Last year, I broke up with a guy who I thought was amazing, but turned out to check every box on Dr. Hare’s checklist, a tool commonly used to diagnose sociopathy. It was only after I left that I came to terms that my charismatic free-spirited significant other was hiding a lot of dark secrets, and using a smorgasbord of gaslighting, manipulation, and lies to keep me from learning the truth. Needless to say, confronting my ex and having the traditional “we’re breaking up” conversation was out of the question. The second he realized I had caught on and was essentially scorched earth he made a quick exit stage left — leaving me to sort through the emotional wreckage in a way sipping merlot and watching Kate Hudson be adorable just couldn’t help with.
So I had to dig deep in order to move on. That meant coupling self-care (sup hot baths?) with introspection. In the time we spent together I got an incredible picture of what an abuser’s brain looks like (hint: he’s not the feminist he claims to be). But now I had to re-learn how may brain works. What actions could I take to shake off the extended period of lies and confusions and regain my sense of self?
If you think you might have dated a sociopath and are currently trying to heal, here’s what worked for me.
Accept That Feeling Better Takes Time
A recent study indicated that it takes 11 weeks for the hormones associated with romance to start dying down. But it’s not your fault if you don’t wake up ready to take over the world without so much as a twinge of pain after that deadline. Memories take longer to fade. In the meanwhile, keep in mind that everyone has a different path to healing. If yours is paved with TV and hot dates with Ben and Jerry long after the “official” mourning period, that’s totally OK.
“Your brain is likely to prioritize thinking about your ex-partner in the same way as it signals you to pay attention to physical pain,” Melanie Greenburg PHD explains in an article for Psychology Today . “For our ancestors, both pain and rejection could reduce the chances of survival, hence our brains may be wired to pay special attention to such experiences.” Know that reaching out for support, especially from a professional, will be helpful — but certainly don't beat yourself up emotionally, the way they might have spoken to you.
Know That The Relationship Was Real For You
One of the suckest parts of dating a sociopath was realizing that my reality and his didn’t line up. I was a girl in love and he was … a dude hanging out and passing time by manipulating people. This is common among sociopaths. “I can read every word of your soul, become deeply engrossed in the study of it until I've comprehended every nuance and detail,” M.E. Thomas writes in her memoir Confessions of A Sociopath . “But then when I'm done, I'll discard it as easily as if it were a newspaper, shaking my head at how the ink has stained my fingers gray.”
For a while, the knowledge that I had been discarded made me feel incredibly embarrassed about all the thoughtful gifts, video greetings, and intimate texts I sent him — until I realized I was acting exactly how a sane person in love acts. It wasn’t my fault that he simply wasn’t worth my affections or that I got hurt. As a friend reminded me, you wouldn’t blame yourself if you parked your car on the street and it got broken into. The same goes for being hurt in a relationship. The only thing you have done wrong is offer kindness to someone who didn’t deserve it. Not being able to see into the future is not a character flaw.
Write Out Your Feelings — But Don’t Send Them
Are you craving the last word, to get the other person to admit their wrongs, or closure? A sociopath is never going to give that to you. Why would he? He’s never been wrong a day in his life! (Ugh.) Trying to talk it out with the sociopath will just reveal he’s “won” by making you emotionally wounded (which as we established in point number one is OK — you have emotions), and ultimately make you feel about as fulfilled as yelling at a brick wall.
Instead, write an email — and don't send it. Or even better (and safer), pour your heart out into a written letter — then destroy it by any means necessary. Tear it up, burn it, fling it into the sea — whatever makes you feel most removed from all the emotional gunk.
No desire to talk it out with your Socio but still feeling all the feelings? Try the same exercise, but address a letter to each one of your feelings instead. (Confusion, Sadness, and Anger were all recipients of my rambling.) You’ll be surprised at how clear things can become once you’ve separated it all out.
Go Cold Turkey On Communication
Now that you’ve broken up, checking in on social media is going to just stir up feelings of anger and sadness, both which you’re probably generating plenty of at the moment to begin with. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even your phone have a block button — use them. (Even though I had no desire to keep in touch with Socio, this process took two weeks for me to accomplish. So be kind to yourself if you’re not ready to do it all at once.) If an abuser cannot contact you, he cannot manipulate you.
After you’ve cut all contact, the tricky part is retraining yourself to not keep tabs on your ex's every move. If it takes changing your passwords for a bit, going on a social media fast, or even handing your phone to your friend for a few hours to resist the temptation to cyberstalk, do it. Don’t feel embarrassed for taking extreme measures to rid yourself of your addiction.
Talk To People You Can Trust
Abusers get away with their bad behavior because people are afraid to talk about it. Share your story with people you know you can trust. When I started doing this, I was shocked how many friends had experienced emotional abuse in some form at the hands of relatives, significant others, and employers. This crap runs deep — and you’re not alone. As Martha Stout writes in The Sociopath Next Door , “Asked about our sense that we are not safe in our own world, Albert Einstein once said, 'The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it.'”
Talking to a professional psychiatrist or counselor can also be helpful. They’re here to help you sort out your feelings in a no-pressure, no-judgment setting. Online resources such as The Hotline and Lovefraud can help you find a professional in your area that has been specifically trained to handle emotionally abusive relationships.
... But Realize Some People Just Won't Get It
The sad truth is that there will be people in your life who simply won’t get it. Some will write it off as “just a bad breakup,” or an over-reaction on your part. Some might still be under the power of your socio and be unable to see past his public persona. While I’m a big fan of sharing your story (again — crap like this needs to see the light), practice caution about whose shoulder you cry on. If you’re feeling like an emotional open wound, the last thing need is someone else gaslighting you.
And just in case you haven’t heard it I’ll be the first to say it: What happened to you was not normal, and no matter what irrational extremes you’ve been pushed to, it’s not your fault.
Challenge Yourself To Live — But Don't Pressure Yourself To Date
At a certain point, I began forcing myself to get on with things, despite my still-broken heart. (Living well is the best revenge, right?) While a text from my father about a new dating website had me Googling patricide laws, I quickly discovered there are other ways to feel alive that didn’t involve belly flopping my way back into the dating pool.
Take that roadtrip you’ve been dying to go on, reach out to friends who can’t wait to tell you about their life experiences, volunteer, or take on a new project at work — anything that will help take the focus off you for a bit. It won’t always be easy — I remember the dismay of going to see a movie and realizing I didn’t remember any of it and I had chewed off all the nails on my left hand during my two hours in the dark. But hey, that’s why manicures were invented. The more positive life experiences you get under your belt, the less your brain will try to trick you into believing your socio was the only good thing the world has to offer.
Take Your Lessons Where You Can Get Them
I won’t justify a socio’s sh*t with saying that there’s any kind of silver lining. But the truth is, if you have both loved and left a sociopath (or any other kind of abuser for that matter), you are stronger than you know. You have seen through lies. You have chosen yourself. Your intuition has gotten a major tune-up. Part of me wants to sweep this period of my life under the rug. And certainly, as I move forward, it’s becoming less and less a part of who I am. I’m not a victim, I’m not going to forget how far I’ve come, and I’m not going to let these memories rob me of my ability to trust and love. And neither should you.