If you’ve had the sinking suspicion that your boyfriend is a narcissist, sociopath or psychopath, a quick Google search will probably convince you in 10 minutes that not only is he one, he’s likely the Antichrist himself.
Manipulation, being abusive or hostile, lying and cheating are all valid reasons to seriously consider whether your partner is relationship material. However, there is a whole universe of difference between having a full-blown mental disorder and simply being a jerk.
This article will explain why trying to “spot” a psychopath, narcissist or sociopath from among your friends or exes is usually a bad idea.
Psychopaths, narcissists and sociopaths oh my!
First, a word on terminology. From the established psychiatric community’s point of view, and from what is outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the term “sociopath” has not existed since 1980 and is now considered an outdated concept. These days, the diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder is closest, but still quite different from what most people think of when they hear the word “sociopath”.
On the other hand, “psychopath” is not an official diagnosis at all; in fact “psychopathy” describes in very general terms any mental disorder, from anxiety to depression, and is a word used more in the media and public imagination than by mental health professionals.
Narcissism, or Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), is the only diagnosis you will find in the diagnostic manual, and is classed as a personality disorder that focuses on a stable pattern of behavior that persists for a very long time. This is the only legitimate diagnosis of the three, and it’s important to remember that only a psychiatrist can diagnose it.
A quick look at the DSM criteria will tell you what the symptoms for NPD are, but before you decide that your boyfriend or ex-boyfriend is a narcissist, consider the following:
All’s fair, as they say, in love and war.
Many of us have gone through messy breakups – the kind where new boyfriends get harassed, dinner plates get broken and friends pick their sides in the ensuing battle. While it’s not something to be proud of, heartbreak hurts, and both sides can be guilty of manipulation, lying, angry outbursts and threats.
But remember that a PD (personality disorder) diagnosis is about more than one relationship. It’s about an ongoing pattern of behavior. If your boyfriend’s shoddy behavior is isolated to only you, or only to one or two of his ex-partners, there’s a strong chance he’s not a narcissist, but simply a jerk.
It’s easy to assume the worst of those who have hurt us, but if your boyfriend or ex boyfriend shows only a few of the symptoms, and only shows them in one context (e.g. only in his personal life and not at work) chances are he’s just a jerk.
Abuse is abuse is abuse.
OK, so let’s say your boyfriend does in fact display these symptoms in a variety of contexts and, as far as you know, seems to have the same recurring type of conflicted relationship with other women. Hopefully, you’ve had the strength and insight to recognize this behavior and try remove yourself from it.
To put it simply, narcissists are sometimes abusive, but abusers are not always narcissists.
The NPD person will have very real problems with empathy, almost in the way that a dyslexic person has difficulty with reading. It’s simply a skill that is very, very weakly developed. An abuser, however, is well aware of what they’re doing and they do so willingly. They don’t lack empathy. They simply don’t care.
The sad truth is that sometimes people hurt one another – not because they are mentally ill to the point of lacking empathy completely, but simply because human beings are complex, life is difficult, and sometimes people make poor decisions.
Beware the echo chamber of online forums.
Let’s say you have had a turbulent relationship with a person you strongly feel is mentally ill in some way. You take to the internet, and are pleasantly surprised to find an entire community of women like you, women who have been hurt by seemingly monstrous men.
You tell your story, and find you have something in common with them. You ask for advice. They all assure you that this man is way worse than even you know, that he is ruthless, fundamentally broken, even evil. You feel stronger, you join the forum and participate more and more, you become an expert at the “red flags” to look out for, and you start studying the NPD like a biologist studies a strange new species.
Here’s the thing though – in all of this, there’s no actual diagnosis made by a professional and the people you meet online have never met you or your partner. They have never seen the inner workings of your relationship, they do not know what your partner is or is not feeling, and they probably have very minimal psychological training.
Online forums can quickly turn into an arena for wounded and embittered people to congregate and confirm one another’s stories. People project their own fears onto the stories of others. A woman may post about her ex trying to reconcile with her, making apologies and seeking reconciliation, and be told by her online community that what she is experiencing is simply the “Narc’s” devious attempts at control and manipulation, that he can never be a good person and that he should under no circumstances be trusted.
Beware online “support groups” and the like who forego reasonable discussion for labeling every unpleasant person a narcissist.
Naturally, there really are narcissists in this world. Naturally they do “prey” on people in relationships, doing untold harm to them. If you have taken a long look at your history with an ex or current partner, ask yourself if the behavior is isolated to you only, or to one context only. Ask if this awful behavior is really abusive, and whether he might simply be “bad” and not so much “mad”. Lastly, be careful of being swayed and influenced by online information that may or may not be appropriate for your situation.
If you still have the strong suspicion that your boyfriend has narcissistic personality disorder, consider what this means to you, and what you gain by assuming he has this diagnosis. Because of the nature of NPD, a person with this PD will seldom seek therapy on his own anyway, and may go through life conveniently avoiding diagnosis. Unfortunately, in our modern society ruthlessness and a lack of empathy are often rewarded with positions of power and prestige.
Think for a second about yourself. What is the value, really, in giving someone the narcissist label? Think carefully about your feelings around responsibility and blame. There can be great power in labeling someone else mentally ill or even evil, and people in abusive relationships often feel powerless.
Are you still holding onto anger and resentment? Are you unwilling to admit your part in it, however small? Although some behavior is always unacceptable in relationships, ask yourself if you were really expertly manipulated, conned and abused, or whether what happened was to some degree because you allowed it?
These are difficult questions. The fact is nobody can really know what happened in the relationship except those who were in it. If you are tempted to do research about who is and isn’t a narcissist, don’t forget to also look at ways to strengthen and improve yourself for your future relationships. What do you want and need? What do you value? What do you bring to the table? What are your boundaries and how will you enforce them?
If you have become involved in an abusive dynamic, look to yourself to find ways to learn from the experience and bring about healthier relationships. Whether your boyfriend is a narcissist or not doesn’t matter. Ultimately it’s you that decides on the quality of the people around you and your relationships with them. – Lyndsay Wilson