We tend to speak of sociopaths versus non-sociopaths in pretty much either-or terms, despite recognizing that we fall along a spectrum of behaviors and attitudes that range from extremely unself-centered (even to self-sabotaging levels, reflecting poor self-esteem and weak self-protective defenses); to levels we would describe as dangerously exploitive (moving into the range of full-blown sociopathic personality, characterized by a troubling indifference to, and disregard of, others as separate human beings whose dignity deserves to be respected).
At bottom, as I have elsewhere written and stressed, the sociopath is a remorseless, chronic boundary violator; his regard for others’ dignity is minimal and shallow, if not missing. The function of his violating behaviors is to acquire something he wants with little, certainly no deep, regard for the damage he inflicts on others in his taking of it.
The sociopath knows that his behavior is “wrong” according to law and conventional standards of decency and, unless intellectually impaired, he knows “why” it is wrong from the same code of laws and standards.
He may be able to say, for instance, “It was wrong, or I know why it’s considered wrong, to have robbed that individual,” but he will rob him anyway, because he wanted the money and credit cards, and what he “wants” supersedes all codes of respect toward others.
Thus the damage he inflicts on others in taking what he wants is, at most, a secondary, non-ethical based consideration.
Just as importantly, if not more importantly, the sociopath’s understanding (intellectually) of the suffering he’s caused will leave him, unlike the non-sociopathic person, peculiarly (and tellingly) untroubled.
The sociopath, I can’t stress enough, is concerned with his gain, not others’ pain.
Now let me return to the point of this article. There are individuals with whom I work, not infrequently, whom I’d describe as, in some sense, “fall between the crack” personalities. These individuals have sociopathic tendencies. They are almost always chronically abusive one way or another.
Although they may not precisely meet every criterion of the textbook sociopath, still they exhibit, often (and historically) enough, the kinds of sociopathic abuses (and rationalizations of their abuses) that make them sociopathic enough to be avoided as assiduously as the full-blown sociopath.
Interestingly, these individuals can pose worse dangers than pure, unequivocal sociopaths for the very reason that it’s possible to find features of their personality that do not conform exactly to the textbook sociopath’s, leaving one dangerously more optimistic that her partner may be capable of the change and personal growth worth the wait, and suffering.
However, much more often than not, these individuals will lack this capability just as much as the clearcut sociopath lacks it. Yet their partners can find this especially hard to accept—that is, the virtual certainty that their sociopathically-inclined partner is as unlikely to make the kinds of critical reforms as the clearcut sociopath—because, in some respects, these “partial” sociopaths evidence certain capacities of sensitivity that encourage a seductive (but ultimately misguided) basis of hope?
Of whom am I speaking? I am speaking, for instance, of the individual willing to come to therapy. But you are much more likely to see this individual in a couples therapy situation than individual therapy (voluntarily). This is because in couples therapy he can more easily, craftily disavow his responsibility for the abuse he perpetrates than in individual therapy.
When you seek individual therapy, voluntarily, you are basically conceding that you are coming with some of your own issues to address that can’t so easily, entirely be pawned off on your partner. Certainly it’s possible for an individual to present himself in individual therapy, even voluntarily, on a purely manipulative basis, but this individual usually won’t stay in the therapy for more than several sessions and, moreover, he will quickly reveal signs of his flaky, dubious investment in the process.
So it’s quite rare to find a significantly sociopathically-impaired individual seeking individual therapy, sincerely, on his own. But I repeat: it’s quite common to meet these individuals in couples therapy, where they may also enjoy, on some level, the tension of the dynamic in the room—the challenge, in a sense, to compete for the vindication of their image and comparative innocence; to persuade the therapist of their partners’ craziness, or histrionics.
In short, the couples therapy environment can satisfy the sociopath’s tendency to gamesmanship, competition and manipulation. He can verbally flaunt his quickness, glibness, logic, gaslighting tendencies and, if he has them, his impressive analytic and persuasive powers; he can rise to the challenge of convincing the therapist who the really “whacked” party in the relationship is?
But let us not lose the thread of the article. We are speaking here not necessarily of the full-blown sociopath but the “partial” sociopath. And this, again, can complicate and, in some respects, worsen matters!
For the reason that, because he may not be a full-blown sociopath, he may be involved in the therapy with a “sort of”—perhaps a “partly genuine” wish—to salvage the relationship, and not necessarily for entirely selfish, manipulative reasons.
And so this can be especially confusing to his partner, if not the therapist. Who is this man? If he is showing up regularly for couples sessions, seems on some levels to love his partner, is capable of producing, seemingly, some sincere insights and some accountability for his destructive behaviors (at least in the sessions), doesn’t this suggest a candidate for some real, substantive change, if not transformation?
But the answer most often is, NO. To repeat, the individual of whom I speak is almost always, in the final analysis, no more capable of changing than the textbook sociopath, only his more human side creates the teasing prospect that he can, indeed, produce this change, when he won’t, and can’t.
Why? Why can’t he? Why won’t he?
Because he has too much of the sociopath in him. What is too much? This is hard to quantify. At what point along the spectrum is he too far gone to make meaningful, worthwhile, reliable changes, even though he may retain some genuinely humane qualities?
For the answer to this question, tune in to my next article.
(This article is copyrighted (c) 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 behaviors and attitudes discussed.)