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By April 11, 2008 Read More →

Is your ___________ “a sociopath”?

This semester I am teaching social psychology and biological psychology at a local university. This week the issue of human affiliation and attachment came up in both courses. Recently a new understanding of human affiliation and attachment has arisen in the scientific literature and I was very pleased to see that the new insight already made it into both of the textbooks. The new understanding really helps us to understand sociopathy so I will discuss it here with the help of one of my students and one of our readers.

Human affiliation has two levels to it. The first is our general tendency to avoid being alone and to seek out the company of others. The second is a deeper level that involves love bonds.

Sociopaths are very social and so the first level of human affiliation is not disordered in them. Hear me, sociopaths are not A-social they are ANTI-social. They like to be around people and they pick specific people to direct their energy towards. “ANTI-social” is about what sociopaths do once they are around other people.

After affiliating humans have three pleasures: sex, love and power. Sociopaths have the sex and power stuff down pat, it is the love part they are completely missing. Sociopaths are unable to love and do not form love bonds. However, I believe that sociopaths do form “power bonds” or some degree of attachment toward those they feel they own. Although that part has not yet made it into the textbooks, I believe “power bonds” explain stalking behavior.

I am also teaching the psychology of women and abnormal psychology. In those two classes, domestic violence and personality disorders were discussed this week. So I spent a lot of time talking with students about what love is and is not. In the midst of that, I was approached by a student who commented on how painful it is to have a mother who has poor impulse control and difficulty loving.

Two days later, that same student was followed to class by her boyfriend who was behaving in an aggressive way toward her. He also waited for her after class and was seen by other students pulling her hair. They told me that she had broken up with him and he was stalking her. Fortunately, campus security is very good and 4 large officers told him he had to leave her alone.

I hope that our class discussions were useful to this student. She can’t help but be confused by a boyfriend who loves her so much he is willing to stalk her and rough her up physically! People with sociopathic traits confuse love and power. I think that since they associate pleasure from power with being around “special” people, they think that the pleasure they get from people is “love.” Just like the rest of us use the words love and affection interchangeably.

Sociopaths associate physical affection with their power, so for them love is power and what we call affection. When a sociopath says “I love you” he/she may not be lying. He/she just has a different idea of what that means. He/she means, “I own you and I like to hold your hand.”

If my student is confused about love, she is not alone. The media also gives us a warped view of love, especially romantic love, so if we aren’t lucky enough to have loving parents how could we possibly understand love?

My own encounter with a sociopath led me to have to define love in a practical way. Love can’t be just a shallow feeling because if it is, then perhaps sociopaths do love. I agree with many religions in that I believe love is about what a person does as opposed to how a person feels. I believe that Ability to Love involves:

1. Seeking to be physically close to and spend time with special others
2. Enjoying affection with that special person
3. Empathy towards that person
4. Caretaking of that person
5. Sacrificing to take care of someone else

People often write me when they are trying to come to grips with whether or not someone they love is a “sociopath.” I recently asked one such woman whether she thought her husband and father of her child is able to love, according to the definition of love that is found on page 27 of Just Like His Father? Her answers are very insightful and point to the “typical sociopath’s” inability to love, and confusion over love and power.

1. Seeks out to be physically close to and spend time with special others.

He always wants me to come see him when he’s in jail. He spent lots of time with me, boredom would drive him out to seek others, though that’s not different from other men or women for that matter. When I would go see him in jail, he would have relief washed over his entire face and body when he saw me. I wonder if it was relief to get his fix of dominating someone though.
2. Enjoys having affectionate feelings toward special people

He would play with (their child) a lot, and did enjoy that. He would hug on me constantly when we were first together. He actually showed me how to show affection, in physical ways, my family does not show much affection at all.

(In my experience, sociopaths like to engage in rough and tumble play with kids. This is a form of dominance behavior in humans as well as other species.)

3. Empathy towards those he loves.

Wasn’t while I was pregnant very much at all. He kept me in turmoil and upset. I was a high risk pregnancy and he didn’t help that out at all. His behavior led me to having my tubes tied so I wouldn’t have to go through another pregnancy. He would get completely beside himself if our (child) got sick or got a single mark on her for any reason. He was useless if she threw up and would yell at me what to do. He had me take our (child) to the doctor for everything. I believe I saw him hurting really badly when his oldest brother was dying of cancer.

4. Compulsion to take care of those he loves

Would make me go to the doctor for anything I had wrong and would go with me. I would feel like a live medical class was being held with me as the prop. He never bought me any clothing, rarely got me anything, but thought was made into what he would get me, trinkets mostly. He hardly ever got our (child) anything, I had to guilt him to get what he did buy.

5. Sacrifices his own desires in order to provide for a loved one

Never saw him sacrifice any desire of his to do squat for me or my (child). I always had to sacrifice to take care of him, if he had money, he still wanted me to spend what I had for myself, but mostly back on him. He knows I am on a limited income as well, that never stopped him. I have been so destitute with him we didn’t have toilet paper, but he drank and did his drugs no matter what.

I found somewhere on the internet about 20 symptoms of sociopaths. He hit all of them except for sleeping around on me. 19 out of 20! I felt so sick reading this. It so breaks my heart to find out he is a sociopath. Now, I’m having to assume that he doesn’t know what love is and he so assured me he did. I realize abuse isn’t a sign of love, but he would do other things that were good. Finding out his heart wasn’t behind those things, only the desire to keep me as his property to do with as he chose, that hurts deeply.

Her responses are consistent with my own observations of sociopaths. First, they do seek out others and they often appear to be affectionate. There is an open question as to how affection is experienced by a sociopath. Many sociopaths say they like holding hands or having a pat on the back. In one recent study, people who were identified as possessing sociopathic traits reported the same set of social emotions as other experimental subjects.

Sociopaths certainly say “I love you.” Perhaps they do feel something. I have a hard time believing that their affectionate behavior is all “an act.” But it is important to realize that for people who have sociopathic traits, “affection” is not connected to anything meaningful like empathy, caretaking and self-sacrifice.

My fear is that if we tell people that sociopaths do not experience affection, then many sociopaths will escape identification because people seeing affectionate behavior will think the person is therefore not a sociopath. Affectionate behavior does not mean a person is able to love.

It is really empathy and caretaking that are disordered in sociopaths. In the report above we saw that her child’s father experienced distress when there was something amiss with the child, however, the distress was his own distress as opposed to feelings of real concern for the child. Unless empathy calls us to action it is useless.

Women report sociopathic men often do not care for them during their pregnancies. The sociopath’s lack of caretaking stands in contrast to the expectations and hopes women have about being loved and cared for during pregnancy.

Lastly, the inability to love that is at the heart of sociopathy is greatly magnified by substance abuse. All substances of abuse poison the brain systems that serve empathy and caretaking.

The knowledge that a partner, lover and child’s other parent is a sociopath is very painful. But perhaps “sociopath” is just another word for someone who is unable to love. Take comfort in knowing that it is not that he/she is unable to love you. He /she is unable to love anyone.

What we learn about love from sociopaths can also cause us to be better people. If we understand that love is about empathy and caring then we can practice these in our lives.

If you are the parent of a child whose other parent is unable to love, it is important that you make sure your child knows what love is. Since love is a behavior rather than a feeling, give your child opportunity to practice loving behavior. Teach your child the importance of empathy and care taking. Influence your child with the tone you set at home. Model for your child the behavior you want him/her to show toward others.

Start each day with the Parent’s Pledge:

The Parent's Pledge
Please feel free to copy the Parent’s Pledge and share it with others.

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5 Comments on "Is your ___________ “a sociopath”?"

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  1. alohatraveler says:

    Dr. Leedom,

    I look at this way. When I say affection, there is the idea of love imbedded in that. But for Sociopath’s, “affection” means getting physical pleasure to the body. And they are capable of feeling physical pleasure just like the rest of us. Right? According to my experience and all the reading here, it sounds like getting physical pleasure is a priority with Sociopaths. And often, we mistake this for feeling more wanted than ever… one of the hooks that snags us right through the heart.

    He also had 5 children. I recall early conversations about how when he was still married, there was always someone hugging him (referring to the children) and that after the divorce and separation from the family, he said he felt as if he would “die” if he didn’t get some touch. So he decided to visit a “tantric” massage therapist… She gave him a massage and… ummmm… some physical pleasure.

    Also, as I read your post, I remembered that Bad Man said he used to love to wrestle his kids and was able to pin all of them at the same time up until shortly before his divorce because the oldest ones were getting too strong for that. He was 6 foot and had a very strong, manly build. Naturally. *heavy sigh*… oh well. He was a babe but he was a nightmare. :o(

  2. OxDrover says:

    Dr Leedom,

    Wow, powerful post (as usual) and I am also so glad that you are in a position to TEACH college students about these psychopaths, and to encourage them to look for the red flags. I wish such a course was mandatory in every school–even grade schools since there is such a high drop out rate between 9th grade and high school graduation in our country. (up to 40% in some areas)

    I think you are right too, in that the “appearance” of affection is often taken for a person who is a psychopath appearing to be a “good parent.” on the surface, but underneath when the child really needs something they are devoid of the ability or willingness to help that child.

    The concept of the psychopath “owning” someone or something as a possession and not wanting to give it up (stalking) rather than “loving” them. The old poster we used too have about “if you love someone, let it go….if it never comes back it wasn’t yours to start with” and the same thing twisted around with the last line being “hunt it down and kill it,” though it was intended as a “joke” seems to apply to the Psychopaths attachment to someone.

    The attitude of “love me, or I’LL KILL YOU,” which of course doesn’t make sense to us, but somehow does to them has to be connected to that “ownership” attachment.

    I totally agree with you that LOVE, FORGIVENESS, and a lot of other things that people sometimes associate with “feelings” and “emotions” are instead ACTS.

    The Bible tells you to “love your enemies” but I do not interpret this as meaning to have a “squishy feeling” for them, but to ACT well toward them, not vengefully.

    Forgiving others to me also means that you ACT to rid your own heart of bitterness, it does NOT also mean that you must trust those people again if you truly forgive them. It doesn’t mean that you re-establish a relationship with them, it simply means that you stop the bitterness in your own heart, for your own benefit.

    My anger at the behavior of my Ps naturally made me bitter to them, and also to wish for revenge, to make them hurt the way they made me hurt, but I also realize from the spiritual level (and I think this is very important to my own healing) that my very justifiable anger not be turned into bitterness that eats at my own soul like a cancer, and doesn’t hurt the Ps a bit! LOL Reading Dr. Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” which he wrote after he had spent years in the Nazi concentration camps, lost everything but his own mind and body, and yet, was able to spiritually heal from this incredible horror, has helped me very much.

    As we heal from the wounds that we have allowed the psychopaths to inflict upon us I think that without a spiritual healing as well, the bitterness can overwhelm us and make the pain become a continuing wound in our lives. It isn’t easy, it takes work on my part, but I think it is a very important component of the healing process; physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

  3. gillian says:

    My S husband always has a lot of “friends.” A brand-new batch for every chapter in his life. With the exception of a buddy from high school, he has NO long-term friends. In fact, he doesn’t have any friends that pre-date me. No, come to think of it, he has no friends that pre-date post-me.

    And even that old friend from high school is someone he hardly ever talks to. Once a year, maybe every other year, on average. And I think they’re a whole lot alike. Their common bond back in high school was their anti-social behavior, now it’s all about reminiscing.

    To this day, the men he tends to “bond” with are a lot like him. Either that or they have something to offer: temporary amusement, relief of boredom, or something more tangible such as a key to the after-hours-locked-and-unused-physical-therapy-office at the hospital, an apartment, a credit card upon which to put his AdultFriendFinder.com’s membership.

    But whatever the motive, he definitely can’t stand to be alone.

    When we lived together, far as I knew, he was not much of a phone person. But now, looking back over old cell phone bills, I can see that when I wasn’t around he was actually on his cell phone a lot. Since he moved out, the number of calls and tm’s he sends and receives is absolutely astonishing. Sometimes dozens a day.

    As far as sociopaths feeling love, yeah, I think they think what they feel is love, when all it is is a basic primal desire for warmth and comfort. Sensory pleasures. Empathy, caretaking, sacrifice? Never. (Although to hear them talk you wouldn’t think so.)

  4. gillian says:

    alohatraveler,

    6 feet tall and strong, manly build? Yeah, yeah, mine too. Double sigh.

  5. peggywhoever says:

    Very fine article. Dr. Leedom, I hope you keep us posted about the young woman in your class.

    My S was only 5-8’1/2, but he was pure muscle. Big arms. Big chest. 195-200 pounds of muscle. Another sigh.