Having spent time listening to many psychopathy researchers, I can attest to many times coming away with the feeling that very critical insights are being missed. An appreciation for the bigger picture just isn’t there yet. For me the bigger picture always includes the family. A sociopath may prey on strangers, but usually that is after a lifetime of practice on family members. The reason this piece is so critical is that the personality disorder, psychopathy is a pervasive disorder of human social behavior that affects every relationship the disordered person has.
Considering what this disorder actually is- a pervasive disorder of human social behavior, the perspective of family members becomes very important. Methods of victimization of others also shed light on the nature of the disorder itself. I think this may be the only psychiatric disorder that would not be present if the affected person was lost alone on an island somewhere. That observation is often lost amid the abnormal brain scans and cognitive tests that are sometimes seen in affected persons.
Without the balance of hearing from victims and family members theories of psychopathy can even miss the central features of the disorder. For example, one new theory of psychopathy called the Triarchic Theory, states that the three traits of boldness, meanness and dysinhibition tell the entire story. The theory is actually better than this sounds but meanness is not what the authors of the theory think it is. If sociopaths were obviously mean, there would not be as many victims.
Given the assertions of the Triarchic Theory it is not surprising that the DSM 5 Personality Disorders Task Force proposed that “acknowledgement and articulation of other emotions (than anger) such as love and anxiety is rare.” Researchers need to put their theories into a perspective that can only be gained through real life outside the laboratory. Therefore it is critical that meetings include work on victims and their experiences, as subjective and “unscientific” as this may sound.
The posters Donna and I presented were an opportunity to challenge researchers to consider their words and assertions carefully. Many came away from reading them doing just that. I had to explain why the language proposed for DSM 5 is wrong, as many tried to defend the proposed statement as true.
There were also two posters from Adelle Forth’s group out of Canada’s Carleton University by graduate students Henriette Bergstrom and Janelle Beaudette on the effects of victimization by a psychopath on victims’ relationship functioning and physical health. This group has identified several themes in the narrative stories of victims, ongoing suffering, transformation and transcendence. But they also say those victims who came through the experience stronger did not really describe how.
This group has identified something I think is very important, that is the question of how to survive victimization and grow from the experience. The fact that a relationship with a sociopath has detrimental effects on psychological, emotional and physical health that lasts for years after the relationship has ended, tells us a great deal about what this disorder is about.