (2010). Mesolimbic Dopamine Reward System Hypersensitivity in Individuals with Psychopathic Traits. Nature Neuroscience,13(4), 419–421. http://doi.org/10.1038/nn.2510

Guzmán, Y. F., Tronson, N. C., Jovasevic, V., Sato, K., Guedea, A. L., Mizukami, H., … Radulovic, J. (2013). Fear-enhancing effects of septal oxytocin receptors. Nature Neuroscience, 16(9), 1185–1187. 

Koenigs, M. (2012). The role of prefrontal cortex in psychopathy. Reviews in the Neurosciences, 23, 253-265

Marshall, T. C., Bejanyan, K., & Ferenczi, N. (2013). Attachment Styles and Personal Growth following Romantic Breakups: The Mediating Roles of Distress, Rumination, and Tendency to Rebound. PLoS ONE, 8(9), e75161.