Dear Dr. Saltzman,
I just found your thoughtful and penetrating columns today while trying to understand how I managed to be in a 2-year relationship with a man I feel pretty certain is a sociopath. I'm 53 years old, an American living in Europe. He is 50 and works in military intelligence.
I recently confirmed that the whole time we've been (what I thought was) a couple, he was involved with other women. While telling me we were mutually exclusive and I was the "love of his life," he dated numerous women: old girlfriends, new girlfriends, Italian girlfriends, Polish girlfriends, on-line girlfriends, women he picked up on the plane hours after leaving me in bed.
I knew his behavior was odd; he didn't write or call if I was traveling for work, for instance. There were also disappearing acts; he was always a couple of hours late, sometimes he stood me up; once he text-messaged me that he was going to Italy instead of picking me up at the airport; I never knew if our plans would hold.
I knew he dissembled; at first I thought it was because he wanted to avoid conflict or embarrassment - and I saw his behavior as undisciplined, irresponsible, unreliable, possibly due to his drinking - but I failed to see the glitter of malice. His apologies were pathetically out of touch and rote; it's clear he doesn't understand what he did wrong or feel remorse.
Why did I accept this? The only answer I can offer is: I was very lonely, and when we were together it was wonderful: he was companionable, generous, complimentary, fun - and the sex was truly amazing, the best in my life. He also had family members who vouched for him. When we were visiting them, for example, and I answered his cellphone to find a woman identifying herself as his fiancee, they assured me she was crazy and that he wouldn't lie. How could they not know?
And although it seems almost comically obvious now, it was tough to sort out at the time. He was so ardent at one point, I was concerned he was going to give me an engagement ring for my birthday, and I didn't know what to do since I was crazy about him and yet so concerned about his behavior.
No problem. On my birthday, he came to my apartment without card, cake or gift of any kind - and was unfazed. Yet he has also given me a car to drive and appeared a couple of times with things I had seen and liked when we window-shopped. On my last birthday, I was in the U.S. He didn't even call; I found out he had spent that weekend wooing another woman he'd been emailing for months, just as he had emailed me for months before we got together.
You've written about the male predeliction for numerous sexual partners, but doesn't such promiscuity take on a more sinister cast when the man is lying to all the women he's pursuing or involved with?
He specializes in partial truths and witholding information - and he has for years made sure that he's gone on "temporary duty" far from home for months each year. Then he corresponds sporadically, including with his two young daughters.
His ex-wife told me when they were married and he went "TDY," she wouldn't even know what hotel he was in.
She also said that he had been diagnosed as passive-aggressive.
I've noticed that many of the traits of a PA person are similar to a sociopath: that is lying, promiscuity, lack of life plan, underachievment.
I understand that lack of feelings and motivation is a defining part of the sociopath's behavior - to manipulate and dominate for amusement. Doesn't compulsive lying to everyone just on its own indicate a lack of intimacy - or emotion - with anyone?
So one question is: Do you see the two overlapping?
A sociopath can't bond, but do they like anybody? Can they discern individual qualities among their women, or prefer one to another? Are they all the same to him, there to be exploited? Or do sociopaths start off hopeful they've found some perfect partner then tire of them fast?
Another question has to do with sex. I've read that sociopaths may be hypersexual. One reason I dismissed concerns over his fidelity is that we had so much sex - often, three times over the course of a night, and he was with me most nights.
He was extremely virile, never any erectile problems, despite the fact that he routinely put away vast quantities of gin. And his technique, his acceptance, his enjoyment of my body. Unfucking believable. I've never loved sex half so much. (and I've been married twice and had, in my early 20s, many other partners)
Can you address this phenomenon? Is it common?
I've also read that sociopaths may be pansexual. Now I'm worried that all those times he was late but finally showed up for dinner, he had been trysting with other men. Any thoughts, other than I should make a doctor's appointment?
I must obviously discontinue contact of all kind. But you've written about what good sex in a love relationship can do to bind a couple. Isn't it partly chemical? And how is that easily undone for one, even when it turns out that the other was completely false?
Why was it so good with him? A mix of anatomical compatibility, long-practiced technique and the emotional volatility he inspired?
Do you see any similarities among women who fall for sociopaths? I mean, his ex-wife seems perfectly lovely, and I've never had an experience like this before.
Thank you for your columns. They're compassionate but tough-minded, often surprising, and have been of great interest and help to me.
Thanks for your kind comments about my replies to questions. I am always pleased to hear that someone has found my words to be helpful.
First I want to clear up a possible misunderstanding. Through some of my writing, I seem to have left you with the impression that that all men wish to be polygamous, but that was not my intention. Yes, according to the ideas of evolutionary psychology, men in general tend not to be naturally monogamous, and this has a basis in the evolutionary history of the human race. And yes, in my experience, plenty of men would like to sleep with as many attractive women as possible, but this does not mean that all men wish to have multiple lovers. Many men are happy to be with one woman whom they love and cherish, and these men would not cheat even if they were certain that a dalliance would go undetected. In short, whether a particular man—or a particular woman, for that matter--will live monogamously or polygamously cannot be predicted by reliance upon generalities about genetics. I offered the information about evolutionary psychology to help another questioner--a women--understand why her boyfriend might be compelled to look at other women even though claiming to love her. She saw this as a conflict and was doubting his real interest in her, and I was trying to indicate that women's bodies are extremely compelling objects of interest to men, regardless of whether or not they love a particular woman.
That said, let me get to your questions. A sociopath is not simply a liar or a manipulator of others. Many people who are not sociopaths (or psychopaths--the two words mean the same thing) lie and manipulate routinely, and, by their lies and manipulations, end up hurting others, sometimes severely. In other words, psychopathy cannot be diagnosed simply by observing actions. Psychopathy (sociopathy) is a particular kind of personality structure which differs profoundly from the norm in that the sociopath is absolutely incapable of feeling compassion or sympathy for others. Usually, in order to fit in and remain under the radar, the sociopath will learn to feign the normal human emotions, but really he or she does not feel them at all. In fact, this lack of normal feeling is so pronounced that some sociopaths I have known did not believe that such emotions as compassion, love, sympathy, or pity even exist, and they suspected that everyone else is just pretending to feel such things, or has been somehow "brainwashed" into feeling them. In point of fact, this is not true: compassion, sympathy, pity, and love are deeply and genetically rooted, not just in humans, but in some of our primate cousins as well. However, those emotions are not shared one hundred percent in our race, and those who do not share them are called sociopathic or psychopathic, regardless of their behavior.
Now the passive-aggressive personality has nothing at all to do with psychopathy; the two types are simply unrelated. Perhaps the passive-aggressive person will lie and deceive which might seem superficially similar to the routines of some psychopaths, but the two personality structures have totally different roots, and, once again, we must remind ourselves that understanding the depths of personality structure cannot be accomplished by observing actions alone.
The passive-aggressive person is someone who, lacking the ability to be straightforward in getting his or her way, has learned to satisfy desires by pretending to be weak or undemanding while subtly and covertly pressuring others to accede to those desires. Often, this kind of personality develops as a result of early experiences which force a child to learn to manipulate others because circumstances are such that remaining ostensibly passive while finding subtle means of manipulation is the only approach which will allow the child any power at all. I other words, passive-aggressive behavior is best understood as a survival mechanism which functioned more or less well in early life, but which now gets in the way of full adult functioning. In that sense, passive-aggressive behavior is learned behavior, and so can be treated by a psychotherapy which aims at helping that person to unlearn it.
Sociopathy is less well understood than passive-aggressive personality, but the development of the sociopath does not seem to depend upon outward influences very much, with the exception of a form of sociopathy which can result from acquired brain injury. In other words, with that one exception, sociopathy seems to be an inborn, genetically determined psychological trait which may be mitigated to some extent by upbringing and other outside influences, but which is not produced by them, and which cannot be eliminated no matter how optimal those influences may be. To put this a bit differently, a child born into a home with kind, understanding parents probably would not develop a passive-aggressive style of dealing with the world even if that child were born with some genetic predisposition towards passivity, but a child born into the same kind of family who had genetically determined psychopathic tendencies almost certainly would end up as a psychopathic adult, and this is demonstrated by the observation that such a child's psychopathy will almost certainly start to manifest early in life. Further, unlike passive-aggressive personality disorder, for which there are effective therapies, no one yet to my knowledge has successfully treated and healed a psychopath, and, in fact, to my knowledge no theory exists which would even suggest or support a means of treatment.
Without knowing your boyfriend, I cannot say whether or not he is psychopathic, but the evidence you have given is not particularly suggestive of psychopathy. Many men lie to women in order keep them available for sexual gratification, but relatively few of those sexually manipulative men are psychopaths.
So let us continue on to your questions about sex which as I understand your letter are these:
1. Is his virility, which seems uncommonly powerful--in your experience anyway--a sign of sociopathy?
2. Is there any reason to think that he may be having sex with men as well as women?
3. How does a women get over such a powerful sexual obsession?
4. Why was sex so much better with him than with your previous lovers?
5. Is there a "type" of woman who falls for the psychopathic man?
1. Both sexual appetite and sexual abilities vary widely from person to person and are not, so far as I know, a reliable indicator of any particular personality type.
2. The only reason to suspect that he might be having sex with men as well as women is that his sexual appetite, requiring, apparently, so many outlets, might drive him to gratify it with anyone available regardless of gender, but that is just speculation. In any event, a periodic AIDS test is recommended to anyone who has unprotected sex outside of a totally safe relationship.
3. Obviously the kind of bonding to which I referred has taken place on your side of the ledger, and now you must get over it. But please recall that the bonding I spoke of takes place when sex is good in the context of a love relationship, so that the love and affection are cemented by the sexual gratification. This relationship was not one like that, except perhaps in your imagination. You were used by this man as just another opportunity for orgasm and entertainment, not love. Perhaps remembering how you have been misused will help you to dissolve whatever bonds have formed in your mind. Time and distance can be great healers too, and a new boyfriend (with compatible anatomy) certainly wouldn't hurt.
4. As to why sex was so much better with him, I can only speculate. Perhaps his experience with so many different women helped him to perfect his bedroom technique. You mentioned anatomical compatibility, so perhaps you like his penis. And, perhaps something in you sensed his unattainability which may have been exciting to you, even if only unconsciously.
5. I have already said that there is no particular reason to consider this man psychopathic, but, yes, there is a kind of woman who is easily victimized by sexual predators such as your boyfriend. I don't know if you fall into that category or not, and could not make a guess without knowing you personally and asking you a lot of very personal questions.
Sorry not to be able to be more definite, but this is very difficult ground for generalization. I do feel the pain this must be causing you, and wish you the best in putting it and him behind you.