The Subtle Psychopath

Compare notes with a fellow friend who is either in a relationship with a psychopath or narcissist, or has just broken free from one, and you’ll be surprised by how often you say the same things about your respective partners/exes.  When people tell their stories, you’ll hear yours in their words, and vice versa.

It’s practically a universal law.

Of course, the flavors may be different.  Or, more accurately, the condiments may be different, but the underlying liver and onions is the same.

Some psychopaths and narcissists are more obviously textbook, adhering to the keywords more strongly.  These are the softballs, thrown at us to see if we can at least take a swing.  If you can even hold the bat, you’ll probably hit them.  I can’t say that those of us who get tangled up with these big bold characters are lucky, per se, but at least we usually realize something is “off” earlier on.

Other psychopaths are tougher to recognize.  You can be intelligent, perceptive, and intuitive.  You can have spent years studying up on the textbook traits of narcissism, psychopathy, and related personality types, developed multiple checkpoints and litmus tests, and still get tangled up with them.

I had such checkpoints and litmus tests.  At the time, I thought I had developed too many, setting too high a bar.

Then, I met a promising one.  Likes animals (narcissists don’t particularly like most animals, and psychopaths/sociopaths get off on being cruel)?  Check!  He’s practically father-like to my cat.  Close with his mother (most disordered people, especially men, have major mommy issues)?  Yep, that too!  Witty, intelligent (any Cluster B disorder can fake that), with ideas of his own (most don’t have those)?  Absolutely!  Gainfully employed and fairly appropriate relationship history (many Cluster B’s bounce around a lot in both)?  Why, yes!

He seemed to have his shizz together, seemed to have an intact value system, appeared to have an open mind, had a wit quicker and more intelligent than most, and didn’t mind taking care of me in the areas in which I needed it most.  He also seemed to be pretty chill and non-controlling.

What’s not to love, right?

So, you might remain in the relationship for years, easily writing off little red flags here and there as Myers-Briggs quirks, remnants of a dysfunctional childhood, or even difficult astrological features, unaware of a brewing, escalating undercurrent hidden deep in the waters.  You may become certain that something really is wrong with them, but despite years of self-study (specifically of abnormal psychology, no less), you may find it impossible to pin it down.

Having lived this exact storyline, I have two words: “Keep looking.”  Keep watching, keep noting the inconsistencies and abnormalities, pay attention to your own hurt or bewilderment without ignoring it or setting it aside or making excuses for the other person.  You can’t rationalize something that’s not rational, after all.  That would be the very definition of crazy-making.

Keep being perceptive, keep listening to your gut, and keep studying, because I have two more words for you: “It’s there.”  The missing hallmark piece of the puzzle that would click the final correct number in a combination lock and provide you with a label to google, is there.

They may keep it well under wraps, passcoding their devices and even securing their alibies (often mutual friends who pledge stronger allegiance to them than they have to you), and covering their tracks almost flawlessly, but be patient.  By their very nature, they are “better” and “smarter” than everyone else.  Top Secret: they’re actually lazier than most.  Which means they will eventually slip up.  They all make mistakes.

Mine taught me one of my favorite phrases: “if you give them enough rope, they’ll hang themselves”.  In other words, sit back, keep watching, be patient, never let your guard down, don’t try to correct them or fix them or get them to work on themselves, just let them keep going.  Evidence against them will gather, and being the smart angels you are, you’ll keep noticing, documenting, connecting dots.

Some situations get trickier yet, because the red flags that appear may not even be obviously linked what they do or say, per se, but how you feel when you’re around them.

Early on you may catch yourself feeling like you’re not good enough, although you’re not sure why.  You may find yourself attempting to conform to what it is they hold dear and ideal.  You may find yourself changing, censoring yourself, contorting yourself into their image of you and what they think you ought to be.

They may be excellent conversationalists, but it depends on the topic.  “Safe” topics (i.e. those not having to do with them personally, such as relationships or finances or work) are usually pretty superficial (like current events, philosophy, cultural references).

And sometimes you note something else altogether that is quite peculiar: that they literally leave the room (without saying a word) to go do something in another room while you’re talking to them–yes, even in mid-sentence (!).  You may feel not only annoyed and invalidated, but you may also be confused, because they seem to be so intelligent and common-sense-equipped in other ways.  And yet, they fail at something so very basic as holding a simple conversation and adhering to the most basic of courtesy.  And you feel dismissed, devalued, or invalidated.

You may find it strange that they haven’t yet been intimate with someone by age 28, or that in high school they never had a girlfriend because they “just didn’t care” (both are true stories), but you may write it off under his INTJ personality, or ascertain that it’s simply a “guy thing”, if you’ve never seen one of these types before.

You begin to have Talks with them about how suddenly the level of physical affection dropped off and the stark difference in how he treats you between now and last week, and at first you’ll be satisfied with his defense.  He’ll promise he never realized he was acting less affectionately toward you and he’ll promise to pay more attention.  And he will…

…for about 2 weeks, give or take.  After that, it’s back to Square One.  You’ll endure that for a few months, distracting yourself with busywork to dull the pain of being neglected and nonverbally dismissed, but after about 3-6 months, you won’t be able to ignore it anymore, and you’ll have another Talk.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  The cycle doesn’t end until you end it – for good, by leaving.

Your family may gaslight you because he has worked his charm on them and they like him, and they figure you might be too needy or overdramatic or hard to satisfy, and whether they say it outright or not, you may begin to tell yourself this, having been moulded by their mentality in your early childhood.  When you lament to a trusted family member about this current avoidance-talk-improvement-dropoff cycle, they may even tell you “it’s a guy thing”.  No, dear ones, it’s not!  Real men do not behave like this.

You might call him out on his callous comment (made in passing) that (as a firefighter or 911 operator) he’d love to see a good house fire on Christmas Eve because otherwise the shift is so boring and it would make his night go faster (sadism, need for stimulation, intolerance of boredom), but you might not know what to make of that if you’re 22 years old and brought up in a volatile family and you’re just relieved that he’s so chill.  You might not even think differently about him if, when you called him out and told him that that was a pretty f*cked up thing to say, he backed down gently and genuinely conceded, “you know, you’re absolutely right”, and never made remark remotely like it again.  It seemed genuine, but it was actually just for show – all these years.

You might not be aware of his tightening control of the finances after you’ve merged both your assets (you bringing far more to the table than they) (exploitation) and it comes across as an offer to “take care of/handle the bills” in order to reduce your insane stress levels regarding finances.  He’ll quite willingly neglect to tell you that he never added your name to his credit card account, even after you were married.  He’ll also hide from you that he hasn’t filed income taxes since 2018; you’ll have to hear that from someone else, like your mother, who is friends with the accountant you’ve used for your entire working life.

You may grow frustrated by the ever-increasing secrecy, little lies (or big lies) you catch them in that they always have explanations for that you can’t quite refute and call a duck even if the situation acts and quacks like one.  You may grow annoyed at being ignored, and you may stop trying, stop making an effort in the relationship.  You may almost come to welcome their distance and avoidance, because it means you can do your own thing, and lord knows you’ve lined up several of your own things to do over the years, and they’ve likely become palatably routine.

But make no mistake: they may appear to ignore, dismiss, and avoid you, but they are always watching you.  They will monitor you, make notes about you, and whatever information they can’t observe or gain from you directly, they will form a theory in their head.  These theories are never rational, nor are they correct.  But they’re under a spell of “if I think it, it must be true”, which then becomes a reality so solidified that they not only act like it’s the gospel truth, but they treat you that way, too.  They literally treat you as if you had committed whatever atrocious and ridiculous act they’ve dreamed up in their head.  Their assumptions become set-in-stone fact to them.  And there’s hardly any convincing them otherwise, even if you have evidence of your innocence.

You may also find yourself having conversations with them about the way relationships work or the way some concept (such as responsibility: paying bills on time, or accepting reality: doing something you know is good, productive, or healthy for you) is simply a part of adulthood for everyone.  They simply want the world to be a certain way (entitlement, magical thinking), and that’s that.  It slowly dawns on you that they simply didn’t get that memo, and sometimes you feel like a parent, therapist, and/or teacher – a role you never signed up for.

It sounds extreme, but it isn’t.  I’ve lived every single one of these anecdotes and frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if others have, too.  It does get that bad, but it can still be hard to see if they remain that calm and distant.

Never write someone off simply because they don’t (seem to) meet the benchmarks in the true crime documentaries, dear ones.  I know that I’m an intelligent, perceptive, intuitive, and well-studied woman, and I lived a life that was essentially about three-quarters of one of these documentaries, before it reached the ending where the crime is discovered and the perpetrator is hauled away in cuffs.  Even knowing what I know now (and I’ve been told I’m goooooood lol), there’s no guarantee that another one of these characters might slip right through all my (reinforced, strengthened) checkpoints and litmus tests.

Keep watching.  Keep listening.  Keep feeling.  Keep noting.  Keep documenting.  Keep going (with your life and what’s best for you, not necessarily the relationship).  Keep taking yourself seriously.  And stay strong, stay You.

Break free when you can, because the only way to win this game is not to play. ❤

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