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The Inner Triangle: a means of understanding sociopaths

April, 2003, nearly four years ago, the police removed my then husband from my office in handcuffs. Following his arrest, the stories came rolling in. People called to say, “I never told you this but…” When the shock of it all wore off, I had to admit I had failed to make the most important diagnosis of my life, that of sociopathy in the man I married. I knew I had to understand, for the sake of my son and myself, why I missed this diagnosis. What did I not understand about sociopathy?

Sociopathic traits versus sociopathy

I have always been very well read in my field, so the problem was not that I was unfamiliar with DSM diagnostic criteria, The Mask of Sanity, or Without Conscience. I also encountered many sociopaths in my clinical practice. The problem was, even with all this knowledge and experience, I still did not understand the disorder. One of the reasons for this lack of understanding was the fact that one of my former mentors often made light of diagnostic criteria. He said, “We all have sociopathic traits.” Recently, this statement has been confirmed by research. Sociopaths represent a group of people with personality traits that are on a continuum with those of everyone else. Science has made a rather arbitrary decision as to where to draw the line between non-disordered and disordered. This continuum also means that it is possible to be “a little bit of a sociopath.”

The Inner Triangle

With all due respect to the real experts in the field, I had to come up with my own way to understand this disorder. I had to know how I would evaluate people in the future. Practically speaking, how would I draw the line in this continuum. I sat on my bed while my baby was asleep. I took the piles of references and diagnostic criteria I had assembled and asked myself, “How does this all add up?” That afternoon, I understood sociopathy for the first time. I realized that at the core of sociopathy is a problem with Ability to Love, Impulse Control and Moral Reasoning. I called these three “The Inner Triangle.” A sociopath is someone who has severe difficulty in each of these three areas. Most importantly, sociopaths lack Ability to Love. I also realized that one reason for the confusion about this disorder is that there are those who lack ability to love and are not sociopaths, namely narcissists and schizoids. Other people, like those with addiction, have impaired ability to love. Furthermore, mood disorders, like manic-depression, temporarily impair Ability to Love, Impulse Control and Moral Reasoning.

The developmental literature confirms The Inner Triangle

After putting together the construct of The Inner Triangle, I sought to read every paper ever written about how Ability to Love, Impulse Control and Moral Reasoning develop. When I studied the scientific literature in detail, I discovered something truly amazing: The Inner Triangle is indeed a triangle as opposed to three parallel lines. What I mean is that the development of Ability to Love depends on Impulse Control and Moral Reasoning. The development of Impulse Control depends on Ability to Love and Moral Reasoning, and the development of Moral Reasoning depends in Ability to Love and Impulse Control. All three grow together and connect.

The Inner Triangle helps us understand sociopathic traits

After being fooled by a sociopath, it can be a challenge to feel safe. I want to be as sure as I can be that I will not be fooled again. If I find myself feeling unsure about whether to trust someone, I think about what I have come to believe are the three things that define character, Ability to Love, Impulse Control and Moral Reasoning. In doing this, I find I expect more from those I am close to. Next time, I’ll discuss what it means to have Ability to Love, until then, follow this link for more on The Inner Triangle.



3 Comments on "The Inner Triangle: a means of understanding sociopaths"

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  1. newstart says:

    Thank you for the explaination, I have recently found out that my sooon to be X is a sociopath, we are in a messy divorce and custody battle. I have found out that he has had a double life all through the marriage and has a serious sex addiction and internet porn addiction as well as drug and alcohol addiction. I am grateful to people like yourself who have enlightened me. It has been rather difficult to face the reality, as I have 5 year old triplets. The court system continues to be challenging.



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  2. worriedsick says:

    My 15 yr old daughter has a best friend also 15 yrs old. I have known the friends family for many years. Over the years I have watched the mother alienate (in not a nice way) people from there lives who get to close to her children. She is very verbally and sometimes abusive to my daughters friend. Here’s a quick background on the girl. She is beautiful, bright, respectful and well liked no matter what situation she is in. She is a straight A student, captain of the cheer team, student body president of her class and voted bubbliest personality for the yearbook. Her mother is also the spanish teacher at her high school (very small school). There is not a peer, teacher or a coach that has a negative thing to say about this girl. At home her mother constantly berates and belittles her. Here’s a small example of things she says “your nothing but a filthly white trash whore, you’ll never be anything but filthy trash to me. That list goes on and on. The girl has also been choked, slapped and punched in the face. The mother also claims to be a good christian, goes to bible study and church every week. At school she acts like she has a perfect family. Outside appearances mean everything to her. When the mother found out the daughter was confiding in me she has completely cut me out of her life just as she has to several people over the years. I believe this child has been reaching out to many adults over the years. I finally told the school after the last go around of violence and they reported it to the police. Now the family is being investigated. Within 24 hours of the mother being investigated by police she has withdrawn the daughter from school saying she will now be home schooled. She has completely isolated her from all of her friends and activities. She has become a virtual prisoner in her home. The police did call me for a statement and I told them everything I know. The problem is the mother seems to be the best liar on the planet. Most of the outside world is starting to look at the mother differently but I’m afraid that will only enrage her more and take it out on the daughter. I’ve have done extensive research on what kind of possible disorder she may have since her behavior is obviously not normal. I keep coming back to sociopath. She truly has no remorse for the abuse she has inflicted on this child, I actually believe she gets a thrill from it. Nothing seems to have come of contacting the police. I’m worried they are actually believing the mother and I think the daughter is actually starting to believe the things the mother is saying about her since she has know contact with anyone else to tell her different. Is there anything else I can do, I’m so worried about her. She is such a great girl and deserves so much better how can I help her. PLEASE SOMEONE HELP ME HELP HER!!!!!!



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  3. Dear Worried Sick,

    Please read my other posts about sociopaths so you understand well what you are likely dealing with. The take home message is that sociopaths are motivated only by their desires for power, sex and possessions. The desire to appear perfect to the outside world is part of the power motivation. You are not morally obligated to take on this likely sociopath on behalf of her daughter. If you decide to, be prepared for the daughter to possibly turn against you. She is torn between the control/abuse and the love she feels for the sociopathic parent. If you carry the feelings of rage for her, she will stop carrying them and feel only love towards the abusing parent. You have to help the victim own all of the rage. Remember, sociopaths do battle better than everyone else because they are not hampered by empathy or the need to give another the benefit of the doubt. Since you are dealing with a legal issue, you might consult an attorney regarding your options. You need to build a network of allies to take on this woman. I’m afraid for your mental and physical well-being should you try to go it alone.



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