Scientific Proof That Relationships With Psychopaths Cause Serious Harm

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young couple looking polished and detached

Finally, there is scientific proof for what many of us have learned the hard way: Intimate relationships with psychopaths cause great harm to the victims.

A psychopath is casually defined as "a person having an egocentric and antisocial personality marked by a lack of remorse for one's actions, an absence of empathy for others, and often criminal tendencies," according to Merriam-Webster.

Psychopaths, according to researchers, tend to be grandiose, deceitful, risk-taking and impulsive. They have shallow emotions and lack remorse. They sometimes engage in criminal activities, but not always. They aren’t all serial killers.

The mental health field is divided on what to call people with these traits. Although almost all university researchers refer to psychopaths, it is not currently an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. Clinicians, therefore, refer to a similar diagnosis called antisocial personality disorder.

Most of what is known about them comes from research on imprisoned criminals. Why? Because researchers can access them — they are literally a captive audience.

But psychopaths aren’t necessarily serial killers. In fact, many psychopaths are never convicted of any crimes.

Millions of psychopaths live among us, engaging in the regular activities of life, such as pursuing romantic relationships. 

A scientific paper, Toxic Relationships: The experiences and effects of psychopathy in romantic relationships, has just been published in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology. The purpose of the study was to “explore the physical and mental health consequences reported by intimate partners of individuals with psychopathic traits.” 

The paper focused on three research questions:

  1. What are the experiences and effects experienced by the intimate partner victims of individuals with psychopathic traits?
  2. What is the nature of the relationship between psychopathic traits, coping, and post-traumatic stress and depression of victims?
  3. What type of abuse (physical, sexual and emotional) is most predictive of PTSD and depression?

RELATED: 5 Personality Traits Of Psychopaths Who Are Ordinary, Everyday People

How psychopaths damage their romantic partners over time

Survey respondents answered questions about their partners to determine the individual’s level of disorder. The results showed that the partners truly were exploiters and manipulators. Their scores for psychopathic traits compared to the 99.8 percentile for community samples and 78.9 percentile for offender samples.

Survey respondents reported that they experienced:

  • Physical assault — 50.5%
  • No physical assault — 40.3%
  • Sexual abuse — 31.7%
  • Emotional abuse — 98.0%
  • Deception — 95.8%
  • Financial abuse — 80.7%
  • Spiritual abuse — 58.2%
  • Property theft — 39.6%

RELATED: How To Tell A Sociopath From A Psychopath (And Which One Is Worse)

Emotional torment 

Participants were asked to describe any physical and mental health symptoms in their own words. 

The most prevalent consequences reported by victims were psychological and emotional difficulties. Victims reported feelings along the dimensions of anger (i.e., irritability, frustration) and hatred (i.e., of self, misogyny). One respondent wrote, “For a while after the relationship, I was angry at having been deceived on such a deep level.”

The respondents also reported feelings of anxiety, fear, panic, and paranoia. They mentioned being diagnosed with PTSD and having obsessive symptoms. One typical comment was, “I feel scared when I am out, I am afraid of bumping into him. I fear he is still going to ruin my life because I got away from him.”

Some respondents described depression, suicidal ideation and attempts, hopelessness, helplessness, and a low sense of self-worth. One person wrote, “I hit rock bottom in my life. It was the most painful experience I ever endured. I for the first time thought of suicide as life was too painful to deal with.”

Among biological consequences, respondents reported gastrointestinal problems, ulcers, headaches, heart and respiratory problems, diabetes, hypothyroidism, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Behavioral effects included changes in sleep and eating patterns, neglect of self-care, including smoking and substance abuse, and changes in social activities. Some respondents reported that they could no longer go out in public.

Respondents also lost trust in others and felt fear of betrayal or abandonment. They perceived their own judgment of others to be faulty.

RELATED: 15 Signs You're Stuck In A Soul-Sucking, Toxic Relationship

PTSD, depression & coping tactics

In a self-report scale, respondents rated themselves in the moderate range for PTSD symptoms. Their most prominent symptoms were intrusive thoughts and hyperarousal.

Participants completed another self-report questionnaire measuring their symptoms of depression. A substantial number of respondents rated themselves in the moderate range for depression.

Finally, participants completed another questionnaire about their coping strategies. Adaptive coping strategies included planning, seeking emotional support, seeking tangible support, positive reframing, acceptance, turning to religion, and humor. Maladaptive coping strategies included venting, denial, substance use, behavioral disengagement, self-distraction, and self-blame.

The study found no significant correlations between adaptive coping and PTSD. There was a moderate correlation between maladaptive coping and PTSD and depression.

“In other words,” the study authors wrote, “coping skills of victims did not moderate the relationship between the severity of psychopathic traits and psychological distress.”

RELATED: Are You A Psychopath? Find Out Based On The Way You Yawn

The greater the psychopathy, the worse the consequences

Higher psychopathy scores in their partners were associated with increased PTSD and depression in the survey respondents. Experiencing multiple types of victimization was the only significant predictor of PTSD and depression.

And it didn’t matter if the survey respondent had left the relationship or was still involved. No significant differences were found in psychological distress across current and former intimate partners of psychopaths. The study authors concluded:

Taken together, the results of the current study indicate that intimate partner victims of psychopaths experience a great deal of physical and mental health consequences that parallel the symptoms reported by victims of general crime, bullying, workplace bullying, and intimate partner violence victimization. The results provide further evidence for the existence of an association between psychopathy and the ensuing psychological distress (PTSD and depression) in intimate partners.

It's not you — it's the psychopath 

For all of you who have experienced severe psychological stress due to your involvement with a psychopath, this study validates your experience. It is normal for people who have endured relationships with psychopaths to suffer from depression and PTSD. It is also normal for you to still feel psychological stress even if you are no longer in the relationship.

What does this mean?

It means that you’re not crazy or weak if you are still suffering from the traumatic effects of your relationship with a psychopath.

Knowing this may give you the confidence to work on overcoming your experience.

RELATED: If A Guy Does These 7 Things, He's An Emotional Psychopath

Donna Andersen offers personal consultations to help people identify and escape manipulative relationships. Her new book, Senior Sociopaths — How to recognize and escape lifelong abusers, is available now

This article was originally published at Love Fraud. Reprinted with permission from the author.