Updated for 2019
Lovefraud received the following email from a reader:
Why can’t I get past this jerk? Why do I feel like there is something wrong with me? You see he dumped me for a female version of himself, i.e., drug dealer, liar, manipulator, violent — and he is stringing me along bad mouthing her to me and vice versa. Never in a million years would I think I would even associate myself with someone like that! Yet I’m beating myself up – why not me?? I should be grateful!! Why am I still pining for this creep?
Many, many Lovefraud readers have described the same confusion: I realize now that the person is a sociopath. I know he betrayed me. I know he is bad for me. But I still love him. I can’t get him out of my mind! (Please note: the sociopath may also be female.)
Why does this happen?
The sociopath hijacks the normal human bonding system. The sociopath takes needs and impulses that are rooted in our very survival, intensifies them and then betrays them. The result: Ending a relationship with a sociopath is often far more painful than a normal breakup.
The first thing to understand is that the bonds of love go very deep.
“Love relationships are held together by deep emotional bonds that were crucial to the very survival of our species,” writes Stephen Stosny, Ph.D., in his book, Living and Loving After Betrayal. “We have developed preverbal, prerational, automatic emotional reactions to behaviors and attitudes that threaten these emotional bonds.”
In prehistoric times, Stosny says, losing the kinship of the tribe meant certain death. So emotional bonds, and our reactions to losing them, are anchored deep in a primitive part of our brain.
This is one reason why losing any love relationship feels so scary — we have an ancient memory that we might die.
Romantic love is a drive
Emotional bonds also insured the survival of the human race in another way — the bonds kept parents together long enough to raise children.
Helen Fisher, Ph.D., a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University, and Arthur Aron, Ph.D., a social psychologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, have extensively researched human love and mating. They believe that romantic love is more than an emotion; it’s a motivation system.
A human motivation system, or drive, energizes and directs behavior to fulfill a need. For example, when people are hungry, they seek food. When people are cold, they seek warmth.
Fisher explains the traits that romantic love shares with drives:
- Romantic love is tenacious; emotions dissipate or change far more rapidly
- Romantic love is focused on a specific reward — the beloved
- Romanic love, unlike other emotions, is not associated with a particular facial expression
- Romantic love is exceedingly difficult to control
- Romantic love is associated with elevated activity of central dopamine
For more on this, read:
The Drive to Love: The Neural Mechanism for Mate Selection, on HelenFisher.com.
Romantic love is an addiction
Fisher also says that romantic love is highly addictive. It is associated with “focused attention, euphoria, craving, obsession, compulsion, distortion of reality, personality changes, emotional and physical dependence, inappropriate (even dangerous) behaviors, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, relapse and loss of self-control.”
Fisher conducted studies in which people who were happily in love, or had been rejected in love, were examined in fMRI machines, which allow observers to monitor the activity of the brain.
“Those who are happily in love express neural activity in a region associated with the ‘rush’ of cocaine,” Fisher says, “and those who are rejected in love appear to have neural activity in common with those who gamble for money, risking big gains and big losses.”
For more on this, read:
‘Romantic love is an addiction,’ researchers say, on LiveScience.com.
The bonding process
When we fall in love with someone, we form a psychological bond with that person. This process starts in the beginning of the relationship when we feel pleasure.
You know what the early stage of romance is like. Both of you are doing your best to impress each other. You smile, you pay attention to each other, you spend time together, you go on special dates, you give gifts. All of this behavior plants the seeds of a psychological bond.
When you experience intimacy, the bond is strengthened. The neurotransmitter oxytocin is released in your brain and bloodstream. Oxytocin makes you feel calm, trusting and content, and it alleviates fear and anxiety. Any kind of intimacy gets the oxytocin flowing emotional sharing, physical touching and certainly sexual relations.
Your feelings of love also cause dopamine to be released in your brain. Dopamine is associated with energy and motivation. It is also associated with addiction.
If you have sex with your new partner, it creates chemical and structural changes in your brain. This is nature’s way of making two people want to stay together so that they can raise children.
Enter the sociopath
All of the processes described above are normal. But suppose your new partner is a sociopath, although when the two of you first get together, you don’t know it.
In the early stages of romance, a sociopath doesn’t just try to be pleasant, he or she engages in over-the-top love bombing. You are showered with affection and attention like you never experienced in your life. The sociopath sweeps you off your feet in a whirlwind romance. The result? You don’t just fall. You fall really, really hard.
Sooner or later, you may feel like something is wrong with the relationship. Perhaps you suspect that he or she is lying to you. Perhaps the person is “borrowing” money, and not repaying you as promised. Perhaps you discover that the sociopath is cheating. Perhaps when you confront the person, he or she threatens to leave the relationship.
For whatever reason, the sociopath’s behavior is causing you to experience fear and anxiety.
You might think that this would cause you to back off or lose interest. But according to Lovefraud author Dr. Liane Leedom, research into addiction has come up with two surprising finding:
- Once a bond is established, continued pleasure is not required to maintain it.
- Fear and anxiety actually strengthen psychological bonds.
When you’re feeling fear and anxiety, you want the relationship to return to heady, heartfelt happiness that you experienced in the beginning. So what do you do? You ask what’s wrong. You try to work things out with your partner You may even apologize for something that you didn’t do. If the sociopath is blaming the negative behavior on you, you try to convince him or her that you are loyal to the relationship.
If you’re successful, you kiss and make up, and perhaps have make-up sex. All is wonderful again. You feel relief. This, too, strengthens the psychological bond you feel for this person.
After awhile the sociopath does something else to create fear and anxiety in you, and the routine starts again. So the relationship becomes a vicious cycle of pleasure, fear/anxiety, and relief. With each turn of the cycle, the psychological bond that you feel gets stronger and stronger.
Eventually the bond is so strong that it can be difficult to escape the relationship.
But what happens if your partner rejects you?
Dr. Helen Fisher describes two phases of romantic rejection — the protest phase and the resignation/despair phase.
“During the protest phase, abandoned lovers express intense energy, heightened alertness and extreme motivation to win back their beloved,” Fisher says. This may lead to “frustration attraction” — the observation that disappointed lovers begin to love the person who rejected them even more passionately.
Eventually, the rejected partner accepts the fact that the relationship is over. This resignation/despair phase is associated with less dopamine creation, which leads to lethargy, despondency and depression.
Sociopaths are different
Everything that I’ve just explained does not apply to sociopaths. Why? Because sociopaths do not bond in the same way that people without disorders bond.
Dr. Fisher has found that romantic love is essentially the same among people of both genders, all ages, all sexual orientations and all ethnic groups. However, I haven’t heard whether she or anyone else has studied romantic relationships among people with personality disorders. My guess is that she would find significant differences.
So why, if you’ve been rejected by a sociopath, does it hurt so much? I don’t know of any research to answer the question, so I’ll extrapolate from the above information to put forth a theory.
As human beings, social connections are important to us, so rejection by any romantic partner hurts. But because of the initial love bombing, and the vicious cycle of pleasure-fear/anxiety-relief, our psychological bonds with sociopaths are particularly strong. Therefore, these bonds are harder to break, and rejection by the sociopath hurts more.
Plus, relationships with sociopaths don’t just end — usually there is betrayal involved. As Dr. Steven Stosny says, “Intimate betrayal snatches the floor of personal security from under you.” This makes the pain even worse.
What can you do?
So how do you get the sociopath out of your head? Realize that you are breaking a very powerful addiction.
If you’ve ever battled an addiction before, such as quitting smoking, you know that you have to take it one day at a time. The following strategies will help:
Make up your mind that you will have no contact with this person. That means no text messages, emails, phone calls and certainly do not meet in person. Don’t even visit the sociopath’s Facebook page.
The longer you are away, the more the psychological bond will release. But if you relapse and have contact with the person, just like with any addiction, you’ll be back at square one.
Do something new
If you’ve experienced romantic rejection, less dopamine is going to your brain. So to boost the dopamine, do something new. Novelty drives up the activity of dopamine in your brain. Your partner is still gone (which is a good thing when your partner is a sociopath), but you’ll feel better.
Make the decision to recover
It’s not your imagination — because of human biology and psychology, it is difficult to break your bond with a sociopath.
Time will eventually help you get over the relationship. But your recovery will go faster, and will be more beneficial, if you take affirmative steps to recover.
First of all, take care of yourself. Eat healthy, don’t overindulge in alcohol or drugs, exercise.
Most importantly, don’t sweep your experience under your own personal carpet. Make a decision to directly address the pain caused by the sociopath and also address whatever pain or vulnerability from your past made you susceptible to the sociopath in the first place.
You’ll find many articles that can help you in the Lovefraud Archives under Recovery from a sociopath.
EFT tapping to break the addiction
Since this article was originally published on March 24, 2014, Lovefraud has added a new webinar to our catalog specifically designed to help you get the sociopath out of your head. It’s called, EFT Tapping to Break Your Addiction to a Sociopath.
So why, exactly, are these relationships so addictive? Stacey Vornbrock, MS, LPC, explains that the cells of our bodies can become addicted to the emotions triggered by the sociopath. “Emotions are chemicals,” she says. “Every positive and negative emotion you’ve ever experienced is a chemical peptide produced in your brain by your hypothalamus.
“Your cells have receptors for these emotional chemicals,” she says, “and can become addicted to a particular negative emotional chemical that is repeatedly released.”
Emotional Freedom Techniques tapping, based on the ancient Chinese meridian system, involves tapping on eight particular points on your face and body, and over time, enables your cells to release the addiction.
EFT Tapping to Break Your Addiction to a Sociopath