I received this question from a woman who is divorcing a man she believes has the traits of a psychopath (according to the psychopathy checklist):
“What psychological tactics can you suggest in dealing with a psychopath? There must be some tools and strategies to stay a step ahead. I’ve read books on identifying liars and tried to educate myself on strengthening my position in recognizing The Predator. There has to be some guidelines somewhere on How to Ride That Horse. I have had hundreds of horses throughout my life and pride myself on being able to ride anyone that crosses my path. Although this horse has been the most difficult and I continue to be dragged, trampled and kicked, I continue to get back up, dust myself off and try again. I have learned much and he has been a great teacher…..but in the final stages of our divorce, he is throwing some wild curve balls and I’m desperately trying to stay in the saddle. I ride all my horses softly, gently…..Can you offer tools for the arsenal?”
Before answering this question I want to make some important comments. Many people have reasons for needing and desiring relationships with people who are very sociopathic/psychopathic (sociopaths). In my view, there are only two legitimate reasons for having interactions with someone you believe may be “a sociopath.” The first is that the person is your boss and you haven’t yet found another job, and the second is that there is a court order commanding you to. That the sociopath is charming, attractive, wealthy, your son, daughter, friend, lover, mother, father or some other relation, is not a good enough reason to risk yourself and others.
Whenever you interact with a sociopath, you not only risk yourself, you risk others. Sociopaths weave a web of deception that is supported by the many relationships they have. If people refuse to participate in the sociopath’s life he/she will be very limited in his/her ability to harm anyone. Sociopaths/psychopaths know how to surround themselves with people who give them legitimacy in the minds of others and who serve as “cover.” They will use anyone for this purpose, especially ministers, priests and rabbis, and of course, children.
If you desire to have a relationship with a known sociopath there is something wrong with you. That something can be ignorance of the disorder and its dangerousness. A sense of grandiose invincibility and a love of risk taking can also feed into this desire. If you are an adventurous risk-taker, take up blizzard mountain exploration or sky diving, but keep away from sociopaths. Many people write me with a tone of wonder, awe and admiration for sociopaths. Save your wonder, awe and admiration for the Grand Canyon, the pyramids of Egypt, or the true miracles of life, please. (Here I am referring also to the women who send love letters to known killers and serial killers.)
Those comments out of the way, how can you cope successfully with a sociopath/psychopath? First, remember that these people are Driven to Do Evil. Just like you wake up every day and feel your drives and desires, sociopaths/psychopaths wake up every morning and “It’s show time!” Whereas your goals are intimately related to the love and compassion you feel for others, a sociopath’s goals are intimately related to his/her desire to gain power over others. If you don’t understand this at the core of your being, you will not be able to deal with sociopaths. Second, imagine a moment what your life would be like if guilt, empathy and compassion did not enter into your decision making processes. Imagine that your decisions were based solely on your judgments regarding what would benefit you.
Now imagine both together, a Drive to Do Evil and no guilt, empathy or compassion. A sociopath is a sports car with an accelerator and no braking system. Now you can see why I say only an ignorant, crazy or suicidal person would voluntarily choose to ride this horse, or drive this car!
I have just armed you with the mental picture of the sociopath who you are compelled to deal with. To successfully cope, keep this picture in your mind at all times. Ignore any of the sociopath’s actual appearance or behavior. Keep all conversations brief and to the point. Set firm boundaries and never give an inch. Insist that you get everything due you, and that the sociopath abide by his/her end of any court orders, or job descriptions. Most importantly, STOP expecting that the sociopath will behave like anyone other than who he/she is. A sociopath is a person who is Driven to Do Evil and who lacks, guilt, empathy and compassion.
To make this point further, let us consider our friend’s analogy of the psychopath and our relations with him/her to the horse and horseback riding. Horses are domesticated animals. Domestication means they have been bred to have the capacity for submissive behavior and impulse control. These two (submissive behavior and impulse control) are supported by a very complicated biology that includes hormones and brain structure. The psychopath lacks both the brain structure and hormonal profile to behave submissively or even consistently cooperatively. The best horse analogy to the sociopath is the horse who dies in the process of being ridden because s/he lacks the substrate for domestication. This horse is not a challenge, s/he is a waste of time and energy.
So stick with the horses that have been beautifully trained to compete in the show ring, and who lovingly wait by the fence for you to appear. These horses enjoy cooperation and don’t mind having to submit occasionally. The untrainable horses are a complete waste of time. Surround yourself with people you know to be primarily motivated by love and compassion. To do otherwise, is a complete waste of time and energy.