This semester I am teaching social psychology and biological psychology at a local university. This week the issue of human affiliation and attachment came up in both courses. Recently a new understanding of human affiliation and attachment has arisen in the scientific literature and I was very pleased to see that the new insight already made it into both of the textbooks. The new understanding really helps us to understand sociopathy so I will discuss it here with the help of one of my students and one of our readers.
Human affiliation has two levels to it. The first is our general tendency to avoid being alone and to seek out the company of others. The second is a deeper level that involves love bonds.
Sociopaths are very social and so the first level of human affiliation is not disordered in them. Hear me, sociopaths are not A-social they are ANTI-social. They like to be around people and they pick specific people to direct their energy towards. “ANTI-social” is about what sociopaths do once they are around other people.
After affiliating humans have three pleasures: sex, love and power. Sociopaths have the sex and power stuff down pat, it is the love part they are completely missing. Sociopaths are unable to love and do not form love bonds. However, I believe that sociopaths do form “power bonds” or some degree of attachment toward those they feel they own. Although that part has not yet made it into the textbooks, I believe “power bonds” explain stalking behavior.
I am also teaching the psychology of women and abnormal psychology. In those two classes, domestic violence and personality disorders were discussed this week. So I spent a lot of time talking with students about what love is and is not. In the midst of that, I was approached by a student who commented on how painful it is to have a mother who has poor impulse control and difficulty loving.
Two days later, that same student was followed to class by her boyfriend who was behaving in an aggressive way toward her. He also waited for her after class and was seen by other students pulling her hair. They told me that she had broken up with him and he was stalking her. Fortunately, campus security is very good and 4 large officers told him he had to leave her alone.
I hope that our class discussions were useful to this student. She can’t help but be confused by a boyfriend who loves her so much he is willing to stalk her and rough her up physically! People with sociopathic traits confuse love and power. I think that since they associate pleasure from power with being around “special” people, they think that the pleasure they get from people is “love.” Just like the rest of us use the words love and affection interchangeably.
Sociopaths associate physical affection with their power, so for them love is power and what we call affection. When a sociopath says “I love you” he/she may not be lying. He/she just has a different idea of what that means. He/she means, “I own you and I like to hold your hand.”
If my student is confused about love, she is not alone. The media also gives us a warped view of love, especially romantic love, so if we aren’t lucky enough to have loving parents how could we possibly understand love?
My own encounter with a sociopath led me to have to define love in a practical way. Love can’t be just a shallow feeling because if it is, then perhaps sociopaths do love. I agree with many religions in that I believe love is about what a person does as opposed to how a person feels. I believe that Ability to Love involves:
1. Seeking to be physically close to and spend time with special others
2. Enjoying affection with that special person
3. Empathy towards that person
4. Caretaking of that person
5. Sacrificing to take care of someone else
People often write me when they are trying to come to grips with whether or not someone they love is a “sociopath.” I recently asked one such woman whether she thought her husband and father of her child is able to love, according to the definition of love that is found on page 27 of Just Like His Father? Her answers are very insightful and point to the “typical sociopath’s” inability to love, and confusion over love and power.
1. Seeks out to be physically close to and spend time with special others.
He always wants me to come see him when he’s in jail. He spent lots of time with me, boredom would drive him out to seek others, though that’s not different from other men or women for that matter. When I would go see him in jail, he would have relief washed over his entire face and body when he saw me. I wonder if it was relief to get his fix of dominating someone though.
2. Enjoys having affectionate feelings toward special people
He would play with (their child) a lot, and did enjoy that. He would hug on me constantly when we were first together. He actually showed me how to show affection, in physical ways, my family does not show much affection at all.
(In my experience, sociopaths like to engage in rough and tumble play with kids. This is a form of dominance behavior in humans as well as other species.)
3. Empathy towards those he loves.
Wasn’t while I was pregnant very much at all. He kept me in turmoil and upset. I was a high risk pregnancy and he didn’t help that out at all. His behavior led me to having my tubes tied so I wouldn’t have to go through another pregnancy. He would get completely beside himself if our (child) got sick or got a single mark on her for any reason. He was useless if she threw up and would yell at me what to do. He had me take our (child) to the doctor for everything. I believe I saw him hurting really badly when his oldest brother was dying of cancer.
4. Compulsion to take care of those he loves
Would make me go to the doctor for anything I had wrong and would go with me. I would feel like a live medical class was being held with me as the prop. He never bought me any clothing, rarely got me anything, but thought was made into what he would get me, trinkets mostly. He hardly ever got our (child) anything, I had to guilt him to get what he did buy.
5. Sacrifices his own desires in order to provide for a loved one
Never saw him sacrifice any desire of his to do squat for me or my (child). I always had to sacrifice to take care of him, if he had money, he still wanted me to spend what I had for myself, but mostly back on him. He knows I am on a limited income as well, that never stopped him. I have been so destitute with him we didn’t have toilet paper, but he drank and did his drugs no matter what.
I found somewhere on the internet about 20 symptoms of sociopaths. He hit all of them except for sleeping around on me. 19 out of 20! I felt so sick reading this. It so breaks my heart to find out he is a sociopath. Now, I’m having to assume that he doesn’t know what love is and he so assured me he did. I realize abuse isn’t a sign of love, but he would do other things that were good. Finding out his heart wasn’t behind those things, only the desire to keep me as his property to do with as he chose, that hurts deeply.
Her responses are consistent with my own observations of sociopaths. First, they do seek out others and they often appear to be affectionate. There is an open question as to how affection is experienced by a sociopath. Many sociopaths say they like holding hands or having a pat on the back. In one recent study, people who were identified as possessing sociopathic traits reported the same set of social emotions as other experimental subjects.
Sociopaths certainly say “I love you.” Perhaps they do feel something. I have a hard time believing that their affectionate behavior is all “an act.” But it is important to realize that for people who have sociopathic traits, “affection” is not connected to anything meaningful like empathy, caretaking and self-sacrifice.
My fear is that if we tell people that sociopaths do not experience affection, then many sociopaths will escape identification because people seeing affectionate behavior will think the person is therefore not a sociopath. Affectionate behavior does not mean a person is able to love.
It is really empathy and caretaking that are disordered in sociopaths. In the report above we saw that her child’s father experienced distress when there was something amiss with the child, however, the distress was his own distress as opposed to feelings of real concern for the child. Unless empathy calls us to action it is useless.
Women report sociopathic men often do not care for them during their pregnancies. The sociopath’s lack of caretaking stands in contrast to the expectations and hopes women have about being loved and cared for during pregnancy.
Lastly, the inability to love that is at the heart of sociopathy is greatly magnified by substance abuse. All substances of abuse poison the brain systems that serve empathy and caretaking.
The knowledge that a partner, lover and child’s other parent is a sociopath is very painful. But perhaps “sociopath” is just another word for someone who is unable to love. Take comfort in knowing that it is not that he/she is unable to love you. He /she is unable to love anyone.
What we learn about love from sociopaths can also cause us to be better people. If we understand that love is about empathy and caring then we can practice these in our lives.
If you are the parent of a child whose other parent is unable to love, it is important that you make sure your child knows what love is. Since love is a behavior rather than a feeling, give your child opportunity to practice loving behavior. Teach your child the importance of empathy and care taking. Influence your child with the tone you set at home. Model for your child the behavior you want him/her to show toward others.
Start each day with the Parent’s Pledge:
Please feel free to copy the Parent’s Pledge and share it with others.
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