If you find yourself in a relationship with someone you suspect may be a sociopath, your best move is to end it.
The terms sociopath and psychopath get tossed around so frequently, they might as well be pizza dough.
But these are very real and serious labels for a very real and serious mental problem.
“A sociopath or psychopath describes a person who is unable to feel guilt,” says Stephen Snyder, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai.
This is not someone who chooses to push away guilty feelings, but rather a person who actually, genuinely cannot experience the emotion.
"People who are psychopathic prey ruthlessly on others using charm, deceit, violence or other methods that allow them to get what they want," says Matt Stanford, Ph.D., chief executive officer at the Hope and Healing Center & Institute in Texas.
However, the terms sociopath and psychopath are hardly ever used in psychiatry literature because they aren't actually considered legitimate psychiatric diagnoses, says Stanford.
Instead, it's part of a diagnosis called antisocial personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the publication for mental health professionals that defines mental disorders and treatment (more on that later).
While you can't know for sure from a few interactions with someone, here's how to tell if your guy might be affected by this type of condition—and what to do about it if he is.
Whether psychopathy is brought on by something or a lack of something, like intimacy during childhood, is up for debate.
"A lot of people think sociopaths have a legitimate brain disorder—that their brains are missing the 'guilt chip,'" says Snyder.
"But this is just speculative."
What's more, determining just how common psychopathy is can be a bit tricky.
As we mentioned earlier, modern psychiatric textbooks only include it as a part of antisocial personality disorder.
This mental condition is characterized by a consistent disregard for and even violation of other people’s rights (think: privacy or sexual consent).
Someone with this disorder has a blatant lack of concern for others’ feelings and often benefits from putting other people at risk. It’s a condition that marks many law-breaking, violent criminals.
Though all people who suffer from antisocial personality disorder are labeled as psychopaths, since they don't feel guilt, not all psychopaths suffer from antisocial personality disorder, meaning not all psychopaths consistently violate others.
And while some psychiatrists believe psychopathy is an all-or-nothing diagnosis, others, like Stanford, believe it runs on a spectrum, like many other personality traits. (Think: how some people can be a little bit narcissistic or selfish.)
Most experts estimate that anywhere from 0.2 to 3.3 percent of the population suffers from antisocial personality disorder (which is kind of a big range).
However, in her book The Sociopath Next Door, psychologist Martha Stout, Ph.D., suggests that one in 25 people don't feel guilt.
That’s up to nine million sociopathic Americans. Though more research needs to be done on the prevalence of female psychopaths, a review of studies published in the International Journal of Women's Health suggests that there are more male psychopaths than female.
Not all psychopaths look like Michael Myers. To spot one, focus on their behavior and your gut feelings.
Sociopaths tend to lie frequently (they can’t help themselves), so you might start to detect inconsistencies in what he tells you.
"They’re also often unusually exciting to be with," says Snyder.
"Many sociopaths suffer from chronic boredom, so they seek out highly stimulating situations."
And while you might find yourself super-attracted to his sense of adventure and spontaneity, the happy moments will likely be interrupted by random thoughts that something isn’t quite right.
You could catch him behaving heartlessly when he doesn't think you’re watching, says Snyder. Don't ignore those moments.
To put it into perspective: Let’s say your man ate your leftover ramen yesterday without asking you if you wanted it for lunch.
While that's rude, it doesn't make him a sociopath. However, if he fed your ramen to your dog (whom he knows is not supposed to have people food), lied about it, insulted you for accusing him, then opted to put Scout in the crate instead of taking him to the vet when he vomited up onions—that’s sociopathic behavior.
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If you find yourself in a relationship with someone you suspect may be a sociopath, your best move is to end it, says Snyder.
There’s no known treatment for individuals with the disorder, and it’s not something that just "goes away" or can be cured by your or anyone else’s love.
You may never really understand your partner or feel totally fulfilled by them, so do yourself a favor and part ways.
While couples therapy could help communication, there's no guarantee it will make a dent in their lying or guiltless behavior.
It's hard to change when you literally can't feel a reason to.
"Just don't assume that your partner feels the same things you do," says Snyder.
"Assume their emotional experience is going to be very different from yours."
And at the end of the day, if you find yourself seriously wondering if the person you're seeing can't experience empathy, do you really want to pursue a long-term relationship with them—whether they meet the official criteria for being a psychopath or not?
Additional reporting by Leah Silverman