Why Healing Is Difficult If Your Ex Is A Psychopath

New research explains why the aftermath of an abusive relationship is often traumatic.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 15, 2022

A new study published in Personality and Individual Differences shows that psychopathic traits in an old romantic partner can increase your likelihood of developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The study, which looks at intimate partner abuse from a survivor's perspective, also describes patterns of abuse and psychopathic traits in the context of abusive relationships.

"We wanted to learn which psychopathic traits were driving different types of abusive behaviors in intimate partner relationships," says Courtney Humeny, a Cognitive Scientist at Carleton University in Canada and the lead author of the paper. "We also wanted to learn which psychopathic traits and patterns of intimate partner abuse were the most detrimental to survivors' mental health."

The study recruited 454 adult survivors of heterosexual abusive relationships (from various intimate partner abuse support websites) who reported their ex-partner as having psychopathic traits. The participants then completed a series of questionnaires that took them about an hour to complete.

These questionnaires assessed a number of characteristics relevant to the study including the degree to which their abuser demonstrated psychopathic traits and the survivors' abuse experiences.

The researchers found that psychopathic traits facilitate abusers' perpetration of intimate partner abuse that is frequent, physically harmful, and versatile.

According to previous research, psychopathic traits can be broadly divided into Factor 1 and Factor 2 traits.

  • Factor 1 traits explain a psychopath's emotions and how they interact with others (often using charm and guile).
  • Factor 2 traits are more telling of a psychopath's lifestyle and antisocial behaviors, including poor decision making, reactive aggression, and substance use.

This study is the first to empirically identify Factor 1 traits as the most detrimental to survivors. These traits not only enhance an abuser's ability to maintain a long-term abusive relationship but also contributed to higher levels of post-traumatic stress symptoms in survivors.

"These traits may also enhance psychopathic individuals' ability to mimic others' gestures and language (e.g., expressions of love) to charm and deceive survivors and their support networks. On the other hand, Factor 2 traits are thought to impede psychopathic individuals' ability to strategically prey on their victims," explains Humeny.

Humeny is optimistic about the implications of her research.

"This research has prompted a re-examination of the construct of psychopathy and whether the affective and interpersonal features are more integral to the construct of psychopathy than the criminal or antisocial features," she says.

This study is especially useful considering the increased rates of femicides, hate crimes against women, and the #metoo movement, which has prompted a survivor-centered approach to identify warning signs of abuse.

For those who have experienced intimate partner abuse, Humeny offers the following recommendations.

"I would recommend that those looking to heal and recover from intimate partner abuse reach out to local intimate partner abuse resources or hotlines," says Humeny. "Counseling can increase awareness of warning signs of abusive behaviors and healthy coping strategies. Support groups can also help in providing a stable supportive social network, advice on the recovery process, and resources for practical support."

A full interview with cognitive scientist Courtney Humeny discussing her new research can be found here: Why a relationship with a psychopath can be so hard to get over