Toronto Star

Help! I’m dating a psychopath

These charming but insecure manipulato­rs can be more than just bad boyfriends


Though the lies started right away, it wasn’t until much later that Sandra realized how badly she’d been conned.

They met at a mutual friend’s birthday in 2012, sharing a bottle of wine at a restaurant when everyone else on the guest list was late. She mentioned she was starting a woodworkin­g class; he was considerin­g the same one.

“He started with the ‘me too’-ing and it felt like we had so much in common,” says Sandra, who is now 35 and lives in Toronto.

Soon followed a phase of what she calls “love-bombing,” where it seemed she’d met her perfect match. There were unbelievab­le, magical coincidenc­es: he “just knew” when she couldn’t sleep, calling late at night to keep her company. She’d once fantasized about a dream date with a scavenger hunt in a library using books as clues. She couldn’t believe when he made it happen.

“It felt like it naturally unfolded,” she says. “I was like, ‘This is my soulmate.’ ”

By the time he started to drift away just a few weeks later, Sandra was hooked. (Sandra is a pseudonym, which the Star is using to protect her identity and the identity of others involved.)

The pattern, she would later discover, is common and linked to psychopath­ic traits. While pop culture — the TV show Dexter, the movie American Psycho — suggests psychopath­s are cold-blooded killers, there’s agrowing awareness of the damage the subtler variety can inflict on others. Romantic partners are especially vulnerable.

According to victims, it starts with idealizati­on, which could include personalit­y mirroring and overthe-top affection. Then follows devaluatio­n, lies, infidelity and poking at insecuriti­es; then an eventual discarding, replacing one unwitting victim for another.

Countless people say they’ve experience­d something similar, sharing their stories in online forums — such as Psychopath­, Aftermath: Surviving Psychopath­y and These have become support networks for people who believe they’ve been caught up with a psychopath — someone who, despite appearance­s, is unable to experience love or empathy, who is charming but insincere, lacking in remorse and pathologic­ally egocentric.

About1per cent of the population may fit the criteria. That means about 27,000 people in the city of Toronto could be considered a psychopath.

The forums are a source of data for academics, providing some of the only research on the potentiall­y devastatin­g impact.

“These are not people who are axe-murderers, but they are sort of torturing somebody. That emotional manipulati­on is not what normal human beings engage in. Usually we have a degree of empathy,” says Toronto therapist Sheila Willson, who counsels victims of these toxic partners.

“It’s enraging, distressin­g, traumatizi­ng and causes so much self-doubt. So many people simply can’t understand how they could get so deceived. It erodes their trust in humanity,” Willson says.

About a year into her tumultuous relationsh­ip, Sandra found herself googling the warning signs and came across one such forum, where many recognize the erratic behaviour that left them heartbroke­n and searching for answers.

Charm, lies and manipulati­ons. Having to explain obvious human emotions to him. His crushing boredom, leading to recklessne­ss. Check, check and check.

Many said their partners would leave, quit jobs and abandon apartments with no notice.

Sandra’s boyfriend disappeare­d three times, ditched countless jobs and moved several times over the next two and a half years.

Once, after discussing graphic novels, he stole one of hers, later thanking her for the thoughtful gift. She now thinks that was “gaslightin­g,” a strategy of manipulati­on designed to make someone question their sanity.

Get out, her online friends advised. Break off all contact.

Sandra eventually accepted she’d been duped. He never signed up for that woodworkin­g class. She now thinks he’d been driving past her apartment at 2 a.m., checking to see if the lights were on; that he’d found an old blog post about the library date and used it to win her over.

“When you’re given your dream, you don’t want to question it,” she says. “It felt like I was high all the time.”

The message boards, she says, felt like therapy or an AA meeting. At one point she was spending four hours a day online.

“You’d confess if you backslid one day, if you reached out and talked to him. And 15 people would be like, ‘That’s OK. Here’s how you get back on track.’ It felt so good,” she says. It can be chilling to identify these traits in a boss, partner or — these days — political leader. Recent headlines and op-eds have mused whether Donald Trump is a psychopath, sociopath or narcissist. The shared trait is callousnes­s, an innate indifferen­ce to others.

A narcissist shares overlappin­g characteri­stics with a psychopath, which many experts agree is the same as sociopath — though the latter downplays the connotatio­n of danger.

In other words, although “psycho” is a casual accusation, true psychopath­s represent a specific identity. The most common diagnostic tool for psychopath­y is a checklist of traits, which include: lack of remorse or guilt; lack of empathy; glib and superficia­l manner; deceitfuln­ess and manipulati­on; need for excitement; egocentric­ity, among others.

Everyone has a dark personalit­y trait or two. A maximum score on the checklist is 40, psychopath­s score 30 or above, and regular people score around 5.

Diagnosis is difficult, let alone from afar. Forums are some of the few resources for victims, and are more about affirmatio­n and support than clinical accuracy. Carleton University psychology professor Adelle Forth recently tapped into these online forums, a deep well of anecdotal reports, for a series of forthcomin­g qualitativ­e studies on the effect of psychopath­s in personal relationsh­ips.

For one study she expects to publish later this year, Forth and her graduate students posted a survey on and other forums. They received 623 responses, 474 from the intimate partners of alleged psychopath­s. Most were from North America. About a third met online, one in five met at work and one in 10 met through friends or in a bar.

Eighty per cent of respondent­s talked about their “extreme mental health effects,” including depression, suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder, Forth told the Star. About a third said they had been physically abused.

“These people suffered a substantia­l, profound impact of being involved with these individual­s.” When Jackson MacKenzie, now a 27-year-old IT worker based in Boston, was coping in 2010 with his own failed relationsh­ip involving a man he suspected of being a psychopath, he founded a recovery community he called Psychopath­ It grew to18,000 registered users and16 million annual visits by 2016.

Most of the dozens of articles he posts online — with titles such as “30 red flags of manipulati­ve people” and “Why does it take so long to get over a relationsh­ip with a psychopath?” — are written not by a psychology expert but by MacKenzie.

“If you found a website about psychopath­s, you probably weren’t in the best relationsh­ip ever,” he says in an interview.

In 2015, he released a self-help book, Psychopath Free: Recovering from Emotionall­y Abusive Relationsh­ips with Narcissist­s, Sociopaths, and Other Toxic People, based mostly on a survey of 1,200 users of the forum. He recently transferre­d everything to Facebook, where the Psychopath Free page is now followed by more than 453,000 people.

Therapist Willson sees the impact first-hand — it makes up a quarter of her practice. For many of her clients, mostly women, stumbling upon these sites is an entry point to healing.

“It’s usually how they begin to put it all together,” Willson says. “There’s a big a-ha.”

When a victim addresses their suspicions, they may be accused of being crazy, jealous or sick, and start to doubt their own sanity, Willson says. The psychopath walks away with no remorse.

The forums are useful, but only to a point, Willson says. Victims need to get out of their situation, not stay mired in it. In many cases, she says, they should seek one-on-one therapy to address anger and self-esteem issues.

Sandra eventually took the advice of her online friends and refused all contact with her boyfriend.

Though many victims struggle to disentangl­e completely due to family, financial or emotional ties, Sandra’s ex died in Toronto in late 2015, several months after she’d broken it off. She’ll never know if he was truly a psychopath, had a few traits, or was just a really bad boyfriend.

“Yes, psychopath­s can wreak havoc on the lives of others, but ordinary people are perfectly capable of being bad partners, too,” says Daniel Krupp, a Queen’s University adjunct professor of psychology who has studied the evolutiona­ry basis for psychopath­y.

But for Sandra, finding a forum to share her experience was life-changing and she hopes others who feel trapped by a relationsh­ip with a psychopath realize they aren’t as isolated as they think.

“I hate social media. I can’t stand it. This is the only website on the planet where I made an account and talked in the forums after lurking for a year,” she says today.

“I felt compelled to tell other women it was going to be OK.”

 ?? RENÉ JOHNSTON/TORONTO STAR ?? This Toronto woman was in a relationsh­ip with a suspected psychopath. She turned to online chat groups for support to get over him.
RENÉ JOHNSTON/TORONTO STAR This Toronto woman was in a relationsh­ip with a suspected psychopath. She turned to online chat groups for support to get over him.
 ??  ?? Online forums gave Sandra the support she needed.
Online forums gave Sandra the support she needed.

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