The Pathological Relationship: Here, There, Everywhere!

In the last column of Petty Tyrants I made the observation that the pathological relationship is a well-known dynamic. Either we’ve experienced it ourselves, or if we haven’t, we know someone who has. We see them in TV shows and movies, and hear news reports on domestic violence and husbands and wives with “secret lives”, and so on. But often that’s where our knowledge ends. We know it happens, and that’s pretty much it. We’re still left in the dark when it comes to why and how, and the explanations we do have are often dangerously wrong. Without this knowledge of the real nature of pathology and the reasons we get involved, we cannot possibly prevent ourselves from future danger.

Our complete lack of education in this area is difficult to comprehend. Imagine a mother who teaches her child she’ll be safe around dogs as long as she is friendly and approaches them with care. Eventually, the child will approach an aggressive dog, and perhaps be seriously harmed by the resulting attack. Now imagine that this is how an entire society approaches the topic. The children in such a world would have no ability to tell the difference between friendly dogs and dangerous ones; no knowledge of those dogs bred specifically for aggressive traits; no ability to detect an overly fearful, territorial, or possessive dog; no knowledge on the effects of previous abuse on a dog’s behavior. The child may even mistake a predatory animal like a coyote or even a hyena for a normal canine.

Not only would the children be at risk, the adults who pass on such naïve beliefs would lack the knowledge necessary to come to a correct conclusion about WHY their children keep getting mauled. After all, dogs are inherently good and friendly, especially if they’re approached in a loving manner, so it must be the children’s fault. They must be doing something wrong. In other words, they’d use all sorts of mental gymnastics to force reality to conform to their worldview. Belief systems tend to do that—distort reality.

Unfortunately, the state of public education about psychopathy (not to mention relationships in general) is that bad, if not worse. We not only neglect to teach our children about its existence and the cautionary clues to help us avoid interactions with psychopaths, we blame the victims for the harm they unwittingly experience. To many, still, the rape victim “had it coming.” And victims eventually adopt such excuses for themselves: “I know deep down, some part of him really loves me. He just had a really rough childhood.” And just like the in the dog analogy, we end up blaming ourselves when our love doesn’t change them. It must be something we’re doing wrong.

The situation is made even more difficult because psychopathy is like a swift punch in the back of the head—you never see it coming until it’s too late! We tend to only hear about their crimes after they’ve been caught. To all appearances, they look and act just like we do. They learn very early in life to present a near-perfect image of normality. So on the surface of reality, everything looks in order.

While in reality psychopaths feel nothing, they learn how to fake emotion, for example, crying in situations where one is supposed to be sad. And most importantly, they become experts at manipulating the very real emotions of others. They are so successful because, strangely, they seem to have a better grasp on our emotional lives than we do. They instantly spot all those weaknesses and blind spots that we try so desperately to ignore, and they exploit them ruthlessly. If our emotions were keys on a piano, psychopaths would be virtuosos! And when you can manipulate a person’s emotions, you can manipulate their actions, even to their own destruction.

Although it is certainly a difficult skill to learn, it is possible to recognize such individuals, before we get involved. The first step is to understand the nature of our own emotions. Only then will we be able to understand how psychopaths use these emotions to manipulate us and how to prevent it. But before we get into some specific emotions, like happiness, fear, and anger, and the techniques psychopaths use to take advantage of them, we need to talk a little about emotions in general.

Not only are basic emotions like fear, anger, joy, disgust, and contempt common to members of the human species, we also share them with most other mammals. They serve a specific purpose to us as part of our body’s natural survival mechanism. For example, materials and substances that are toxic to our bodies, like rotten food, feces, and vomit, disgust us, so we stay away from them as much as possible. We feel fearful when threatened, freezing or fleeing in order to avoid the pain we may experience. In contrast, we are drawn towards things that sustain us, like good food, good people, and physical comfort. In other words, these basic emotions are the body’s way of telling us what to do if we’re going to stay alive.

Emotions are automatic reactions to our experience of the world, and they’re like that for a reason. For example, when the emotional systems in our nervous system first recognize a threat in the outside world, they essentially take over control of our body and mind in order to deal with the threat. They focus our attention on the situation at hand and push everything else out of mind. When we’re walking alone at night on a dark street and a man appears out of an alleyway in front of us, we may feel fear. If that’s the case, our heart rate increases, blood flows to our legs preparing us to run, and our mind filters out all unnecessary information, interpreting whatever DOES enter strictly in terms of the fear. If he puts his hand in his pocket, we expect him to pull out a weapon.

These emotions are common to people of all cultures, and they are all triggered in similar scenarios. However—and this is the most important part of this discussion—while the emotional “themes” of these emotions are universal, the specific situations in which we feel them are not necessarily so. We can be socialized, trained, and manipulated to feel emotions in situations where they are not only unnecessary; they are even harmful to our wellbeing.

This subject will be the focus of this column for the next several installments. Psychopaths, whether in our personal lives, or in the halls of political, religious, or corporate power, have an almost innate understanding of the emotional themes that run our lives. They see how situations trigger an emotion, and they see that this emotion causes us to act in very specific ways. And they use us as pawns in their games of power. Luckily, if we can learn to differentiate between real emotion and manipulated emotion—to become free from those parts of ourselves which control us—we can then become free from the rule of those external tyrants which control us. We can cease to be pawns in someone else’s game.