Therapists aren’t immune to the charms of sociopathic clients, including this therapist. Far from it. This is especially true in a couples dynamic where the client, as I’ve noted before, can disguise his sociopathic tendencies sometimes more effectively than when in individual therapy.
But even when the disguise is off, and I know transparently that I’m dealing with a sociopathic individual, that still doesn’t necessarily innoculate me from enjoying him possibly as a very engaging, friendly, even if superficial and manipulative, individual.
This can, though, make for more difficulty, and thus more urgency, to be especially watchful not to succumb to his engaging side at the expense of evaluating and confronting the reality that must be addressed.
In situations where I find a sociopathic client to be quite likeable I must be extra watchful for his efforts to position himself as the victim in the relationship; as the misunderstood, if self-admittedly sometimes wayward (but ultimately sensitive, devoted) partner; when, in fact, what he ultimately, fundamentally is, beyond what may be his high level of likeability, is manipulative, abusive, probably devious; someone who operates covertly—and, if audatious enough, overtly—in wielding, if not flaunting, his double-standards in an often degrading fashion.
Double standards he’s likely to try to “gaslight” his partner into believing he’s either not deploying; or, due to the oppressive conditions he will claim to have suffered, double standards he will rationalize as acceptable, and which he manipulatively asserts she should somehow tacitly accept as his rational response to the untenable conditions he’s lived under (thanks to her).
In any case, he will position himself as, if not the whole victim in the relationship (his generous concession towards balance) then, at the very least, as the principal victim.
Now let me be very clear here: he may state that he owns fifty-fifty of the problem in the relationship, and that he even fully owns many of his violating behaviors. He may state these things with seeming sincerity, and this may sound very promising and good.
But he really doesn’t believe this, and you can be quite sure that his failure to apply his ostensible self-awareness will affirm his underlying insincerity and his poor prospects for meaningful change.
What he really believes, at bottom, is that his partner (as I’ve noted) is the principal problem; it is she who obstructs the attainment of his gratifications and fulfillment; and because he feels entitled to gratification and fulfillment at all times, he can thus rationalize his pursuit of it—and how he pursues it—anytime he likes.
And so, sometimes I find myself sitting across from someone like this who, as destructive a person as I recognize he is, nevertheless in the limited confines of my involvement with him, I may experience as extremely engaging and likeable. After all, he may be showing me his “best” sides—his most charming, respectful, pleasant, humorous, “sensitive” sides.
He may be someone who leaves me feel very challenged not to lose my own grip on the reality I’ve discerned through my own eyes—and through his disarming engagability in my office.
In these cases, I have to remind myself that, while my job is to be objective, it is not necessarily to be “neutral.”
Sometimes my “objectivity” must lead me to the conclusion that I’m working with a couple in which one partner, however “likeable” may, in fact, be the primary, if not sole, perpetrator of abuse against his partner (perhaps serious abuse, for a long time); that, however persuasive he may be with regard to his own alleged suffering in the relationship, still it is he (not she) who is the truly destructive party in the relationship, even if she can also sometimes be destructive (but often, in such cases, as a function of her having been worn down into states of desperate rage).
Sometimes I have to recognize this dynamic, however unpleasant it may be to have to recognize. I may have to confront my own capacity for denial and minimization, to be sure that, from my avoidance, I’m not abandoning the client who needs my validation and support.
I may be in a very nonconfrontational mood and feel highly averse to confronting anyone, let alone an abusive sociopath; and yet the situation may call for just that—an effective confrontation of the reality.
Because these are not instances or opportunities one can afford to waste. Too much is at stake. And so confrontation may become necessary. The client needs, in a very serious way, to be “called out.”
But with one caveat: I must be confident that, in “calling him out,” I’m not placing his partner at heightened risk to be punished more abusively than normally after, or in-between, the therapy sessions!
It is both easier and harder to confront, or in this case, “call out” a sociopathic client whom I may find likeable. Easier from the standpoint that, however superficial the connection between us really is (particularly his with me), there is at least the comfort in hoping that an accumulation of goodwill may have developed between us arising from his experience of feeling respected and liked in the sessions; goodwill, I hope, which may leave him reacting less defensively to my impending feedback.
Harder in the sense that it’s awkward to risk, or test, that goodwill? Is the goodwill all illusory? Will the client seriously, maybe even explosively “go south” on me (and worse, “go south” on his partner)? Am I overestimating his goodwill and tolerance to hear the feedback I’m about to deliver? Is my timing going to be right, or wrong? Will I go too far, or not far enough, in my feedback, and in the tone of my feedback? Will I be too strong or too aggressive in my tone, or just as problematically, too passive and weak?
And, importantly, who will benefit from this feedback?
Probably not the client, because he’s sociopathic. But even if he’s a sociopath, so long as I can be pretty sure that my feedback won’t result in the subsequent escalation of his abuse of his partner, then it’s possible that my feedback will benefit her, which becomes the sole purpose of my delivering the feedback.
It is really for her, not him.
And this may be feedback I repeat over a number of sessions, which can reinforce its impact (especially for her); and, because I offer it in the couples sessions, I can reinforce and elaborate it in subsequent individual sessions with her without violating his confidentiality. By this I mean that the feedback will have already been stated to him, in front of her, so that I can discuss it with her later, alone, in a private session.
Does the delivery of such confrontations of the unignorable reality risk alienating the sociopathic partner? Absolutely. It often spells the end of the couples sessions. But what’s really been lost? A superficially engaging connection with a client who will make no progress anyway in therapy, or as a worthy partner? Sure, this tenuous connection is seriously risked. And yet its preservation, at some point, itself becomes a form of destructive enabling and pretense.
In the end, the abused client has a chance for the freedom she deserves and perhaps can be convinced she is ready to seize.
(This article is copyrighted © 2011 by Steve Becker, LCSW. My use of male gender pronouns is for convenience’s sake and not to suggest that females aren’t capable of the attitudes and behaviors discussed.)