Partners in our support group are often confused by the fact that after a verbal outburst, physical abuse, or once the ruse is up, sociopaths may seem remorseful. They might see the consequence of their actions, may even cry and be emotional, or apologetic. There might be efforts to change by more responsive or caring behaviors. If the relationship gets pushed to the breaking point, they may engage in therapy. Most partners’ experience the sociopath in therapy as completely blaming everything on them and/or trying to control the therapy sessions. But, some had a different, more perplexing experience.
Their experience was that the sociopaths appeared to be quite motivated to improve the relationship and to made headway — expressing remorse, feelings, even empathy for their partner. Their behavior seemed to make a turnaround so that their partner believed that they had seen the light, and that the loving caring person they used to be returned. Their faith was restored in the potential for a loving relationship and intact family. It’s not impossible after all, right?
In the end, even when everything looked promising, partners reported one of these things happened: 1) As soon as therapy ended, the sociopath’s behavior reverted back. 2) When therapy started getting into deeper underlying issues for behavior, the sociopath disengaged. 3) In trying to empathize with the pain or hurt they caused their partners, sociopaths were able to speak words of empathy, but their partner didn’t feel they got or felt it. This is very tricky. Empathy by definition means that you can feel another’s pain as if it were your own. What the brain feels when you perceive someone else’s pain, or any other emotion for that matter, is the identical experience as if you yourself were going through it.
If, in a couples session, partner1 is openly sharing hurt, etc., and partner2 attempts to empathize, partner1 can always “feel” if partner2 gets, or feels, it too. If that happens, partner1 feels connected to partner2, and vice versa. What happened with sociopaths is, even if they express words of empathy for their partner’s feelings, their partner does not feel they are getting (feeling) it. The sociopath may even seem to be showing emotion, but it’s not their partner’s emotion – they’re more likely stuck in their own feelings of shame or victimhood. Pay attention to this if you go to therapy with a sociopath! When you don’t feel “heard”, like your partner can’t get to feeling your emotion, they are not empathizing with you.
So let’s get back to remorse. Remorse should affect behavior – not temporarily, but permanently. It’s about conscience, which is completely dependent on the ability to empathize. There are times we are all capable of turning down our consciences when it serves us, like telling a lie, taking supplies home from work, being defensive about our behavior, being insensitive, losing our tempers, being petty. But, once someone tells us openly how our behavior affects them, our conscience should make us have a different response.
For example, if you blow off plans with a friend several times without thinking anything of it, and then the friend comes to you and expresses hurt, rejection, not feeling important to you, or whatever, you are likely to feel their pain (empathy) and feel bad/guilty. If that friend identifies a childhood trigger in there, e.g. being blown off made them feel like in middle school when the group made rejected them, then your empathy quotient jumps much higher! Are you likely to blow off this friend anymore? No! If you had no ability to feel your friend’s hurt, your response would likely be defensive and cold, because it would just be about your indignation for them perceiving you that way.
No empathy – no remorse
If someone is not capable of empathy, they are not capable of remorse, and therefore change. Period. The brief feelings of remorse or regret you witness in a sociopath is likely to be about screwing something up they wanted (shame) or losing someone or something they wanted (victimhood) – in other words, it’s for themselves. They may believe themselves that they are making great strides in honesty and change – but it never really gets past their narcissism to feeling your pain. It’s more like a brief soiree into the anxiety of having lost control or lost something, in which they scramble to regain control and/or it. Once they regain control or what they lost, they’re done changing. Being disconnected from your feelings, they have no reason to keep up the change, and default back to being the way they were.