By September 18, 2013 23 Comments Read More →

Recovery From A Sociopath: Establishing Healthy Boundaries

by Quinn Pierce


“But, I don’t understand, what does he do?”

And this is usually where the conversation falls apart.

There is no easy way to describe the behavior that sends me and my children into a post-traumatic tail-spin.

How do you explain to someone that you can just feel when someone is angry or disappointed with you?  Or, what it’s like when just being around someone makes you feel self-conscious, insecure”¦small.

Obstacles on the Healing Path

When I’m faced with this type of skepticism, I have two reactions: frustration that I have to try to convince people that the abuse, and subsequently, the post-traumatic stresses are real and jealousy that the person asking the question can remain so blissfully unaware of the evil around them.

Of course, it could be that others choose to live in denial of this evil, but that does not help my children or me heal. Regardless of the reasons for their disbelief, the outcome is the same: they are blocking my way on this healing path.  If I pull over to engage in such conversations at every turn, I will inevitably suffer some damage to my mental health and well-being.  So, instead, I choose to go around them and watch as other people’s opinions and uninformed advice fade in the rear-view mirror.

Mixed Messages

Over the past few years, some friends and family members have continued to profess their support of my decision and denounce my ex-husbands behaviors, but at the same time, have continued to interact with him on a social level.  This was extremely confusing and hurtful to me for a long time.  But I have learned that not many people are capable of taking a stance on a situation, because they do not want to be alienated or put in the uncomfortable position of letting someone know how they really feel.  Sociopaths seem to know this and use it to their advantage.

Usually, I hear the excuse that I didn’t reach out to anyone, or I never talked about the situation while my ex-husband did.  This tendency to remain private about my situation has been interpreted as a sign of guilt and/or remorse over my decisions.  The most irritating excuse family members use is ”˜doing what’s best for the children’.  They don’t want my children to feel left out or upset, so they continue their relationship with my ex so that they can continue to include my boys.  For some reason, the people who claim to support me feel they know what’s best for my children, even if it’s the exact opposite of what I have explained is best for my children.

For a long time, this was very confusing to my boys.  They know their father is harmful, but people that I have taught them to trust are continuing to interact with him.  I didn’t have the strength at first to fight so many different battles as I tried to protect my sons from their dad, but eventually, it all came into focus and I finally made a clear and final statement about what I expected and what I would allow when it came to interaction with my children.  That definitive boundary-setting exercise quickly showed me who I needed to avoid on my new path.  Sadly, my ”˜no contact’ list grows longer every week.

Identifying Healthy Relationships

The truth is, no matter how you present yourself to the world, it will be overshadowed by how a rejected sociopathic partner presents you to the world.  The trick is finding those who see through the jaded version and saying goodbye to the others, no matter how much it hurts.  And it does hurt to learn you can’t rely on or trust certain people you were once very close with.

But it makes my parenting role much easier.  I am no longer sending mixed signals to my children.  I am teaching them it is not ok to make excuses for others; just because someone says they love you, doesn’t mean they can ignore your feelings to make themselves feel better.  And most important, I am showing them how to respect themselves and not allow people into their lives who don’t respect them.

By setting this example, I am taking steps to make myself stronger, too.  I should not have to explain how someone abused me.  I should not have to try to convince someone that my decisions were best for my children.  And I should not have to continue asking for support and respect from people who have claimed to give me both.

I didn’t realize, until recently, that the continued action of trying to explain, convince, excuse, rationalize, and all the other futile efforts to maintain relationships with my so-called supporters causes me a great deal of anxiety and attacks my self-esteem.

Taking Control of My Own Emotional Healing

I’m so very tired of feeling like I’m being dismissed from a conversation before I finish speaking.  Every time I allow people to do this to me, I am giving them permission to doubt or belittle my experience and lessen my value in the relationship.  So, ultimately, I am recreating abusive and unhealthy relationships all around me.

Which leads me to wonder: Why do I keep allowing this to happen?

I’m sure the answer has something to do with my own insecurity and all the practice I had during my marriage to a psychologically and emotionally abusive sociopath.  And the only way I can see to make the changes I need to be healthy is to practice these new boundaries and remind myself that I want to set an example for my boys.

So, now I will use these triggers as a guide.  If someone asks me to explain the situation I was in so that they can ”˜understand’ why it was abusive, this is not someone who deserves my respect, because they are not respecting me.  Never again will I engage in relaying the intimate details of my life for someone else’s verification or entertainment.

The Real Question

What someone does to hurt another person should not be the question from someone who cares about you.

The question should be: What can I do to support you as you heal?

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23 Comments on "Recovery From A Sociopath: Establishing Healthy Boundaries"

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Quinn – thank you so much for this article. You’ve highlighted the multitude of ways that sociopaths inflict damage by sabotaging our social support systems. Two points you made are on the money:

“Not many people are capable of taking a stance on a situation, because they do not want to be alienated or put in the uncomfortable position of letting someone know how they really feel.”

Yes! So many people say they “don’t want to get involved,” so they make nice with the abuser. What kind of support is that for you?

“I didn’t reach out to anyone, or I never talked about the situation while my ex-husband did.”

Yes! You’re trying to cope, trying to get your mind around the contradictory behavior – while he’s out there running a smear campaign – all while he’s pretending to be concerned.

My ex-sister-in-law is the master of manipulation. She had my family believing my brother was horrible. She beat him in front of us, and it didn’t occur to us to do something because the stereotypical abuser/abused roles were swapped.

We were a family that eventually saw through her mask of sanity. I hope your family and friends follow suit soon. The guilt we still feel is awful, but now we really understand what she put my brother through.

I just heard from some friends in India that the reason my son is alienated from me is because I cheated on my husband who is of course this mild mannered soft spoken really nice guy!!!!
Mind you these are people who know ME but have met my ex just a couple of times!!!(because he was too good to go back to dirty polluted Mumbai even though he was born and raised there and has his parents and other family there) The fact that I continue to be my in-laws primary care giver is lost in translation somewhere…. as is the fact that he does not even speak to ANYONE in India!!!!!
People I guess experience cognitive dissonance just the same as we did. It was our lesson to learn and thus we entered an intimate relationship with the cretins!!!!

I like the way you concluded your article with the question that people OUGHT to be asking,rather than asking for details that is none of their business!

The timing of this article is amazing. I struggle with this a lot, especially lately it seems. I have removed people from my life because of their reactions to me which are anything but supportive and healing…but I need to be stronger and stop worrying about hurting THEIR feelings. Thank you so much for posting this, Quinn. 🙂

Quinn, as usual you have nailed it. In my situation, where there is actual criminal behavior, I quickly made friends and family aware of it. Imagine my surprise when he continued to play tennis at the club I am convinced he stole from! And continues to be the “Stat Guy” at my son’s football games, after manipulating and lying to many school staff! And–most hurtful of all–my own mother continued to speak to him, after his treatment of her daughter and grandchildren! These things initially blew me away. And even more so when I would hear something along the lines of “but you need to remember he’s your children’s father”, or something along those lines. I was livid, as well as hurt and confused.

But I was able to cope because I do have clarity. Yes–he is my children’s father. But only because he deceived me and married me under false pretenses. Of course I love my children. But if I had known who/what my ex was when I met him, I would never have SPOKEN to him, let alone married and had children with him. So now that I know who he is, I need to protect my children from him. And I do that unapologetically. This is not a marriage that “went wrong.” This is a marriage that should never have happened. And I will not put up with anyone who refuses to acknowledge that. I have been very clear on the circumstances of my divorce. I have exposed him for who/what he was. If someone wants to be “friends with both” of us–well, it just will not happen. We are not equals. He is a sociopathic porn-addicted embezzler. If someone wants to befriend him, fine. But we don’t move in the same circles. And my children will not be exposed to that crowd, either.

I do miss some of my old friends, family, etc. But if they want to persist in a relationship with my ex, they need to understand they have chosen to forgo a relationship with me and my children. And while I have regret for the loss, I don’t lose a moment’s sleep over my decision.

Wouldn’t it help you to heal if you understood what it is exactly, that he is doing, that you are reacting to? He is doing something. Is he pushing buttons he installed?

Pavlov’s Dogs were conditioned to salivate when a bell was rung. Now, if you leave out the part about the time spent conditioning the dogs to respond, it doesn’t make sense that the dogs react to something so innocent like a bell ringing. The dogs would seem crazy and lack credibility if they complained about feeling manipulated by Pavlov ringing his little bell. Especially if the good doctor seems so nice and sociable and already told everyone to expect “crazy talk” from the dogs.

Once upon a time, I didn’t understand, either. One day, a mutual friend was complaining to me about my boyfriend. I scolded him, because he couldn’t explain to me why he didn’t like him, after all, my boyfriend was such a good friend to him. WRONG! Sure, my boyfriend would do nice things for people, but then attack them behind their backs. After doing something nice, he felt he was now owed loyalty no matter what awful thing he did in the future. My boyfriend would tell me stories about how good he was to his friends and I believed him and backed him up when anyone said otherwise. Shame on me. I didn’t understand.

How could I support a real friend when I was so fooled? I didn’t know I was attacking a victim for expressing distrust. I learned the hard way.

Being able to explain what he is doing is so critical to helping people understand the situation so they can help. And to helping myself so I don’t feel so crazy. I did not want to tell people he was being emotionally abusive a year into our relationship. Not after saying how wonderful he was. Not while I was still with him. The people that recognized what I was going through had already been in their own abusive relationships. They already understood. They helped me understand.

Lucky for me, none of the people who know him for a long time are fooled, anymore, but new people fall for his act all the time. Now I have to explain to a judge who just sees a “poor victim trying to see his son” what kind of crazy monster he actually is, without looking like an over-protective, selfish mom. I haven’t read one single success story.


I really feel for you in re: your son. You made a very good point that we often initially protect the sociopath–until we finally understand him! I know I tried to put a good face on my ex to friends, family and (!) my children, thinking I was doing the right thing. I had unwittingly COLLUDED with him in managing his image! However, that said, I do have proof of his behaviors now, so I do hold family and friends accountable.

As for the legal system: make sure your attorney gets who he is. If possible, get others to testify as to his behavior, or to talk to the GAL. Copy the “Open Letter to Attorneys” from this site. Make a comprehensive list of all you do: eg. make dinners, doctor’s appointments, help with homework, etc. Be very thorough. Document any problems with the ex.(For example, my ex stopped my son’s allergy shots without informing me–guess he got sick of driving there!) Woody Allen lost custody of his daughter because he didn’t know her shoe size or birth date! If that’s your ex, make sure that comes up with the GAL.

If I can come up with more advice, I’ll post it. I will be pulling for you!

Hello Quinn, and everyone. I just wanted to chime in and say how much I appreciate you sharing this kind of information among our community. After I typed that word, community, my mind drifted as it often does to what used to be my place within my local community. I had worked hard to become a productive and valued member. I brought the deceptive, devicive, dominant one here and she is just being herself, employing her tried and true machinations. Like so many of you I was incredibly naive, even as a man in my mid 40’s. I didn’t have a clue that someone could actually steal my friends and my life basically. To have many dozens of these try to convince me to forgive her, no matter how many lying, haughty, defiant, lewd things she does has been the most soul crushing, psychologically and spiritually damaging part of the whole experience, at least for me. They can’t seem to grasp that their beloved one has no interest in resolving issues, but instead is only interested in anything she can do to evade accountability, to maintain her fascade, and to bury any resistance. And the kicker is when they inform me how she loves me. Whaaaaat €££¥¥^+%*# ?! Maybe I’m more unique in that I was a single person for most of my adult life with no kids, so I think my place in my local community often felt like all I had. It was definitely the center of my life. So again Quinn and all who have shared comments here, thanks. For me this was/is the most difficult and dangerous part of my so far 6 year journey through socioland. Peace to all and watch your step !

I also hear comments like “he still the father of your son” a lot, even from friends who knew how abusive my husband was. “Normal” people just don’t understand what it is like to be married to a narcissistic sociopath who manipulates, betrays, cheats, lies, and at the end discards his family . That’s not a “father” . In my mind that portrays an evil monster. People don’t understand that the NO CONTACT is the only way my son and I can go on with our life in a healthy way. If there is any contact the manipulation and abuse will just continue even though we are seperated and live 25 miles apart. Like Quinn says every email ,text or phone call will be twisted in a way to blame me, put me down, make me feel worthless or be used in court against me. I am slowly regaining my sanity, my peace and my self worth. After my husband had me baker acted (taken to a mental institution against your will),and in court defending myself against fabricated domestic violence charges) I just can’t imagine what he will come up with next. I always have my attorneys phone no with me because I don’t know what could happen . It makes it difficult because my soon to be ex husband is a cop. So no ,people will never understand that indeed he was and never will be a father. Only someone who experienced this nightmare will understand.

4light2shine & kaya48,
Good to see you again after a long absense,4light! It occurs to me that many people say flimsy things they’ve heard passed down from their parents…when it would be better if they said nothing and just gave you a supportive hug or squeeze of the hand!

Also,many people equate our stories with the soap operas they watch on tv.They know that such are fictionalized stories for their entertainment,with actors and actresses portraying characters so well it seems real.While they get caught up with these stories and characters,they neglect reality….that some of us were actually living; what they call “stories” and that we need them to believe what is REAL…that we need their support.

Hello Blossom. I’m glad to hear you’re making progress and moving forward with your life. I just had a week out of town with friends and it was so peaceful. It’s amazing how easy it is to enjoy even little things without a toxic personality tied to your side. Enjoy the peace my friend.

I’m so glad you got to get away for a week with friends! It’s amazing how refreshing that kind of time can be for your body and mind!

Is there some way you can keep memoirs of your trip in a book?! Then when you’re going through a stressful time,get that book out and re-live those wonderful memories! 🙂

I have an idea the wondeful peace I’ve enjoyed with separation and No Contact, is about to shatter.I know my husband isn’t happy about having to go to court and being told the “marriage is over”! It’s like I don’t know what to expect—or where to expect it from!

“Fog” is a good way to describe the dissociation you’re speaking of.I felt like I was in a “fog” during my daughters’entire childhoods!

I’m pretty sure I already posted the link to this article elsewhere,but it shows there are temporary psychological changes in battered women,that are not due to mental illness.Battered women often underestimate their ability to alter their situations due to low self-esteem and learned helplessness.Shame also plays a part in keeping the battered woman from seeking help for herself and her children.

Anyway,in case you didn’t see the link the first time,here it is:

It’s rather long…so bring some coffee or tea to the pc! 🙂

I felt the same way. Like I was living in a fog. Thinking back now he had his escape route nicely planned behind my back. I was so blind sided that I did not know he was looking for appartments and changed all direct deposits to his new “secret” account. He had created this “crazy making” world for me and it was not easy getting out if it. Like I said if it wasn’t for that “other” girl I would still be in this denial and in that shameful stage. It did take me many month to realize what he had done to me and my son. But after all it took 20 years to create this illusion. Thank you to everyone for giving me hope and support dealing with this situation.

Quinn: you put everything so succinctly and precisely that I am beyond grateful for your thoughts on what has been a less than stellar life. You are a great thinker/writer.

Things I have felt for decades are explained in your writing and you are very much applauded for sharing it with us.

And being in a dissociated fog…I have been in that fog for decades. Lost jobs, friends, neighbors…lost it all because they see me as ‘strange/odd’. The truth rings clear in your post. Thank you.

I am responding to cherith10–can’t seem to find the post–as well as others here.
More horrible than the treatment we receive at the hands of the sociopath, is the treatment we sometimes receive from our friends–and even family–when we are finally able to leave. They diminish our judgement and our feelings by keeping the sociopath in their lives–often in the face of evidence of the ex’s behavior toward us! The feeling of betrayal is overwhelming. And while I can accept that some may not understand what the sociopath is really about (because we, in fact, were in that same place at one point), I can’t accept their choice to ignore our wishes/feelings and in some way keep us in the perpetrator’s path. The hurt is incredible.

I believe I have figured it out to a certain extent. One of the reasons many of us got involved with a sociopath to begin with, is our own family dynamic. My mother is a narcissist and the child of an alcoholic. I was trained from a child to ignore my needs,not to trust my own instincts/judgement (“Dad isn’t drunk. He’s just tired.”)to be grateful for what anyone else CHOOSES to give me. I had no right to make demands. Small wonder I ended up with an spath in my life! Because my mother is narcissistic, she can’t put herself in my position. She can’t see or acknowledge my hurt and anger. So she continues to do what she wants to do. If that is to talk to my ex, well, that is what she will do. And, as for our children, horrible as it is, they were raised in the same toxic environment, and carry some of that baggage. We–through our hurt, confusion and denial–covered for our spath. Because we didn’t understand him/her, we could not be completely honest with our children.

I have found somewhat of a solution to this. I do not allow anyone in my life who does not see my ex exactly as I see him. I have cut off contact with family members and some friends/acquaintances who thought they could straddle both worlds. I tried to explain things, but when they didn’t accept it, I knew I could not set myself up to be diminished by them any longer. I drew a firm line in the sand. I won’t apologize, but I will explain, if they listen. As for my children, for the most part they have been able to see who my ex is and what he has done. But my youngest, especially, can occasionally make comments that show me he does not always have a clear understanding. At those times I am gentle, but scrupulously honest (leaving out any of the more gory details) about my ex. They need to know the truth, to protect themselves.

Sometimes I look at the shattered relationships and tsunami of pain from one sociopath, and can’t believe the damage that can result from just ONE person. When you care about no one but yourself, the propensity for destruction is enormous.

Good article. I get mixed messages.

Boundaries are important.

Boundaries are important to me.

This is very important.

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