One crucial component of understanding psychopaths is to understand how they approach relationships. How do psychopaths view relationships and are they actually able to value people for themselves within a relationship?
The answer to this is a resounding no. Psychopaths view relationships like they view anything else – as a means to an end for themselves. Indeed it is a crucial defining feature of psychopaths that they are utterly incapable of valuing a person for themselves and only view apparent relationships and friendships through the lens of how it can selfishly benefit them.
This becomes apparent with the abruptness and coldness with with a psychopath can “turn” and suddenly exit a relationship. The other person is often shocked since like any normal human being, they actually invested in the relationship and assumed the same thing was happening the other way.
The realization that this was not the case can leave the person with all kinds of emotional wounds that can take a long time to heal from, especially if the “relationship” lasted a long time.
This is why it is becoming ever more important to thoroughly vet people for both friendships and intimate relationships, since the prevalence of psychopathy and other toxic personalities appears to be on the rise, not decreasing. It is important to be able to step back from a person and a relationship and see clearly what is going on, for better or worse.
Here is what matters most to a psychopath in a relationship, in order of importance:
- Having total power and control over the other person.
- Provoking emotional reactions from the other person, especially once the “honeymoon” period is over.
- Psychopaths do not value people; they only value the feelings they get when are around people.
Once we realize that these three things combined are what motivate the psychopath in relationships, we start to see why they are fundamentally incapable of holding together any kind of functional, mutually respecting long term relationship, which is why these characters so often leave a trail of wreckage and destructive relationships behind them once we dig into their past more deeply.
Let’s look at the issue of psychopathic relationships in more detail.
“Planet Narco (The inner world of a psychopath or narcissist):
A broken, tempestuous mess. Barren, toxic and stormy. Baseline state is panic and emotional dysregulation. Power and emotional-reaction fixated”
Richard Grannon, Spartan Life Coach
Psychopaths Are Obsessed With Power & Control
The psychopathic personality is by it’s very nature obsessed with gaining power and control over others. This can be in obvious ways or more subtle and covert, but all psychopaths are power-fixated and have a need to be in control of others.
From the first moment of a relationship, you can be assured that the psychopath is working towards this goal.
The reason for this simply that toxic Cluster B disordered people like psychopaths and narcissists are not well put together individuals, as much as they like to project this image out.
Rather, their internal world is a complete mess, toxic and emotionally dysregulated, and rather than managing their own state internally, they seek to manage it externally by seeking power and control over others.
Put differently, their internal world is such a mess that they seek to control the outer world of people and things to compensate for this.
They can be obvious or sneaky in the way they go about this. Let’s look at some examples of how psychopaths work to gain power and control over others:
- The psychopathic work manager whose every move is towards dominating and controlling others. Particularly dangerous because they can always hide behind their job description to justify their behavior, yet will create an oppressive atmosphere that non psychopathic managers won’t.
- In relationships, some less well concealed psychopaths will act like control freaks, constantly demanding to know where their partner is, where they are going, what they have been doing and so on.
- In the most extreme cases, psychopaths will literally imprison their partners indoors and prevent them from even going out.
- Most psychopaths figure out this kind of behavior is frowned upon, and seek instead to gain control over others through more subtle means….
- As a precursor to the more overt methods of control, psychopaths will often start by trying to drive rifts between you and close friends or family members, gradually seeking to further isolate you and place you more under their control.
- A constant series of invasive questions, designed to gather information on you that they can use against you later.
- A general invasiveness and intrusiveness, always seeming to be “in your face” when you live with them, prying into your life.
- Identity erosion – slowly using gas-lighting and other methods to chip away at your confidence, self esteem and perception of reality and place you more and more under their control.
- Mean-sweet cycles, where they alternate between kind and nasty behavior. Again designed to wear away at your self esteem and leave you more and more dependent on whatever breadcrumbs of approval they throw your way for any sense of self.
- In general, psychopaths love to follow a crude behaviorist model, where they have your behaviour as it is now, and they have the “end point” of where they want it to be (totally under their control). They then relentlessly seek to move, bit by bit, towards this end goal through more and more manipulative and boundary violating behaviors.
- Launching smear campaigns, where they seek to spread malicious rumors and gossip, aiming to isolate you from friends of colleagues in a workplace setting, placing you totally under their control.
- Using blatant cheating and other outrageous behavior to get you thinking and ruminating about them. If you’re thinking about the psychopath, even in a negative way, then as far as they are concerned, they have control over you.
This is why relationships with psychopaths start off being so fun and seemingly perfect (the “grooming” phase, where they are playing the perfect match), yet turn oppressive and demoralizing once they sink their teeth in.
The psychopath was never interested in being a real, available, intimate partner. They were seeking complete power and control over you, so they created a “manufactured soulmate” to gain your trust, and then their real personality and motives start to leak out once the psychopathic bond is built.
“The psychopath is strictly will to power….They are working strictly on the enslavement of your mind”
Unslaved Podcast – see here
Psychopaths Seek To Provoke Emotional Reactions From Others
This is another crucial thing to understand about psychopaths, and the Cluster B personalities in general. They are fundamentally provocative and reaction seeking personality disorders.
This means that their next most important goal in relationships, after power and control, is provoking negative emotional reactions in others.
This most often manifests in the “ramping up” of abuse after the initial “Honeymoon” period of idealization and walking/talking in rhythm has ended.
After this, the psychopath often gets bored and instead seeks to create drama in the relationship to relieve the endless boredom and emotional dysregulation they suffer inside themselves.
Again notice they are seeking external ways to address problems they should be addressing internally themselves. They are using other people’s distress to prop up their own emotional equilibrium.
Psychopaths are constantly looking to create anguish and distress in others just to regulate their own toxic emotional state
This strikes at the core of why the psychopathic personality is so toxic and destructive. They need to upset others to feel good about themselves in relationships. They project their own internal destructiveness outwards onto others to improve their own emotional state.
This toxic behavior can take on many forms. Here are just some examples:
- Creating drama and conflict unnecessarily in relationships. Starting arguments for no reason and manufacturing offence and indignation on purpose.
- Gas-lighting – trying to mess with their victim’s perception by claiming things happened or were said when they didn’t or vice versa.
- Provoking reactions on purpose and then sneaking around gossiping about those reactions to others, trying to smear your reputation to friends or work colleagues.
- Making outrageous accusations about people that they know are false, just to get them upset and “on the defensive”. They will accuse partners of cheating when they are often the ones doing it.
- Cheating on partners and waving the infidelity in their face to create as much distress as possible. Relentless triangulation, where they compare people infavourably to others to chip away at their self esteem.
- Psychopathic managers will often nitpick and micromanage to an extreme degree to try and provoke a reaction from their target. They then try to smear them to others based on this reaction. Classical smear tactic.
Readers who have endured relationships with psychopaths will recognize all these things, as well as the anxiety, rumination and distress that so often accompanies the later stages of a relationship with disordered people, as they ramp up their abuse with increasingly outrageous behavior, seeking to create as much chaos and upheaval as possible before the inevitable “blow-up” or discard, where they drop the victim cold and move onto someone else.
“Custer B is the .. definition of reaction seeking or dramatic personality disorders. This is not ‘I want to go away and sit on my own in my room’, this is ‘I need to annoy you to live. I need to hurt you to feel OK. I need to cause chaos and drama wherever I go just to feel basically alright’”.
Psychopaths Don’t Value People In Relationships (Only Feelings)
The “drop the person cold” part then leads us onto the third and in some ways most crucial thing to understand about what matters to psychopaths in relationships.
Psychopaths don’t value people for themselves; they only value them for the feelings that are awakened in them when they are around this person.
This is an absolutely crucial distinction to make and will often click things into place for people who have had psychopaths in their lives. It is also precisely the reason why psychopaths gravitate towards high quality people, especially if they have a certain kind of vibrancy or energy to them.
They love to soak this energy up but crucially they are there for the energy not the person.
Here are some things a psychopath might value or consider important in a relationship:
- Getting a “buzz”, “vibe” or “energy” off the person.
- Being constantly entertained
- Constant back and forward emailing and messaging of silly banter, humor, inside jokes, funny pictures and memes and other nonsense to provide constant entertainment to the psychopath or narcissist.
- Having the good times constantly rolling, with no downsides or reality checks.
- Monetary gains, in a personal or business context
- Some trait in the person they want to have – popularity, fame, vibrancy
- A flying high sense of “OK-ness” that covers up their internal feeling of emptiness.
- An implicit agreement or understand that the other person will never confront the psychopath on their shallow, self absorbed behavior, toxic treatment of others or any of their other psychological abnormalities.
- With the psychopath, if any of these things end, so does the “relationship”.
When victims of psychopathic relationships realize this difference, everything will become clear. The psychopath never actually valued them for the person they were or their traits; they valued them for whatever they could selfishly get out of them when they were in their presence, be it energy, humor, a “buzz”, copying traits, entertainment and so on.
The corollary to that of course is that whenever these feelings or buzz they got off being around you begins to fade for whatever reason, whether intentional or not on your part, you will find psychopathic characters exiting your life as fast as they entered.
Psychopaths are never truly invested in a relationship but only in the feelings they get out of it and so are happy to move on if they are no longer getting this.
To give a more concrete example of this, we will paraprase the words of Michael from the brilliant Unslaved Podcast on the topic, when discussing the issue of support and so called friendships with psychopathic people. He put it like this:
If for whatever reason you are met with some legitimate suffering in your life, something in your family, or something is bringing you down…..you will definitely not be met with any sense of care or support from a psychopathic character.
In fact you’ll be met with the sound of bags being packed and taxis pulling up outside and ‘adios amigo’……..They don’t value you; they value the feelings that are awakened in them when they are in your presence…….You’ll find they’ll be gone from your life faster than the Roadrunner, the moment (these positive feelings they are getting off you) starts to head south.
This perfectly sums up the way a psychopath approaches relationships with others and is a crucial thing to test for to determine whether a relationship is authentic or not. If for whatever reason you are going through a difficult patch in your life and are not yourself, watch out for this, or at least re-evaluate it in retrospect. Who stuck around and who didn’t?
Perhaps you are not your usual funny self or are feeling down and don’t have the same energy or vibrancy they have been used to feeding off when around you. You will find their committment to what you thought was a friendship or relationship is very poor, and they will be gone faster than you know it, for the reasons we mentioned.
They can’t get whatever they were getting off you and they couldn’t care less about you as a person. In more extreme cases it can be almost as though you never even existed in their psyche as a real person, in spite of them appearing to be your “best friend” or “soulmate” even just weeks or months earlier.
The reason for this is as mentioned above – they don’t value you for you; they only value the feelings or “buzz” or sensations they can get being around you. They are very parasitic people in that sense.
They only care about what they can get out of you psychologically and psychically, not for your virtues, traits and morality as a person.
The Psychopathic Bond (and subsequent discard)
“They never had a relationship with you; it’s all been a game”
Being on the wrong end of a psychopathic “discard” can be a brutal lesson in this regard. You may have thought you had a friendship with this person and invested a lot of yourself into it. The reality is that they only viewed the relationship either as a game or for what they could selfishly get out of it for themselves.
Psychopaths are very self contained and closed off people in this regard. They do not understand concepts like loyalty, committment, intimacy or support. They are strictly out for themselves.
By contrast, you will notice the true friends in your life will not bolt for the door when things turn sour, as they inevitably will for someone who is living the fullness of life with all it’s ups and downs and not hiding from legitimate suffering.
Good times don’t last but neither do bad ones; psychopaths are constantly trying to flee from this and keep the good times rolling without facing any of the downsides, either in themselves or others.
A true friend will stick around and actually value you as a friend and person, seeing what they can do to help. Seeing the difference between the two can be a valuable lesson in spotting the kind of people you want (and do not want) in your life going forward.
Psychopaths Can Very Suddenly “Flip” or “Turn” in Relationships
Another context in which you may spot this dynamic is when confronting toxic traits or glaring character problems in the psychopath, or when correctly apportioning blame for something to the psychopath. Watch for the responses you get.
As we mentioned, for a relationship with a psychopath to keep going well, you need to constantly prop up their fragile and fake sense of self and “OK-ness”. They consider this far more important than any kind of truth or objectivity. Context is more important than content for psychopaths and narcissists in relationships.
This often means going along with their views, accepting their interpretation of events where nothing is ever their fault, and in general massaging their ego and never confronting them on their glaring character problems and red flags in their behaviour which will become more apparent over time.
If for whatever reason you break this sense of “OK-ness” they are feeling around you, you will see a very sudden flip in their character. Of course most of us don’t like being confronted on our faults and flaws but a psychopath’s response is often more toxic.
You will often find a sudden change in their aura and demeanor, and this “flying high” sense of a perfect friendship can end as abruptly as it began. You’ve burst the bubble of their fake world, intentionally or by accident.
Psychopaths can flip very quickly if they can’t get anything out of you anymore or you stop propping up their fake sense of self
Their aura can change to a more toxic, sometimes even poisonous aura. More empathic and intuitive people will often feel this poisonous vibe which comes off them.
They will also start verbally attacking you as well, trying to undermine you and play mind games. Contrast this with normal people who tend to discuss disagreements openly or adopt dysfunctional but still human responses like going quiet, silent treatment etc.
A psychopath will never adopt any response which requires openness and intimacy. They will resort to more poisonous and toxic tactics whenever any of their character flaws or behaviours are exposed.
This again demonstrates this same principle that a relationship with them is only ever conditional on you propping up their fake sense of self, and is on far more fragile ground than a normal relationship between two non psychopathic human beings, however flawed they might be.
To sustain any kind of “relationship” with a psychopath or narcissist, it must never confront any of their psychological and emotional inadequacies. The moment it does, they will exit the relationship coldly, abruptly and without remorse.
Ways To Test For Exploitative Dynamics in Relationships
It is therefore crucially important to make this distinction about relationships in your life, and be able tell whether a person really values you for who you are as a person, or just for whatever they can get out of you in a certain moment, be it energy, money, connections, entertainment and so on.
There are definite and clear distinctions between how good genuine people interact with you in relationships and how a psychopath will interact with you. It can be useful to draw out the contrast. Here are just a few things to look out for:
- Did the person disappear from your life as soon as things turned down for you in some way (lost job, depressed, some kind of loss in family etc)? Good friends will obviously stick around.Does the person themself seem to constantly flee from suffering and always want to keep the good times rolling and never face any genuine sadness or grieving? Real people understand and accept that there will be bad times every now and then.
- At the slightest whiff of trouble in your life that you may seek solace, comfort or advice about, are they off the phone at the earliest opportunity – “sorry, gotta go”? Real people will support their friends.
- Are they constantly taking things off you (attention, resources, money, time, affection) without really giving anything in return? Is the relationship draining you in financial or other ways?
- Do they flip and turn on a dime at the slightest criticism or suggestion that something may be their fault, even when the criticism is totally justified? Many of us react badly to criticism but look for more toxic and poisonous behaviour.
- Do you have a sense you are constantly propping up their character and walking on eggshells with them?
- Does the relationship allow for openness and criticism? Or is there a sense that any kind of criticism or blaming of them, however justified, is off limits because of a toxic response you will get?
These of course are not exclusive and are just a starting point, but hopefully the contrast between normal and toxic relationships is apparent. None of these traits in themselves is indicative of a psychopath and indeed some other toxic personality types like a narcissist will display some of these traits.
Rather as always it is about observing psychopaths over time to see a number of the tell-tale traits time and time again that will lead you to make the diagnosis. See our Checklist page for more traits to look out for. You will see their “relationship” with you is not really a relationship at all but a fake clone of one that they are using to get whatever they can out of you.
Resources For Handling Psychopaths In Relationships
Here are some links to other resources online that can better help you spot, manage and ultimately exit toxic, exploitative relationships which aren’t authentic and where you are not being valued as a person.
- See our Resources page for links to more books and videos on psychopaths to be able to spot them more effectively in your lives and exit toxic relationships more quickly to limit the damage done.
- See Richard Grannon’s YouTube channel for excellent resources on handling Cluster B disordered people in relationships (psychopaths/narcissists).
- See also Dr Ramani Durvasula’s channel for validating resources on abusive, exploitative relationships.
- See our definitve resource guide on toxic relationships for more resources.