Most of what is known about psychopaths comes from research with imprisoned criminals. Why? Because researchers can access them — they are literally a captive audience. But many psychopaths manage to stay out of prison. Psychopaths live among us and engage in the regular activities of life, including romantic relationships. Little is known about the psychopaths who stay out of prison and how they affect others. But finally, there is scientific evidence of what many of us have learned the hard way: Intimate relationships with psychopaths cause great harm to the victims.
A scientific paper, Toxic Relationships: The experiences and effects of psychopathy in romantic relationships, has just been published in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology. The November 2022 issue of this journal focuses on the impact of psychopathy in the community. Also appearing in this journal is my article, Surviving Senior Psychopathy: Informant reports of deceit and antisocial behavior in multiple types of relationships.
Lovefraud readers contributed to both of these studies. I invited readers to participate in an online survey for Surviving Senior Psychopathy, and more than 2,000 responded. Adelle Forth, who is a respected psychopathy researcher, asked me to promote her student’s research that formed the basis of the Toxic Relationships study. Of the 457 people who participated in the research, 80.7% (n = 368) came from Lovefraud.
Purpose of the study
The purpose of the Toxic Relationships study was to “explore the physical and mental health consequences reported by intimate partners of individuals with psychopathic traits.” The authors focused on three research questions:
- What are the experiences and effects experienced by the intimate partner victims of individuals with psychopathic traits?
- What is the nature of the relationship between psychopathic traits, coping, and post-traumatic stress and depression of victims?
- What type of abuse (physical, sexual and emotional) is most predictive of PTSD and depression?
The researchers collected the following categories of information from study participants:
Participants were between the ages of 21 and 71. The group was 10.5% male and 89.5% female. The romantic involvements ranged in length from a few months to more than 20 years, with most relationships lasting between two and five years.
Survey respondents answered questions about their partners to determine the individual’s level of disorder. They completed a self-report psychopathy questionnaire that was modified to collect data about their partners.
The results showed that the partners were truly exploiters and manipulators. Their psychopathic traits compared to the 99.8 percentile for community samples and 78.9 percentile for offender samples.
Survey respondents reported that they experienced:
- Physical assault — 50.5%
- No physical assault — 40.3%
- Sexual abuse — 31.7%
- Emotional abuse — 98.0%
- Deception — 95.8%
- Financial abuse — 80.7%
- Spiritual abuse — 58.2%
- Property theft — 39.6%
Levels of PTSD
In another self-report scale, respondents rated themselves in the moderate range for PTSD symptoms. They were more affected by intrusive and hyperarousal symptoms of PTSD than avoidance.
Participants completed another self-report questionnaire measuring the existence and severity of their own depressive symptoms. A substantial number of respondents rated themselves in the moderate range for depression.
Participants were asked to describe any physical and mental health symptoms that were not mentioned in the PTSD or depression questionnaires. The authors wrote:
The most prevalent consequences reported by victims were psychological / emotional difficulties. Victims reported feelings along the dimensions of anger (i.e., irritability, frustration) and hatred (i.e., of self, misogyny). One respondent wrote, “For a while after the relationship, I was angry at having been deceived on such a deep level.”
The respondents also reported feelings of anxiety, fear, panic and paranoia. They mentioned being diagnosed with PTSD and having obsessive symptoms. One typical comment was, “I feel scared when I am out, I am afraid of bumping into him. I fear he is still going to ruin my life because I got away from him.”
Some respondents described depression, suicidal ideation and attempts, hopelessness, helplessness and a low sense of self-worth. One person wrote, “I hit rock bottom in my life. It was the most painful experience I ever endured. I for the first time thought of suicide as life was too painful to deal with.”
Among biological consequences, respondents reported gastrointestinal problems, ulcers, headaches, heart and respiratory problems, diabetes, hypothyroidism and rheumatoid arthritis.
Behavioral effects included changes in sleep and eating patterns, neglect of self-care, including smoking and substance abuse, and changes in social activities. Some respondents reported that they could no longer go out in public.
Respondents also lost trust in others and felt fear of betrayal or abandonment. They perceived their own judgment of others to be faulty.
Finally, participants completed another questionnaire about their coping strategies. Adaptive coping strategies included planning, seeking emotional support, seeking tangible support, positive reframing, acceptance, turning to religion and humor. Maladaptive coping strategies included venting, denial, substance use, behavioral disengagement, self-distraction and self-blame.
The study found no significant correlations between adaptive coping and PTSD. There was a moderate correlation between maladaptive coping and PTSD and depression.
“In other words,” the study authors wrote, “coping skills of victims did not moderate the relationship between the severity of psychopathic traits and psychological distress.”
In summary, higher psychopathy scores were associated with increased PTSD and depression in the survey respondents. Experiencing multiple types of victimization was the only significant predictor of PTSD and depression.
And it didn’t matter if the survey respondent had left the relationship or was still involved. No significant differences were found in psychological distress across current and former intimate partners of psychopaths. The study authors concluded:
Taken together, the results of the current study indicate that intimate partner victims of psychopaths experience a great deal of physical and mental health consequences that parallel the symptoms reported by victims of general crime, bullying, workplace bullying, and intimate partner violence victimization. The results provide further evidence for the existence of an association between psychopathy and the ensuing psychological distress (PTSD and depression) in intimate partners.
You are not crazy
For all of you who have experienced severe psychological stress due to your involvement with a psychopath, this study validates your experience. It is normal for people who have endured relationships with psychopaths to suffer from depression and PTSD. It is also normal for you to still feel psychological stress even if you are no longer in the relationship.
What does this mean? It means that you’re not crazy or weak if you are still suffering from the traumatic effects of your relationship with a psychopath. I hope that knowing this gives you the confidence to work on overcoming your experience.