It’s easy to feel romantic when you meet a new love interest. But after a few months things might feel off. Has your love interest changed? You may hear jokes about dating a psychopath, but it’s no laughing matter, says Dr. Paul DePompo, psychologist and author of The Other Woman’s Affair. “A psychopath and a sociopath are just common terms for someone who has antisocial personality disorder, a very real and scary diagnosis,” DePompo told The Cheat Sheet. “Not for the person who has it, but for the ones who come into contact with them.”
To learn more about this personality disorder, we spoke with mental health experts. If there’s a chance you’re romantically involved with a psychopath, you’ll want to watch out for these behaviors. It can give you a starting point for examining your relationship.
1. Superficial charm
Real-life example: Your partner always knows the right thing to say around others.
A psychopath isn’t afraid to talk about themselves, according to Dr. Robert Hare of the University of British Columbia. He says these people can lure others in with their charisma and aren’t afraid to say whatever is on their mind. Someone like this will often dominate the conversation, rather than let a group of people take turns talking. Others may describe them as smooth, engaging, and “all about me.”
Next: Does this person engage during moments of conflict?
2. Emotional detachment
Real-life example: You voice frustration with your significant other, but they do not want to discuss it.
Psychologist John M. Grohol, founder of Psych Central, notes psychopaths tend to have a difficult time forming emotional attachments. The early dating stages are just an act to get you to proceed with the relationship. “They form artificial, shallow relationships designed to be manipulated in a way that most benefits the psychopath,” Grohol writes. “People are seen as pawns to be used to forward the psychopath’s goals. Psychopaths rarely feel guilt regarding any of their behaviors, no matter how much they hurt others.”
Next: Do exciting moments get out of hand?
Real-life example: Your significant other buys things without considering whether they can afford them.
The early stage of a relationship with a psychopath will move so fast that it will make your head spin. Clinical neuropsychologist Rhonda Freeman’s Psychology Today piece says the early courtship phase will be intense. Keep in mind, however, that other disorders also cause some people to be impulsive, so this behavior alone isn’t enough to identify someone as a psychopath.
Next: Do you end up in situations you didn’t agree to?
Real-life example: Your partner wants you to do something, so they say, “If you really love me, you’ll do it.”
An intense need to control people and situations leads psychopaths to engage in manipulative behavior. Ce Anderson, therapist and author of Love TAPS, says the psychopath carefully creates a plan that will help him or her gain what is desired from the targeted individual. “I cannot stress enough how strategic and manipulative and charismatic these individuals are, all the while weaving an intricate trap,” Anderson said. “Some don’t believe they exist, but my personal experience and the stories of my patients beg to differ.”
Next: Does your significant other like to bend rules?
5. Regularly breaking or disregarding the law
Real-life example: Your significant other has a pile of traffic tickets they refuses to pay.
Psychopaths are not associated with being law-abiding citizens. Rather, they aim to twist the law in their favor, and make an effort not to get caught. DePompo explains psychopaths often feel the law doesn’t apply to them. “You know you are dating a psychopath when they believe they are above the law, and are chronic liars, often believing they are ‘too smart’ to get caught. Their desires are solely for things that will benefit them.
Next: Is this person always moving on to the next exciting thing?
6. Getting bored easily
Real-life example: Your partner is bored despite eventful happenings in their work and personal life.
Psychopaths may be hardwired to feel more underwhelmed than others across all aspects of life. He or she may constantly initiate exciting activities despite a packed schedule and exhausting lifestyle. Dr. Robert Schug, a neurocriminologist and clinical psychologist, told Reader’s Digest, “A psychopath’s nervous system is wired so they need to keep doing exciting things to feel normal and reach normal levels of arousal.”
Next: Lying about small things will lead to bigger things.
7. Chronic lying
Real-life example: Your significant other lies about small things like not doing the dishes or what they bought at the store.
If you see a pattern of frequent lying, this could also be a sign. DePompo says psychopaths behave as if they are smarter than others and are too smooth to get caught. “Telling you what you want to hear, they have another covert operation going on: going after what they want. It is often centered on ways they want to use you for their own benefit,” DePompo said. “Remember they do not operate according to your rules, so don’t be shocked when you start becoming alert to the depths of their selfishness.”
Next: Notice how they react to sad or tragic situations.
8. Lack of empathy
Real-life example: Your pet died and your partner shows no sorrow or concern for your feelings.
If your significant other seems to have a noticeable lack of care and concern for others, pay attention. Psychopathy is characterized by a lack of empathy as well as the absence of deep emotions or a conscience. The safety and welfare of others does not resonate with a psychopath.
Anderson says a psychopath might also blame his or her partner for relationship problems. “The potential sociopath labels their ex-partner as crazy and blames the break-up solely on their ex-partner. He or she will also skip out on financial obligations, or constantly have money troubles,” Anderson told The Cheat Sheet.
Next: Are they always the No. 1 priority?
Real-life example: Your significant other brags about their accomplishments and isn’t comfortable talking about your achievements.
Psychopaths tend to have an inflated sense of self-worth. They believe they matter more than anyone else, so your opinions are unimportant.
DePompo asserts this arrogance may be partly due to the psychopath’s childhood upbringing. “Often, as a child they had so much adversity and bad modeling from caregivers, they develop a belief that they have to look out for No. 1 to survive. It becomes an overdeveloped skill that impairs their ability to be empathetic, follow rules, or have intimate relationships with others.” said DePompo.
Next: Are you stuck in a cycle of breaking up and getting back together?
Real-life example: You try to cut things off but somehow keep getting back together.
If you find yourself in an on-again-off-again relationship with someone you suspect is a psychopath, the term “hoovering” may explain it. The HuffPost explains that even if you and your significant other break up, he or she will make it difficult to cut ties altogether. They may promise to change their behavior, text you incessantly, and say what you want to hear.
This is called “hoovering,” and it’s all in the name of regaining control of you and the relationship. If you don’t completely break things off, he or she will keep playing mind games.
Next: One is not enough.
Real-life example: Your partner has been cheating on you with several people.
Psychopaths tend to have multiple sexual partners. This is mainly because they have difficulty forming deep relationships. Dr. Seth Meyers said in his Psychology Today column that a relationship with a psychopath is usually marked by an absence of emotional connection and empathy. Consequently, psychopaths have no problem jumping from one sexual partner to the next. Quantity is more important to them than quality.
Next: No sense of responsibility.
Real-life example: Your partner hits someone with their car and immediately says it wasn’t their fault.
Psychopaths also have a tendency to shirk responsibility. It doesn’t matter how important the task is, a psychopath will find ways to avoid being responsible for it. In The Mask of Sanity Hervey Cleckley, a psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of psychopathy, said psychopaths lack a sense of responsibility. “Though he is likely to give an early impression of being a thoroughly reliable person, it will soon be found that on many occasions he shows no sense of responsibility whatsoever,” said Cleckley in his book.
Next: Put all the clues together …
Understanding the signs
While some people qualify as psychopaths, Anderson says you’re more likely to come in contact with a sociopath. She elaborates:
The term psychopath refers to sociopaths who exhibit psychotic features or reality breaks, which can be associated with schizophrenia and even bipolar disorder. Film and television have made the two synonymous, when in reality, studies show that we are more likely to come in contact with a sociopath at work and in our daily lives.
To complicate things, psychopathy can be hard to spot because these people hide their condition underneath a veneer of charm. In her Psychology Today piece, Freeman writes, “Many with psychopathy are nothing like what we might imagine (i.e., the socially awkward loner, disengaged from society, plotting to do harm, emitting darkness). In reality, they often have attractive traits that we tend to think would exclude the presence of psychopathology.”
If you truly think you’re seeing someone who meets the criteria, it is time to take action.
Next: Don’t stay in this situation.
What you can do
Cut ties: Once you realize you’re dating someone who could cause you harm, you should quickly exit the relationship. Anderson says many people unknowingly date psychopaths because they’re blinded by their charisma. “These individuals are dangerous and charming. One should protect themselves by cutting all contact and all communication with the individual when possible. The average person is not mentally equipped to spar with a sociopath or psychopath,” Anderson said.
Get help: While a psychopath is not necessarily violent, it is still a possibility. If your relationship has resulted in violence, reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233). If you are in more immediate danger, call your local police department.
In addition, Anderson says if you want to get help for your psychopathic partner, you’re better off not trying. She explains:
Individuals with antisocial personality disorder do not believe they have a problem, thus they will not seek or believe in the need for counseling,” she explained. “Their partner will likely end up in therapy in order to recover from the mental abuse suffered in the relationship. For those who do enter counseling, their rate of recovery is less than 2%.
Next: Use this experience as a learning opportunity.
A final word
Don’t beat yourself up if you’ve been involved with a psychopath. Think of it as a blessing in disguise. Now you have some tools to help you choose a better partner the next time. DePompo warns, “If it was the initial charm that got you hooked — be alert for that level of charm when you get back out there to date. Remember every good trait that you like initially with someone has a flip side that is negative. A smooth talker can be manipulative.”
Also work on taking care of yourself. Bill Benson, a licensed marriage and family therapist told The Cheat Sheet it’s important for survivors to change maladaptive thoughts and behaviors that tend to feed toxic relationships. “When I work with patients who find themselves in a friendship or love relationship with a volatile person, and have determined that this relationship is toxic to their physical health and/or emotional growth, we work on finding ways to disengage from this person,” he explains. Two methods he recommends include becoming boring in a way that creates distance and focusing on nurturing yourself.
Follow Sheiresa on Twitter @SheiresaNgo.
[Editor’s Note: This story was originally published November 2016.]