(3 minute read)
Google “Is my husband a sociopath?” and you’ll get “10 Signs You’re Married To A Sociopath”, “8 Signs You’re Married To A Sociopath” and “6 Signs You’re Married To A Sociopath.” And for readers who have difficulty counting, there is the non-numeric “Signs Your Husband Is A Sociopath” and “Signs You Are Married To A Sociopath”, courtesy of The Divorce Magazine which clearly believes you should no longer be married to him.
You’ll also get a lot of hits if you type in similar queries, asking if your partner is Borderline or Narcissistic. Obviously, there are a lot of people out there who think they might be married to people with serious personality disorders, and a lot of writers catering to their fears.
Now, it’s true that there some people out there who have serious personality problems. And it is just possible that you’re married to one of them. At times it must feel like a certainty: they lie smoothly, or perhaps they’re volcanically emotional, or utterly cold. Maybe they show no concern for you at all, or are completely obsessed with themselves. You go down the checklist of the internet articles and answer every question with a resounding Yes! If you go see a counsellor and describe your partner to them, they’ll likely agree and happily slap a condemning label on them. And that’s pretty much the nail in the coffin for the relationship, because mental health professionals agree that it’s unlikely that people who are narcissists, sociopaths, borderlines or any of the other personality disorders will change anytime soon. No one could have a successful relationship with your partner, so you’d better get out sooner rather than later.
If you buy this, then it’s both devastating and a relief. Devastating because there’s no hope, but relief because it’s not your fault. The relationship went bad because your partner is bad — after all, who can be in love with someone who loves only themselves, or who is incapable of caring about anyone?
That is both the appeal, and the danger of labeling your partner. It enables you to put the blame squarely on the other person, and not to look at what has happened in the relationship. Deciding that one person or another has a personality defect and is therefore The Bad Guy doesn’t fix troubled relationships — it ends them.
The truth is that there are very few people out there who are true narcissists, borderlines or sociopaths. However, under the stress of a troubled relationship, most of us can act in ways that seem to fit those labels. When we don’t feel closely attached to our partner, or see them distancing themselves through anger or withdrawal, most of us tend to get scared and angry. We put our own needs first, focus on what we get from our partner rather than what we can give, take things personally, lose our empathy for our partner, insist that we’re right and become emotional, controlling and hyper-sensitive to criticism. Very normal behaviors, but according to Huffington Post these are some of the 20 signs that you’re a narcissist.
And that’s the key to the problem, and the pernicious effect of these “Is My Partner A (fill in the blank)” articles. Our normal behavior in a troubled relationship can easily be labelled ‘sick’, thereby destroying any hope of saving the relationship, or learning what really went wrong.
Walking away from these articles and refusing to think of your partner as ‘sick’ can be a slippery slope for some people. If our partner doesn’t bear 100% of the responsibility for our relationship troubles, then some of the blame has to land with us. That’s a scary thought: what if we have done wrong? What if the blame is 50-50, or, worse, 70% our fault?
The answer to that scary thought is that we’re not to blame — and neither is our partner. The common enemy is the bad parts of the relationship. It’s the way we communicate with our partner, the way we fight, the way we trigger each other and respond to those triggers.
So if you are in a troubled relationship, frustrated and angry at your partner, don’t go to the internet to find if they’ve got some awful personality disorder. Don’t blame them, and equally, don’t blame yourself. Focus instead on what is going on between you. Perhaps you can fix things on your own, or with a little insight from experts in the field (I recommend Sue Johnson’s “Hold Me Tight”) or maybe you need a couples counsellor to help you work through your issues.