Psychopaths and the rules: to comply or not to comply, how do they decide?

By:  Linda Hartoonian Almas, M.S. Ed

When dealing with psychopaths, or individuals with psychopathic features, nothing is as it seems to the naked eye.  When in relationships with psychopathic individuals, the non-psychopaths bear the brunt of great responsibility, both real and perceived. After all, the “normals” really are left carrying the loads and picking up the pieces when the psychopaths are tired of playing the games that they initiated.  However, the blame or burden they attempt to place on us, while accepting none for themselves, is not legitimate and we should not internalize it. Our actions and behaviors have little or nothing to do with the outcomes of their choices, even if they, for a time, have us believing otherwise.

While I generally feel that we are largely responsible for our own lives and have a fair amount of control over our own destinies, there is no question that when we interact closely with psychopaths, these notions may change. Our playing fields are far from level, altering everything we thought we knew about interpersonal communication and human behavior. In short, we are left reeling because we tend to assume that everyone is normal, or at least not psychopathic, and we act accordingly. We continue on this path until we gain an accurate understanding of how psychopaths function. Once we process and accept what we know, we give ourselves a tremendous gift; understanding.  While we cannot change them and we come to know that, this understanding allows us to alter our behaviors, thus eliminating their power and control.

Pick and choose

For me, few questions remain about their behaviors or how to react to them.  Almost twenty years’ experience””a combination of personal, professional, and academic””have brought me to this place.  However, from time to time, I occasionally find myself pondering how they pick and choose which rules to follow.

At first, I felt the answer was obvious.  It would seem that, like anything else they do, the answer would lie in the payoff. Perhaps it does. Given their lack of insight and inability to engage in any actual long term planning, it may be that simple. Nonetheless, the topic has caused me to give pause.

I am able to comprehend that they feel that the rules governing the rest of society simply do not apply to them.  I am also able to understand that they have only limited regard for consequences.  Furthermore, I realize that they tend to think mainly in the short term, and acknowledge that their desire for immediate gratification may override all else. But is there more; is there some form of rhyme or reason to their compliance or lack thereof?

For example, let’s examine financial obligations, since this tends to be a common area of non-compliance and general mismanagement. Let’s take this scenario one step further, and discuss court ordered financial obligations.  In spite of the court system attaching a certain level of importance to these obligations, it is not uncommon for psychopathic individuals, or those with such features, to treat these orders as SUGGESTIONS. Why?

As with anything anyone does, there could be a multitude of reasons. However, psychopaths’ motivations may be more sinister than ours. It is clear that they have no problem insulting the integrity of the courts, but it is likely that this goes much further. Below, are some possible reasons.

Possible Reasons for Non-Compliance: 

1.  They may want those they owe to “suffer.”

2.  They may be engaging in “payback” for something they perceive was done to them. Remember, they see themselves as the actual victims much of the time.

3.  They may be attempting to stir the drama pot and elicit reactions or engagements, instigate arguments, or create circular, dead-end  “back and forths” over their wrongdoing.

4.  They may be attempting to bring out “bad behaviors” so that they look “right” or “justified” in their actions.

5.  They may be attempting to frustrate, wear down, or harm financially, emotionally, or otherwise.

6.  They may be attempting to exercise power and control over the situation.

7.  They may be looking for pity, especially if they have a “good” reason (but you know better) as to why they are unable to pay.

8.  They may want those they owe to internalize their wrongdoings, and accept blame.  For example, “Had I not (fill in the blank,) I would be getting paid.”

9.  They may simply be taking risks, with or without regard for any potential consequences. These risks may be calculated, planned, and enjoyable to them, or they may not give them a second thought.

10.  They may simply feel that they have better things to spend “their” money on.

This list is, by no means, exhaustive.  As I write, I can think of several more possibilities.  Additionally, much of this list is not exclusive to financial choices.  It could apply to many different sets of rules or norms.  The important thing to remember, regardless of their motivations, is this; these choices are theirs, not ours.  The rules and structure that govern society have spoken and in spite of what they decide, very real consequences could come their way in situations regarding such non-compliance or compliance on their terms.

So, how or why do they choose to follow some rules and not others? That is not something for which I can offer an absolute answer. This topic comes with many variables. We each probably hold some very solid theories, in addition to the ones I provided.

What I can offer is that I know it is our responsibility to utilize the gifts we gave (or are in the process of giving) ourselves and employ our knowledge. We must pull strength from our understanding and control ourselves, because reasoning with the unreasonable or attempting to work with those who wish to harm us is fruitless. It is a process that takes practice and persistence, but when we do this, we render them powerless regardless of their actions and choices.

Linda Hartoonian Almas has a Master’s Degree in Learning and Behavior.  She is former a police officer who had her own run-in with a psychopath. She lectures on domestic violence and is a contributing author of a presentation on psychopathy in the family court system.

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114 Comments on "Psychopaths and the rules: to comply or not to comply, how do they decide?"

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You’re talking about Spathzilla (my older sister)
IT does exactly what IT wants and any objections are met with a look of puzzlement “what’s your problem” and “I’m a free spirit”
IT has no concept of “taking turns” or “sharing” or “equality”
Full of ITS own importance. Spathzilla rules…………NOT ANYMORE.
What angers me now is the fact that because IT says something is so, that others accept without question(as I used to do) that IT is right!
I want to slap IT! Time for a glass of red!


What a lovely genuine thing to say. x

OK Skylar, so sorry you woke up in the middle of the night!!!

Here’s what your post made me think of, regarding your mom being able to spot spaths a mile away and figure out who did what and why…. because *I* have that ability. This ability actually makes me uneasy, because I wonder how I can know such unknowable things… or if I just have a suspicious mind.

Anyway, here’s the story: I live near Washington, D.C. Several years ago a friend of mine (“Julie”) from a friendly small town where I used to live (though I grew up here, moved away, and moved back) came here for the first time ever, because she was attending a convention around the 4th of July. She was going to stay with me for a couple of days, then go downtown to her hotel for the rest of the week and the convention. She told me a story about a woman on “her team” (“Danielle”) whom she’d never met personally, but this team had been emailing about an assigned project which they were going to present on at the convention. They each had a piece of the assignment to write. Julie had done her part, so had the other 2 folks, but Danielle had not. She had excuses: she is a busy mom, had some travel, stuff at work, her “homeland security” husband has been out of town, etc. (true of the others, as well, but no excuses there). So at the last minute Danielle asks Julie to write her part which she hasn’t done. Julie does this. Then Danielle announces that she is going to be the one presenting the entire project before the convention crowd, even though she actually didn’t write any of it, and even though the group had initially decided that each would present their parts individually. Julie thinks this is weird but goes along with it, because the other two people are going along with it (so she believes). Then the strange stuff starts. I’m having a bad feeling, and the rest of this unfolds with great deja vu for me. It is now time for Julie to transfer to her hotel. She calls the hotel to confirm her arrival time. They have no record of her reservation! Although they did right before she had left her town to come here (she had confirmed then, as well). She calls the others on her team to tell them, and see if she can share a room with one of them. Surprise! The same thing has happened to both of them (Danielle lives here, so it is not an issue for her). As it is the 4th of July in D.C., there are no other hotel rooms available anywhere. Of course she could stay with me, but I live very far out of town, and that is not so convenient when you have a convention. She is distressed and calls back the hotel for an explanation and to be more assertive about the problem. The person on the phone says something like, “I can’t tell you anything, and probably not this either, but we got a call from homeland security telling us to cancel your reservation.” Julie ended up getting (coincidentally?) very ill the next day, and she had to return back to her small town and missed the convention. Danielle presented the team project as if it were her own, and she ended up being elected to the national board of the group (elections were held at this convention). Apparently during the time when she was supposed to have been writing her part of the team project, she had instead been schmoozing with the folks who would help her get elected.

So the bottom line of the story is that NONE of this was a surprise to ME, for some reason. I had no trouble believing that Danielle had had her husband phone the hotel (or SHE did, using his credentials etc.) and use his position to “lose” the reservations. But Julie was completely in shock over what happened (she had never run into this type of behavior before). And further… when she went back home, NO ONE BELIEVED HER. She ended up doubting my “take” on the story after she didn’t get any validation at home.

So I guess I have wondered why I have found it easier to believe that evil exists, and have for a long time. I have known devious people. It is easier for me to believe it, when it is a stranger doing it to a friend, though, than it is for me to catch on when it is someone close to me, like a husband, who is not “by definition” supposed to be out to get me.

oh yes, you did peg it right. I’m sure of it.

The love bomb is what blinds us when it’s happening to us. That’s the whole purpose of the love bomb. Truth isn’t so hard do discern but emotions do blur it.

My mother is spathy, I think that’s why she can see through people’s behavior, straight into their motivation. Whereas I used to just give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

When spath-BIL first came into the family, my lil-spath-sis, asked him to go fetch a gallon of milk for her catering business. He refused, not liking being made into an errand boy. Well, my mother noticed this and immediately said that he didn’t love lil-spath-sis, because he was unwilling to help when needed.

As it turns out he is a trojan horse spath sent by my exspath to marry her.

But there is more to the story. In my mother’s eyes, we are ALL here to serve lil-spath-sis so of course, she’s going to notice when someone says “no” to lil-spath-sis.
Moreover, he had just married her and is supposed to be in love. One would think he’d be tripping over himself to help her…

A normal person doesn’t/CAN’T assume that the new husband really doesn’t love his wife. It makes no sense. YET my mom has no problem making that call as she sees it, because she UNDERSTANDS that mindset. She understands that it exists, whereas I never did, until now.

But here’s the clincher: when I first found out about spaths, I told my mom all that I had learned and she was genuinely shocked that this knowledge was out there in books. At some point, I expressed anger that she and dad and spath bro and spath sis were hypocrites with hidden agendas. She began defending herself, not with denial but by saying, ” Do you mean to tell me that you are the only one who….” then she stopped as it dawned on her that I was a genuine person who did genuine things out of genuine love. And that she was about to “out” herself.

It had never occurred to her. She had been able to spot all the spathy behavior but she couldn’t see when someone was real.

Oh, Skylar, I do love hearing your stories. They remind me so much of my own! We could have fun sitting around a campfire throwing these stories around, couldn’t we?

I am finding myself wondering about spath “alliances” with other spaths. I think that happens, I’m thinking of this within families. You know, like what your mom said, “do you mean to tell me that you are the only one who…” and that, could there be some type of way that spaths respond to each other that tips them off that they are with one of their own kind?

As opposed to the rest of us who have to do gray rock to stay off their radar?

This is just the tip of an idea. I want to explore it.

Because I don’t imagine one spath says to another spath, “are you a spath?” They must somehow figure it out….? At least, the ones who form alliances do. And have some kind of spath code they follow… “yeah, I’m a taker, but so are you. I won’t take from you because I know you can take from me, and vice versa. OK, we can team up and have some fun, or we can each have our own separate territory of taking. Oh! Hey, by the way, GOOD ONE on Jimmy the other day, LOL….”

I just wonder.


So spot on. I experienced this also and actually finally just realized the other day something that I had overlooked. When I was leaving my job, there was a very odd encounter that I will never forget between me, spath and OW spath. OW and I were at a table at a bar and then spath came up to me at the table and this was the first time in four months he had uttered one word to me. He had heard I was leaving and wanted to know if I was going. He kept asking me why I was doing this and then from under the table I pointed at him. He apparently then became very nervous, but I didn’t really notice. I noticed he seemed very concerned, but I didn’t notice the “nervousness.” About three weeks later after I was actually gone from my job, I met up with the OW (last time I have ever seen her and will never speak to her again) and of course the conversation turned to spath. Her exact words to me regarding that night were “Did you see how nervous he was?”…meaning that he was afraid I was going to turn him in as I was leaving and didn’t have anything to lose. What I am getting at is…SHE saw it!! She saw it because she is just as bad or worse than he is! It didn’t even cross my mind because I don’t operate that way. I hate them all!!!!!!!!!!

So yes, they absolutely DO team up. They feed off of each other and I would not be surprised if he still isn’t cavorting with her even though he told me he would never speak to her again…HA!!…why would I believe that? Why should I believe anything he says??

Thanks so much for your insights…you are the best!

hahaha! you just reminded me about the “campfire of my love” that spath wrote. LOL. We had a good time with that story.

Your question is one that I’ve been thinking about for 3 years now. How do they know each other and what is the reaction when they do? Maybe we’ve been looking at it wrong because we imagine it’s like the way empaths “connect” and we feel a closeness or bond.

When I was on the neighborhood water association board and I was trying to figure out why the treasurer, “Malice”, would lie about so many things, I would speak to my neighbors, “p and s”, a married couple, who I now believe are spaths too. I would ask them for advice because the whole board of directors was plotting and planning against each other. (I didn’t know that my spath was in the middle of it all, lying to everyone about everything)

P and S told me, “Everyone has their currency. You just have to find out what it is. What do they want?”

I think this is how spaths think about everyone: what’s your price? what’s your hook? what’s your weakness? how can I use you? how can I influence you to do things for me?

So if they meet another spath, whom they think is just like them, without emotions, they know that isn’t going to be a hook, so they look for the currency and the price.

It is very much, I think, like a business negotiation. There are no emotions involved when you bargain or barter, you simply try to get the best deal you can and not get cheated. And spaths always assume others will try to cheat them, they NEVER assume good will.

My spath can use sex as a currency because he’s very willing and knows he is good at it. He can use it on empaths and spaths, males and females, alike. If he happens to run into a male spath who isn’t gay, he uses porn. Sex is a currency for spaths.

But I’m sure he also uses money. He simply pays spaths to do what he wants them to do.

I think that their ability, as I just described, to not have any emotional investment, is what allows them to “see” clearly in any bargaining position. They are constantly sizing each other up, comparing each other. It’s all a surface thing though. They don’t count having empathy as a winning proposition. That’s a “weakness” to be exploited.

You said you didn’t notice that he was nervous. It’s possible that she made that up. Spaths don’t usually show nervousness, in a physical sense. Their autonomic nervous system doesn’t react to stress like ours does.

On the other hand, she may have been referring to his insistence on knowing WHY you were leaving. She was watching this exchange as a clue as to what is important for him to know. He disclosed that he wanted to know why you were leaving. To you, it might have seemed that he cared about your reasons, in a concerned and caring manner. To OW, who has no emotions and knows that he doesn’t either, it was more obvious that he was operating from a different perspective: “how is this gonna affect me?” It’s possible that this “need to know” is what OW called “nervous”.

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