Editor’s note: Liberty Forrest, author of several self-help books and a certified Law of Attraction Life Coach, explains how to know if a person in your life is dysfunctional or a sociopath. Read more about Liberty.
By Liberty Forrest
I want to look at the dynamics of a particular issue that is at the heart of relationships with sociopaths. That issue is control.
It’s also at the heart of many relationships that although dysfunctional, are not toxic to the point of being abusive and dangerous to one’s overall wellbeing. Put it this way: All sociopaths are controllers, but not all controllers are sociopaths. So before I dive into this big topic, don’t panic and immediately think that your control-freak best friend is automatically a dangerous sociopath. To understand whether someone is dysfunctional or a sociopath, let’s take it a step at a time.
What’s a Dysfunctional Relationship?
This is a complex topic but summed up, I suppose you could say it is a relationship in which boundaries do not exist and/or are not respected. People can live together this way and be happy. I’ve seen it in action with lots of couples/families over the years. For example, it might just look like the parents are over-protective to a silly point but the kids are still happy and thriving. Or one partner accepts that the other’s jealousy is a sign of love and it doesn’t actually adversely affect the relationship.
But the deeper the emotional wounds that are at the heart of a dysfunctional relationship, the more significant the symptoms will be.
Controlling, Bipolar, Addicted
A case in point: A friend wrote to me recently, concerned because she had “no choice but to be controlling” with her husband. She said he has bipolar disorder and is addicted to alcohol and gambling. She said “Someone has to look after things,” especially the family and money matters. And he was certainly not able to do that.
I replied, saying that taking charge of the finances and and being sure that a household runs smoothly is not “being controlling.” That’s just being responsible. But if he did not have any issues involving money and she withheld it from him because she was angry and punishing him for something, that would be a different story.
If a wife withholds money from a husband who is a serious gambler because there are bills to pay and children to feed, she’s just being responsible by taking control of the finances. But if a wife withholds money from her husband just because she’s angry with him about something else and is punishing him, that’s being controlling.
It came as no surprise that she divulged that she has obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), adding that she can be controlling in other ways. All of the issues that she and her husband have fit together – just like hand in glove. He feels out of control about his own life and about himself so he has addictions, giving his power and control to alcohol and gambling.
Although he is giving up control in this area, he is taking it back in his relationship – whether or not he’s aware of it, and chances are, he is not. The need to get control in his out-of-control life is a far more powerful force than his love for his wife, and his addictions are controlling his wife. Or at least, that’s how she feels, but in reality, it is because she has been trained to allow it. The good news is that she can also learn not to allow it.
How Does This Impact Them?
Meanwhile, she sees the devastating emotional and financial effects of his addictions. She wants him to just stop drinking and stop gambling. It should be so simple. Just don’t do either one, right?
Wrong. Even if she knows this in her head, she cannot help but worry about the way his addictions are affecting the family. In a family such as this, money goes out the window, debts mount, perhaps there’s a bankruptcy – or two. The wife will probably have been constantly struggling to stay afloat, while he’s going behind her back and spending money on gambling, or losing jobs due to his drinking – and there she is, always left holding the bag.
Along with his addictions, he’ll likely be marinating the relationship in lies and secrecy, then grilling it over the coals of damaged trust.
Her anxiety level is only going to climb as time goes on. She’ll always be waiting for the other shoe to drop. When will the next job be lost? When will the creditors call again? When will the next drinking episode be? What will the next fight be like, and which of the children will have to witness it?
What if you add a husband with severe bipolar disorder to the mix, as with the woman who wrote to me? Such an illness is very difficult to manage anyway, without all of these other problems. The wife of someone suffering with it will undoubtedly have a very difficult life as her husband alternates between severe depression (quite possibly to the point of being suicidal at times) and manic episodes which can last for days. “Out-of-control” doesn’t begin to cover how either partner would feel.
It’s like living on the worst kind of roller coaster, with extreme and unstable highs and devastatingly crashing lows, never knowing from one moment to the next what you’re going to get. The constant anxiety would be unbearable as the wife tries to hold the home and family together, desperate for peace and stability that only become more elusive.
To make matters worse, people with bipolar disorder sometimes go off their medication because they feel fine while they’re on it. They’re stable, they’re functional, so they think they can manage the extreme mood swings and erratic behaviour. But of course, they can’t, and they’re off again in a heartbeat.
The wife in a situation such as this will spend her life constantly being on the alert for the next time he goes off his meds, the next incident, or the next argument with him over money and his addictions. He’ll be angry because she isn’t letting him have access to money, so he resents her, feeling like she’s being controlling.
Meanwhile, his own anxiety builds, as he is not able to gamble or drink, just as hers builds when she is struggling to manage her compulsive behaviour. “I will not check again that the iron is off. I won’t! I know I turned it off, didn’t I? I’m sure I did, but what if I didn’t? No, don’t be silly, of course you did! But maybe I should check, no you’ve done this a million times, stop it stop it stop it!”
She struggles to control her own addiction to her anxious, obsessive thoughts, and her anxious compulsive acts, and she struggles to control her husband’s addictions, too, and his bipolar disorder, all for the good of the family and her marriage, because she loves him, and because after going through so much with someone, there is traumatic bonding, which is very powerful and keeps them connected.
But of course, she cannot control him, or his addictions, or his bipolar disorder either. It doesn’t stop her wishing or trying because she is desperate to hold it all together and make everything be okay. She’s dancing as fast as she can but the music goes faster faster faster and she can’t keep up. The more she feels like her life is unraveling, the more she’ll try to hang on to it and control it all.
Addressing Individual Issues
These are not relationship issues. These people have individual issues that affect their relationship and there’s a significant difference. It means that each of these people brought emotional baggage and issues to the relationship, issues that have nothing to do with the other person, yet the relationship is like the stage where the issues are played out. Each person is responsible for his or her own issues and the healing of them. Neither of them has any control over the other’s actions, choices, problems or healing.
But this can be very empowering because it means each person is free to find the healing that is needed to be happier and healthier. It is not dependent on the other person’s choices or behaviour. Sometimes the only way to take control is to let go of it…
Both the husband and wife have their own personal issues with control, and they play them out together like a perfect dance. It will only stop when one of them changes, when one of them begins to develop a strong sense of self and of personal boundaries, and they are no longer enmeshed in this dysfunctional relationship which keeps both of them tied to their pain. There is hope. And there is healing – even for these terribly painful problems.
Dysfunctional or Sociopathic
Take the above scenario and kick it up a notch. Let’s say, for example, that the husband is a sociopath, on top of his alcoholism and gambling addiction. In all likelihood, there’s no way he would have ever let her have control of the finances in the first place. He wouldn’t want to lose his ability to gamble or buy alcohol and he sure as heck wouldn’t let some woman tell him what to do, no matter who she was.
He would blame her (and probably others, as suited him) for his problems. She would be the reason he drinks. She would be the reason he gambles. He’d need an escape from her nagging or whatever other insult he could invent to make his behavior be her fault.
And because she is prone to feeling responsible for everything anyway, she would take that on board and deep in her heart would believe that he is right. Her anxiety and OCD could worsen to the point where she has a hard time functioning normally. Her self-esteem would be trashed. She would try even harder to please him while he rages at her about whatever infractions he says have driven him to drink or to gamble.
He would also try to manipulate her family and friends. He’ll do his best to get them to collude with him and essentially, gang up on her emotionally. In their company, he would keep it together, smile sweetly, be Mr Fabulous and make them wonder why she tells them all kinds of awful things about him. Surely she’s exaggerating! And he’s going to do everything possible to make them think just that.
He’ll drop hints about many of their problems being her fault. He’ll plant seeds that she is struggling mentally, that she overreacts or that she’s not quite right in the head, that she is unstable or whatever else strikes his fancy.
And because she might have come from a dysfunctional family herself, he’ll have worked out which ones of them can be manipulated to be on his side against her. Which ones are bearing grudges? Which ones are jealous or like to control her?
Before you know it, even her own family has turned against her, or is at least being more sympathetic to him than to her. The more people he can get on his side, the more power he has over her. The more he can hurt her. The more she’ll believe his nonsense about how no one else would want her or love her, which she believes because, heck, even her own family thinks he’s fabulous and she…isn’t.
All sociopaths are driven by a desperate need for control and it is rooted in fear. Often, it is a fear of being abandoned or being alone, so they will do anything and everything to keep their “loved ones” close and try to prevent them from leaving. If they can have control over everyone and everything in their lives, they feel like this diminishes their fear. It doesn’t. It just makes them control more and more and more until the people being controlled say, “ENOUGH!”
How Much Is “Too Much”?
Think of dysfunctional relationships as being on a continuum. Over here on the left, you have those families or friends who are a little too much in each other’s business, the boundaries are blurred, there are some issues with control, but essentially they get on fairly well and are used to each other’s “quirks.” They accept each other and they are capable of giving and receiving love, and although they might drive each other a little crazy at times, they’re generally pretty happy in life and they’ll support each other, no matter what.
Over here on the right side of the continuum, you have sociopaths, people who are some combination of violent, manipulative, abusive, insulting, and just downright cruel. They believe the world revolves around them and what they need and want, and they’ll stop at nothing to get it. They want total control of the people in their lives, and the closer you are to them, the more control they want. They are incredibly accomplished liars and can seem completely “normal,” rational and calm when necessary, when inside they are seething with rage and plotting their next moves to destroy you.
Ideally, it would be great not to be anywhere on that continuum. It would be wonderful to live in a world where everyone in your life is perfectly emotionally healthy. The truth is, all of us have emotional wounds, almost affectionately called, “baggage.” The degree of happiness and contentment you’ll feel within relationships of all kinds will depend upon how much or how little those wounds impact your perception of yourself, the world, and everyone in it. The more dysfunctional and sociopathic people are, the more control they need and demand from others. They seek people who are eager to please, who have trouble standing up for themselves, who are easygoing and kind-hearted. They seek people who don’t always speak up, who are used to being told what to do, or who give up their own needs and feelings to make someone else happy.
How Do You Feel?
The bottom line is that if you’re not happy in a relationship of any kind, if it’s causing you a lot of heartache and stress, if you feel like you’re “not allowed” to do certain things and that someone else is in control of your life and choices, or if you feel like your needs are not being met and you’re having to give up huge pieces of yourself to be involved with someone else, that relationship is toxic. Whether it’s just too far along the “dysfunctional continuum” or if it’s abuse and insanity caused by a sociopath, you can get out. You can walk away. You can learn about the dynamics that got you there and how to make sure you don’t end up there again.
It begins with your desire to be happy, to feel loved, valued, respected, fulfilled and to enjoy life on your own terms. If you hold fast to this desire and seek the support and guidance of a well-respected psychologist who specialises in dysfunctional and abusive relationships, you’ll be well on your way to finding your way back to yourself and to a much happier life.
A version of this article was originally published at LibertyForrest.com. Reprinted with permission from the author.