How can I deal with a person with psychopathic features?

by Liane Leedom, M.D., David S. Kosson, Ph.D. and Aftermath Victims/Survivors

Comments on Martha Stout’s Thirteen Rules for Dealing with Sociopaths in Everyday Life

The starting point for our discussion of how to deal with psychopaths is the “Thirteen Rules for Dealing with Sociopaths in Everyday Life” found on pages 156-162 of The Sociopath Next Door by Dr. Martha Stout. Our group had many lively discussions of the 13 rules summarized for you here. Our Aftermath Forum members are from around the world—a truly diverse group. While Dr. Stout does not address cultural differences either here or abroad, her insights can be useful wherever you are.

Before we go through the rules themselves, we want to address a general issue related to the prevalence of psychopathy and the various diagnostic terms that are sometimes treated as if they mean the same thing. If you look at the cover of The Sociopath Next Door you will see this statement: “1 in 25 ordinary Americans secretly has no conscience and can do anything at all without feeling guilty.” With this statement and the title of the book, Dr. Stout implies that 4 percent of Americans qualify as sociopaths. Given that her description of sociopathy is virtually the same as that used by investigators and clinicians for the clinical construct of psychopathy, the implication is that 4% of Americans are psychopaths. However, her statement about prevalence is consistent with prevalence estimates for Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD), as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), not with studies of psychopathy. Antisocial Personality Disorder overlaps with but is not the same as psychopathy.

In fact, we do not have a lot of information about how people in the community score on the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), the most accepted measure of psychopathy. So we do not really know how many very high scoring people there are in the community. However, one recent study using the Psychopathy Checklist: Screening Version (PCL:SV) found that fewer than 1% of a community sample met PCL:SV research criteria for psychopathy. Sociopathy does not exist as a recognized diagnostic entity, and there are no validated measures of sociopathy, so there is no research to tell us whether sociopathy and psychopathy refer to the same syndrome or not.

In preparation for the DSM-V, new categories of psychological dysfunction — including new definitions and diagnostic criteria for personality disorders — are currently under study. For a more extensive discussion of sociopathy and ASPD and their relevance to the psychopathy syndrome please click here.

So why does it matter if a person of concern can be specifically diagnosed as a “psychopath”? The truth is that it doesn’t matter for the general public seeking information, nor does it particularly help in dealing with these difficult and even dangerous people. To put it another way, you may find these rules for dealing with sociopaths generally helpful in dealing with anyone with psychopathic traits. To the extent that a person has more psychopathic features, these rules may be especially helpful. In fact, the more symptoms of psychopathy a person has, the more dangerous he or she is likely to be — regardless of whether or not that person can be diagnosed as a “psychopath” and regardless of whether that person has features of other personality disorders. In fact, many people with personality disorders (PDs) — especially those with ASPD, narcissistic PD, histrionic PD, and borderline PD — have some features of psychopathy Since most family members will not have a confirmation of the “psychopathy” diagnosis, it is important to understand that if a person seems to have many of these traits and is abusive and/or violent, he or she can be dangerous.

We note that there is no available research demonstrating the usefulness of these rules. Although we believe that research is the best way to establish the effectiveness of coping strategies, we realize that there is a real need to provide guidance to people in distress. We present these rules along with our interpretations and, in some cases, modifications because these rules represent one of the more specific and commonsense guides available today to people who may be in relationships with individuals with psychopathic traits.

Shorthand for the 13 Rules

To assist with thinking about applying Dr. Stout’s 13 rules we have reduced them to a series of shorthand phrases so they can be taken in all at once:

1. A psychopath (and you can’t tell one by his/her looks) has no conscience.

2. If it feels bad or wrong, it probably is.

3. People should have to earn your trust.

4. Don’t blindly follow anyone, no matter what.

5. If you’re being buttered up, your goose may be cooked.

6. You can’t respect someone you’re afraid of.

7. In a game of one-up you will always lose.

8. Get lost, and stay lost.

9. A hard-luck story can be an effective con.

10. No one can change somebody else.

11. Don’t become an accomplice.

12. Keep a positive attitude toward life.

13. Live well, and be true to yourself.

Thirteen Rules for Dealing with Sociopaths in Everyday Life

In this section Dr. Stout’s rules (or excerpts from her rules) are stated in italics and our comments follow.

1.The first rule involves the bitter pill of accepting that some people literally have no conscience, and that these people do not often look like Charles Manson or a Ferengi bartender. They look like us.

For most of us, who have consciences, this is a difficult idea to accept. We have standards, which tell us what is appropriate and what is not. We routinely make judgments about what is right and what is wrong based on our standards. Having standards makes us feel regret when we come up short. A conscience can be viewed as a moral compass which gives us directions for how we should spend our time, for what we really value, and lets us know when we have gone astray, even if it sometimes takes us a while to figure out how to get back on the right track. This does not mean that all of us are in agreement as to what is right or wrong.

For some people, their only compass is what feels good right now—“What would I like to do right now?” Psychopathic individuals spend very little time questioning their motivations. They do not examine their own thoughts or feelings in the way that most of us do. The lack of a conscience can help to explain why people with psychopathic features often do not follow predictable career trajectories. It also helps to explain a general lack of stability in their behavior.

Sometimes a psychopathic individual may begin to steer others in one direction and then suddenly change direction for no clear reason. It is as if the original direction was based on a whim, and the new direction is based on a different whim. This does not make sense from the perspective of carefully worked out decisions about core values, but it begins to make sense if the person is navigating based on a momentary impulse.

It is also important to keep in mind that the term “none of us are perfect” does not mean that all of us are the same. If you have made some bad decisions and have let someone down or if you have been fooled by someone and have let this person harm some of your friends or family members, this does not mean that you and he/she are the same. Even if you need to modify your behavior before you can feel good about yourself, it does not mean that you cannot judge another person’s actions as wrong if they seem to hurt others.

2. In a contest between your instincts and what is implied by the role a person has taken on—educator, doctor, leader, animal-lover, humanist, parent—go with your instincts.

There is a premise behind this rule that initial research has proven may not hold up. That premise is that the average person can reliably tell a “psychopath” from everyone else — or as the rule states, your gut will guide you. In reality, by the time you have figured out that the person you are involved with may be disordered in this way, you are probably already way too involved.

Another problem with this rule is that some of us can trust our instincts — and some of us really cannot. Some of us have been so stepped on or controlled by others that we have lost contact with our instincts, our own sense of competency. Some of us are also so used to unhealthy emotions guiding our behavior (whether resentment, loneliness, anxiety, guilt) that we really should not trust our instincts until we have dealt with our own issues.

We encourage you to consider the whole range of opinions available to you when dealing with potentially life-changing choices. As with medical decisions, it can be helpful to get a second opinion—or a third or a fourth. Don’t let family conflicts cut you off from sound advice, and do not let anyone persuade you to accept the unacceptable. If you do not trust your instincts right now, know that with time and support you can recover your ability to trust your gut (at least most of the time)!

3. When considering a new relationship of any kind, practice the Rule of 3s regarding the claims and promises a person makes, and the responsibilities he or she has. Make the Rule of 3s your personal policy. One lie, one broken promise, or a single neglected responsibility may be a misunderstanding instead. Two may involve a serious mistake. But 3 lies says you’re dealing with a liar, and deceit is the linchpin of conscienceless behavior. Cut your losses and get out as soon as you can. Leaving, though it may be hard to do, will be easier now than later, and less costly.

We agree with the principle that people should earn our trust, and that we should base our trust or mistrust on how people behave, not what they say. Whereas the Rule of 3s makes good sense, we also recognize that there is no magic number for when to disconnect with someone. In some cases, 3 times may be 2 times too many.

Dr. Leedom recommends another rule of 3s that Dr. Kosson thinks might be “impractical.” When beginning a new romance, wait at least 3 months before engaging in sexual intimacy—not just 3 dates! Sexual intimacy strengthens feelings of attachment and commitment particularly in women; psychopathic individuals often count on that. They move quickly to suck someone in and get them to commit before they can realize what they’re about. Although waiting is no guarantee, it may spare you the pain of involvement with an impatient psychopathic individual.

4. Question authority. Once again—trust your own instincts and concerns, especially those concerning people who claim that dominating others, violence, war, or some other violation of your conscience is the grand solution to some problem. Do this even when, or especially when, everyone around you has completely stopped questioning authority.

We agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Stout. We also suggest you be especially suspicious of those who tell you that you are not allowed to question them—such as about the reasons they do things, or where they were, or what they were doing. Depending on the circumstances, prudence in expressing your suspicions and care in selecting the people to tell may be required to keep you from harm. This is particularly true when you are dealing with someone in a position of authority.

Another way to say this is “Be skeptical, but learn to listen” as recommended by Don Miguel Ruiz and Don Jose Ruiz in The Fifth Agreement: A Practical Guide to Self-Mastery. If you simply go with your gut all the time, then you probably aren’t being skeptical enough or listening to the other parts of yourself that may sense danger, or to the other people in your life who may be warning you. However, being skeptical does not mean that you should not be open and responsive to those around you. Just keep in mind that the validity of your gut instincts can be affected by recent losses, stresses, and other conflicts going on in your life. [Source: Ruiz, don Miguel, & Ruiz, don Jose (2009). The Fifth Agreement: A Practical Guide to Self-Mastery. San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen Publishing.]

5. Suspect flattery. Compliments are lovely, especially when they are sincere. In contrast, flattery is extreme, and appeals to our egos in unrealistic ways. It is the material of counterfeit charm, and nearly always involves an intent to manipulate. Manipulation through flattery is sometimes innocuous and sometimes sinister. Peek over your massaged ego and remember to suspect flattery.

Psychopathic individuals often victimize those who are down, stressed or conditioned to be obedient. During vulnerable times people are especially needy of compliments and encouragement. Many of us have learned that it’s good to reveal to others that we are going through a rough time and are in need of support. This is often an adaptive strategy if you are disclosing to people who are trustworthy. However, it is important to keep in mind that some people will tell you they are trustworthy when they are not. Psychopathic individuals will tell you what you want to hear to garner your loyalty.

We all go through periods in which we have a greater need to hear loved ones say good things about us—when we are especially needy. It is important for everyone to develop relationships with trustworthy friends and family members who can be responsive to our needs and give honest feedback. It also helps to hear another person’s correct assessment of our strengths and weaknesses. Such support systems may be especially important if we are in a place where we are having trouble telling the difference between manipulative flattery and honest appreciation.

6. If necessary, redefine your concept of respect. Too often, we mistake fear for respect, and the more fearful we are of someone, the more we view him or her as deserving of our respect… Let us use our big human brains to overpower our animal tendency to bow to predators…

This rule raises two related but distinct issues. First, to Dr. Stout, redefining respect means not confusing respect with fear. How much we respect people should depend on their benevolent and constructive actions. If someone behaves in ways that are immoral or unethical, in ways that violate our sense of right and wrong, we cannot and should not respect those actions. We must also respect ourselves. Someone who repeatedly hurts or abuses or controls us is demonstrating a lack of respect for us. To maintain our respect for ourselves we must act in ways that protect and defend our characters and our values in constructive ways.

Whether we protect ourselves by asserting our perspective, by confronting bad behavior, or by seeking help from others who may be better equipped to help protect us may depend on how much we fear someone who hurts or threatens us. We are sometimes taught that respecting someone also means avoiding confrontation with him or her. Along with this, we are taught not to interfere with the way people live their lives. We are taught to view confronting others and even asserting our perspective (if it conflicts with someone else’s) as disrespectful behavior. However, this approach only works in a context of civilized behavior. It only works when everyone is committed to acting in a respectful manner. If someone is not being respectful of you, then avoiding assertiveness and confrontation ensures that you will be exploited or abused. Assertiveness often means tactfully confronting those who hurt you or finding people (friends, relatives, professionals, agencies) who can help to protect you and your rights.

7. Do not join the game. Intrigue is a sociopath’s tool. Resist the temptation to compete with a seductive sociopath, to outsmart him, psychoanalyze, or even banter with him. In addition to reducing yourself to his level, you would be distracting yourself from what is really important, which is to protect yourself.

In some cases, people construct elaborate games for their own amusement. One clue that you are in the middle of someone else’s game is if you discover that someone is extracting great pleasure or entertainment from things that others are taking seriously.

For example, if someone has difficulty coming back to the serious and sober enterprise of work because of private or idiosyncratic issues or because of their pleasure over someone else’s stress or suffering, or if someone is asking you to do things that have nothing to do with the objective rational purpose of work but seem designed to fool or manipulate others (again, not as a joke but in a way that could actually send someone down a wrong pathway for hours, days, or weeks), this may be indicative of a dangerous capacity for manipulation.

Moreover, if you discover that the game is a very elaborate one and one that is likely to take a tremendous amount of time, effort, money, etc., it is likely that playing this game is taking you away from the important things in your life. Do not be sucked in! And if you have been sucked in, get out! Stepping away from the game may require a willingness to accept that you have lost a moderate amount or even a great deal. However, in many cases, you are likely to lose even more if you continue to play with this individual. It takes two to tango!

8. The best way to protect yourself from a sociopath is to avoid him[/her], to refuse any kind of contact or communication.

This rule is designed for those adults who are in a voluntary relationship with an adult with psychopathic features. So what do you do when you need to get out of a relationship with a psychopathic person? To borrow from Neil Sedaka’s song: Breaking up is hard to do! For the young and the single, cutting off all contact may well be not only a viable option, it may be the best one. But, if the person with psychopathic traits in your life is your spouse, your boss, or someone in authority you have to deal with, no contact may not be an option, at least not right away. In those cases where it is impossible, make plans to come as close as you can to the goal of total avoidance. Make plans to change relationships, change jobs, or change residences if necessary. If someone is likely to hurt you and/or those around you, then you may be subjecting everyone to risk of additional harm if you continue to invite this person into your home, if you continue to allow your employment to depend on his/her evaluations, and such.

We recognize that this rule may not be helpful for people who have children with psychopathic characteristics. Normally, children love their parents. So when a youngster is unloving and behaves in destructive and dangerous ways, parents are caught in a heart-rending conflict. And there seems to be little understanding in the Family Court system of the trauma of living with youth with psychopathic characteristics. However, even when a child seems to have many such characteristics, it is possible that such a child may straighten out over time. Yet the stress and trauma to other family members can be devastating, not only to the parents but to everyone else in the home. If parents believe that one of their children has psychopathic traits, they should seek an evaluation of that child by a qualified professional. Further, we encourage parents to maintain therapeutic relationships with professionals who will help them parent these difficult children as effectively as possible. We hope to develop additional resources to help parents care for children at risk for psychopathy but the best resources will never replace professional help.

9. Question your tendency to pity too easily. Respect should be reserved for the kind and the morally courageous. Pity is another socially valuable response, and should be reserved for innocent people who are in genuine pain or who have fallen on misfortune.

Psychopathic individuals are often skilled at manipulating other people’s emotions to their own benefit. A well-honed hard-luck story can be an effective con—the stock and trade of many people with psychopathic characteristics. If you find yourself responding to a plea for help that includes someone else depending on your resources, take note and set limits. Remember, whether you are feeling pity or compassion, you have a choice about what you do.

10. Do not try to redeem the unredeemable. Second (third, fourth, and fifth) chances are for people who possess [a] conscience. If you are dealing with a person who has no conscience, know how to swallow hard and cut your losses…The sociopath’s behavior is not your fault, not in any way whatsoever. It is also not your mission. Your mission is your own life.

The simple truth is that no one has the power to change anyone else. You can be a positive support to someone who is taking on the work of self-change, but the work of change belongs to the individual who is determined to change. Beginning in the early 1980s the concept of “codependence” became the subject of psychological enquiry. Subsequently, Timmen Cermak constructed the following five criteria or traits for a proposed diagnostic category of codependent personality disorder:

A. Continued investment of self-esteem in the ability to influence/control feelings and behavior in self and others in the face of obvious adverse consequences for doing so. Codependents suffer from a distorted relationship with will power and invest inordinate amounts of energy in efforts to improve/assist others in their search for a semblance of self-worth.

B. Assumption of responsibility for meeting others’ needs.

C. Anxiety and boundary distortions around intimacy and separation.

D. Enmeshment in relationships with personality disordered, chemically dependent, other codependent and/or impulse disordered individuals.

E. Three or more of the following: constriction of emotions, depression, hyper-vigilance, compulsions, anxiety, substance abuse, excessive denial, recurrent physical or sexual abuse, stress-related medical illness, and/or a primary relationship with an active substance abuser for at least 2 years.

The point is that trying to save a disordered person can become a disorder! If you feel this has become your life please seek an evaluation by a qualified professional. (Sources: Cermak, T. L. (1986). Diagnosing and treating codependence. Minneapolis: Johnson Institute. Cermak, T. L. (1991). Co-addiction as a disease. Psychiatric Annals, 21, 266-272.)

11. Never agree, out of pity or for any other reason, to help a sociopath conceal his or her true character.

“Please don’t tell,” often spoken tearfully and with great gnashing of teeth, is the trademark plea of thieves, child abusers—and psychopaths. Do not listen to this siren song. Other people need and deserve to be warned—sociopaths do not deserve to have you keep their secrets.

If someone without conscience insists that you “owe” him/her, recall what you are reading here—that “You owe me” has probably been the standard line of psychopaths for thousands of years. We tend to experience “You owe me” as a compelling claim, but it is simply not true. Do not listen. Also, ignore the argument that goes, “You are just like me.” You are not.

12. Defend your psyche. Do not allow someone without conscience, or even a string of such people, to convince you that humanity is a failure. Most human beings do possess conscience. Most human beings are able to love.

Many people who have been victimized by someone with psychopathic traits say that they can never trust anyone again. Many former victims say that they cannot go on with their lives because they continue to live in fear of further abuse or violence. If the fallout from a relationship is a loss of the ability to trust and a loss of a sense of security, then the resulting distress can extend the duration of a person’s suffering for years beyond the initial victimization.

If your psyche has been damaged by a traumatic relationship with a psychopathic individual, then you need to heal and recover so that you can go on with living. You should make your recovery a priority in your life: one that deserves your time and attention. People who care about you will probably be happy to help you in this process—if they understand what you have been through. If you suffer with issues of trust or constant fear, and if your attempts to recover on your own are not successful, we urge you to seek professional help.

13. Living well is the best revenge.

Psychopathic individuals train those around them to be hyper-vigilant to their needs. If you have been trained to focus too much of your life energy on a person with psychopathic features, now is the time to reclaim your life. It is time to focus your attention on your own health and wellbeing. Start with a good diet and an exercise plan. If necessary get a physical to address any health issues you have. Make plans to go back to the activities and hobbies you love. In short, take back your life.

We also believe that nurturing a desire for revenge is a sign that you have not fully separated from the individual who hurt you. Even better than living well as a form of revenge is living your life for its own rewards. Do what you can to make your time on Earth as meaningful and productive for yourself and for your loved ones as you can.

In the next section, we have identified additional strategies that supplement Dr. Stout’s original 13 Rules, and/or make additional comments on specific aspects of a Rule that deserve particular attention. These additional strategies and related concerns have grown out of our own experiences and the collective experiences of the members of the Aftermath: Surviving Psychopathy Forum. We are grateful to them for their participation in the forum and for sharing with us and with each other.
Beyond the 13 Rules—Additional Strategies for Coping with People with Psychopathic Traits

To assist you with thinking about this group of additional strategies we’ve also reduced them to a series of shorthand phrases so they can be taken in all at once:
Shorthand for 9 Additional Strategies

1. Don’t jump to conclusions.

2. If Prince Charming is a bad dream you need to wake up.

3. Find a port in the storm.

4. Avoid taking risks for the thrill of it.

5. Don’t be an easy mark.

6. Get help, and help spread the word.

7. Document, document, document.

8. Find or start a support circle.

9. Trying to get even is a chump’s choice.

Nine Additional Strategies for Dealing with Individuals with Psychopathic Traits

1. If you believe you are dealing with someone with psychopathic traits, you should test out whether this belief is accurate before you jump to conclusions.

If you do not have a lot of information, it may be worthwhile to get more information before you rush to judge someone. If you already have plenty of consistent evidence that someone in your life has many psychopathic traits, then you may need to begin to take steps to protect yourself and your loved ones.

The term psychopathy is widely misused in our culture. (See A Primer on Psychopathy by Kosson and Hare and What “Psychopath” Means by Lilienfeld and Arkowitz). It has been used to mean evil or sadism or hostility or mental illness in general. The term is so widely misused that someone (source unknown) once said words to the effect of, “A psychopath is someone we do not like.” But in reality psychopathy is a specific disorder, a personality disorder, which is characterized by several specific kinds of unusual behaviors and dispositions across different domains of life (home life, work life, friendships, relationships with family of origin, hobbies, criminal activities). If you are beginning to wonder whether someone in your life may be psychopathic, keep in mind that a large amount, if not most, of the violence and abuse in the world is committed by persons who do not have this specific constellation of character traits. In fact, it appears that the majority of lies are told, and infidelities committed, by persons who are not primarily psychopathic in nature. The injudicious labeling of someone as psychopathic can cut you off from constructive approaches to solving problems in your relationship.

Nevertheless, it is possible to learn the dimensions that make up psychopathy, in order to be able to get a rough sense of which (if any) of these dispositions describe the person you are concerned about. But this information may not be available unless you have access to how the person behaves with other people—which you may only know about if you see him/her in those situations or if you talk with the people who see him/her there. It is also important to consider counter-examples. If the person frequently acts in ways that suggest the opposite of psychopathy (e.g., humility, straightforwardness, acceptance of responsibility, careful consideration of alternatives), then this problematic person in your life is probably not characterized by many psychopathic traits, although he/she may have some signs of personality disorder and maybe even some symptoms of psychopathy.

If we come to know someone well and over time, we often do find out about the other domains of his/her life. Although it is difficult to diagnose psychopathy without training, it is not hard for a careful and fair observer to see a person’s inherent qualities of mind and character as they are exhibited.

2. If you recognize that you are romantically involved with an adult exhibiting psychopathic features and yet you are committed to maintaining the relationship or your contact with this person, question your own motives for maintaining the relationship.

Sometimes people who have fallen in love with psychopaths have a very difficult time letting go. If you can’t let go and you desire to have a relationship with someone you believe is psychopathic, there is something wrong with your thinking, and you should consider getting professional help. It may be tempting to keep convincing yourself that the person will change. (See Martha Stout’s Rule # 10.) It may be tempting to keep ignoring the contradictions between what the person says and does. You may keep suppressing your sense of doubt and mistrust due to the fear of being alone again. Knowing at some level how great a loss you will face if you have to lose the person you had decided would be your partner-in-life may be more than you want to deal with, and you may be willing to do almost anything to avoid that kind of grief or mourning. Aftermath’s members would advise you that the person you have given your love to does not exist— and is in fact a figment of your imagination constructed by the predator who has caught you in his/her web of deceit.

But if the grief is truly inevitable, then what do you gain by putting it off? Other factors can also encourage you to seek out or maintain relationships with psychopathic individuals. Ignorance of the disorder and its dangerousness, a sense of grandiose invincibility and/or a love of risk taking for the excitement of it can feed into the desire to be with a charming psychopath.

Some people discuss psychopaths with a tone of wonder, awe and admiration. Save your wonder, awe and admiration for the Grand Canyon, the pyramids of Egypt, or the true miracles of life, please. (Here we are referring also to those misguided admirers who send love letters and “fan mail” to known killers and serial killers.)

3. Seek out people you can trust and who have not been fooled and/or will not be fooled by the psychopathic individual.

Listen carefully to what these people think, particularly when you are in the throes of romantic passion, then give yourself a cooling-off period.

There are several reasons for this advice. If it is only you versus a psychopathic individual, it makes it easier for that person to redefine your reality. Someone with many psychopathic features will present a version of reality that is convenient for him/her in the moment but is not consistent with the facts. An isolated person is easier to brainwash and to manipulate. Having other people around who know about this person’s behavior makes it harder for the person to do that. Other people who are not taken in can also provide an important reality check to help you keep your bearings and to give you feedback about how well you are coping. But groupthink can also support a psychopath, so it is also advisable to look for outside opinions when you are in what may be a cult or other coercive affinity group.

Another reason is that people often lose their support systems when they are involved with people with psychopathic traits. One trick of such a predator is to isolate you from friends and family. We all need close relationships with people who are trustworthy. If you are in a relationship with someone you cannot trust, your needs for love, dependency, and attention are either not being met or are supposed to be met by only one person—the psychopath. You will be happier if there are a variety of people to support you. Moreover, a healthy support system will help you get away from a psychopathic individual and recover emotionally from the trauma you have suffered. A good support system can include family members and friends, as well as counselors and therapists.

How do you know who is trustworthy? This is a difficult question to answer. There is no simple rule we know. However, to avoid being conned or betrayed, it is critical to observe someone’s actions for yourself and to ask questions. If you have been too trusting in the past, then it is understandable that you may want to be extra careful at first to monitor whether someone deserves your trust. When you are not certain about someone’s actions, it is good to test your perceptions by talking about them with your friends or members of your support system (including people in the Aftermath Forum). This practice can help you evaluate how good your instincts are.

A related point is that you can’t trust someone you are afraid of, and you can’t really have any kind of close relationship with someone you can’t trust.

4. Be sure you know the difference between taking a calculated risk for a beneficial purpose and taking a heedless risk for the sake of the thrill.

No one would choose to have a relationship with someone for the sole purpose of putting their physical, emotional, or financial safety at risk. For this reason, very few of us become involved with people we know have many psychopathic traits. If you have a psychopathic individual in your life, then you probably did not realize the risks and in many cases the costs when you were first getting to know this person. You should never feel guilty about being fooled by someone who may have worked very hard to deceive you, and who certainly did not advise you of his/her destructive personality traits.

Even so, whenever you interact with someone with psychopathic traits, you not only put yourself at risk, you also put others at risk. Many psychopaths weave webs of deception that are supported by the many relationships they have established for that purpose. Psychopaths know how to surround themselves with people who give them legitimacy in the minds of others and who serve as “cover.” They will use anyone for this purpose, including ministers, priests and rabbis, family members and, of course, children. If people refuse to participate in the psychopath’s life, he/she will be very limited in his/her ability to harm and con anyone.

5. Question your reactions to seductive overtures, especially when you are lavished with charm, sympathy and flattering attention.

People with psychopathic features often appear to be good at perceiving our deepest needs and responding with sympathy and attention in order to gain our trust—to appear to understand our innermost yearnings. For most of us, our instinctual reactions—to seek out what is good for us and to avoid what is bad for us—are a good guide to what is going on around us, even though all of us can make mistakes or be fooled at times. Yet when our self-awareness and self-confidence are low and our guard is down we can be exceptionally susceptible to the feel-good ministrations of the psychopathic. Our vulnerability is an open invitation to the unscrupulous to take advantage of us—sometimes for their immediate gain and sometimes just to have us on the hook “in case”. We may then have joined the “cover” group that is allowing this particular predator to continue his/her intention of the moment. Taking a close look at what is making us feel good when we are down can be very hard to do, but it can save us a great deal of anguish in the future.

6. If you can get experts to help you, do so, and encourage them to educate the other professionals involved in your situation.

As a participant in legal proceedings, say in a divorce or child custody suit, you may well need help in presenting your side of the family dysfunction story. Many people in these kinds of very tense situations have been penalized for pointing out disorders in the other party.  This tendency to see pathology in someone we are divorcing is often considered part of the parental alienation syndrome. Although it is a natural tendency to feel hostility whenever someone has been a bad, unfaithful, or abusive partner, none of these things is the same as suffering from psychopathy. To avoid being penalized for pointing out behavior that may be linked to psychopathy in the other party, you may need expert help. An expert may be very helpful in attempts to educate others involved in the situation to the realities of psychopathy and its family-related effects. It is important to distinguish between feeling angry at what someone has done to you and/or your child and the need to cope constructively to reduce future harm. If you are divorcing someone with psychopathic traits your primary goal should be to reduce future harm.

If an attorney, therapist, or judge, etc., tells you that a psychopathic individual must be trusted and that his/her word is good enough, then they are ignorant of the syndrome and the patterns of deceit and manipulation its sufferers inflict on others. You may be tempted to set them straight. However, there can be risks associated with attempting to educate uninformed professionals on your own. If you are too emotionally volatile or too angry and hostile, some professionals may have difficulty taking you seriously even if you are reporting accurately. In addition, some professionals may become defensive or may refuse to believe you if they perceive you as critical of them or as implying that they are incompetent. In some extreme cases, professionals have even accused victims of provoking the other person and bringing the behavior on themselves. If you seem to be annoying the professional or making things worse, it may be more useful to back off and try to enlist the aid of someone who is recognized as an expert to assist you.

7. Keep a record of problematic and destructive behaviors, incidents, costs—any and all matters relating to the disordered person and his/her relationship to you.

There is often no substitute for hard evidence of illegal, unethical, or cruel conduct.

If there is a court order or you face legal jeopardy, what you have put in writing and documented could someday save you. Many people tell us that they are shocked to learn that a judge has made a ruling that seems to give weight to what they knew to be false impressions of appropriate behavior. If there is no paper trail of someone’s abusive behavior, of deceptions and contradictions, of infidelities, or of criminal activities, then a convincing façade can be very persuasive. As this may involve you keeping the records secure, be careful where and with whom you entrust your information.

8. Seek the support of other people who have been involved with psychopathic individuals and have recovered.

It can be such a relief to speak with someone who knows something about what this experience is like. This can be true even if your experience is in some ways unique. You might find that the combination of a good therapist and a fellow survivor can help you move past the trauma. You might want to consider starting a support group to assist you in recovery. There are sources of support that can help you in the process, but, like anything else, you must be careful in your choice of advisors and counselors when dealing with the subject of psychopathy. The subject itself can attract predators.

On the Aftermath Forum, members have experience with the dysfunctional behaviors that may remain with victims/survivors who have been subjected to early and/or persistent abuse. The souvenirs of these traumatic relationships can include not only mistrust and fear, permanent injuries, and financial devastation but also psychiatric disorders ranging from PTSD to depression and even personality disorders. For some of us recovery can be a long and arduous process. And no matter how painful these issues are, underlying issues must be dealt with if full recovery is the goal.

9. It’s far, far healthier to break off the relationship and move on with your life than to stay involved and to try and get even.

Victims and family members often want to know how they can beat a psychopath at his/her own game. As one woman asked, “What psychological tactics can you suggest in dealing with a psychopath? There must be some tools and strategies to stay a step ahead.”

Since the desire to beat the psychopathic individual often stems from the hurt that has been suffered and the desire to get one’s self-respect back, it is thoroughly understandable. But remember that as long as you desire revenge and as long as you keep playing the game in order to win, you are remaining involved with someone with psychopathic features, and you are postponing the recovery and the transition to the next phase of your life. Letting go is a major part of the recovery process. Even revenge fantasies can divert you from the work you need to accomplish.


Now that we have discussed the 13 Rules and suggested 9 additional strategies to think about, perhaps we should reconsider the basic question: Are there ways to cope effectively with a psychopath beyond complete and total separation?

First, remember that psychopaths don’t desire the same rewards you do. Whereas your goals are intimately related to the love and compassion you feel for others, a psychopath’s goals are probably more related to his/her desires for pleasure in the moment, often through gaining power over others. Psychopaths are not interested in the needs and desires of the people in their lives beyond how they impact their own needs and desires.

If you don’t understand that psychopaths are not motivated by the same things that motivate you, you will not be able to deal with them. To further arm yourself, try this mental exercise. Imagine what your life would be like with significant others if guilt, empathy, compassion, responsibility, and long-term goals did not enter into your decision making processes. Imagine that your choices were based solely on what would benefit you now in the moment without regard to even your own future. Now imagine the combination of an insatiable desire for power and thrills, with no relationships, guilt, empathy or compassion to get in the way. A psychopath is like a sports car with an accelerator and a faulty braking system.

We have just armed you with our shorthand perspective on the motivations of the psychopath. You may find that it helps you to successfully cope if you can keep this picture in your mind. (For a more detailed image, consider which of the features in the Psychopathy Checklist apply to the person in your life whom you are compelled to deal with.) Consider the person’s behavior across different situations (with different people) and how well it fits with this image of the psychopath. Attach more importance to the psychopathic person’s actual behavior over time than to the person’s appearance or statements. If this image is applicable, then:

Keep all conversations brief and to the point.

Set firm boundaries.

Insist that you get everything due you and that the person with psychopathic traits abide by his/her end of any court orders or job descriptions.

Do not try to make the person feel hurt or angry; that will only up the ante.

Most importantly, STOP expecting that the psychopathic person will behave like anyone other than whom he/she really is—someone who has aberrant motives and who lacks, guilt, empathy and compassion.

We also encourage you to register to use Aftermath’s Forum and post your story, and to get your copy of “The Sociopath Next Door” from our bookstore. We welcome your input about these strategies as well as suggestions for new rules for effectively dealing with psychopathic individuals.

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