Within the last 6 months, I received word that my ex-husband (still in prison after having destroyed my life) pledges undying love for me. One of the most disturbing after-affects of a relationship with a sociopath is confusion about love. As part of my own healing, I resolved to study the scientific literature to understand what is known of the nature of love. I will summarize my findings here but also please visit Ability to Love.
Attachment is what causes us to stick together
Although there are many other species that live solitary lives, humans are social creatures. That means we stick together. Scientists have called this tendency to stick together “attachment.” Attachment is part of love. It is that part of love that makes us feel compelled to be with those we love.
The interesting thing about attachments is that they are strengthened by fear. This is why sociopaths induce fear in their victims. This fear makes the victim cling to the sociopath all the more. This clinging is a compulsion and has nothing to do with feelings of affection.
Another interesting thing about attachment is that it survives mostly independent of pleasure or pain. How often do married people temporarily feel anger or even hatred for each other, yet they do not separate? This pleasure/pain neutral quality of attachment allows us stick together even during times of conflict.
There are people who do not form attachments with others. These people are generally known as hermits, but psychiatrists call them schizoid. Notice that sociopaths form attachments. They are not hermits. They feel compelled to seek out the company of others. The quality that distinguishes sociopaths involves what they do with those to whom they are attached. This observation lead me to the understanding that love is much more than attachment, or the compulsion to be with another.
The other ingredients of love
Love involves feelings of affection. I still don’t know for sure whether or not sociopaths experience fleeting feelings of affection. I believe they might. I have observed people I thought were sociopaths enjoying affection, both in my personal life and in my practice. If sociopaths do experience affection, the inherent joy is very small in comparison with the pleasure they get from having power over others. Therefore, love is more than attachment with occasional affection.
I have come to understand that in addition to attachment and affection, love is defined by the presence of empathy and caretaking behavior. It has been well documented in scientific studies using brain imaging that sociopaths do not experience empathy. Studies comparing sociopaths and non-sociopaths reveal that the brain areas that are responsible for empathy are silent in the sociopath.
The caretaking behavior that is part of real love is different from the kindnesses that are part of sociopathy. Sociopaths do show kindness when it suits their purpose. In fact, the presence of perceived kindnesses by sociopaths toward victims leads to the development of Stockholm Syndrome in victims. The caretaking behavior associated with love is constant, enduring and self-sacrificing and not just an occasional purposeful gesture.
The lesson of love
If there is a silver lining to the dark cloud of being the victim of a sociopath, it is coming to this deeper understanding of love. To understand love is to understand what it is not. Thankfully, love is not the empty promise of a manipulative sociopath. Love is attachment, affection, empathy and self-sacrificial caretaking behavior. When I tell my children, and others close to me that I love them, I mean it in every sense of the word. I mean it with the deepest of understanding and commitment. I have vowed to teach my children about what love is. I have also vowed to expect real love from everyone I allow into my life from now on.