Why A Relationship With A Psychopath Can Be So Hard To Get Over

Cognitive Scientist Courtney Humeny says that psychopathic traits in an ex can block your road to recovery.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 7, 2022

A new study published in Personality and Individual Differences says that not all abusive exes are created equal and that some are harder to get over than others.

There is evidence that psychopathic traits in an old romantic partner could increase your likelihood of developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including guilt and shame, which can significantly delay your healing.

I recently spoke to Cognitive Scientist Courtney Humeny of Carleton University in Canada to understand the effects of intimate partner abuse on its victims and the characteristics of its perpetrators. Here's a summary of our conversation.

What is intimate partner abuse? Why is it important to study it?

Intimate partner abuse is a pattern of behavior in relationships that is used to gain or maintain control over an intimate partner. It can span various types of behaviors, including:

  • Physical
  • Sexual
  • Property- or cyber-related
  • Emotional or psychological
  • Substance
  • Spiritual
  • Financial

It is important to study intimate partner abuse to find avenues to mitigate negative outcomes for survivors and inform therapeutic treatments. Such research can increase knowledge of intimate partner abuse to address stigma and misconceptions.

For example, historically, intimate partner abuse was primarily thought to surround physical abuse as there was little research or understanding about the detrimental impacts of non-physical forms of abuse.

There continue to be misconceptions about why victims/survivors do not just leave an abusive relationship or readily report abuse to law enforcement.

Research on intimate partner abuse can also be used to identify risk factors for intervention and enhance awareness of the warning signs of abusive behaviors. Such information can be used in risk identification and assessment in legal (e.g., divorce and child custody) and criminal proceedings.

What is novel about your research on psychopathy and intimate partner abuse?

There is some research linking psychopathy to intimate partner abuse, but it is focused on domestic abusers themselves and on psychopathic individuals involved with the criminal justice system, predominately for physically or sexually violent intimate partner abuse offenses.

There has been increasing attention toward the concept of "successful psychopaths," i.e., those psychopathic individuals who can live relatively undetected in the community while engaging in more covertly abusive acts that are difficult to detect and leave little physical evidence to report to law enforcement.

More recent attention has been geared toward non-physical forms of abuse, particularly emotional/physical, cyber, and economic forms of abuse. There has also been increased attention to this due to increased rates of femicides, hate crimes/toxic masculinity, and the #metoo movement, which has prompted a victim- or survivor-centered approach to research for identifying risk factors and warning signs of abusive behaviors.

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.

Survivors of an intimate relationship with a psychopathic individual provide a valuable resource into the patterns of abuse and manifestation of psychopathic traits in the context of abusive romantic relationships. Despite this, their perspectives have historically been ignored in research.

The goal of my research was to gain a better understanding of survivors' experiences of a romantic relationship with a psychopathic abuser. This includes if psychopathic traits in abusers contributed to the patterns of intimate partner abuse survivors experienced, such as:

  • Versatility of the types of abuse that was perpetrated
  • Frequency of abuse
  • Severity of physical injury that resulted from abuse

We wanted to learn which psychopathic traits were driving different types of abusive behaviors in intimate partner relationships. Was it due to abusers' inability to empathize (i.e., affective facet)? Or was it due to their impulsivity and irresponsibility (i.e., lifestyle facet)?

We also wanted to learn which psychopathic traits and patterns of intimate partner abuse were the most detrimental to survivors' mental health.

Could you tell us a little bit about the methodology used in your research? What would you say was your most important finding?

Given the limited research on survivors of psychopathic abusers, and to ensure our sample experienced an abuser with elevated levels of psychopathic traits we recruited from a variety of intimate partner abuse support websites, with participants who resided in Canada, the United States, and across Europe, including the United Kingdom.

Participants were directed to a secure data collection website to create a password-protected account. Upon providing informed consent they completed a series of self-report questionnaires that took approximately one hour to complete.

These questionnaires included assessing the degree to which their abuser demonstrated psychopathic traits, with such statements as "Has often done something dangerous just for the thrill of it," "Thinks they can get what he or she wants by telling people what they want to hear," and "Never feels guilty over hurting others."

There was also a questionnaire that assessed survivors' abuse experiences, including the relationship length, types of abuse they experienced (e.g., physical, emotional, financial), severity of physical injury, and frequency of abuse.

The most important finding was that psychopathic traits facilitate abusers' perpetration of intimate partner abuse that is frequent, physically harmful, and versatile.

What is PTSD? What types of PTSD symptoms do survivors of intimate partner abuse most commonly exhibit?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental disorder that occurs following direct exposure to trauma, such as experiences of war, terrorism, or natural disasters. It can also occur from indirect exposure to trauma, such as by witnessing a crime or accident or repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details.

There are four categories of PTSD symptoms identified in the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5):

  1. Intrusive symptoms
  2. Persistent avoidance
  3. Negative alterations in cognitions and mood
  4. Marked alterations in arousal and reactivity

Survivors of intimate partner abuse can be clinically diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and can experience elevated levels of post-traumatic stress symptoms similar to, for example, survivors of war or natural disasters.

In our current research, the Impact of Events Scale-Revised was used to examine post-traumatic stress symptoms in relation to intimate partner abuse. The scale includes questions assessing intrusive symptoms, avoidant symptoms, and marked alterations in arousal and reactivity outlined in the DSM-5.

The sample in the current studies demonstrated high levels of post-traumatic stress symptoms and reported more intrusive symptoms, followed by symptoms reflecting marked alterations in arousal and reactivity.

It is also common for survivors of intimate partner abuse to feel guilt and self-blame for their experiences due to stigma and societal misconceptions surrounding intimate partner abuse.

There has been emerging research that suggests complex post-traumatic stress disorder is more prevalent among intimate partner abuse survivors than post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, given the early stages of research on the effects of psychopathic abusers on survivors' mental health, it is not known how prevalent complex post-traumatic stress disorder is in survivors of psychopathic abusers.

What do we know about the "facets" of psychopathy?

Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by a constellation of traits. Factor analysis has found these traits load onto two factors, further differentiated into four facets:

  1. Factor 1, which consists of psychopathic individuals' unique interpersonal style and their affective deficits
  2. Factor 2, which consists of psychopathic individuals' lifestyle characteristics and their antisocial characteristics

A combination of these four facets – interpersonal, affective, lifestyle, and antisocial – in different proportions is the recipe for a psychopath.

Recent research highlights that psychopathic individuals can reside relatively undetected in the community. Evidence suggests that traits under the interpersonal facet enhance psychopathic individuals' ability to detect and use cues of vulnerability and engage in instrumental aggression (i.e., premeditated aggression to gain control and/or attain a specific goal).

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, which are associated with reactive aggression and substance use, are thought to impede psychopathic individuals' ability to strategically prey on their victims.

Thus, traits associated with criminality and other deviant lifestyle behaviors, albeit potentially harmful, may not be as effective as Factor 1 traits in the context of romantic relationships.

In our research, Factor 2 traits (particularly those under the antisocial facet) were found to contribute to their engagement of versatile and physically harmful forms of abuse. However, Factor 1 traits were found to be the most detrimental to survivors, particularly those under the affective facet. The current study is the first to empirically identify that Factor 1 traits:

  1. Enhance abusers' ability to maintain a longer-term abusive relationship
  2. Contribute to more severe post-traumatic stress symptoms in survivors.

Further, we found that survivors who experienced more severe post-traumatic stress symptomology reported their abuser as having elevated levels of Factor 1 traits, particularly those under the affective facet. They also reported experiencing more versatile forms of abuse.

While Factor 2 traits, particularly those under the antisocial facet, were predictive of the degree of physical injury survivors experienced from intimate partner abuse, these traits were not found to be predictive of survivors' PTSD symptomology.

The findings also suggest that it is the experiences of more versatile forms of abuse and not those that cause the most physical injury that have the most detrimental impact on survivors' mental health.

Abusers with elevated traits under the affective facet may have an enhanced ability to perpetrate abuse uninhibited by such emotions as guilt. Their shallow affect may allow them to successfully manipulate their romantic partner into a committed relationship for an extended duration.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on psychopathic traits and intimate partner abuse go in the future?

I do have plans for follow-up research and will examine what factors help survivors in their recovery to better inform therapeutic interventions, community outreach, and programming. Because perspectives of psychopath survivors have received such limited attention there are many areas that need to be further examined.

These include taking a closer look at the experiences of male survivors and those in the LGBTQ2S+ community. The limited research on psychopath survivors has, thus far, focused on exclusively on heterosexual relationships.

I also would like to see research that provides a focused examination of the role of psychopathic traits in coercive control and the impact of coercive control on survivors.

Finally, what advice do you have for victims of intimate partner abuse?

Given that my research is coming from a cognitive science perspective and not that of counseling or clinical psychology, I would recommend that those looking to heal and recover from intimate partner abuse reach out to local intimate partner abuse resources or hotlines.

The Aftermath Surviving Psychopathy Foundation provides resources on its website specific to psychopathic abuse (e.g., books, online forum, and research summaries). 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 (e.g., legal, financial, and safety planning).