skull and crossbones

“Thank God I’m not the only one, but what can we do as a collective to warn people about these sick individuals so they don’t keep harming others?”

~ A comment from a reader


Her question is a good one. None of us were warned about the possibility of being victimized by a psychopath parading around as our lover. Say what? I might have laughed if someone had, and wondered if they’d forgotten to take their Thorazine or had watched one too many episodes of Criminal Minds.

Many of us felt like we were blindsided. It wasn’t even on our radar. That makes me wonder… Why wasn’t it?

I tried to warn my friends afterward and not one of them could grasp what had actually happened, but whatever it was, they said, it would never happen to them.

Of course it could happen to them, but they’d never know until it was too late if they didn’t heed my warning! If only they would listen to me they could be spared a similar, devastating fate.

Or would they?

It makes me wonder if the phenomenon of psychopathic victimization in interpersonal relationships is just something people can’t really ‘get’ until they’ve experienced it for themselves. Even if they did listen and understand, if it happened they still might simply believe they met the most wonderful person, and not consider or even remember the warning. Why would it even cross their minds? They met a wonderful person! And they’d be determined to keep them.

But maybe that view is pessimistic. Maybe people can be warned successfully, or maybe at least some of them can, so we have to try. Websites like this one are found after the fact, not before, so they don’t do much in the way of prevention; they exist to help those who’ve already been victimized. It will take something else to reach those who haven’t, if they can even be reached at all.

Remember back to the time when it was very hard to comprehend what psychopathy truly meant because of its profound differences, even though you’d experienced a person with it and suffered the consequences. It was no easy feat to wrap your mind around the facts that psychopaths have no conscience and no ability to love, and are motivated only by self-gratification. How can any of us really expect people who haven’t had the experience to grasp the reality of a psychopath, let alone accept that people like this really do exist and that they even might ‘date’ one of them?

I got the following comment

from a reader in response to the page Red Flags, which describes possible warning signs of psychopathic trouble early in a relationship:

“Everything written here is the living definition of love. there is no scientific or psychological bearing in this article, other than ASSUMING there is a negative outcome with finding the partner of your dreams. I can see how these things may be falsely used to get close to a victim, but you are ignoring that these are all ideal qualities you want in your partner and that if you recognize them — you should assume they are psychopathic tendencies? I would assume the author has been so severely hurt and victimized (possibly self inflicted) that they wrote this as an exaggerated response to their own vulnerability and shield others with fear. Love always is a risk, the greater the love the greater the risk. Do not settle for mundane or the mediocre!”

And therein lies the problem of successfully warning others. The real problem isn’t psychopaths — the problem is I must have skipped my Thorazine or I would never say anything so ludicrous about the potential danger of an “ideal” partner. The reader was so appalled at my warning that what looks like “the living definition of love” could actually be the opposite, that she never even made it to the part of the article where I wrote, “Obviously, no one is going to fall in love with someone and just see it as a big red flag and walk away, and I’m not saying that’s what you should do — that would be crazy… Staying alert can help prevent an entanglement with a psychopath, while still preserving the opportunity to move forward with a person who has honest intentions.” That sounds perfectly reasonable to me and it might sound reasonable to you, too, but how many who haven’t had our experience would or could see warning signs in what appears to be an ideal mate and an idyllic relationship, and then keep one eye open?

Even some former victims remain a little perplexed. Some berate themselves because they “should have known better.” Is that so? Then why didn’t they know better? What was it that made what seems so obvious in hindsight such a mystery at the time?

Other people who were victimized say they did have had a bad ‘gut feeling’ that they feel they foolishly ignored, forging ahead despite their internal warning. Why is that? What is it that made them ignore their own internal alarm bells?

The answer to both of those question, to anyone still asking, is this: You were disarmed.

Mary Ellen O’Toole, the FBI’s leading expert in psychopathy, warns people not to trust their gut feelings because the very thing psychopaths excel at is disarming us. That means they are able to get us to move past our bad gut feelings or not to even have one in the first place.

O’Toole said that after 30 years as an FBI profiler, “What she found was that the most dangerous criminals were often the ones who came across as the most harmless. That’s how they were able to continue harming people.” (“FBI profiler explains the dangers of that ‘nice’ neighbor,” Washington Post)


“What she found was that the most dangerous criminals were often the ones who came across as the most harmless. That’s how they were able to continue harming people.”

It’s hard enough to warn people about the potential danger of a friendly neighbor who seems safe — so imagine how much harder it is to warn them about the potential danger of someone they trust and love and believe they know.  Good luck with it. When you love and trust someone and believe you know them, that’s exactly the time you can let your guard down, right? Asking the uninitiated to keep one eye open because their soul mate might turn into the boogeyman — and expecting them to be able to do that while they’re in the euphoria of love and high on hormones and brain chemicals — just might be unrealistic. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it anyway.


Most people believe they’re a good judge of character, so they think they can tell if their wonderful new love interest is genuine or not. Once they’ve come to the conclusion that they are, they trust them and put any wariness aside. The image that’s formed of the person as genuine and trustworthy is so powerful that it can override reality. That image can remain intact through an incredible barrage of proof that it’s undeserved. For example, “I didn’t believe him when he told me he was working late because I found out he has a personal ad on OK Cupid when he accidentally left the browser open last week, so I called his cell to find out where he was and he didn’t answer, which is strange… but he’s trustworthy, so he must be telling me the truth. He’s right, I have serious trust issues and I’m a terrible person for thinking he’d ever lie to me.”

We don’t even realize it when it happens. Once that image of trustworthiness is formed, we forget that a person who’s trustworthy is one who acts that way, not one who once acted that way months or years ago and who now rests on his laurels and our faulty judgement of his character.

Does this mean you should never trust anyone again? No. If someone proves themselves to be trustworthy, trust away! But only trust them for as long as they continue to be trustworthy, not just because they used to be.


We come to conclusions about a person’s character subconsciously and almost immediately upon meeting them. We think we can just “tell” if someone is a good person, because we’re just wise like that. That’s science fiction, according to experts. That gut-feeling of goodness is based on superficial signs like how a person is dressed, how friendly they are, and how similar they seem to us. What else could it be based on if we just met someone?

It actually takes time and observation to accurately judge someone’s character. Gut feelings aren’t the mysterious intuitive force they seem to be — they’re simply the result of our brain doing an ultra-fast search through the files of our life experiences, and coming up with its best guess based on that. The purpose is to protect us but if that experience isn’t there in the files to begin with, we will not get a warning. The automatic and subconscious ways our brains work — ‘gut feelings’ being just one example — leave us vulnerable to all kinds of assumptions we simply accept as true and usually aren’t even aware of. And then we act on those automatic assumptions, which are often faulty.

Psychopaths know it and they count on it.

Why is that? Did they all go to Psychopath University, where they majored in psychology and neuroscience and were taught how to use it to their advantage?

And why is it so difficult to detect psychopaths? Why does it take so long even if we eventually do?

Dr. Robert Hare, psychopathy expert, warns that none of us is immune, even him. He calls psychopaths “Intra-Species Predators.” That sounds ominous. To me, it seems to imply that while psychopaths have the outward characteristics of our species they are actually just predators in camouflage, predators wearing human costumes… predators that exist to prey on us, that evolved over eons and that learned — from living among us and observing us — exactly how to best prey on us and how to mimic us closely enough to evade suspicion. As predators they would not be hindered by anything that would prevent them from fulfilling that role, such as a conscience or emotions.

If that were true, it would explain a lot. It would explain why we should have known better but didn’t, why we didn’t catch on when things should have been obvious, and why we ignored our gut feelings or never had any. It would mean the psychopath we knew didn’t figure out on his own how to disarm us — it would mean he was born with a brain that was wired to do it, passed on by countless generations of psychopaths before him.

Well, guess what? That may actually be true.

There is a theory in evolutionary psychology that psychopathy might be the result of an evolutionary adaptation, not a neurological or mental disorder. It can be viewed as a social strategy, one that benefits the psychopathic individual instead of the group. For example, although we tend to think of traits such as a lack of guilt as a deficit, these traits might not reflect a disorder, only a difference. A lack of guilt may make it easier for the individual to obtain resources from others, unhindered by their own emotional state. If someone’s motivation is his or her own self-gratification, it helps to be able to look you in the eye and lie to you without the smallest pang of guilt or fear of being discovered. If getting what you need or want is your only concern, it helps not to feel empathy or remorse.

One definition of disorder is “the failure of an internal mechanism to perform a natural function for which it was designed.”  What if it works just as it was designed to work?


“Unlike virtually every other mental disorder, however, where the existence of the problem is inferred from difficulties experienced by the patient, psychopathy is a disorder whose negative effects accrue more to those who come into contact with the psychopath than to the patient him or herself.”

~ Grant Harris, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, University of Ontario

It’s still up for debate, but it sounds plausible to me. It could explain many things about psychopaths, including their uncanny abilities to manipulate and to stay hidden.

 ♥ Does the possibility that psychopathy is an adaptation instead of a disorder change your feelings about it in any way? If you had been warned, do you believe it would it have protected you?  If we warn others, will it help? Do you believe you’re less likely to be victimized by a psychopath now, after having been through it before? And as the reader at the beginning of the article asked, what can we do as a collective to warn people about psychopaths so they don’t keep harming others? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment.



Engraving arabesques into the autumn air

A kestrel files a flight plan, where

Both food and frolic wait to whet

His appetite for flash and flair

Above the earth, beyond regret.

Fierce and fearless, wing-wise, unaware

Of risks that threaten all who dare

To challenge standards often set

By those who lack the Savior Faire

Required to work without a net.

© Linda ~ 1994


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