For most of us, the term ‘psychopath’ brings to mind an image of a serial killer like Hannibal Lecter in the film “Silence of the Lambs.” But in fact, most of them aren’t murderers.  Psychopaths (also referred to as sociopaths) aren’t as uncommon as we may want to think.  It is estimated that 3% of men and 1% of women suffer from this psychological disorder. They live in our neighborhoods, sit next to us at work, teach our children, and attend our churches… some of them even lead churches.

Now, I’m not one to judge those with mental illnesses without acknowledging that these people are, in fact, ill. However, we do have to be mindful of how psycho and sociopaths can be detrimental to our lives and our well-being. These individuals can be self-serving, impulsive, cunning, manipulative, world-class liars with no concern for the consequences of their actions.  The cutthroat and successful sister who lied and cheated her way to the top of her industry. The computer genius who created the virus that shut down tens of thousands of computer servers just for the rush of power it gives him.  The community leader who preaches the power of uplift and “helping our folks out” during the day, while deliberately and delightfully destroying the hearts of naive women at night.

While psychopaths can be quite dangerous in the workplace or in positions of influence, it’s in their personal lives that their unconscionable behavior gets played out on a whole other level of destructiveness.  Psychopaths know that most people have a desire for love and companionship and won’t hesitate to exploit this to their advantage.  This is the remorseless husband who sleeps with you immediately after cheating because he secretly loves the thrill of getting away with it.  She’s the girlfriend that you confided in about your IRS troubles who convinces you to sign over the deed to your house in order to protect it from the Feds, and then dumps you, sells it and keeps the cash for herself.

Psychopaths look like you or me, but they lack something that the rest of us have, which is a conscience.  When confronted on their bad behavior, they are curiously without any sense of real guilt or concern about how it affects you. You see, they don’t give a damn about your hurt feelings because they don’t have them.  A psychopath is incapable of empathy and has only the most primitive emotions:  Anger. Lust. Rage. Frustration.  Any emotions they show outside of these are an act they’ve learned so they can fit in with the rest of us.

One of my good girlfriends-“Teresa”-got caught in the snare of a man I ended up nicknaming “Psycho-Bro”.  At the time they met she was still reeling from the death of her fiancé the year before. Psycho-Bro swept into her life like a whirlwind, spinning tales of marriage and unconditional love forever after.  He provided a much needed respite from her pain and loneliness and she rushed wholeheartedly into a fast and furious love affair with a man that she thought was the answer to her prayers.

About a year into the relationship, Teresa discovered that the man she was planning on marrying was a complete fraud.  It turned out that Psycho-Bro had lied about his profession (he had claimed to be a real estate executive when he was really a building porter), his finances (he was never going to pay back the money he borrowed from her), and even his marital status (he had wed another woman the year before she met him).  Teresa ended things shortly after discovering the truth about her real life “Talented Mr. Ripley”, leaving her to pick up the pieces of her heart while wondering how she, a streetwise and savvy city girl, could’ve fallen victim to such a con artist.  Psycho-Bro just kept it moving and from what she last heard, was already in another relationship.  All of us were left wondering how someone could so cavalierly destroy another person’s life.  The only explanation that seemed to make sense was that he must be certifiably crazy, right?

The reality is that psychopaths are not insane…they have a mental disorder, but they’re not insane. Insane people don’t know they’re doing something bad and therefore can’t be held responsible for their actions, which is why our legal system has the insanity defense.  Psychopaths know what they’re doing is wrong and simply don’t care.

Dr. Robert Hare, who is considered by many to be the foremost expert on psychopaths, shares in his book Without Conscience that the best way to protect yourself from the intimate equivalent of Ted (or Theodora) Bundy is the following:

  • Don’t be dazzled or deluded by their “mask of sanity”.  A psychopath’s glib speech and smooth personality is meant to distract you from who they really are: a predator. 
  • Don’t slip into denial.  Anyone who seems too good to be true probably is.  Trust your gut.  If something doesn’t seem right, don’t be afraid to ask questions or to do research.
  • Protect yourself.  Know your weaknesses.  This will help you defend against a psychopath’s manipulations.
  • Establish boundaries.  Psychopaths’ have an all consuming need to control others.  If you have weak boundaries they won’t hesitate to move in and exploit you.
  • Get help.  If you feel like you’re caught in a web of deceit, don’t be afraid to seek advice from a psychologist or therapist who can help you get out.   

Forget about counseling as a way to help them see the error of their ways…psychopathy is untreatable.  If you recognize these behaviors in someone currently in your life, the best thing you can do is to run and not look back.  And whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up for getting duped.  The reality is that a psychopath can even fool an expert…just not for long.

Sil Lai Abrams is’s Relationship Expert and the author of No More Drama: 9 Simple Steps to Transforming a Breakdown into a Breakthrough and a board member of the National Domestic Violence Hotline.  Follow her on Twitter: @sil_lai and connect with her on Facebook. Want Sil Lai’s advice? Email [email protected] to have your love questions answered in a future column!