Sooner or later, those of us who are romantically involved, or have been romantically involved, with sociopaths and other exploiters recognize that the relationship is bad for us and must end. Although we know this intellectually, often we still feel incredible attraction, even love, for the individual. How do we break the emotional attachment?
For example, Lovefraud recently received the following letter:
I am single, and I think I was with someone very narcissistic, if not outright sociopathic. The thing is, even though I am no longer with him (and he did not get to my finances), he broke my heart.
My question is, how do you get over him? I have tried to date others, but no man has compared with the chemistry and (you know, all the rest) that I had with the narcissist. I have a man now who truly loves me, and we are soul mates. I just don’t have that “sizzle” with him that I did with the one who was bad for me. Do you think I should “settle” for the good, honest man? I mean, I am attracted to him; it’s just not the mad passion like the narcissist brought out.
Many, many readers have told Lovefraud that getting over relationships with sociopaths (narcissists, etc.) is much more difficult than getting over other relationships that they’ve had. The reasons for this are complicated, and are rooted in both normal human psychology and the sociopath’s pathology.
The first thing to understand is that sociopaths engage in seduction. This is significantly different from a normal dating relationship.
When two relatively healthy people begin dating, they are both testing the waters. They are spending time with each other to see if they like each other enough, or have enough in common, or get along well enough, to keep going. Yes, one party may be more interested than the other, but neither of them has made a decision.
In contrast, sociopaths purposely and consciously seduce their targets. They lavish the person with attention. They want to know everything about the target, they call and text constantly, they shower the person with gifts large and small. Sociopaths move fast, and quickly begin talking about love, commitment and marriage. This is called love bombing.
For most of us, the only experience we’ve ever had with this level of attention is in a fairytale. We are swept off our feet, caught up in the intensity, the magic, of Prince or Princess Charming. We’ve heard all those stories of “love at first sight,” and hope that it’s finally happened to us. We think it’s real.
Here’s what you need to understand: The sociopath’s extraordinary pursuit is never about love. It is about predation. You are or have something that the sociopath wants—at least for the moment. Despite what the sociopath says, his or her interest in you is not about building a relationship or future together. It’s about acquiring a possession.
The sex adventure
Sociopaths, both men and women, are hard-wired for sex. They have high levels of testosterone, and a strong appetite for stimulation. These two facts are probably responsible for the “animal magnetism” that we sense with them.
But that’s only the beginning. Sociopaths are often extraordinarily energetic and proficient lovers—at least technically. Because of their tremendous sexual appetite, they start young and have a lot of partners, so they quickly become experienced. And, because they have no shame, they feel no inhibitions. In fact, they frequently want to push their partners’ boundaries.
Is this passion? No—it’s boredom. Sociopaths quickly tire of the same old thing, and want new sexual adventures. Getting the target to go along with their desires offers two types of rewards: They enjoy new modes of stimulation. And, they manipulate the partners. This is especially fun if the partner initially resists the demands.
The sex connection
From Nature’s point of view, of course, the purpose of sex is propagation—the continuation of the human species. Nature wants children to survive, and the best chance of that happening is when parents stay together to care for them.
Therefore, sexual intimacy causes changes in the brain that contribute to bonding between the partners. One agent for doing this is oxytocin, a neurotransmitter sometimes called the “love hormone.”
Oxytocin is released during sexual orgasm, and, in women, in childbirth and nursing. According to Wikipedia, here’s what the hormone does:
Oxytocin evokes feelings of contentment, reductions in anxiety, and feelings of calmness and security around the mate. In order to reach full orgasm, it is necessary that brain regions associated with behavioral control, fear and anxiety are deactivated; which allows individuals to let go of fear and anxiety during sexual arousal. Many studies have already shown a correlation of oxytocin with human bonding, increases in trust, and decreases in fear.
So during sex, your brain is being flooded with calmness, trust and contentment, and fear and anxiety are alleviated. If you’re involved in a true loving and committed relationship, this contributes to bonding, which is fine and healthy.
Sociopaths, however, do not bond in the same way that healthy people do. Although we don’t know if oxytocin works differently in sociopaths, or perhaps doesn’t work at all, we do know that sociopaths are deficient in their ability to love. So while the healthy partner develops a love bond; the sociopath does not.
A love bond is created by pleasure, and during the seduction phase of the relationship, the sociopath generates extreme pleasure for the target. However, addiction research has discovered that although pleasure is required to form a bond, pleasure is not required to maintain it. Even when a relationship starts to get rocky, normal people still feel bonded. Again, this is Nature’s way of keeping people together. If parents split up at the first sign of trouble, the survival of children would be in doubt.
Sooner or later, of course, relationships with sociopaths get rocky. Perhaps the sociopath engages in cheating, stealing or abuse. The sociopath’s actions create fear and anxiety in the target. But instead of driving the target away from the sociopath, anxiety and fear actually strengthen the psychological love bond.
So what do the targets do? They turn to the sociopaths for relief. The sociopaths may apologize profusely and promise to change their hurtful ways, reassuring the targets. The targets, feeling bonded to the sociopaths, want to believe the reassurances, so they do. Then the two people have sex, which reinforces the bond again.
From the target’s point of view, the relationship becomes a vicious circle of bonding, anxiety, fear, relief, sex and further bonding. The longer it goes on, the harder it is for the target to escape.
The result: For the target, the love bond becomes an addiction.
How is this possible? How do targets get into this predicament?
Often, targets are primed for sociopathic relationships due to trauma that they have already experienced in their lives. As children, they may have suffered physical, emotional, psychological or sexual abuse from family members, authority figures or others. Or, the targets may have already experienced exploitative relationships, such as domestic violence, from which they have not recovered.
These abusive experiences create “trauma bonds.” As a result, abuse and exploitation feel normal to a target.
For healing to occur, targets need to look honestly into themselves and into their histories, finding the root of the issue. Was there a prior relationship that made you vulnerable to a sociopath?
So, to answer the original question in the letter, how do you get over the sociopath?
First of all, you need to understand that what you are feeling is not chemistry or love. You are feeling addiction and a pathological love bond—the trauma bond.
Healing requires conscious effort. The book called The Betrayal Bond, by Patrick J. Carnes, Ph.D., is an excellent resource for doing this. Carnes writes:
Once a person has been part of our lives, the ripples remain, even though we have no further contact. In that sense a relationship continues even though we may consciously exorcise it from our conscious contact. Once you understand that principle, a shift will occur in all of your contact with others.
If the relationship was toxic, as in a traumatic bond, the relationship must go through a transformation, since it will always be with you. You do not need to be in contact with th person to change the nature of the relationship. You can change how you perceive it. You can change how it impacts you.
How do you do this? You commit to facing the reality of the relationship—all of it. Trauma tends to distort perception—you want to focus the good memories and forget about the bad ones. You must force yourself to deal with the truth of the experience—including the betrayal.
If you’re still feeling the tug of the pathological relationship, The Betrayal Bond includes information and exercises that can help you break free. The book is available in the Lovefraud Store. (My book, Love Fraud, describes an alternative path to recovery.)
And to the Lovefraud letter-writer: Do not confuse drama with love. Accepting a good, honest man is not “settling.” It is the foundation of a healthy relationship.
You can move forward.