Lovefraud recently received the following e-mail from a reader who we’ll call Martha.
I have a 33-year old adult stepson who I believe is sociopathic — he fits all the criteria. He has been a problem to the family ever since his mother threw him out to our house at the age of 13. By that time he was so oppositional there was no dealing with him in any reasonable way. We went through all the “standard” teenage issues with him — petty crime, running away, repeating years in school, counseling, adolescent psych facility, military school till we ran out of money, etc.
What is different about our situation from everything I read is that my husband has stood by him for so many years, giving him money, cosigning on loans, all to no avail of course. My husband thinks he is being a good Christian parent and that he is the only one who is forgiving enough — the rest of us are at fault for not being forgiving enough. We can have no reasonable discussion about his son, as he does not like to hear anything negative about him. We can have no reasonable discussion with his son, as he never takes responsibility for any of his actions — everything is our fault for not doing enough for him — all the standard excuses that sociopaths give.
My unique issue is that I feel a lot of guilt about it. I know he was 11 when we married, so I could not have had any part of early childhood upbringing. He showed some of the signs you talk about when he was 11, but he did not appear to me to be a red flag issue at that time. I was never able to bond with him, but his being sociopathic explains that to me in retrospect.
What I would like to hear about is how other parental figures deal with these feelings. My own husband acts like he feels guilty, but will not admit it. His ex-wife is emotionally fragile and has to stay on meds to keep from having a breakdown and being hospitalized again. My stepson is probably ADD also, but neither of them wanted him “labeled” as a child, so they rejected any sort of meds or treatment for him back then. I guess my moral compass says that parents should not inflict this type of child on society and must do everything possible to assure they raise their children right. I know it bugs me that neither my husband nor his ex ever seemed to do a whole lot to correct their son or guide him even today. I also know that a stepparent really has no ability to alter the situation either. I just feel that it is so wrong to have this situation and have all the family members taking this approach that it is not their issue or problem, and the guilt sponge in me feels that I cannot be allowed to sink to their level with them.
I feel guilty for being part of the whole situation and not being able to make it any better. I feel guilty for being part of unleashing my stepson on society where he preys on people and does not carry his weight. Every time I read one of those articles where people want to start prosecuting the parents when someone like my stepson commits a crime, I just cringe in fear. I feel like as long as my stepson is acting the way he does, someone must be doing penance for the sins. And it scares me that I feel that he will never change but we are responsible to get him to change since we somehow failed to properly mold him in the first place.
So why am I the guilt sponge? Why do I want everyone else to wallow in guilt like me? Are there other family figures in similar situations who feel all the guilt that no one else in the situation seems to feel? I know this is unrealistic guilt, too. I know I was raised to be a guilt sponge, so part of it is just me. Sometimes I think I have all the guilt genes these sociopaths never got!
Martha is not to blame
The reality of the situation is that Martha is not to blame for her stepson being a sociopath. This personality disorder is highly genetic. Martha is not the biological parent, so she had nothing to do with his genetics.
As Dr. Liane Leedom explains, children born with the genetic traits that may lead to sociopathy exhibit signs such as aloofness and fearlessness. This is because they have a diminished capacity to form bonds with people, including their parents. Parents need to work extra hard in order to teach these children how to love. For the best chance of success, parents must do this from the time the children are very young.
But this is new information—Dr. Leedom’s book, Just Like His Father? was published in 2006, and it is the only book that addresses how to parent children with genetic links to antisocial behavior. The information was simply not available when Martha’s stepson was growing up.
Plus, these children are, in fact, difficult. It takes a lot of emotional strength to teach them to be loving, day in and day out. Martha says that her stepson’s mother is emotionally fragile, so she did not have that strength.
The stepson came to Martha’s home when he was 13—probably in the midst of puberty. In many cases, the hormonal changes of puberty cause sociopathic traits to really become prominent. Martha and her husband did everything they could, such as counseling and military school. It didn’t work.
The sad truth is that sometimes the genetics of sociopathy are so strong that all the best efforts of parents to guide their children fail. Martha’s stepson may be one of those cases.
How to deal with the stepson
So now what? Martha’s stepson is 33 years old. He is an adult. The issue becomes, how does Martha and the rest of the family deal with him?
The first thing, I believe, is to be clear on what this disorder is about. If the stepson is a sociopath, he will probably be manipulative until the day he dies. He will lie, cheat, sponge off of others, perhaps commit crimes. This is what he is; this is what he does. No one in the family should have any illusions that he will change.
So then, what do they do? I’d say it depends on what the stepson does—Martha provided no information on that point.
If the stepson is a criminal, I think they should let him face the consequences of his actions by, for example, not bailing him out of jail.
If the stepson tries to defraud women, I think they should warn any woman that he snags. I’ve heard of many cases in which the families of sociopathic men were happy to let some poor, unsuspecting woman take the parasite off their hands. This, to me, is unconscionable.
If the stepson is abusive to Martha, she should implement a policy of no contact, even if her husband will not go along with it.
Martha mentioned feeling guilty about unleashing the sociopath on society. The family may or may not be able to do something about this. I know of one case in which a family made sure the sociopath was taken care of—set him up with a place to live, food, etc.—just so he wouldn’t have to steal and manipulate for a living. This might work for a parasitic type of sociopath. But, as Steve Becker writes, many sociopaths act out to relieve their boredom, so it might make it easier for him to cause other kinds of trouble.
Finding peace for herself
There is only one person we can ever truly change or influence, and that’s ourselves. Martha is in an impossible situation, and to me the only thing she can do is try to find peace for herself.
Martha needs to let go of the guilt. She did not cause her stepson to be a sociopath. She did her best to guide him in the right direction. It didn’t work.
Having a sociopathic stepson probably feels like a loss or a failure, and Martha may need to grieve this. Although there may be little Martha can do about the sociopath, she can do something about her emotions. She needs to let go of blaming herself, let go of wishing things were different, and accept what is.
Remember the Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.