The sociopath in couples therapy

I do much couples therapy, and occasionally have had the interesting, if disconcerting, experience where one of the partners is a sociopath, or has significant sociopathic tendencies.

Unsurprisingly, it is always the nonsociopathic partner who is occasionally successful in dragging his or her sociopathic counterpart to counseling. The sociopathic partner, just as predictably, will have no collaborative interest in the relationship’s improvement. However, he or she may be sufficiently selfishly and manipulatively motivated to attend.

For instance, the relationship may offer conveniences the sociopathic partner does not want to see end. The nonsociopathic partner may have reached wit’s end and may really be prepared to end the relationship, arousing the sociopathic partner’s concerns that the gravy-train, as it were, may be over.

This can be the sociopath’s inducement to try to “patch things up with,” to “settle down” the nonsociopathic partner, in order to salvage the perks of the relationship. (The quoted phrases are meant to capture the sociopath’s condescending, self-serving thinking.)

The couples therapy environment provides little cover for the sociopath who, for this reason, will prefer generally to avoid it. The reason that sociopaths fare so poorly in disguising their sociopathy in a couples therapy situation is that, facing an aggrieved partner, the sociopath will struggle, and often fail, to produce responses of convincing sincerity and depth.

In other words, the sociopath’s fundamental defects of empathy and sincerity, in the emotional hotseat of couples counseling, are at risk of being flagrantly unmasked—sooner, typically, than in individual (court-mandated) counseling, where the sociopath, safe from the spontaneous challenges and disclosures of his or her abused partner, can more effectively misrepresent and deceive.

Couples counseling is inadvisable when a partner is a suspected sociopath for several reasons. Among them:

1) The therapist does not want to enable the belief (especially the nonsociopathic partner’s belief) that a nonabusive, honest relationship can possibly evolve with a sociopathic partner.

2) It is inherently humiliating for the nonsociopathic partner to make him or herself vulnerable to a partner whose only capable response to that vulnerability is exploitative. The therapist does not want to collude in this process.
3) There is the risk that the sociopathic partner, who is probably blaming and possibly vengeful, will use his or her partner’s complaints during the session as a basis, after the session, to punish him or her for having had the audacity to expose him or her.

This risk, incidentally, applies to any abusive individual in couples therapy. Narcissists’ abusiveness in this situation will arise most likely from their sense of entitlement—for instance that their partners owe it to them to always make them look, and feel, good (in private and public).

For sociopaths, exposure may be experienced as a sort of defeat: their mask is uncovered; their leverage as an operator—and with it their parasitical lifestyle—is threatened. Their game may be over. They may be mad.

One accidental benefit of stumbling upon a sociopath in couples therapy is the chance it affords the therapist (who recognizes it) to be a professional (and desperately needed) witness for the nonsociopathic partner.

The therapist may be in a position to provide the vulnerable partner, in subsequent individual sessions (after the couples counseling has been appropriately terminated), critical validation, information, and lifesaving support.

All of this presupposes the therapist’s ability to identify the sociopathic partner. When the couples therapist fails to identify that he or she is dealing with a couple in which one of the partners is sociopathic, the ensuing counseling process will undermine all of the nonsociopathic partner’s interests.

In failing to expose the sociopath, the counseling, by definition, will be abetting the sociopath. It will be structured on the false pretense that two reasonable clients are having problems with each other that they’ve co-created, which will not be the case. This false assumption will support the unequal, exploitative playing-field the sociopath has sewn all along.

For this reason—especially if your self-esteem has been battered in a relationship—I encourage you to explore assertively with a prospective therapist the extent of his or her experience with narcissistic and sociopathic personalities. Your inquiry should be met with absolute respect. A defensive response should rule the therapist out, as should vague, general responses, along the lines of, “Well, yes, I’ve worked with these kinds of clients. Is that what you’re asking?”

The answer is “no.” That’s not what you are asking. You are asking for a more substantive response, characterized by the therapist’s interest and patience to discuss in some depth his or her clinical background with the personality-disordered population.

(This article is copyrighted (c) 2008 by Steve Becker, LCSW.)

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94 Comments on "The sociopath in couples therapy"

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pb and nic:

Thanks for the support. I spent the day in what I call crisis management — getting a new cell phone, getting high speed internet (yes, I was the last living American with dial-up) and having to back to the execution pit (employer) to sign some papers.

I think all the stress I’ve been under and has suddenly been released has caught up with me. I felt like I was hit by a tidal wave of fatigue this afternoon. I think my next step this evening is to take a bubble bath and relax with a nice scotch on the rocks.

I keep adding to the “to-do” crisis list. I finally decided today that except for the absolutely critical things like appling for unemployment, the rest can be tackled at the rate of 1 or 2 a day.

I guess I’m babbling. Probably the fatigue. Know I’m going to sleep well tonight.


What is it with these guys? Mine also lied about how recent he had broken up with his ex. I specifically asked him when me met how long ago was his breakup since I had been down the path with somebody who couldn’t emotionally separate from his ex.

S told me “we’ve been broken up over a year.” The reality, I learned two months late was that technically they had been apart a year — because S had been incarcerated. S never could let go of the fact that his ex had said “he’d wait for S”.

I should have walked out when I learned that, but I was hooked. And for all intents and purposes I had a three-way with S’s ex the entire time S and I were together because they couldn’t disengage.

I sometimes wonder if they ended up back together. Then I think “who cares? The deserve each other. Because S sure didn’t deserve me.”

Mine said he’d been broken up with his wife for “a year” and that she had moved “months ago” – just so I wouldn’t think it was too soon.
At the same time, he told everyone that the “psycho” had cheated on him with a herd of men. Well, if they were as he said separated but living on separate floors for the previous year, then how could he also claim she was cheating on him during the same time? Either they were together or they weren’t!
I never thought of that until now. He was having it both ways with his story.
Never mind that he actually did have a lover on the go – sister #1.


Oh, and if you say “scotch” one more time – that’s it! I’m coming over!

I am “evil and malicious” for counting his pecker pills, keeping records, photos, phone calls, messages, and a journal. I also called his daughters school and asked the principal to keep an eye on her because she’s a depressed/stressed out 10 yr old.
“I never know what you’re going to do” he said with some exasperation one night.
“Yup” I laughed, “You’re right you don’t; that’s why you shouldn’t lie to me.”
He was furious that I had called sister #1 (she actually apologized to me for getting involved – now that she’s seen who he is).

TrishNJ, I read your piece from August. I have been dealign w/NJ courts for over 12 years now. Nothing in NJ will ever change until the courts (the judges) see these diseased individuals for exactly who/what they are. We (you & I) can spend millions of $$$ (which we already have) on trying to keep our children safe from these unloving, manipulative, abusive people. However, the bottom line is, if we walk into a NJ courtroom where the Judge (the ultimate decision maker in this whole process) is either uneducated on the topic of Sociopathic/Psychopathic, is hateful towards women that day, or just a lazy bast#$%d who relies on his law clerk to do the work and never even bothered to read ANY of the goddam paperwork put in front of him (which CLEARLY points out this person’s blatant lies, sick priorities and diseased way of thinking), nothing will EVER get better for us or our children. We (you & me) will continue to be their victims until we die and the children will continue to be the pawns in their games until they are strong enough to practice “no contact”. No matter how hard we try, when these children finally reach adulthood, they are so screwed up in their heads that they cannot function normally without attending weekly therapy sessions for children of abusive parents. I sympatize w/your story. Been there, done that, still there. My youngest is 15 and (against a court order…which I’ll pay for eventually) practices “No Contact” with her father (who she is well aware is a sick abusive individual). When I say “against court order”…I have a court order from 9/2008 ordering me to take her for “reunification therapy” to reunify with her father whom she wants “No Contact” with. The family court judge interviewed her & my son but only ordered HER to go bcz she was 13 & he was almost 18 (old enuf to make his own decision). I was ordered to pay for it. This therapy will involve her & her father…but I have to foot the bill! Shortly after receiving that order, I lost my job and my health insurance. NJ Family Care does not offer to pay for this type of therapy so I decided to ignore it. At the same time, his child support was lowered from $238 per week to $42 per week. He sits home as always collecting any form of assistance he could possibly get from this lovely state (disability, unemployment, social security from his mother, etc..) while I struggle to put food on the table. The judge basically took over $849 out of my monthly income that I desperately need to support my children and gave it back to him to drink & party with. That’s NJ for you. Always allowing the thieves & criminals to come out on top & punishing those of us who do the right thing.

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