By Mary Ann Glynn, LCSW
One of the most confusing things people grapple with during and after a relationship with a sociopath is wondering if any of the “love” was real. It’s a total mind f—.
You think of the beginning of the relationship in which your partner was the most romantic person you ever dated — how attentive he was. (I’ll refer to male sociopaths, but they may be female as well.) He may have even been thoughtful and empathetic if you confided in him about someone or a situation troubling you in your life. He may have remembered each occasion with wonderful gifts.
You remember times being part of family and friends as a couple, even when things started to get bad. You may have felt secure and proud when he seemed to be an attentive father or generous neighbor. You think of the time last week when you both glowed and felt proud over an accomplishment of your child. You think of a time not long ago when you laughed together with friends over dinner, or, when you made up with electric sex. You have in your memory times when there seemed to be genuine caring and thoughtfulness.
What is love?
Love is not chemistry. Love is not a feeling of attachment. Love is not romantic feelings. Love is not the high feelings you experience at the beginning of a relationship when it is new and super-affirming by the good feelings you get and the best selves you’re putting forward. Love is not a “feeling” at all; it is an action. Love is the ability to first feel compassion or empathy for another, and then act to meet their need, even before your own. Think of what you would feel for a crying child. You would feel their pain, and this would move you to try to comfort the child, even if you are weary and would rather be relaxing.
Since a sociopath is lacking empathy, and, therefore, the ability to love, what was going on? This statement isn’t entirely true as a sociopath may feel compassion or empathy for something which s/he sees as an extension of themselves, e.g. a child, colleague, friend, pet, even a spouse if s/he never challenges him or needs anything from him. These things do not threaten his sense of control or the image he likes to put forth in the world. But the minute you have a need or a conflict to resolve, which is what every normal healthy intimate relationship requires, what semblance of compassion he may have will go right out the window. Protection of the way he needs to see himself, or whatever he is hiding, is his priority. Everyone and everything else is sacrificed at the altar to his in-control, blameless awesomeness.
Often what happens is that at the beginning of the relationship, when he appears to be more engaged and romantic than anyone else you’d ever been with, can be mistaken for love. Then you get addicted to the intense sexual fireworks, which will release large amounts of oxytocin, the hormone that causes attachment. So, you’ll become very attached early on, believing that he feels the same close connectedness as you. He may be very turned on and very sex-centric at first, and/or is deliberately being manipulative, knowing consciously or subconsciously that sex will attach you to him. Then, after that perception has been firmly imprinted with a particular idea about him — he’s a great, caring, sexy, smart guy — it has the power to put a veil over the red flags that follow after.
The biggest mistake
I think the biggest mistake that partners make is to think that a sociopath operates in the same way they do. Sociopaths look for partners who have a larger than average dose of the qualities that will make a good relationship work: compassion, trust, loyalty, and the ability to love — someone who will think the best of him, feel for him, and jump backwards through hoops of fire to tolerate his behavior in order to make the relationship work.
What partners don’t get is the way a sociopath’s mind works. For him, sex does not have emotional connection like it does for you. He can’t feel your pain or your wounds like you do his. He can’t respond to your need if it doesn’t correspond with his own. He trusts no one. He isn’t honest with himself and can’t be honest with you, period.
Ask yourself, how much has your sociopath been able to feel compassion/empathy for you or your needs, and respond? That tells you how much you have been loved. Realizing this is a bitter pill to swallow. Love isn’t something you show only when it’s easy, convenient or gets you something. If someone is truly loving you, there is no question in your mind about it.