science of us

What It’s Like Dating a Psychopath

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Last month, the Cut interviewed a woman who told us she’d been diagnosed as a psychopath in her mid-20s. Prior to the interview, Craig Neumann, a professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of North Texas who has focused the bulk of his research on the psychopathic personality and its traits, provided some background as to the lengthy, comprehensive process that goes into making a psychopathy diagnosis, and it appeared consistent with what the woman interviewed described.

Broadly, Neumann defines psychopathy as “a pathological personality style that is interpersonally deceptive, affectively cold, behaviorally reckless, and often overtly antisocial.” (He was also pretty insistent that true psychopaths are “nasty sons of bitches,” which doesn’t jibe with my 40-minute phone interview with one.) Psychopathy is a scale measured along the PCL-R, which lists 40 psychopathic traits. Most people score between 1 and 3.

Where exactly my subject falls on that scale, I don’t know, and it seems probable she’s on the lower end (or higher-functioning end) of the spectrum — especially because she is in a 19-year relationship, which Neumann says is highly uncommon for what he perceives as the psychopathic personality. (What is common is for people to refer to their exes as “psychopaths,” listing their grievances at length on sites like Psychopath Free and Love Fraud.)

Below, I interviewed the man that subject is in a relationship with — whom she put me in touch with — who will also remain anonymous.

How did you and your partner meet?
We met many, many moons ago. … It was through a mutual friend, who introduced us 19 years ago now.

What initially drew you to her?
She was striking. She was a beautiful woman. I had seen her before, and she apparently had seen me and asked our mutual friend who I was, and he introduced us.

How long did it take you to notice there was something different about her personality?
I tend to study people a lot and read people a lot — actions, responses, stuff like that. There was something a touch different about her, but when you go into a relationship you always have the wide eyes, and you try to take as much as you can in, but at the same time everything’s kind of a blur. It took a while before I started seeing more signs.

What kinds of things did you notice?
Honestly, it was pretty much just that her reactions to things were atypical, if you would.

When she and I talked, her characterization of her response to things was that if someone told her something upsetting or sad, she would probably just receive it as a clinical fact. Were there things that you shared with her expecting more of an emotional reaction?
I speak more clinically in conversation anyway, so when she responded in kind it was hard to tell the difference — whether she was responding the same way I’m talking, or whether it was part of her nature.

It sounds like it might not be as noticeable in intellectual conversations, but more so in emotional, reactive ones.
Absolutely correct.

Part of the reason I want to do this, and what I told her, is that it’s pretty easy to find websites full of people describing their exes as psychopaths, and I wondered what your take on that was.
Right — they didn’t respond the way someone wanted them to. It’s a lot of misinformation. When people get their heart broken, or they get very disappointed by someone’s response to something, they tend to want to villainize them. Hollywood has worked really hard on building the perfect bad guy, and that’s a psychopath. It’s been really interesting over the years to watch that pop up — when someone’s ex did something they didn’t like, it’s because they’re a psychopath. No, they just did something that hurt.

Has anyone ever said anything insulting about her diagnosis in front of you? She did have one person — in a situation I won’t go into — say that she should work at a morgue, because she didn’t have an emotional response to something. They were very upset.

Do you feel defensive or protective of her in situations like that?
She’s a very, very smart woman, and she can handle herself. Fortunately, in person, we haven’t run into a situation where she’s being physically threatened because of her difference, and when it comes to just a verbal conversation, she is more than capable of handling herself.

She got diagnosed after you two met, right?
That’s correct.

How did you react to that news?
I took her to that appointment. So when we received the diagnosis, I was pretty much like, ‘Yeah. Okay. That makes perfect sense.’

What led to you bringing her to that appointment?
I actually can’t go into that one. I’m sorry.

Is it fair to say that you talked about it together?
I can’t really go into that one. I can tell you what my attitude was, but I can’t really dive into that, because it was related to something else initially.

Was it something where afterward it was a relief, or reassurance that that had been the right thing to do?
After the appointment, it felt more like it gave us some answers. It gave us some quick answers and helped to better understand where we were at, where she was at, and in the long term, where we went from there.

Do you remember how far into your relationship this was?
Probably within the first four years of our relationship.

Which for any couple I think is a trying, instructive time in learning how the other person works. Once you had that information, did you feel like that helped you move through conflicts more easily?
Personally, I’ve never had two relationships that were the same. You kind of read, predict, then act/react, and that’s to what makes both of you happy. There’s really no difference here because of a diagnosis. She’s just a little harder to read, or be read by, than most people.

I said the same thing to her, but it really sounds like you guys have the most healthy, thoughtful, and highly communicative relationship, which I think is so outside the common assumption of a relationship like this one.
Both of us are very secure in who we are, and at the same time, both of us like intellectual pursuits. With or without her diagnosis, it makes it easy for us to have conversations. I am a people watcher. I tend to watch their habits, their responses, as well as look for X factors in their personality — are they married, do they have kids, are they looking to date, and from that you tend to be able to predict their actions. I can share this with her, and she practices the same thing. It’s been a great tool for our relationship. We’re able to compare notes and learn from each other. We both grow from it. It’s worked for 19 years.

Do you recall any examples of having to explain your way of thinking or reacting to her? Are there tools you’ve found, or a way you’ve learned to teach her about you, and vice versa?
It goes back to those basic people-watching tools. If I’ve done something to upset her, she is more than willing to be brutally honest, because of the way she is, and tell me I did something wrong. In children, that same type of honesty is admired, and some people are jealous that they can be so brutally honest. Yet when it’s an adult doing it, there’s fear. I just think that’s kind of odd.

Do you think you’ve grown a thicker skin because of her?
I actually don’t think that’s really adjusted anything. I wasn’t looking for somebody to be extremely emotional all the time with me. I was never looking for a drama queen. When you think of what it is you’re looking for in a significant other, you’re generally talking about someone to talk to, someone to spend your day with, someone to talk about your day with, someone to go places with and enjoy life. Never in that is there “I want someone that’s going to cry at the drop of a hat, or be mad at me for no reason.”

I mean, I don’t know if anyone wants to deal with those kinds of emotions, but what about the more positive, loving side? How does she show you that love, when it doesn’t come naturally to her?
In any relationship, the same exact feelings you have in the first two years of a relationship — that insane, intense drive — always tend to change after a couple of years. They turn to laying your life out with each other. They turn to be more everyday, logical. It’s knowing that this person loves this item, so you know what I’m going to do? A brand new one came out, I’m going to buy it for them. It becomes about learning about the person and learning what their likes are, learning what makes them giddy inside, and keeping those things in mind, and presenting them randomly sometimes. Not even a birthday or holiday, just because. Keeping that person in mind shows that they are really important to you. Most relationships end up evolving to a point where the feeling is not the same, and is more day to day. And for her to be able to reciprocate that way to me, on a routine basis, is fantastic.

Are there people in your life, who you knew first, who know about her diagnosis?
It’s a very small circle of friends. Very, very few people know about the diagnosis. That was built that way intentionally.

Does anyone in your family know?
One, yes.

Do you find that having those people who know the situation is helpful to you, if you have a fight or something?
I actually don’t tend to reach out for support for [routine conflict]. I really don’t.

But obviously there was something that compelled you to share the diagnosis with them. What was it?
That’s hard to answer, honestly. I think maybe sometimes it’s just a way it comes up in conversation within that small circle. I’ve always been personable — I know lots of people, I have lots of acquaintances, but yet I have a very small circle of people I consider friends whom I truly trust. She has always been very similar, and the diagnosis just fell into place with that. It didn’t grow beyond that, and in fact that circle has shrunk a little bit. The only way it ever comes up is if someone thinks she responded oddly to something, and it’s like, “Hello, remember?” and then it’s like “Oh, yep, got it.”

Has anyone ever reacted poorly to you sharing her diagnosis with them? No. I’ve never actually had that problem.

That surprises me because it’s such an immediate connection between the word “psychopath” and “someone I should be afraid of.”
That’s unfortunately Hollywood. I will not fault them — they need to make money, which means they need to write stories, which means they have to have a bad guy. They have found the ultimate boogeyman in someone that could be next door to you, and have no emotions and no feelings. The way they paint psychopathy is that they have no emotions or feelings and would rather kill you than look at you. It helps them write 80 characters for their stories and films where there’s your bad guy. I don’t fault them, it does make it easy. But it is painting a very bad picture for psychopathy in general.

When I spoke to an expert on psychopathy, Craig Neumann, I learned that the criteria for diagnosis for psychopathy are quite narrow, and a lot of the people we’d use the term for don’t meet them.
It’s true. We’ve watched many shows where one of the characters is proclaimed to be a psychopath, and yet when we start to watch it, the character is absolutely not a psychopath. That person is too emotionally charged — intense love, intense hatred toward something. If they are going out of their way to pursue you due to hatred, or something similar, they’re not a psychopath.

Is watching badly portrayed psychopaths for fun and superiority your version of me, a Minnesotan, watching bad Hollywood Minnesotan accents?
Guilty. This is our version of the same thing. We are very guilty of that, including recently Seven Psychopaths, the movie. It was funny, it was fantastic, but on that, no. It was a very fun movie.

Beyond your relationship, do you feel at all motivated to educate people about what psychopathy really looks like?
This interview is about promoting awareness, and letting people know that you do not have to be afraid of someone who has this type of diagnosis. It’s actions over words. That’s a very common trait you’ll see with people diagnosed as such — watch their actions. There are basic social interactions I’ve watched her have, and we’ve talked to people on web forums, which are a great tool, and we’ve realized there are a number of people who do small things everyday that are psychopathic … But there is a social contract. People we’ve met online who are likely to be psychopaths will talk about picking up an item that’s fallen off the shelf at the grocery store and putting it back in the right place. They don’t know why they do it, but it’s automatic.

So even psychopaths aren’t immune to cultural norms and influences. They’re not immune to that. They’re just as responsible for that type of action as anyone else.

Anything you want to add?
She has been a wonderful partner in my life. That’s for 19 years. It’s not that the first five were wonderful, it’s been in my entire life, she’s been a wonderful partner. The diagnosis has not had any drawbacks at all.

What It’s Like Dating a Psychopath