Helping the vulnerable not just survive, but thrive

living with a sociopath

I did it by following these six essential rules.

Each type of family constellation creates a unique culture with expectations and unspoken rules. Narcissistic parents, for example, often set up a competitive environment and pitch siblings against one another. To these parents, maintaining the family’s good image is of paramount importance.

My family had the bad luck of having several close family members as sociopaths. These handsome, witty, and charming men gave the appearance of being the nicest guys — the perfect father, brother, and friend. Deceptive, sociopaths are calculating. As great observers, they imitate emotions and reactions to give themselves the appearance of normalcy. Like a spider hiding a trap in plain sight, they camouflage who they are to get close with the intent to use and manipulate others. 

Contrary to popular belief, most sociopaths are not violent. They go to work, pay their taxes, and raise a family. Genetic and possible neurological difference have been identified, making this group neurodivergent. 

Both of my family members were violent men and regularly assaulted family and strangers alike. Survival rules were taught quickly. I learned to do what I was told without question. My blank, easy-going personality hid the traumatic events I witnessed on a regular basis. The watching world had no idea the craziness that was happening within my extended family. Both men avoided prison, most likely because their victims feared reporting the crimes.

Then, I had the terrible misfortune of marrying one. Thankfully I’m out of that relationship, but it was a costly experience. I’m still recovering and in the process of healing.

Sociopath or Psychopath?

Some will argue sociopaths and psychopaths are two different types of conscienceless people. As a psychologist, I’m aware both terminology are derived from pop psychology and describe a mental disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder(DSM-V). I’m not going to debate these fuzzy labels, but will use the term, sociopath, for the sake of simplicity. 

Sociopaths are believed to comprise 3.7 percent of the general population, but this number appears to be on the rise. These individuals manipulate others, lie frequently, behave aggressively, and lack empathy. They act cold-bloodedly and see nothing wrong with breaking the rules to give themselves an edge. Always opportunists, they see the world as a grand-scale competition with winners and losers.

In such homes, it’s difficult to connect or bond with other family members. Fear rules. It’s a scramble to stay in the sociopath’s good graces. I often made hard sacrifices, including neglecting to protect my siblings, to save my own skin. Instead, I learned to stay quiet, be as invisible as possible, and hoped I wouldn’t come to that family member’s attention. It took me years to stop scanning the room I entered for places to hide. Living with a sociopath turned me into an ugly person. Everything becomes about survival. 

Encountering several sociopaths up close has given me a deep appreciation for those trapped in a long-term relationship with one. Spouses and family members must learn these six critical rules to survive. 

The Rules

1. Never disclose what occurs behind closed doors.

Sociopaths, often at odds with the law, insist on an absolute code of silence.They rule their homes through fear and insist that those closest to them never disclose what goes on behind closed doors. Most of us can never imagine the terror of having to live around these individuals. Breaking the primary rule of silence carries significant risk since sociopaths have a long-memory and believe in payback.

2. Obedience is mandatory.

Consummate liars, sociopaths assume that duplicity is the norm and expect betrayal, even from those closest to them. Trust and intimacy do not exist in their worldview. Assuming the worst, they frequently test those around them. They watch for inconsistency. They ask questions in different ways, trying to trip up others. They vigilantly observe family and friends’ behaviors for incongruency. Absolute follow-through is required with no deviations. Independent thinking indicates intelligence, which may lead to disloyalty. Strict obedience is always best.

3. There is only one Alpha.

Since deceit and duplicity are sociopaths’ second language, they have an uncanny ability to detect the strength of others’ allegiance to them. There is only room for one leader. Competitors are viewed as potential rivals. Such individuals run the risk of becoming a future threat and are eliminated preemptively. Everyone knows their place in the structure and sticks to the rigid rules in force. Anyone who shows too much initiative or seeks too much power is viewed with suspicion. Sociopaths tolerate no competition to their authority.

4. Views and opinions can only be offered cautiously and communicated through a designated counselor.

Although sociopaths never completely trust anyone, someone close to the sociopath often is permitted to disagree and offer differing views. This person becomes a sociopath’s source of counsel. The best offense requires a strong defense, which means thinking through all contingencies. When devising a plan, alternative proposals are allowed as long as they are submitted through this designated person. Direct confrontations are considered disrespectful and a breach of authority, and are therefore not tolerated. If someone has a better idea, they must submit it through the sociopath’s chosen advisor. He or she has the sociopath’s ear and allowed to present opposing opinions as long as it’s done in a way that follows the rules. 

5. No backtalk or direct confrontation is allowed.

Loyalty is critical. Some sociopaths will surround themselves with “yes men,” but those with longevity know the importance of wise counsel. They will allow differing opinions as long as these are given courteously. Sociopaths insist on being treated with complete and absolute respect. Those who survive living in close proximity to these scary people have learned the art of invisibility. They have learned how not to draw undue attention to themselves. They have mastered the ability to fawn in a reverent manner that is not over-the-top or too flamboyant. Respect is conveyed with measured carefulness that indicates true allegiance.

6. Ignoring your own moral code is essential.

Living close to a sociopath means seeing or enduring things that run contrary to normal societal mores or norms. Sociopaths often violate the law and put everyone in mortal danger. These individuals are either adrenaline junkies or have a high tolerance for risk. They take extraordinary chances, and assume their plans will work out. Those who live close to these individuals must learn to tolerate being put in harm’s way and ignore the violations of human rights. Open disagreement is not allowed, and, of course, reporting these crimes to the authorities is a death sentence. People surviving this kind of home become numb and learn to deny seeing or doing horrific things.

________

I’m terribly thankful I no longer live in this situation. Several times my life was in jeopardy. I endured severe abuse — sexual, physical, and verbal assault. I even caught on fire as a result of a family member playing with flames around gasoline. I daily faced intimidation and terror. At times I was concerned for my very life. I survived and have escaped these familial contexts, as well as my marriage to a sociopath.

I urge anyone who finds themselves in a relationship with someone who displays sociopathic tendencies to get out. Please flee. Contact professional domestic violence resources for help. One such social support is The National Domestic Violence Hotline. They offer online chat 24/7 to those needing assistance. They can help those in this situation develop a safe escape plan.

I am recovering from the trauma of living with sociopaths. There is hope for anyone who finds themselves in this situation. Please don’t wait — find help today. 

Dr. Kerry McAvoy is a clinical psychologist, mother of three grown sons, writer, and author of the devotionals: Jesus, The Ultimate Therapist: Bringing Hope and Healing, Jesus, The Ultimate Therapist: Healing Without Limits, and Pain as a Starting Point.

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2 thoughts on “How to Survive Living With a Sociopath”

  1. Great post and article. Sadly this is my wife. Controlling, dishonest, sometimes violent (although she can’t hurt me she has tried) will not ever compromise. The rules for the rest of society she is not bound by. Drinking and driving, shoplifting, prescription drug abuse and adultery. Why don’t you leave you say ? I’m over 55 and my family is all passed on. If she can’t pay the mortgage payment it affects my credit. I’ve left before. Yet I cant make her sell the house and split the equity. She has slashed my clothes or called the police and lied saying I hit her when I didn’t. Yet they were puzzled that she told me to leave then wouldn’t let me and there isn’t a mark on her. No charges were ever filed. And for me to fight her in court to force the sale of the house is more cash for legal fees than I have just lying around. I virtually have to where to go. My friend I had stayed with before when I left died from cancer. She knows all this and acts thusly.
    Just last week she tried to forbid me from working overtime. Why ? It’s a Women’s Basketball game. I monitor the fire alarm system during sporting events sometimes for the maintenance department. To insure against false alarms that lead to trampling or panic. She is jealous of every female on the planet whom she sees as sexual competition. Yet its her that has cheated not me. And I can’t even see the game ! Only the panel and area close to it.
    What in the hell can I do legally and ethically ? She to me anyway is the face of evil.

    Reply
  2. Hello! , I’m very sorry for to hear what you went through. It really sucks. I know first hand.

    That said, I think your rules need a drastic overhaul. I think the only way most of your rules make sense are if the person in this situation is completely powerless to change their circumstances and they just need to survive until they can escape. I’d still update them significantly. These rules aren’t one size fits all either. Every situation is different.

    Here would be my rules for surviving living with a sociopath.

    1. Get out ASAP. You touch on this but this needs to be the goal. It’s a lot harder for some then others but it needs to be the end goal. Getting out, cutting all ties, and making sure they can’t find you.

    This can be extremely hard for many reasons. One overlooked reason is that very often the person suffering at the hands of the sociopath has love for the sociopath. It’s hard to convince yourself that the best thing for you is to cut off all ties with someone you love. But it almost always is.

    2. Absolutely tell someone what is going on. This is in direct opposition to your advice but it’s very important. This doesn’t mean blab to the world. It may even be dangerous to confide in a close friend. The best person to talk to about this is a therapist who is legally obligated to maintain confidentiality. You need to be 100% clear with the therapist. They need to know if it’s risky to get authorities involved. But telling someone to do this alone is quite frankly terrible advice. Making sure it doesn’t get back to the sociopath is paramount but it’s doable. Getting an understanding of what therapists are legally required to report is important too.

    If the victim is a child then it’s a lot riskier and harder to escape . A school counselor or really trusted teacher can be helpful but it’s really risky as again, it’s paramount it doesn’t get back to the sociopath.

    The way I would handle this is develop trusted relationships. Deep relationships. Then if you ever decide to tell the people you’ve developed a relationship with, come prepared with proof of everything you’re saying and make sure they’re ready to give you a place to stay and protection. For the love God though make absolute sure your sociopath does not find the proof. I understand how risky all this is but I think actively working towards escape is key.

    The anonymity of the internet can help too. For advice.

    Anyway, yeah. I get how tough it is but I don’t think live with it and suppress all emotion is the best thing to suggest.

    Reply

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