Sociopaths can wreak havoc in the lives of other people. They lack empathy and have no moral compunction in doing whatever is in their own interests. Because they feel no obligation to anyone else, their relationships are generally dysfunctional since they tend to protect their own interests at the cost of cooperative relationships. Recovery from a relationship with a sociopath is not easy but the good news is that the vast majority of us get there in the end.
Sociopathic abuse is often covert abuse. Most of us are unaware that we’ve been deceived until it is too late. In the aftermath people may experience shock, disbelief, deep sadness, guilt, shame, anger, fear, loneliness and an array of physical symptoms including panic attacks, anxious thoughts, fatigue and emotional numbing – although many also express relief at finally knowing what has been going on. They commonly ask ‘Why do I attract people like this?’ or ‘Am I to blame?’
Leaving the relationship
On exiting a sociopathic relationship an individual may feel isolated and disempowered. People react differently, but you may be surprised by the strength of your feelings. We can stand frustrating and difficult times if we choose to think about these situations in a different way. For instance we could say, ‘Though I feel like I can’t take it anymore, past experience has shown that I probably can.’
Some people find they vent explosive anger in the aftermath of abuse. They often feel better immediately afterwards though many report feeling guilty or sad afterwards especially if in lashing out they hurt other people. Evidence suggests that venting increases the chances of further explosive anger. So help yourself by expressing your anger in a healthier way; by recognising your angry feelings: ‘I am feeling angry because….’ Figure out how to best manage your anger; for instance, use it as a mobilising force to help yourself and it may serve you a lot better.
Rumination involves dwelling on things. Everybody does it from time to time. People ruminate by bringing thoughts, memories and imagined or past events to mind and going over and over them. This can have a negative impact on our mental health. Ruminating about the darker moments in life can lead to anxiety, depression and anger. Why not try this technique to help you stop ruminating;
- Set aside a regular time each day for ruminating – about five minutes once a day. Pick a time when you are free of interruptions.
- Pick a place to ruminate, somewhere that you don’t associate with relaxation (not your bed, or favourite chair).
- List all the things that you are dwelling on.
- Stop when time’s up
- If any negative thoughts come up during the day, tell yourself to stop thinking about them until the next day’s rumination time.
Just doing this exercise helps put things back in some perspective!
No-one can predict the outcome of the recovery process. Prolonged trauma at the hands of a sociopath usually has emotional impacts. The chronic symptoms of post-traumatic stress combine with the symptoms of depression, producing what is called the survivor triad of insomnia, nightmares and psychosomatic complaints. Humiliated rage adds to the burden. Chronically traumatized people often are hyper-vigilant, anxious and agitated. Even with the best intentions some people end up enduring persistent stress and anxiety – an experience similar to, if not the same as, post-traumatic stress disorder. They may complain of numerous physical symptoms. If you experience any of these difficulties the important message is to reach out for support, seek medical advice and treatment, and develop new coping skills to effectively manage the symptoms.
Re-establishing personal boundaries
It is important in the aftermath of such a relationship to re-establish your personal boundaries. Whether to limit contact or have no contact at all with the sociopath depends on your individual circumstances, but whatever route you take, stay alert to the sociopath’s persistent games and stand firm; sociopaths have a tendency to draw you in again.
For all your good intentions about maintaining limited contact, or breaking contact altogether, sometimes we trip up. There will be situations to look out for and set-ups to avoid until new behaviours and habits are bedded down. Sometimes seemingly harmless moves on your part can put you in the path of danger. Perhaps checking the sociopath’s Facebook page makes you feel sad and you begin reminiscing. Before you know it you have sent them a personal message. Curiosity is not a bad thing; it is natural in many circumstances. But in this situation we need to recognise its disastrous consequences and learn to control the impulse. You may have developed certain habits and routines in your life with the sociopath. It’s important to become more ‘trigger-savvy’; to analyse your triggers and devise ways to break the associations if you are to move forward. Here’s an example.
Jill had not been in contact with her sociopathic father for several months when one afternoon a message from him appeared in her email box. She recognised this as a trigger, and knew that if she opened and responded to the email she would be in a high risk situation, in jeopardy of responding. So she calmly deleted the message instead of responding on impulse, and avoided a high risk situation this time.
Seeing a therapist
This is not just another break up. Having a relationship with a sociopath will have likely left you with some scars: low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and in some cases post-traumatic stress disorder. From the outside, your relationship may have appeared normal, and perhaps during the relationship you didn’t truly open up to your friends and family about what was going on, so you might find a disappointing lack of support and empathy from your usual network. You may also still be struggling with self-blame, thinking that the events that have unravelled are in some way your fault. A therapist can support you in ways that other people might not be able to. Being heard by someone non-judgemental, empathetic and not to forget professionally trained can be an invaluable tool when you are piecing your life back together.
At first it can be an effort to engage with other people. Don’t accept into your life anyone that you are uncomfortable with and if you have children, don’t accept people you don’t want your children exposed to. So take steps to become assertive and more self-reliant. Arrange things as far as possible so that you are financially and socially independent of the sociopath formerly in your life, otherwise you are allowing them control over you. Of course, all this takes time, a lot of courage and great resolve, but in time and with good boundaries in place, daily life will improve.