Rocking the Relationship Boat

By Susan Murphy-Milano

With a month left to go before she graduated from the police academy in Florida, Kelly Rothwell, 35, was moving forward to a new chapter in her life. Her plans included ending a volatile relationship with her dangerous boyfriend of over 3 years. The boyfriend controlled and monitored her cell phone and computer activity. When she was out of his radar, he stalked her. Kelly’s training at the police academy would turn her fears and anxieties into strength.

On March 12, 2011, Kelly picked up her keys to her new residence, then met with a friend for lunch before heading over to the boyfriend’s, announcing in person the relationship was over.  Kelly Rothwell was never seen or heard from again.  She joined the thousands of other women who attempted to end the relationship without a solid plan of action.  Law enforcement has since named the boyfriend as a suspect in this case.  It is no surprise he was the last person to see Kelly.

Time and time again we read about women who were planning or have already ended their marriage or relationship, reported missing or discovered dead.  The abuser has a plan and so should you!

Prior to ending the relationship or rocking the boat in a court of law, follow the instructions provided in the book “Time’s Up! A Guide on How to Leave and Survive Abusive and Stalking Relationships” available from the Institute or

And if you do nothing else, before you announce the ending of your relationship be sure to prepare the Evidentiary Abuse Affidavit and video mentioned in the book. Get the app or learn more about it at

More information on this topic can be found at: and

(**If we can support you in your recovery process, please let us know. The Institute is the largest provider of recovery-based services for survivors of pathological love relationships. Information about Pathological Love Relationships is in our award-winning book, Women Who Love Psychopaths, and is also available in our retreats, 1:1s, or phone sessions. See the website for more information.)


Recovery: A Holy Place to Dwell

This is about spirituality and recovery—they are, after all, connected by an umbilical cord of hope. In Christianity, which is my practice path of hope, God, the only known unbroken thing which makes Him Holy, chooses to dwell in broken things. Someone undefiled with darkness, pathology, lethargy, hopelessness, depression, bone weariness, confusion, intrusive thoughts and cognitive dissonance chooses to infuse this purity into the chaotic whirlwind called ‘soul.’ I don’t understand that any more than the 50-some years I have read “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and the earth was without form and void.”

All I can see is that from the beginning God was going into things that were empty and dwelling there to infuse them with something holy. He found formlessness a good place to inhabit. God could choose to inhabit anything, anywhere, any one but seems to look for the empty places in which to stuff His hope. Our own brokenness from pathology is the place we want to recover from. It’s a dark, dank, hell hole full of disintegrated minds. Why anything so integrated and whole would want to park in there, I do not know. But I’m fascinated that Holiness wants to dwell inside people—and mostly broken people. God wants to prove that pathology does not have the last word—in anything. Everything stripped away from lying, cheating, and violence can be redeemed in its brokenness by the dwelling, the indwelling, of Holiness. Like a truffle-sniffing dog, God LOOKS FOR the place of brokenness that has made room for Him, and goes to that place.

The rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous have given me such hope of this message – recovery as a holy place to dwell – because millions of people have sat in those rooms broken and ravaged by pain and have had God in the room with them, hanging with them in their recovery, then choosing to move right into their soul so pathology doesn’t win. If recovery were a place of hopelessness, God would not dwell there and it would not be holy. This brings a different view to recovery.

Our brokenness is the entry point, the point verge of coming to a holiness we would not have had any other way. It is not that we have learned from our stupidity of choosing a pathological partner, it’s that we get the gift of finding recovery as a holy place to dwell because it’s where the holy himself, dwells. Sure, take the insight that comes with the pain (otherwise the pain has been useless) but by all means see recovery as a holy place upon which God sees worthy of journeying with you. Kum-by-yah mountain peak experiences are not the only place to find God. He finds something of His heart in others when they are broken. When their soul is seeping out of the cracks of their broken heart vessel, it’s where he imagines His balm of Light that is needed.

Brokenness and dissociation does not feel like a place of recovery, much less a place the holy wants to dwell. But it is, in fact, exactly where the holy indwells—right there in the fetal positioned part of our pain. When we want to curse God and die, we have forgotten God lives in our recovery and that holiness is finding it’s home inside of our dissociation—something fragrant is germinating—hope, change, a different way of being. Every symptom we hate about the aftermath is a place where holiness dwells. When your brain fog is knee deep, wonder to yourself “this place right now, the way I am, is where Holiness is.” The issue of the ‘sacredness of place’ is not that we have to pilgrimage to a cathedral to have a goose bump encounter with a sacred place, it’s that our brain fog is as sacred a place as anywhere else. The chanting of the Book of Hours is perhaps not even as touching as your chanting of the laundry list of harm done by pathology.

I didn’t make the rules—I am just an observer and it appears God finds the broken a special place for holy and the path of recovery, the indwelling journey He prefers. Scoot over.

(**If we can support you in your recovery process, please let us know. The Institute is the largest provider of recovery-based services for survivors of pathological love relationships. Information about pathological love relationships is in our award-winning book, Women Who Love Psychopaths, and is also available in our retreats, 1:1s, or phone sessions.  See the website for more information.)


Recovery Tips, Part 2

Anxiety Triage – The 30-Second Check-In
Anxiety Triage begins with a 30-second check-in followed by one or more techniques that are easily done on the spot.

When you find yourself in the throes of an anxiety or panic attack, observe your physical sensations. What’s going on in your body?

  • To the best of your ability, make grounded statements about your symptoms. “My neck muscles are tight,” is a grounded statement. “My neck muscles are unbearably tight” is not.
  • Scan your body, starting with the crown of your head and moving down the neck, shoulders, back, torso, belly, hips, thighs, calves, and feet.

That’s the 30-Second Check-In. Perform this simple process and watch your anxiety attack begin to subside. It’s the key to Anxiety Triage, because it brings you back into the Creative Moment.

Once you’ve done a 30-Second Check-In, you’re ready to re-orient yourself and reclaim the energy trapped in the anxiety trance.

Now, pick one of the following techniques to completely break the hold of the anxiety attack.

Anxiety Triage Technique #1: What’s That Sound?

  • Identify the sounds you hear, one at a time.
  • Start by identifying the closest or more obvious sounds. Let’s say you’re driving in your car. So the first sound you identify is the radio. Listen to it for a moment, and pay attention to nothing else. Shift your attention then to the next sound, perhaps the whoosh of the wind rushing by your window. Next, listen to the sound of the tires on the road surface. Now direct your attention to the sound of the vehicles around you.
  • Finally, see if you can hear all the sounds at once, without focusing on any one in particular.

When done, you will be completely present — and much calmer.

Anxiety Triage Technique #2: Name That Thing

  • Name everything around you, speaking its name out loud.
  • Start by identifying the closest or more obvious items. Back in the car again, you might start with the black steering wheel… the red speedometer… the blue car hood… the green pickup truck that just passed… a silver Mercedes… a white Toyota.

Continue until you have returned to a calmer state of mind.

Anxiety Triage Technique #3: Tapping

Tap several pressure points on the body until the anxiety attack subsides. (DO NOT attempt to use this technique while driving or while doing other tasks that need your full attention.)

Start by finding the sensitive spot between and just above your eyebrows. Using the middle finger of your right or left hand, tap that spot 32 times. Use even pressure.

  • Now locate the tiny indentation in the eye socket just below your right eye. Gently tap this spot 32 times.
  • Repeat with the left eye.
  • Tap 32 times behind the right earlobe.
  • Repeat with the left earlobe.
  • Next, cup your right hand so all the fingertips touch. Find the spot on your sternum in the center of your body, in the location of the heart. Press that spot using the fingertips of your right hand with firm but comfortable pressure. Adjust the position until you feel a sudden release of tension in the shoulders.

Though this technique might seem a little odd, there’s nothing magical about it. You’re simply stimulating various pressure points and, in so doing, initiating the body’s natural relaxation reflex.

Other techniques:

  • Put your hands in cold water and direct your attention to how they feel. Keep your focus on your hands until the anxiety subsides.
  • Use lavender essential oil or Aura Cacia “Panic Button” (found online or at Whole Foods). Take a warm bath. Focus on what the warm water feels like on various parts of your body as you breathe in the relaxing aroma of lavender.
  • Stand in the grass in your bare feet. Focus on what that feels like.

(**If we can support you in your recovery process, please let us know. The Institute is the largest provider of recovery-based services for survivors of pathological love relationships. Information about pathological love relationships is in our award-winning book, Women Who Love Psychopaths, and is also available in our retreats, 1:1s, or phone sessions.  See the website for more information.)


Recovery Tips, Part 1

Each person needs to find their blend of techniques that creates their own well stocked tool kit. And each person’s tool kit is likely to be different than someone else’s because while each person may have anxiety (for instance), not each person will respond to anxiety techniques the same way. Don’t judge someone else’s use of what works for them or become adamant that what works for you MUST work for them.

Their trauma, their brain wiring, their neuro chemistry are all different than yours. As they say in the 12 Steps ‘take what works and leave the rest.’ So build the BEST tool box for yourself. And that means experimenting. Even though you may find a technique that works the first time you use it, don’t stop there! I can promise you there will be days when it doesn’t work as well so you need a variety of items in that tool box.

Mindfulness techniques for your tool box

One technique is the rubber band technique. Wear a rubber band around your wrist and gently snap it when you need to re-center or re-focus. Put that in your tool box. Or go online and download the mindfulness bell that will ding every X seconds/minutes which will serve as a reminder for you to return to the present.

Soothe yourself in nature. Put that in your tool box. Practice with it every day, long before you need to call on it in crisis. During your lunch break, go outside. Focus all your awareness on what you can see. Move your eyes around the landscape (don’t stare or you will go into a trance). Look deeply at things. See the texture – the ants crawling, the blades of grass, bark on a tree, the cloud formations. As your attention wanders, bring it back to your outside environment, even 50 times. You are strength training your ability to hold your mind on an object. The more you do that the more you recreate new neuro pathways that have nothing to do with your obsessional thinking.

Every day, every single day–even if it’s only for 10 minutes, go outside and work visually with your environment.

We don’t heal in isolation, we heal in community.

There are a lot of symptoms that drive people into isolation: trauma, depression, anxiety, fear, shame, and PTSD with its features of isolating behaviors due to dread of the future, and distortions about their future (I won’t live to have a normal life, healthy partner, be symptom-free, etc.).

PTSD, by its symptomatic nature, isolates. Recovery mandates that we find a balance between The Gentle Life with enough quietness for the anxiety and enough human contact for the depression. That is the fine line everyone struggles to find.

If you are isolating simply to reduce the external stimulation to ward off adrenaline surges, you have not yet found the balance of the need for human contact AND managing the stimulation at the same time.

“Live the Gentle Life”

Healing from the aftermath is not a destination. It’s not even merely a goal of ‘symptom reduction.’ For those who have been significantly altered by their Pathological Love Relationships, sometimes healing is a life style change–learning to embrace Living the Gentle Life. It’s not living the gentle life until you are symptom free, it is living the gentle life because your neurology, biology, psychology and theology have all been altered because of pathology. If you have lived the gentle life and think you are done because your symptoms are reduced, try stopping the gentle life. The symptoms return.

Aftermath is like a rolling wave — it comes in and goes out and you have to deal with those fluctuations for life. If Living the Gentle Life is simply to reduce your symptoms, you will soon be back with symptoms. Why not change your life and make Living the Gentle Life a life style change instead of a symptom management only technique!

We have, on our website, a series of articles covering the different aspects of Living the Gentle Life.

Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the process of holding two opposing belief systems at one time. How best to describe the internal experience of trying to have a relationships with Jekyll/Hyde? At the same moment you are in a pathological relationship you must have simultaneous skill sets for two opposing ‘things’ – Jekyll and Hyde, for Wonderful and Horrible, for Loving and Loathing. To correspond to these dueling relationships, you shift back and forth between Jekyll and Hyde.

Our cognitive dissonance is simply a relational process of trying to be in relationship with two distinctly different people and to hold two opposing views of “He’s good/He’s bad” at the same time.

Today, just recognize that your cog diss as simply a NORMAL response to the pathological’s splits, to their sides, to their dichotomous parts. Anyone who comes to know the pathological must also respond to both sides thus increasing their own cog diss. Now imprint the experience of bouncing back and forth between the parts of the pathological. Know what it feels like emotionally, physically, spiritually, and verbally.

The next time you feel cog diss in yourself while with someone else, you are probably dealing with pathology. The cog diss is a learning template. Use it!

Next week we will talk about anxiety and panic attacks and some techniques that can help easily and quickly calm it down.

(**If we can support you in your recovery process, please let us know. The Institute is the largest provider of recovery-based services for survivors of pathological love relationships. Information about pathological love relationships is in our award-winning book, Women Who Love Psychopaths, and is also available in our retreats, 1:1s, or phone sessions.  See the website for more information.)


Living the Gentle Life—Part 5: Soul Tearing, the Spiritual and Worldview Effects

The last few weeks we have been talking about the necessity of living a gentle life if you are recovering from a pathological love relationship. The damage it does to a person is profound and many are often diagnosed with a chronic stress disorder or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These disorders respond best to a “gentle life” that allows the body, mind, and spirit to rest from the overload of adrenaline and stress it has experienced in the pathological relationship.

We have talked about how to physically adjust your environment if you have a stress disorder, and we have also talked about the emotional effects – anxiety, depression, and other aftermath effects associated with PTSD. Today, we are addressing the spiritual effects.

Dangerous and pathological relationships violate at a deep soul level. That’s because they touch on the core building blocks of our concepts about relationships – hope, love, and trust. Deception is evil and sick, and when you realize ‘who and what’ you have been with, there is a violation that cuts to the deepest part of a person – one’s spirit. Because of this, I devoted a portion of Women Who Love Psychopaths to the subject of spiritual evil and its correlation to some of the symptoms associated with pathology. There is an interesting chart in the chapter that connects psycho/spiritual evil.

Often these kinds of pathological relationships have already ‘played into’ your soul connection, leading you down the path of believing that your ‘connection’ was spiritual in nature. There were probably a lot of promises of the ‘life together’ and all of the “reasons God brought [you two] together.” In the end, they were lies. But before you knew they were lies, they were HOPES.

~ “Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul.” ~ (Emily Dickenson)

So many pathological love relationships have an ‘intense attachment’ that feels like a ‘connection’ or ‘passion,’ when, in reality, it is just the intense game of the pathological sucking you in and hoping you will confuse intensity with something healthy.

Hope, love, and trust are all core spiritual values. When you have invested these core values and beliefs in someone, and then the heinous deception is revealed – that the ‘goal’ of the relationship was to manipulate you all along – something ‘rips’ inside of you. This ‘soul tearing’ brings a spiritual skepticism, a distrust that permeates everything you EVER believed… sometimes even about God. It’s a disastrous wound to your worldview – how you see yourself, others, God, and the world at large.

These mortal wounds to your worldview can last a long time because, in effect, they are the ways you have come to believe about yourself (I can’t trust my intuition), others (everyone is evil), the world (it’s a sick place), and God (He didn’t protect me). This profound shift in your worldview can increase the symptoms of PTSD – depression, anxiety, alienation, loneliness, isolation, and a fear or dread of the future.

So often the spiritual effects of the dangerous relationship are overlooked both by the victim and by the therapist. This ‘worldview earthquake’ has shaken the foundation of your belief system. Without repair to the foundation from which you build your self-concept, healing is limited to only symptom management. Spiritual healing of your worldview is paramount to your overall recovery.

If you are in counseling, please address the issue of spiritual effects with your counselor.  This is an area so often undertreated by many counselors. I teach on this aspect a lot during professional conferences, and therapists are eager to understand this facet of the spiritual side effects of the pathological relationship and their impact on chronic stress disorders.

(**If we can support you in your recovery process, please let us know. The Institute is the largest provider of recovery-based services for survivors of pathological love relationships. Information about pathological love relationships is in our award-winning book, Women Who Love Psychopaths, and is also available in our retreats, 1:1s, or phone sessions.  See the website for more information.)


Should I React This Way?

Partners of pathologicals face chronic confusion about their reactions to his pathology. The woman feels the incongruency in her partner’s Jekyll-and-Hyde personality, reacts to it, and then gets labeled by him as being hysterical.

The fact is, pathologicals project their traits and behaviors on everyone else and say it’s the woman instead of him. That IS part of pathology. In fact, several different personality disorders DO that in relationships because it is a feature and a trait of pathology. So just maybe those are HIS traits, they are not yours! Maybe what you are seeing is a glimmer of his pathological self-view and worldview, and how he thrusts that upon others and labels them with his own disorder.

Is this normal?

Many of you wonder if what you DO feel in the relationship is the correct or normal way to react. SHOULD you have certain reactions to certain disorders or behaviors? The answer is a resounding “YES!”

Normal people have very strong reactions when exposed short- OR long-term to  pathological persons. In fact, it is normal to have these kinds of reactions, and non-pathological persons SHOULD have strong reactions to abnormal behavior. I have the same types of reactions to pathologicals—I have just had to learn over the years to contain my reactions for professional reasons.

These types of reactions in you can be: confusion, frustration, anxiety, wanting to hurt them (slap them, verbally assault them or fantasies of REALLY hurting them). Some women have reactions of “trying to help him understand himself better so I can alter his behaviors.” Others believe what he says about her and start to judge their own behavior, character, and history. She truly begins to think SHE is the one who is sick and not him. She begins to doubt her own perceptions (well I guess black IS white and bad IS good). Her whole worldview becomes distorted – like looking into a carnival mirror where the world becomes wavy and crazy-looking. Others shut down completely and stop communicating because every word is turned back on her by the pathological. Some become paranoid, knowing he is doing something but she is not able to prove it.

Long Term Effects

Long-term effects are a complete emotional shutdown, physical exhaustion with resulting medical issues, chronic depression and/or anxiety (including PTSD), and an altered sense of self-worth. Much like the elephant who only needs to be chained for a short time before it thinks it can never escape and, therefore, it never tries to—women do the same thing. The emotional operant conditioning by pathologicals renders normally strong and independent women into lobotomized ragdolls who don’t move or respond because they have been trained not to.

Reactions to Pathology

Outsiders who are around the pathological also have their own normal reactions to his abnormal behavior. If he has children, they too have adverse reactions, as does his boss, any normal family members he might have, the neighbors, or anyone else he has to deal with. It is normal to have BIG reactions to pathologicals. Even pets often don’t like them! Come on, now—if a dog avoids him—we should too!

Reactions to pathology are expected and, to a large degree, normal. Then there are those of you who not only have had your training at the hands of intimate pathological relationships, but you have been trained in your youth by pathological parents. By now abnormal behavior most likely looks and feels totally normal to you. The effects of pathological parenting are huge and set up reactions, behaviors and worldviews that need intense treatment in order to be set straight.

(**If we can support you in your recovery process, please let us know. The Institute is the largest provider of recovery-based services for survivors of pathological love relationships. Information about pathological love relationships is in our award-winning book, Women Who Love Psychopaths, and is also available in our retreats, 1:1s, or phone sessions.  See the website for more information.)


How Pathological Is TOO Pathological?

“How sick is TOO sick?”

One of the characteristics of women who have been in Pathological Love Relationships is that they are very forgiving and tolerant of less-than-stellar mental-health qualities in their intimate relationships. That’s because, according to our research and to name but a few, the women have very elevated traits of compassion, empathy, tolerance, and acceptance. These are excellent and humanitarian traits to have… except in a relationship with a pathological person. These traits can then create ‘super glue’ that keeps you in a relationship you should NOT be tolerating, accepting, or being empathetic about. The problem is, women often don’t realize that someone can simply have ‘narcissistic traits’ or ‘psychopathic traits’ and still be a danger to them in a relationship.

That’s because it doesn’t take much pathology to dramatically and negatively affect her and the relationship. It only takes a drop of abnormal psychology to really screw up the relationship and the others around him. This is why even ‘just traits’ are important to identify. ‘Just traits’ means he has SOME of the criteria for, let’s say, narcissism or psychopathy, but not enough to fully qualify for the full diagnosis. But let’s not split hairs here! A few traits are enough to qualify for being TOO pathological. It DOES matter that he is a tad bit pathological because any of the traits of pathology are negative and harmful.

A little or a lot?

Would it matter that he had a little or a lot of low empathy? No. The result is the same–low empathy and the pain he causes others. Little-to-none is almost none—it doesn’t matter if he is a little unempathetic or a lot. Not being able to have empathy is the bottom line.

Would it matter if he had a little or a lot of poor impulse control? I doubt his poor impulse control affected his sexual acting out, his drug use, or his wild spending habits.

A little goes a long way in poor impulse control.

Would it matter if he had a little or a lot of rebellion against laws, rules, or authority? Probably not. Even just a little bit of rebellion has the propensity for getting him arrested or fired, ignoring a restraining order or refusing to pay child support. How about ‘just pathological enough’ to really screw up your children with his distorted and warped worldview? Or his chronic inconsistency, his wavering devotion to you or them, his role-modeling of his addictions, or his display of “the rules aren’t for me” attitude?


I watch women look for loopholes to minimize the pathology he has instead of looking at the ways he meets criteria for the pathology he has and finding reasons to get out. Indeed, they find reasons “it’s not THAT bad.” But just a little bit of a ‘bad boy’ is probably too pathological – too sick for a normal relationship. Since pathology is:

  • the inability to sustain positive change,
  • grow to any meaningful depth, or
  • develop insight about how one’s behavior affects others

…even just some pathology is too much.

If he can’t sustain change (you know… all those things he promises to change about himself) or grow or have insight about how and why he hurts you… he’s TOO pathological—TOO sick—TOO disordered to have anything that resembles a normal relationship. Why would you want a relationship that has NO capacity to grow, change, or meet your needs?

Bad-boy enticement is very real… that edginess he has makes many women highly attracted to him. But beyond the edginess can be anything from ‘just traits’ to ‘full-blown pathology.’

Nonetheless, women must learn to draw a line in the sand that even ‘just traits’ is enough to guarantee their unhappiness and put them at risk for harm in the hands of a guy who is ‘too pathological’ for her!

(**If we can support you in your recovery process, please let us know. The Institute is the largest provider of recovery-based services for survivors of pathological love relationships. Information about pathological love relationships is in our award-winning book, Women Who Love Psychopaths, and is also available in our retreats, 1:1s, or phone sessions.  See the website for more information.)


Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

Happy 4th of July! With all that flag waving and potato salad, I can’t help but think about ‘Independence Day’—the day that women cut the cords of dependency and exit dangerous and Pathological Love Relationships.

We frequently talk about Living the Gentle Life and why that’s important for people recovering from pathological attachments to dangerous relationships. The Gentle Life is a path choice after the too-much-drama of dangerous men. (Our Gentle Life 8 part series will run soon.)

Independence Day begins the Gentle Life for a lot of women. It’s the day that you ‘come to’ and say:

  • How did I get here?
  • Is this REALLY my life?
  • Where did the real me go?
  • Look how much this has cost me to be with him!
  • Look what it’s done to my friends/family/children!
  • You know what? I’m not CRAZY!
  • I don’t believe his lies any more!
  • I’m sick of feeling this way!
  • I am tired of hearing about how everything is my fault!
  • I am sickened by my own staying!

Independence Day is the day you pick up How to Spot a Dangerous Man or any other insight-oriented material that makes you snap out of the trance you have been in within the relationship. It’s the day you read a book, listen to an audio, call a counselor, or pack your bags. It’s the day you pray, “God help me get out,” change the locks on your door, or leave his bags at the curb. It’s the day you book a retreat, go back to church/temple, and confess your sick relationship to others.

Independence Day symbolizes freedom… not only in this country but in ourselves. The freedom to heal, the freedom to choose differently. The freedom to gain insight from someone other than the pathological individual we have been involved with. The freedom to end what is unhealthy!

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness is Living the Gentle Life—aspects of a healthy life that can’t occur within pathological and dangerous relationships. There is no life in that! It has all been sucked out of you by the pathological personality that is needy, defiant, deviant, or insatiable. There is no Liberty—he runs the show, your thoughts, your needs, your dreams. There is no Pursuit of Happiness—only his. All pathologicals have an agenda that includes their own perverted entitlement. Your happiness is only an accident if it happens while he is pursuing his own.

People fight to keep us free. Shouldn’t you fight to keep yourself free? Independence isn’t the opposite of dependency. It’s the absence of self-negation where you respect your own uniqueness, self, and life path and that you live first for these values. Independence isn’t selfishness. It isn’t some prescription for aloneness. It’s the foundation of boundaries, self-care, emotional and relational health.

Independence allows and builds interdependence—the structure that allows us to mutually care for one another without pathological suffocation. Independence is most assuredly, Living the Gentle Life.

(**If we can support you in your recovery process, please let us know. The Institute is the largest provider of recovery-based services for survivors of pathological love relationships. Information about pathological love relationships is in our award-winning book, Women Who Love Psychopaths, and is also available in our retreats, 1:1s, or phone sessions.  See the website for more information.)


Genetic and Neuro-Physiological Basis for Hyper-Empathy

I heard a universal “sigh of relief” go out around the world as women read the title of this article. Don’t you feel better knowing there really IS some science backing the whole issue of having way too much empathy?

When we began writing about women who love psychopaths, anti-socials, sociopaths and narcissists, we already assumed that maybe you did have too much empathy (as well as other elevated temperament traits). We just didn’t know how much, or why. When we began the actual testing for the research of the book, Women Who Love Psychopaths, we learned just how much empathy you had.

Do I need to tell you? WAY TOO MUCH!

By now you have probably already suspected that your super-high empathy is what got you in trouble in this pathological relationship. But did you know there is hard science behind what we suspected about what is going on in your relationship with your Super Trait of high empathy? It really IS all in your head—and your genes.

In fact, these genes influence the production of various brain chemicals that can influence just how much empathy you have. These brain chemicals include those that influence orgasm and its effect on how bonded you feel, while also influencing some aspects of mental health. (No, no! That is not a good mix!)

Other brain chemicals influence how much innate and learned fear you have. However, females don’t seem to assess threats well, and the chemicals then increase their social interactions while at the same time they are not assessing fear and threats well. (This is not a good thing!)

One of the final chemical effects delays your reflexes (like not getting out of the relationship), and also impacts your short- and long-term memory (how you easily store good memories that are very strong, and how you store bad memories which are easily forgotten). And, since it is genetic, it can run in entire families that produce gullible and trusting individuals who seem to just keep getting hurt.

Of course, the reverse is also true.  Genes can influence the absence of various brain chemicals that influence how little empathy a person has. We already know in great detail how this affects those with personality disorders. Personality disordered people (especially Cluster B disorders) struggle with not experiencing, or not having, any empathy.

Over the past few years, we have been writing about various aspects of personality disorders and the brain. This has included the issue of brain imaging. What we are finding out is how brain structure and chemicals can affect personality, empathy, behavior and, consequently, the behavior in relationships. As advances are made in the field of neurobiology, we are learning more and more of what The Institute has always believed—that there is a lot of biology behind personality development issues such as personality disorders. Genetics and neurobiology are proving that behavior associated with narcissism, borderline, and anti-social personality disorders, along with psychopathy, has as much to do with brain wiring and chemistry as it does with behavioral intent.

The Institute has long said to survivors that personality disorders are not merely willful behavior, but brain deficits that control how much empathy, compassion, conscience, guilt, insight, and change a person is capable of. Autism and personality disorders share a common thread as “empathy spectrum disorders” now being studied extensively within the field of neuroscience.

But, in some opposite ways, the women also share a common thread of an empathy disorder—hyper-empathy. We are coming to understand that hyper-empathy has much to do with your innate temperament. You come into the world wired with the personality you have – the genetic predispositions to high or low empathy, and brain chemistry configurations that contribute to levels of empathy. The old thinking, which assumes women with high empathy are merely doormats, is not scientifically correct when looking at current studies.

Neuroscience, with all its awesome information, has the dynamic power to blow us all out of the murky waters of assuming that our behavior is merely a reflection of our will.  As neuroscience graces our minds with new understanding of how our brains work, it brings with it incredible freedom to understand our own traits and the pathological traits of others.

For a mind-blowing book on the genetic and neurobiology of not only personality disorders but evil as well, read Barbara Oakley’s book, Evil Genes, or her latest book on hyper-empathy entitled, Cold-Blooded Kindness. Information on your Super Traits is in the award-winning Women Who Love Psychopaths, which is also taught during retreats, in phone sessions, and in training for mental health professionals.

(**If we can support you in your recovery process, please let us know. The Institute is the largest provider of recovery-based services for survivors of pathological love relationships. Information about pathological love relationships is in our award-winning book, Women Who Love Psychopaths, and is also available in our retreats, 1:1s, or phone sessions.  See the website for more information.)


Need Better Brain Control? 20 Minutes a Day of This Can Help

Who isn’t driven crazy by the brain aftermath of a pathological love relationship? Often referred to as ‘scrambled egg brain’, the inability to focus, think one congruent thought, ping ponging monkey mind, cognitive fog, trance, mind control-like symptoms – are all the norm after the powerful pathology ‘mind meld.’

Do you know the number one and number two reasons why people come to the Institute for help?

  1. Intrusive thoughts
  2. Cognitive dissonance

Both are a vicious cycle feeding into each other.

Traditional approaches to ‘thought stopping’ with intrusive thoughts have only been found to be minimally effective with this population. Consequently we are really focusing in on finding better solutions for treatment of aftermath symptoms.

However, in the meantime, why not go with a tried-and-true approach that has been around for thousands of years? Yoga has had consistently good results with depression, anxiety (that increases intrusive thoughts which increases cognitive dissonance), and physical benefits that help to reduce blood pressure, tension, and other physical problems associated with aftermath symptomatology.

Twenty minutes a day of yoga can render good results. It’s a great ‘no excuses’ kind of activity that anyone can weave into their day. You can follow along on TV with yoga shows, or there are yoga programs on the internet, as well as how-to DVDs. Some churches and libraries offer low cost yoga groups. A couple of yoga centers in my town offer a free class every week so I make sure to hit those. Regardless, find a program that works for you and commit to 20 minutes a day.

Personally, I can tell a huge difference in my own body, health and mood when I am using yoga. How about you? How is it working for you?

(**If we can support you in your recovery process, please let us know.  The Institute is the largest provider of recovery-based services for survivors of pathological love relationships.  Information about pathological love relationships is in our award-winning book, Women Who Love Psychopaths, and is also available in our retreats, 1:1s, or phone sessions.  See the website for more information.)


Dissociation Isn’t a Life Skill

“Dissociation isn’t a life skill.” ~ Sandra L. Brown, M.A.

Dissociation is described as:

  1. The splitting off of a group of mental processes from the main body of consciousness, as in amnesia.
  2. The act of separating or state of being separated.
  3. The separation into two or more fragments.

Let’s talk about dissociation a minute… it’s technically a defense mechanism—we separate from our memory things that we don’t want or can’t deal with. In trauma (like abuse or rape), that’s helpful at the time. If dissociation becomes your major defense mechanism, it can become one of several full-blown dissociative disorders which are very intense types of disorders. But outside of full-blown dissociative disorders, there is still the ability to heavily rely on dissociation even if you don’t have a disorder.

We can unknowingly learn to dissociate and use it against ourselves! Dissociation is when we separate the details of an event from our awareness. I think this happens with dangerous men as early as the first date – when we choose to not pay attention to our screaming red flags. We are dissociating their messages away from our awareness because, if we truly became aware, we might ditch them early on and we don’t want to.

Dissociation can become a primary defense mechanism if you grew up in a dysfunctional, abusive, addictive, or violent home. That’s because children can easily go on ‘overwhelm mode’ and check out—or dissociate—because they can’t handle what’s going on. If you never learned adult coping skills, it’s likely you use the ones you do know, which are from childhood. And, if your primary skill was dissociation, you’re probably using that now and it probably has gotten you into a lot of trouble in your patterns of relationship selection.

After a while, you don’t even know you’re dissociating. It’s just automatic. So you can dissociate away a lot of IMPORTANT stuff early on—like discrepancies in his stories, the not-so-nice words he says to you, the tone of his voice, or other behaviors that SHOULD cause concern but don’t.

Any time you separate a memory from all its components, you are dissociating from the whole memory, which is why remembering ALL the relationship issues—not just the good times—is important. The bad times are a part of the memory or the memory is merely a fragment of what REALLY happened. You can also separate other parts of the memory like sensations, words or phrases, physical or sexual pain inherent in the memory, things you tasted/smelled/saw, and various emotions that were prevalent in the relationship. That’s why women get these very skewed ‘snapshots’ of just the good times long after those times have passed. The whole snapshot would look very different indeed if it incorporated all the senses into the memory.

Sometimes women can dissociate—or fragment—the meaning, motive, or intent as well. So he uses all your money and your response is, “He meant well; he just doesn’t know how to handle money.” That’s not likely the situation, so the motive or meaning of what he was REALLY doing is fragmented so you don’t have to take action.

Dissociation can become an unconscious reason to say, “I didn’t notice…” because underneath, dissociation was naturally at work and it also worked for the ability to stay in the relationship and not notice. How long can you live on the reasoning behind dissociation which is, “I didn’t know, I didn’t notice”? This is why I say that dissociation is not a life skill. It doesn’t help you move forward. Instead, it keeps you frozen in time.

Women describe dissociation as a numbing or spacey feeling. They either don’t feel something or they are too spaced out to do much about it. In the middle of a traumatic event, spacing out and numbing is a good thing. Even as adults, I still advocate that there are times for ‘therapeutic dissociation’—like during a root canal. Who wants to be present and aware for that? But the problem is that dissociation becomes largely unmanaged. Then it becomes downright dangerous to you, robbing you of your ability to be aware, in tune, and vigilant.

Look back over your childhood for patterns of dissociation. Look back over your adult relationships and see how influenced your choices were by dissociation. Look at your life NOW for signs of when you check out, become aware, drift off, or stuff feelings at the speed of light so you don’t have to make a decision about something. These are all aspects of dissociation.

While it may have helped you in a time of trauma, as an adult your recovery is about growing healthier and developing stronger coping skills than mere dissociation. All of real life is happening now—are you missing it?

(**If we can support you in your recovery process, please let us know. The Institute is the largest provider of recovery-based services for survivors of pathological love relationships.  Information about Pathological Love Relationships is in our award-winning book, Women Who Love Psychopaths, and is also available in our retreats, 1:1s, or phone sessions. See the website for more information.)


Verbal Bulimia and the Art of Over-Disclosure

by Sandra L. Brown, MA

I wrote about ‘verbal bulimia’ in my Dangerous Man book, discussed it again in Women Who Love Psychopaths, and frequently remind everyone of it in the newsletters, and yet I still see this embarrassing behavior among women that not only sounds inappropriate to anyone else listening, but also puts them at tremendous risk among pathologicals.

Years ago when I had a few psychopaths in group therapy, I asked them how they chose their ‘targets’ and they said, “I just listen. If you get them talking, they rapidly over-disclose. Women tell WAY too much! You pick up everything they just said—what they like, their values. Feed it back to them. Become what they are looking for and—VOILÀ—you’re in!”

On my flight back from our Dangerous Man Workshop Cruise to Cozumel a few years ago, I had one of those over-disclosing women sitting in front of me. Ladies, this is the kind of person that makes you want to switch genders so as not to be associated with the behavior! She was purposefully loud so that others would hear her. In fact, she was so loud, the rows around her couldn’t even have their own private conversations because she was ‘holding court’ in the middle of the plane where it was mostly men.

LOUDLY she announces to a girlfriend (who must have been deaf either before the conversation started—which is why she YELLED—or afterward from yelling in her ear) that she was going to THE CLIFFS where she OWNED a CONDO so she COULD GOLF on TIGER WOODS’s golf course. (I am illustrating the way she talked with her volume up on the important parts of her braggadocio story.) And that she FLEW back and forth to her OTHER HOME to THE CLIFFS to enjoy THE COUNTRY CLUB and GOLFING. (Just imagine if you were a psychopath sitting within hearing range of this conversation…)

Oh, and THANKSGIVING, she was going to have 35 people over AND HER LARGE DINING ROOM could easily accommodate them. She was going to HAVE A COOK COME IN and help her prepare the meal. And ANYONE WHO NEEDED A PLACE TO BE on Thanksgiving was welcome to come (as she offered with a gesture of her hand to those sitting around her). (The psychopath is totaling up how much her jewelry and big screen TVs are worth about now…)

Then it was on to her OTHER VACATION travels she had recently been on… while all those around her were rolling their eyes and sticking their fingers in their ears (except for the psychopaths on board who were checking to make sure they had packed their suntan lotion—dreaming of a future trip WITH her).

FINALLY, glory to God, the plane landed, and it seemed like I could get away from her. She stood up, adjusted her breasts, fluffed her hair, and sucked her stomach in as she noticed the guy in my row had a three-piece suit on (gag!), a gold chain and, to her, I guess, ‘potential.’ This highly accomplished multi-home owner who had been loudly touting her own virtues, all of a sudden couldn’t manage to get her bag out of the overhead, turning into Scarlett O’Hara: “Could some big strong man help little ol’ me here?”

She was staring straight at the gold-chain guy, so he felt obliged. Then she inserted something that had nothing to do with her bag being stuck. She stuck her hip out and leaned into his face, “You know what I HATE?” “What?” he asks. “There are three lanes on a highway—one for 70 miles per hour, one for 80, the last one for me—which is get out of my way! The thing that drives me the MOST crazy in the whole world…” (I’m wondering—poverty? Abuse? World hunger? Obviously not psychopaths—what?) … is people who drive too slow so that I can’t roar my BMW Z4 at 95-100 miles per hour.”

She glances around to see who MIGHT have heard her. I have my ‘therapy gaze’ on her now—like, “Girl, GET a therapist!” The guy winces at that statement and stares at his shoes. However, several other guys in line shift their positions to move closer to her. Instead of heading out of the front of the plane they are turning around and going to the BACK of the plane, not out! What psychopath doesn’t want to con her out of a BMW Z4?? Or her country club membership? Or that dining room table that seats 35? Or those boobs she just pushed up?

OK, OK… not ALL women who over-disclose do it so garishly and obnoxiously as this woman did. But they DO do it! There isn’t a pathological who isn’t wired to hear the hints and home in on them. They don’t have to remember to listen—it’s as natural as breathing to them.

Maybe your disclosure is more subtle, like at church: “Pray for me, I’m going through a divorce.” Or in personal ads—“Recently divorced attractive woman looking for her soul mate.” Or on a chat forum: “Yeah, I was really hurt when he ran around on me. I’m just looking for a nice guy to settle down with—someone who likes children and animals, a church-goer—someone who shares my love of art and hiking.”

TMI! TMI! Too.Much.Information!!

It’s hard to remember that all the ears and eyes that are exposed to you are not ‘normal’ ones…that pathologicals are listening for the signs that are a green light to them to make a move on you. That includes any hint of what you’re looking for (Fine, I can be that! he thinks) or loneliness (I’ll solve that!) or pain (Oh, baby, you’ve gotta let me redeem the male species! We aren’t ALL like that!)

Some are listening for your financial info. Many are parasitic and are looking for ways to live with others so they can conveniently lose their job while with you or to just bilk you out of your money quickly and be gone.

Others are listening for your need of a partner, companion, ‘just friends’ status, a stepfather for your children, a spiritual mentor, a shoulder to cry on…

Others are listening to your unrealized dreams so they can ‘support you’ in your journey to being a writer, a painter, a therapist, or going back to college, or starting your own business…

Still others are listening for your needs: Sexually hungry? Emotionally needy? Bored? Not listened to? Abused? Abandoned? Lonely? Tired? Angry?

Remember the church song when you were little: “Be careful—little eyes what you see… Be careful—little ears what you hear… Be careful—little mouth what you say…” Remember that? It reminded us that our eyes, ears, and MOUTH need to be careful. The song went on: “For the Father up above is looking down in love, so be careful little mouth what you say.” If we ONLY had the Father to worry about, this wouldn’t be an issue. One in 25 people have no conscience, and thus are pathological. There are ears and eyes watching and listening to you to make you their target.

So, you’re probably wondering what I did about the obnoxious, verbally bulimic woman on the plane. I flipped my business card at her with my finger and, as luck would have it, it landed in her cleavage, and I kept on walking. Imagine her thoughts as she read my card: “The Institute for Relational Harm Reduction & Public Pathology Education, Psychotherapist & Author of How to Spot a Dangerous Man and Women Who Love Psychopaths.”

Too bad the plane was too crowded to turn around and see her reaction!!

(**If we can support you in your recovery process, please let us know. The Institute is the largest provider of recovery-based services for survivors of pathological love relationships. Information about Pathological Love Relationships is in our award-winning book, Women Who Love Psychopaths, and is also available in our retreats, 1:1s, or phone sessions. See the website for more information.)


Chronic Personality Problems in Problem Relationships

by Sandra L. Brown, MA

A large portion of emotional and physical abusers (although not all) have some similar identifying disorders, traits, or diagnosis. They are not all created equal. That means each one of them brings a unique combination of traits, challenges, and problems to the equation of the relationship and even therapy. Therefore, not all abusers treatment is going to be effective because not all psychological problems are treatable. For instance, batterer intervention has often failed to make this distinction and lumps all violent behavior or psychological problems together as if they are not differentiated by their differences.

Some of the disorders have biological and neurological root causes that are not curable. Ultimately, not all problem relationships have a solution especially those that have biological/neuro problems at their basis. That’s not popular to hear. We live in an Oprah-age of psychology that believes all disorders are curable and if not curable, at least highly treatable. ‘Law of Attraction’ type thinking pulls many people into believing ‘if they think it, they can make it happen’ (their relationship will work, the pathology will be gone, or something curative will happen that will drive away the symptoms.) Like medicine, psychology faces the same challenges that not all disorders have a satisfactory treatment or a cure.

If people who are in problem relationships want to avoid future problem relationships, they must understand what contributes to some of the disorders and the signs within the behavior.  There is no doubt that chronic personality problems wreak havoc in relationships and the worst of these do have commonalities related to impulsivity, emotional dysregulation, and violence. (No abuse is mild. I’m not suggesting that. What I am trying to hone in on is the chronic and lethal nature of some of the relationships and what some of the contributing factors can be to those problems.)

Some of the more recent research in neuroscience helps us to understand the problems related to what Otto Kernberg (one of the renowned writers and researchers of pathology) wrote about as ‘severe personality disorders’ related to Cluster B disorders (see his books Aggression in Personality Disorders and Perversions; Severe Personality Disorders; Aggressiveness, Narcissism and Self Destructiveness in the Psychotherapeutic Relationships–to name a few).

However, neuroscience over the past few years has helped us understand the additional possible biological and neurological roots of some of these severe disorders as well as the disorders of sociopathy and psychopathy. MRIs of various Cluster B disorders and sociopathy/psychopathy have lead the way noting similarities in brain formations, brain activity, brain circuitry, brain chemistry and its relationship to the severe disorders, impulsivity, poor treatment outcomes, and poor relationship outcomes. Where therapy has spent decades (if not a century) focused on the very psychoanalytic and behavioral approaches, we have missed the very real potential of neurology and brain functioning challenges.

While the origin and etiology of these disorders has been widely debated for decades, neuroscience is providing many of the answers to biology that we previously didn’t have. This helps us delineate between the mind as a structure and process, and the brain as an organ. The brain as an organ has all the proclivity of being born with differences, challenges, and problems as any other organ in the body. Unfortunately, up until now, the view has been a very ‘psychological’ approach to the brain and its disorders without looking at the possible contributions of ‘nature’ such as being born with physical predispositions. While we don’t question that, when it comes to the heart or immune system, people can be born with abnormalities, people certainly have a BIG reaction at the thought of psychology being related to brain organ issues and not merely emotional issues.

When looking at the behaviors associated with problem partners with what is referred to as ‘severe personality disorders’ and the problems of sociopathy and psychopathy, we have to look broadly at the symptoms, but not so broadly that we find loopholes. Normally, one symptom off a behavioral list does not constitute one of the ‘severe personality disorders’ or even the no/low-conscience disorders of sociopathy or psychopathy. However, they don’t need to have ALL of these traits in order to be problematic in a relationship.

Those in relationships with problem partners often fall on the side of ‘too much empathy’ and give the problem partner more credit for not having these symptoms than what is warranted. Somewhere in the middle of one trait-too-many/and no-they-don’t-have-problems-at-all, is a snap shot of relationship problems and problem partners. Here are some of the behaviors associated with what is referred to as some of the severe personality disorders as well as sociopathy and psychopathy.

From the Diagnostic Statistical Manual–DSM V:

  • Disregard for, and the violation of, the rights of others
  • Failure to conform to lawful social norms
  • Deceitfulness Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead
  • Irritability and aggressiveness as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults
  • Reckless disregard for the safety of self or others
  • Consistent irresponsibility as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations

(Above are related to Antisocial Personality Disorder)

  • Lack of remorse as indicated by being indifferent about having hurt, mistreated or stolen from another
  • Glib and superficial charm
  • Grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
  • Need for stimulation
  • Pathological lying
  • Cunning and manipulativeness
  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
  • Callousness and lack of empathy
  • Parasitic lifestyle
  • Poor behavioral controls
  • Sexual promiscuity
  • Early behavior problems
  • Lack of realistic long-term goals
  • Impulsivity irresponsibility
  • Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
  • Many short-term relationships
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Revocation of conditional release
  • Criminal versatility

(Above are related to Sociopaths/Psychopaths)

  • Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment
  • Intense and unstable personal relationships that over idealize and devalue
  • Identity disturbance with unstable self image or sense of self impulsivity in at least two areas (spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating)
  • Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, threats or self-mutilation
  • Emotional instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (intense episodic irritability or anxiety)
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness
  • Inappropriate intense anger or difficulty controlling anger

(Above are related to Borderline Personality Disorder)

  • A grandiose sense of self importance
  • Exaggerates their achievements and talents
  • Expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements
  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  • Believes that he is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should only associate with, other special or other high-status people or institutions.
  • Requires excessive admiration
  • Has a sense of entitlement, unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his expectations.
  • Is interpersonally exploitative within relationships and takes advantage of others to achieve his own ends
  • Lacks empathy and is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  • Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him
  • Shows an arrogant, haughty behavior or attitude

(Above are related to Narcissistic Personality Disorder)

This list is not mild relational infractions, or merely what Dr. Phil refers to as ‘deal breakers’. In some of the more chronic features and behaviors, this pathology causes debilitating partner aftermath symptoms.

The Institute is involved in offering recovery to those coming out of relationships with narcissists, antisocial, sociopathy and psychopaths because the chronicity of their disorders often causes chronicity within their relationships. If that weren’t true, 60 million people would not be negatively affected by someone else’s pathology. We wouldn’t have support groups for “Partners of Narcissists” or “Adult Children of Narcissistic Personality Disorder”. There wouldn’t be self help books for those harmed by anti-socials or psychopaths. The Institute wouldn’t have felt it necessary to write ‘Women Who Love Psychopaths’ and offer coaching and retreats for survivors.

Some of those listed above are the abusers who are not created equal, who have permanent neuro, emotional, behavioral and psychological disorders that bypass what psychology can do for them. Anger management–nope. Batterer intervention–nope. Intensive psychotherapy–nope.

The permanent forms of pathology are noted for their Three Inabilities (Brown, 2005):

* Inability to grow to any authentic emotional or spiritual depth

* Inability to sustain positive change

* Inability to develop insight how their behavior negatively affects others

These inabilities are the hallmark of chronic disorders that create chronic problem relationships.

** Footnote: Research articles related to this topic: ‘Neural foundation of moral reasoning and antisocial behavior;’  ‘Into the Mind of a Killer: Brain imaging studies starting to venture into the research of criminal psychopathy;’ ‘Tridimensional Personality Questionnaire data on alcoholic violent offenders: specific connections to severe impulsive cluster B personality disorders and violent criminality” ‘The Relationship Between DSM-IV cluster B personality disorders and psychopathy according to Hare’s criteria: Clarification and resolution of previous Contractions;’ ‘Brain imaging abnormalities in borderline personality disorder’ (video)’ ‘Potentials implicate temporal lobe abnormalities in criminal psychopaths;’ Hypomanic symptoms predict an increase in narcissism and histrionic personality disorders;’ and ‘The Brain and Personality Disorders.’

(**If we can support you in your recovery process, please let us know. The Institute is the largest provider of recovery-based services for survivors of pathological love relationships. Information about Pathological Love Relationships is in our award-winning book, Women Who Love Psychopaths, and is also available in our retreats, 1:1s, or phone sessions. See the website for more information.)


The Anniversary of My Plunge Into Pathology

by Sandra L. Brown, MA

The month of May marks my fairly “official” date (at least in my mind) in which I was thrust into the field of pathology—totally without consent, without warning, and without return to the normal life I knew before May 13, 1983.  That was the day my father bled out in a grungy gutter in Cincinnati just outside his jazz club after a psychopath plunged a knife into his aorta.  I was initiated into a victim-hood that would turn my life and career in a direction I hadn’t much interest in before that particular day.

Much like pathology in anyone else’s life, you don’t get to choose how it plays out in your life.  The best you can do is to learn how to ride the rollercoaster that goes along with the serious group of disorders in pathology—as I have done.  Thirty-plus years later, I still feel like I am just skimming the surface of what can, and should, be done in education, awareness, survivor services, and advocacy in dealing with pathology. Thousands of pages of writing books, newsletters, websites, workbooks, e-books, quizzes, hours and hours of lectures ad nauseum, over a thousand hours in broadcasts, both radio and television, stacks of CDs and DVDs created—and still we are in the infancy of a new understanding about pathology.  It is the virtual edge of just beginning what someday will be a momentous marker that shows when the world turned a corner for a better and very public understanding of pathology.

We’re not there yet but the day IS coming. Every new blog that goes up, every newsletter, every website, every talk, every social networking post, every private moment of knowledge shared with another victim, every coaching session, every class taught, every therapy hour, every group gathering, every prayer muttered, every radio show aired, every celebrity living it and bringing it to notice, every TV show featuring it, every newspaper or women’s magazine article taunting it is another message to another ear that has heard the message. You learned it because someone cared enough to make sure you learned it.

Every May 13th, for the past 30+ years, I have halted my existence to remember that life-altering second when my life went from being a normal everyday life to a life of being a family member of a homicide victim. This is when my reality was ripped through by pathology—a disorder so conscienceless that altering history is just another day in the lives of the pathological.  While my pathology story includes a brutal ending, yours, no less, includes something similar—all the things lost in a moment of deep betrayal—the kind of betrayal that only pathology can bring.

If I don’t brighten up this newsletter, I’ll get complaints about “too much reality” or “too much negativity” so, I will say this—while none of us choose to become survivors at the hands of very disordered pathological individuals, what we do with what we were dealt is up to us.  Every so often I like to send a message to you that encourages you to “pass it forward”.  Whatever you have learned from the magazine’s website, newsletters, radio shows, blogs, or the books, is probably more than the woman who is sitting next to you knows.  You don’t need to wait until you understand it more by taking a class, getting a degree, reading another one of our books, attending a retreat, or taking our coach training—that doesn’t help the women you sit next to at work. The knowledge in your head is life-saving to her. Next year, when you are better trained, isn’t the time to share what you know—today is!

If we want to move from living on the virtual edge of changing pathology education in the world, we have to open our mouths and tell what we know.  Every pathological hopes you DON’T do this! They hope you keep what you know to yourself. So many women that have shed so many tears have said, “If I had only known … I would have left earlier, I wouldn’t have left my children with him, I wouldn’t have _______.”

Every May is a time I renew my commitment to what changed me. Every May I bother people with my message and prod them and push them to make victims’ rights and survivor education important in the world.  If I don’t, the image of my dad laying in that gutter haunts me. His death should never have been for nothing—and as long as people have been helped, it hasn’t. Frankie Brown, by his death, has touched so many lives through the message of psychopathy. You’re one of them!  Help me celebrate my father’s death anniversary in a way that brings meaning and hope to many. Today, tomorrow, next week, next month—share what you know with just ONE person—someone that you have felt in your gut needs to know about the permanence and the pain of pathological relationships. Then email me and say “I passed it forward” so I can count up how many people have celebrated Frankie!

If this message has offended you, I’m sorry. Pathology has offended my entire life. Thank you for growing in the knowledge of pathology so you are prepared for the day when you can give someone the life-changing information that you’ve come to know!

(**If we can support you in your recovery process, please let us know. The Institute is the largest provider of recovery-based services for survivors of pathological love relationships. Information about Pathological Love Relationships is in our award-winning book, Women Who Love Psychopaths, and is also available in our retreats, 1:1s, or phone sessions. See the website for more information.)


Why It’s Not Just About ‘No Contact’ — It’s Much More — It’s ‘Disengagement’

by Sandra L. Brown, MA

It doesn’t take longer than five minutes into a break-up to know that having contact is not helping your recovery. I see lots of facebook pages and websites touting the benefits of ‘No Contact’ but the issue for recovery is far beyond merely ‘No Contact.’

The merits of ‘No Contact’ are obvious. It’s hard to retract yourself, rewire yourself, or recreate yourself when you are still having contact with the source of your traumatic injury – the pathological partner.

Let’s look at each one of these—

  • Retracting—Moving out of the injury of pathological exposure is the first step that most people associate with ‘No Contact.’ You remove yourself from the presence of harm—harm physically but mostly the harm of the psyche that is exposed to that much relentless pathology. Retracting is almost a physiological reaction to the harm and enduring pathology itself—like recoiling into one’s safe space.  So removing oneself is one way of moving into ‘No Contact.’
  • Rewiring—‘No Contact’ is also to soothe the fight/flight/freeze patterns of trauma. It’s so that the adrenaline and cortisol can stop pumping and the brain can calm down. The neuro impact from pathological love relationships is very real (see the book Women Who Love Psychopaths, or Dr. Rhonda Freeman’s material on Contact is perceived by the brain as threatening (even if it isn’t) and is autonomic, meaning it can quickly bypass the reason centers of the brain to become an automatic physiological trigger. Smells, sights, sounds, words, and memories are all vehicles for traumatic patterns of fight/flight/freeze that include emotions, neuro reactions, and physical reactivity. While you may think that speaking, emailing, texting, or seeing him is not likely to be ‘any worse’ than any other time you have seen him, trauma is an accumulative injury. Each exposure creates layers of trauma and each time there is exposure there are connections to memories associated with him. The cologne he is wearing, the shirt, the words, the tonality, the smirk, the smile, the glint in his eye—any or all of it can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and causes the house of cards and all of its triggers to bring you to your knees. In fact, it is only a matter of time until that is likely to happen. ‘No Contact’ then becomes a necessity for traumatic symptom management so as not to expose yourself to more triggering effects of pathology. It helps to soothe the craving and pain centers of the brain that still ‘long for the pathological relationship (Dr. Rhonda Freeman).
  • Recreating—‘No Contact’ helps to reassign the sense of self that has been wrapped in the one-ness of the relationship. Self is associational in a sense, that is, it is relational. We see ourselves through our loving connections to other. The injury to one’s self-perception or how you see yourself is one of the items that takes the longest to heal in recovery.  You have to recreate how you see yourself and how you experience yourself. Much like grief when someone dies, you have to face the empty house, the empty bed, the empty coffee cup. You have to recreate the patterns of your life—what you do in the morning, after work, and on weekends.  You have to recreate how you date and mate. The more contact you have the harder it is to extricate your sense of self from the sense of couple-ness. So ‘No Contact’ helps you to get on with the necessity of learning to see yourself without the pathological partner.

But ‘No Contact’ is just the beginning of your steps in recovery.  First steps in recovery are to get your brain in a recovery condition that can guide and steer the rest of your recovery. If your brain doesn’t work, then it’s going to be even harder to get your emotions on board.  Brain first, and the rest will follow which is why No Contact for re-wiring is foremost. But it is not merely not texting, calling or emailing that creates havoc with the brain.  It’s why ‘No Contact’ is a first step but it is hardly the totality of recovery.  You must proceed to disengagement.

Disengagement, as The Institute refers to it, is 2nd Step recovery.  To help manage the pathology-exposed brain, to tame rumination, to calm intrusive thoughts, to not trigger fight/flight/freeze patterns is to disengage from things that stimulate memories, flashbacks, ruminations, trauma, and autonomic reactivity. What is the one thing that is related to memory/flashback/ruminations/trauma/autonomic reactivity? It’s the storyline related to the pathological love relationship.

The commonality of a trigger is the subject. Disengagement as an act of recovery and as technique for symptom management must include the disengagement from the pathological partner which includes the history, and its retelling, of the relationship.

Rumination occurs not only from the memory but from engagement with the subject which includes the compulsive need to talk about it, tell the story, seek validation, compare and contrast details of the events, or obsessively read other victim stories.

Survivors are compulsively driven back to the very item that gave them the traumatic injury. Discussed in Women Who Love Psychopaths, this can be related to traumatic replay or a dozen other defense oriented mechanisms. But just as in the saying “a dog returns to its vomit” survivors find ways of reengaging with the subject without ever having ‘contact’ again.   This is an emotional loophole. And this is why it is not merely about ‘No Contact.’

When our clients are maintaining ‘No Contact’ but are still highly symptomatic, I ask how much ‘engagement’ they are having with the topic of pathology. Most tell me they have purchased every book on the topic, are on multiple social media sites about the topic, in chat forums, and have ‘support friends’ with the same issues whom they met online that they talk to by phone.  Their phone pings every 5 minutes with a new article on ‘My Life with a Psychopath’ story. This is not disengagement. This is engagement with a deadly weapon.

I am honest when I say I am dismayed at the peer run websites and social media sites that are ‘validation’-only sites – that do nothing but post lists of symptoms of the survivor and behaviors of the pathological.  Let me say sensitively, there is a fine line, especially in recovery, between understanding what happened to you, having your experience validated, and re-injuring yourself with the same trauma that harmed you.

In the beginning, many survivors don’t know what can happen with over exposure on these sites. If a little information is validating, than a lot must be utterly therapeutic. Nothing could be further from the truth! We have had emergency sessions with plenty of survivors who binged on peer sites which triggered a PTSD reaction.

Engagement in similar stories of the same type of trauma a survivor has experienced themselves, sets off the autonomic physiological reactivity—on comes anxiety, depression, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, cognitive dissonance, hyper vigilance, sleeplessness and the worst – craving and longing.  But ‘no pain, no gain’ – the information and inundation in the subject matter they feel likely hurts because it is so true.  Your discomfort is normal because you are being triggered by the information.

Our clients are told that recovery is not merely about not contacting HIM, it’s also about not contacting the subject including story-telling sites or, as we call them, ‘sit and spin’ sites that are peer run and which allow people to just tell story after story of their pathological love relationship. They call this ‘validation.’ We call it a prescription for relapse and meltdown. The survivor spins their adrenaline and cortisol, stirs the agitated mind, and if that’s not enough, whoever is reading their story is also having the same reactions. Unguarded and unguided sites like these can do untold harm to those on the edge with anxiety, PTSD and complex PTSD.

Disengagement with the subject is far from not texting him, not driving by his house, or fly bys on his facebook page. It is disengagement in behavior related to the pathology subject so that the brain has time to catch up, slow down, and release its death grip attachment to the subject and memories. Behavior guides the brain.

Disengagement means the survivor has made a commitment to healthy forms of recovery –

  • Including finding sites that are not ‘sit and spin’ sites. Instead, finding sites and groups that are run by mental health professionals with historical relevance in the subject.
  • The survivor commits to choosing only behaviors that do not reactivate pain centers in the brain which includes not compulsively discussing the storyline with others who aren’t equipped to help them process the trauma—online or in person.
  • Not reactivating pain centers by compulsively reading other survivor’s stories on websites, social media and forums. Even forums about this topic create the same neuro pathways for the pain center in the brain as did the pathological partner.
  • The survivor finds alternative ways to getting pathology education information and trauma processing without re-traumatizing themselves through peers.

Dear survivors, ‘No Contact’ to help yourself retract, rewire, and recreate are great first steps.  But to really rewire in a neuro recovery way means more than just not texting or talking on the phone. It means recreating a new self with a new outlook on what hurts and harms you in your own recovery and not choosing (again) overexposure to pathology oriented information that inflames the craving, longing, reward and pain centers of the brain.

(**If we can support you in your recovery process, please let us know. The Institute is the largest provider of recovery-based services for survivors of pathological love relationships. Information about Pathological Love Relationships is in our award-winning book, Women Who Love Psychopaths, and is also available in our retreats, 1:1s, or phone sessions. See the website for more information.)