You’ve met someone new. He's attractive, charming, smart, and apparently very interested in you, and this immediately starts to feel very promising. He hangs on your every word, as you discover that you share the same interests, likes, and dislikes. Within a month, the two of you are spending more and more nights at your place, and you start to wonder if this could turn into a long-term thing.
But you start to have some doubts after a friend says, “I hate to say this, but this new guy gives me the creeps — too charming, takes up all your time, and has basically moved in after just a few weeks. You better watch out.”
“What are you saying?” you ask. “I’m with some kind of psychopath?”
“No” she responds. “Not a psychopath. But almost.”
Now you’re worried, and confused. Aren’t psychopaths inherently evil, the human equivalent of the Honey Badger? And in the worst cases, aren’t psychopaths serial killers like Hannibal Lecter and Ted Bundy? You couldn’t be in a relationship with one. Or could you?
What Is Psychopathy?
Psychopathy involves a major abnormality in how people interact with the world, characterized by a lack of empathy for other people’s feelings as well as behaviors that are considered inappropriately deceitful and aggressive. Psychopaths ignore social, legal, and moral standards of conduct in order to meet their own needs. They know the difference between right and wrong, but they simply don’t care; their only concern is what’s “right” for them at the time.
The modern definition of psychopathy is based upon the work of psychologist Robert Hare. Hare and his colleagues developed a rating scale for psychopathy, for use by trained clinicians. That scale has 20 items that cover how the person experiences and interacts with the world. A score of 0, 1, or 2 is assigned to each item, based upon the consistent presence of the characteristic in the person’s life.
A person who scores 30-40 on the scale is considered a psychopath; most people score less than 10, but it is estimated that about 1% of the U.S. population meets the formal criteria for psychopathy. That’s 3 million Americans with psychopathy.
The “Almost Psychopath”
But what about those people who score more than the average person but below the cutoff to be considered a psychopath (a score between 10 and 30)? These people exhibit psychopathic traits of insufficient number or consistency to be classified as true psychopaths, but they can still make life miserable for those around them. In our book, Almost a Psychopath, we refer to the people who fall into this middle range as “almost psychopaths” (sometimes also called “subclinical psychopaths” ). Almost psychopaths are not likely to end up in prison, but they may still steal from the people in their lives and abuse them emotionally and/or physically. Studies suggest that as much as 15% of the population may fall into this range. That would mean 45 million Americans are almost psychopaths.
Ultimately, then, your odds of being involved with an almost psychopath are much greater than your odds of becoming entangled with a true psychopath.
How to Tell if You're With an Almost Psychopath
The sooner you know whether you are in a relationship with an almost psychopath, the sooner you can do something about it. Here are some warning signs to look for:
1. The person is glib and charming in an inconsistent way: over the top in coming across as likable and engaging, but turning it on and off like a light switch.
2. The person lies. Almost psychopaths may lie about big things, like why they didn't show up for a date, where they were last night, or their past, as well as about little things, like saying they will go to the store and then denying that you ever asked them to.
3. You pay the rent, the utilities, for drinks; everything. (Although there may be reassurance about “next time”).
4. You find yourself being controlled, isolated from your friends and family, but pressured to report your whereabouts at all times.
5. You are being abused, psychologically or physically, including being pressured to do things, socially or sexually, that you don't want to do.
6. You feel yourself being pressured to use alcohol or drugs, and you end up doing things you otherwise would not do.
7. When things go wrong, it is always someone else’s fault — including yours.
8. Shallow emotions: The person speaks words of love and affection but doesn’t seem to experience those emotions.
9. The person has no sense of remorse if they hurt you or others.
10. The person doesn’t care about right or wrong, at work, with you, or in any aspect of life.
What to Do: Escape or Engage?
What if you run through this list and decide that the person in your life has some or all of these characteristics? You may want to discuss your experiences and concerns with someone else, like a friend, therapist, or family member before you make that decision. One choice is to end it immediately. If you feel there is some hope, then consider addressing your concerns directly with the person in question. But beware if your concerns are met with denial, defensiveness, or turning the blame on you. And remember, no one deserves to be used or abused.
RONALD SCHOUTEN, MD, JD, and JAMES SILVER, JD, the authors of Almost a Psychopath, offer advice on what to do (or how to know) if the person you're dating has some insurmountable foibles.