As I work with partners and other victims of sociopaths, I see regularly the persistence of certain myths about these destructive individuals.
These myths can retard the process by which partners fully recognize the sociopath for who he is. They can protect him by supporting his “mask” or, at the very least, supporting the “rationalizations” his partners and victims sometimes use to “cut him the slack” he surely doesn’t deserve.
For instance, commonly I hear the position, “Well, he’s not always like this. He doesn’t always act like this.” This supports the notion that sociopaths are continuously flaunting their disorder. But this just isn’t the case.
To begin with, we know that many sociopaths are very skilled at “masking” their particular psychopathology. So it’s perfectly “normal” for them to appear, well, generally “normal.” Yet I can’t tell you how many people I work with who want desperately to see the sociopath’s seeming capacity to behave normally as “contra-indicative” of his sociopathy.
But let’s remember that even hardcore alcoholics aren’t drinking 24/7. The worst domestic abusers aren’t abusing 24/7. There are few individuals who are making 24/7 blatant displays of their psychopathology. Everyone goes “underground” for periods of time with the more florid symptoms of their disturbances, during which it’s tempting to wish, to believe, that perhaps the “underground individual” is the “real individual.”
And so the sociopath will not continually be making a display of his personality disturbance. He is more likely to “expose” himself from time to time, if not regularly. Finally, it is much more the capacity, than frequency, with which he can be so baldly, blithely transgressive of others’ boundaries that characterizes the essence of his disorder. In a word, he will not always be “acting sociopathic.”
There is also the somewhat persisting notion that sociopaths are violent, whereas many aren’t. True, they are always “violent” insofar as, inevitably, they will violate others’ dignity, but many sociopaths aren’t physically violent, and others aren’t even necessarily blatantly emotionally abusive.
Many sociopaths are just inherently dishonest, deceptive individuals who can lie through their teeth without compunction as they scheme to take what they want from others. I’ve discussed this before—the essence of the sociopath’s orientation as lying in the bizarre, creepy comfort he feels taking what he wants from others, however unentitled he is to it, and with shocking heedlessness of the damage his “taking” will cause those whom he’s transgressing.
So don’t be fooled, necessarily, by the absence of blatant displays of violence, or even conventional exhibitions of emotional abusiveness, although sociopaths are often highly prone to exhibiting these and other forms of abuse. But not all do, and certainly not all the time, facts which in no way disqualify their sociopathy.
I sometimes see still, and quite often, an individual’s difficulty reconciling her partner’s high intellectual capacity with his sociopathy. Although it’s a fallacy that most sociopaths are especially bright, or brighter than non-sociopaths, yet many find it almost inconceivable that their “bright,” even intellectually “brilliant” partners can, in fact, be truly sociopathic.
Yet we know that sociopathy isn’t an “intellectual disorder.”
We know, in fact, that to be a diagnosed sociopath the intellect must really be somewhat established, for we would suspect that an intellectually deficient individual might plausibly explain his antisocial behaviors on his intellectual deficiencies. Sociopaths, then, must be intellectually sound to be considered sociopaths.
Yet the prevailing myth goes something like this: if one is intelligent, as the sociopath may be, then he ought to be intelligent enough to realize that his sociopathy is outrageous and unacceptable; and thus, rationally speaking, he should want (and be willing) to retire his sociopathic shenanigans.
The danger here, which I see often, is that partners of sociopaths hold to the prayer that, in the end, their partners will, in fact, be “smart” enough to see how “stupidly” and destructively they are acting. Their intellects, the non-sociopathic partner desperately hopes, will (and should) eventually supercede their sociopathy. Not going to happen. Ever.
I see another prevailing myth that takes the form of this ongoing bafflement and protest from the sociopath’s partner: “It makes no sense. His behavior makes no sense. He can be so delightful and reasonable one day, and then there’s this ‘other side’ to him.”
The idea here relates to the first myth: if he can be normal sometimes, he should be capable of being “normal” all the time. But it’s the “it makes no sense” reaction that dangerously keeps so many partners tethered to their sociopathic partners.
Because it really does “make sense;” it just doesn’t “make the sense” you want it to make. It makes sense because this is what sociopaths are. This is what they do. This is how they act. This is how they think. You want to believe otherwise. You want their aberrant behaviors and attitudes explained in such a way that it would “make so much sense” that YOU could personally relate to it.
But it will NEVER “make sense” on this level. You are not a sociopath. And so it will never “make sense” on the level you want it to. But you must stop insisting it make sense on this level, or you risk using this as a rationalization to stay with the sociopath until it “makes sense.”
I stress: everything your sociopathic partner does makes absolute sense, but only when you are willing to recognize he’s a sociopath.
It only fails to “make sense” when you fight what he is, when you resist calling him what he is—a sociopath.
More to come soon on this, and other, subjects.
(This article is copyrighted © 2012 by Steve Becker, LCSW. My use of male gender pronouns is strictly for convenience’s sake and not to suggest that females aren’t capable of the attitudes and behaviors discussed.)