There are many reasons why being unwittingly involved with a sociopath often leads to anxiety and depression. Below is an edited excerpt from my book Husband, Liar, Sociopath: How He Lied, Why I Fell For It & The Painful Lessons Learned (available via Amazon.com) that discusses some of the relevant dynamics.
Chronic, Subtle Feelings That “Something’s Off”
A chronic, subtle sense of unease, anxiety, and feeling that something is “off” are classic symptoms of being in a relationship with a sociopath. These feelings became my constant companions while married to my ex-husband.
A Psychology Experiment
The Iowa Gambling Task is a classic study designed by neuroscientists at the University of Iowa. It demonstrates how you can sense that something is wrong and feel anxious without understanding what is making you feel that way.
In their study, subjects were given four decks of cards, play money, and instructions to draw cards from any of the four decks until they were told to stop. Each card in the deck triggered a payout or a loss of varying amounts. The decks were rigged so that two of the decks had positive expected payouts while the other two were downright punitive and would result in large losses for the participant.
Players’ anxiety and tension were measured via the electrical conductance of their skin, the same technique used in many lie-detector tests.
Knowing Without Knowing We Know
At first, a player’s choice of decks appeared random.
But soon, players experienced tension and anxiety while reaching for the decks with negative expected payouts. Players also started avoiding these decks long before they had a logical explanation for their choices, suggesting that your anxiety and tension can signal that something is legitimately wrong long before you realize it consciously or can offer some sort of explanation.
What do the results of this card experiment have to do with living with a sociopath?
A relationship with a sociopath is just like thinking you are drawing cards from a fair deck when, in fact, you are drawing cards from a deck that is stacked against you. You will feel anxious and on edge. Although participants in psychology experiments are debriefed so they understand what has actually transpired, in real life there is no guarantee that you will ever understand the root cause of your negative feelings. Without understanding the root cause, you may never remove yourself from the person or situation triggering the feelings, hence feeling anxious and on edge become chronic.
Let’s Make Up a New Experiment And Think About What Would Happen
Imagine if you were a participant in the study and were required to keep choosing from the punitive deck, not all the time but as frequently as you did from the nonpunitive decks. Your anxiety and tension would probably persist and even escalate. Imagine now that, due to heightened tension and anxiety, you ask to avoid these decks. When the experimenter asks why, you explain that certain decks seem associated with big losses.
Imagine if the experimenter appears to listen with great empathy and compassion (as a sociopath would) but then explains that the decks have been balanced carefully. If you perceive differences, it is just that you are unlucky early on in the study or that you are one of those people who is overly sensitive to negative feedback.
In fact, the experimenter is just like you; he had a similar impression when he went through the experiment himself, but almost no other player has made that comment. Further, it is important for you to continue, and the lead experimenter will not pay you for doing the study unless you complete it—although the assistant experimenter would be happy to help you out if he could.
Nothing’s Wrong—You’re Just Oversensitive
In light of the information that there’s no valid reason to be upset, and with your ego on the line to prove you’re not “overly sensitive,” you persist.
Several outcomes, none of them good, are now likely. Your anxiety and tension will probably persist and build as you take actions you sense, accurately, are contrary to your interests. As your anxiety mounts, maybe you will stop the experiment again and reiterate that you’re sure two of the decks are minefields and ask permission to avoid them. Again, the assistant offers (although he suggests he might get in trouble for it) to take the decks aside and check them. Maybe they got scrambled. You wait. He returns, assuring you that the decks are even. Again, maybe it is just randomness that made some decks appear more or less favorable than others.
Alternatively, maybe, as the assistant suggested earlier, you’re just overly sensitive to negative feedback. In fact, another experimenter is looking for people who consider themselves exceptionally sensitive and tend to “over react.” Maybe you would like to sign up for this study as well. Not wanting to appear unusually weak or overly sensitive, you persist with the experiment in spite of mounting anxiety every time you reach for the two punitive decks.
In Chronic “Fight or Flight” Mode Without Knowing Why
In this scenario, you’re in a subtle, but constant, “fight or flight” mode, because you are in a negative situation. But since someone you trust, someone who seems to show considerable empathy for you, is telling you that you’re misreading the situation, you don’t leave.
If this is truly just an experiment that takes a half-hour, no long-term damage is likely. But living with a sociopath is like being stuck in a rigged experiment that never ends. Being in fight or flight mode is great if you’re trying to outrun a nasty dog. Living in fight or flight mode constantly is profoundly unhealthy—both physically and emotionally. In addition, having someone you trust continually contradict your perceptions and undermine your decisions is intellectually and emotionally corrosive. As your perceptions and reasoning are discounted, not only do you experience ongoing anxiety, you have less confidence in your ability to perceive and assess the friendliness or hostility of your environment. Over time, your self-confidence and self-esteem take a hit. Your hard-wired fight or flight mechanism, crafted over millions of years of evolution to signal danger, is dampened.
Learned Helplessness and Depression
There are other potential outcomes to this experiment we’ve created.
Choosing not to feel constant anxiety and having all your efforts to understand what is going on fail, you might continue to go through the motions but give up emotionally as you realize you can’t do anything to control a situation you perceive as negative.
This sounds a lot like “learned helplessness,” a term introduced by psychologists Steven F. Maier and Martin Seligman. Learned helplessness is linked with depression. To avoid expending energy in an unwinnable situation, it might be best to just resign yourself to your unpleasant fate—to give up, to not care, to disconnect.
Depression Hangs Around
The problem is that once you learn that it’s futile to try, this is hard to unlearn. As a result, after being eroded by a sociopath, you may not attempt to exert effort to advance your interests in future situations, even when the situation is different and new efforts are likely to yield positive results. Being in an environment for an extended time in which the connection between effort and results is severed can change you, leaving you chronically depressed.
As these are only some of the toxic and corrosive dynamics inherent to many relationships with sociopaths, is it any wonder that the majority of people involved in a long-term relationship with a sociopath become depressed or anxious even in the absence of physical abuse?
I think it is testament to the inner strength of those targeted by sociopaths that we recover from this at all. But, thankfully, with time, a change of environment (preferably “no contact” with the sociopath), and the right help and support many of us can and do—but it doesn’t happen overnight. As I was unwittingly married to a sociopath for almost twenty years, my healing process has been long and ongoing—but it is happening.
Best wishes for getting these toxic people out of your life and moving onward.
Identifying names, places, events, characteristics, etc. that I discuss here and in my book have been altered to protect the identity of everyone involved.