A relationship with a sociopath is a traumatic experience. The definition of physical trauma is a serious injury or shock to the body, as with a car accident or major surgery. It requires healing.
On an emotional level, a trauma is wound or shock that causes lasting damage to the psychological development of a person. It also requires healing.
To some degree, we can depend on our natural ability to heal. But just as an untreated broken bone can mend crooked, our emotional systems may become “stuck” in an intermediate stage of healing. For example we may get stuck in anger, bitterness, or even earlier stages of healing, such as fear and confusion.
This article is about my personal ideas about the healing path for full recovery from the emotional trauma caused by a relationship with a sociopath. I am not a therapist, although I have training in some processes and theories of personal and organizational development. My ideas are also the result of years of research into personality disorders, creative and learning processes, family dynamics, childhood development, recovery from addictions and trauma, and neurological research.
After my five-year relationship with a man I now believe to be a sociopath, I was physically and emotionally broken down. I was also terrified about my condition for several reasons. In my mid-fifties, I was already seeing evidence of several age-related diseases. But more worrisome than the premature aging was my social incapacitation. I was unable to talk about myself without crying, unable to do the consultative work I lived on, desperately in need of comfort and reassurance, unable to trust my own instincts.
I had been in long-term relationships almost my entire life. My instinct was to find another one to help me rebuild myself. But I knew that there was no safe “relationship of equals” for me now. I was too messed up. No one would take on someone as physically debilitated and emotionally damaged as I was, without expecting to be paid for it. Likewise, I was afraid of my inclination to bond sexually. The only type of person I could imagine attracting was another predator who would “help” me while draining whatever was left of my material and financial resources.
So, for the first time in my life, I made a decision to be alone. Knowing that the relationship with the sociopath had involved forces in my personality that were out of my control, I also decided that my best approach to this recovery was to figure out what was wrong with me and fix it. At the time, I did not understand my role in fostering this relationship, except that I couldn’t get out of it. But I knew that what happened to me with the sociopath wasn’t just about him. It was also about me.
I also made a decision to manage my own recovery. I made this decision for several reasons. One was that no one else really understood the mechanics of this relationship. My friends offered emotional support, but they were as confused as I was about his hold on me and why I could not extricate myself. Second, I found no meaningful assistance from therapists who seemed unable to grasp that this was a traumatic relationship. Third, everyone I knew wanted me to get over it and get on with my life, which was simply impossible to do.
So I was not only alone, but proceeding on a path that no one else supported. I’m not sure where I found the certainty that it was the right thing to do. But I was certain, and I held onto that certainty through the years it took. Today, when I’m essentially at the end of the process, except for the ongoing work on myself that has little to do with the sociopath anymore, I look back at it as the greatest gift I ever gave myself. It was the hardest thing I ever did. And in its own weird way, the most fun.
Here is where I started. I knew that I wanted to discover and neutralize the causes of my vulnerability. I knew that my vulnerabilities pre-dated the sociopath, although he had exploited them and made them worse. I felt like my battered state and particularly the sharp emotional pain gave me something to work with that was clear and concrete, and possibly the emergence from my subconscious of a lot buried garbage that had been affecting my entire life. Ultimately, I did engage a therapist to assist me in uncovering some childhood memories, and then went back to my own work alone.
My personal goal may have been more ambitious than others who come to this site. I not only wanted to heal myself from the damage of this relationship. I intended to accomplish a deep character transformation that would change the way I lived. Before I met him I was superficially successful, but I was also an over-committed workaholic with a history of relationship disasters. Except for a lot of unpublished poetry and half-written books, I had made no progress on lifelong desire to live as a creative writer. I wanted to come out of this as a strong, independent person who could visualize major goals and manage my resources to achieve them.
Because I had no model for what I was trying to do, I did things that felt very risky at the time. For example, I consciously allowed myself to become bitter, an emotion I never allowed myself to feel before, because I was afraid of getting stuck there. I’ll talk about some of these risks in future pieces — what I did and how it came out. I learned techniques that I hear other people talking about here on Lovefraud, things that really helped to process the pain and loss. Some of them I adapted from reading about other subjects. Some of them I just stumbled upon, and later learned about them from books, after I’d begun practicing them.
Though not all of us may think about our recovery as deep transformation work, I think all of us recognize that our beliefs, our life strategies and our emotional capacities have been profoundly challenged. We are people who are characteristically strong and caring. Personal characteristics that seemed “good” to us brought us loss and pain. After the relationship, our challenge is to make sense of ourselves and our world again, when what we learned goes against everything we believed in.
What I write here is not a model for going through this recovery alone. I say I did this alone, but I recruited a therapist when I needed help. I encourage anyone who is recovering from one of these relationships to find a therapist who understands the trauma of abusive relationships, and that recommendation is doubled if, like me, you have other PSTD issues.
The healing path
Given all that, this article is the first of a series about the process of healing fully. I believe that Lovefraud readers who are far down their own recovery paths will recognize the stages. Those who are just recently out of their relationships may not be able to relate to the later stages. But from my experience, my observations of other people’s recovery, and from reading the personal writings on Lovefraud, I think that all of our recovery experiences have similarities.
Since my own intention in healing was to figure out what was wrong with me and fix it, this recovery path is about self-healing, rather than doing anything to or about the sociopath. However there is a stage when we do want that. We want to understand who we were dealing with. We may want recognition of our victimization, revenge or just fair resolution. There is nothing wrong with feeling that way. It is a stage of recovery, and an important one.
My ideas owe a lot to the Kubler-Ross grief model, as well as to recovery processes related to childhood trauma, codependency and addiction. I also owe a great deal to the writing of Stephen M. Johnson, whose Humanizing the Narcissistic Affect and Characterological Transformation: the Hard Work Miracle provided invaluable insights and encouragement.
Here is the path as I see it.
1. Painful shock
2. Negotiation with pain
3. Recognition with the sociopath
5. Measurement of damage
6. Surrender to reality of damage
7. Review of identity after damage
8. Rebuilding life strategies
The words here are very dry, and I apologize for that. The experience, as we all know, is more emotional than intellectual, though it taxes our thinking heavily.
From what I’ve experienced and seen, some of these stages may occur simultaneously. We may feel like we’re in all of them, but working particularly in one stage more than the others. In my case, I often found that I was “going around and around the same mountain,” returning to a previous stage but at a higher level than before.
There is no specific mention of depression in this list. This is because I regard it as a kind of brown-out of our emotional system, when we are simply too overwhelmed by facts and feelings that conflict with our beliefs and identities. Depression can happen at any time in this path, but feelings of depression are most likely to occur in Stage 6. Terrible as depression may feel, I believe it is evidence of a deep learning process, where our conscious minds are resisting new awareness that is developing at a deeper level.
This path is a model of adult learning. It would be equally valid in facing and surmounting any major life change. If you are familiar with the Kubler-Ross grief model which was developed to describe the challenges involved with bereavement, this model will look familiar. It is essentially an extension of Kubler-Ross into a post-traumatic learning model. The trauma may be the loss of a loved one, a divorce, a job loss or change, or any of the major stressors of life.
This is all about learning and evolving. If the path is traveled to its end, we emerge changed but improved and empowered. We have given up something to gain something more. The fact that this change is triggered by trauma may cause us to think that it’s a bad thing for a while, but ultimately we come to realize that we have not only recovered from a painful blow, we have truly become more than we were before.
What drives us to heal
The future articles in this series will explore the stages, their value to us and how we “graduate” from one to the next.
Our struggle to get over this experience involves facing our pain, which is the flip side of our intuitive knowledge of we need and want in our lives. Those needs draw us through the recovery process, like beacons on a far shore guide a ship on a stormy sea. To the extent that we can bring these needs up into conscious awareness, we can move through the path more directly, because it programs our thinking to recognize what helps and what does not.
Here are a few ideas about where we think we’re going. I hope they will stimulate some discussion here, and that you will add your own objectives to the list.
1. To relieve the pain
2. To release our unhealthy attachment to the sociopath
3. To recover our ability to love and trust
4. To recover confidence that we can take care of ourselves
5. To recover joy and creativity in our lives
6. To gain perspective about what happened
7. To recover the capacity to imagine our own futures
Finally, I want to say again how grateful I am to be writing here on Lovefraud. As you all know, it is not easy to find anyone who understands our experience or what it takes to get over it.
I have been working on a book about this recovery path for several years. The ideas I’m presenting here have been developed in solitude, and “tested” to a certain extent in coaching other victims of sociopathic relationships who entered my life while I was working on my own recovery. But I’ve never had the opportunity before to share them with a group of people who really know and understand what I am talking about.
I respect every stage of the recovery path — the attitudes and voices of those stages, their perspectives and the value they provide to us. So if you find me more philosophic, idealistic or intellectual than you feel right now, believe me that I have been through every bit of it. If you had met at different places on the path, you would have found a stunned, weepy, embittered, distraught, outraged or depressed person. I was in the angry phase for a very long time. I had reason to feel that way, and it was the right way for me to be at the time.
I believe the stages are a developmental process that builds, one stage to the next, to make us whole. I also believe that this healing process is natural to us, and what I’m doing here is describing something that has been described by many people before me, but not necessarily in this context.
Your thoughts and feedback are very important to me.
Namaste. The healing wisdom in me salutes the healing wisdom in you.