My husband was trying to tell me I was “the only one” for him.
“Don’t lie to a liar,” I said.
It wasn’t a very romantic reply, I’ll admit. But I’m not a romantic. I’m a sociopath.
My husband knows this, of course. As for me, I knew as early as age 7 that I wasn’t like other children. I didn’t care about things the way they did. I was a girl (my male-sounding name, Patric, is short for Patricia) who mostly felt nothing. It wasn’t until college that a therapist told me what I had long suspected: My lack of emotion and empathy are hallmarks of sociopathy. A few years later, doctors would confirm my diagnosis.
Human beings aren’t designed to function without access to emotion, so we sociopaths often become destructive in order to feel things. I used to break into houses or steal cars for the adrenaline rush of knowing I was somewhere I wasn’t allowed to be — just to feel, period.
It didn’t take long for me to realize this was not an effective life strategy. Rather than risk incarceration (or worse), I used my diagnosis to fuel my pursuit of a Ph.D. in psychology.
Like many, I gained my first understanding of sociopaths from pop culture, which portrays us as singularly dangerous and threatening, our flat emotional state and lack of remorse making us unfit for normal life. It wasn’t until I began my research in graduate school that I learned sociopaths exist along a wide spectrum, like many people with psychiatric disorders. You’ll find us everywhere in daily life, as your colleagues, neighbors, friends and, sometimes, members of your own family.
My husband and I dated in high school and found each other again after college. You would think my insincerity, emotional poverty, absence of shame and guilt, and reduced empathic response wouldn’t exactly land me in the “dream girl” category. Perhaps because he and I had grown up together and he was already familiar with my “bad” side, he remained in denial for years about my having any sort of real psychological problem. Nevertheless, 13 years later, we’re still in love and happily married.
But am I “the only one” for him? Definitely not.
My husband had developed a crush on a female colleague at work. It was obvious, and I understood why. She was everything I’m not: thoughtful, kind, compassionate. I doubt she ever attempted to choke anyone. Unlike me.
She was socially appropriate at parties, appreciated compliments and affection. Her charm was authentic and her darkness, if she had any, relatable. Unlike mine. It made sense he would like her. They would make a great pair. So why wouldn’t he just admit it?
He knew I didn’t take things like this personally. That’s one of the perks of being married to a sociopath: I don’t get jealous. He knew that if he were to tell me he liked her, I would listen and relate without reaction. I might even end up helping him shed some of his Catholic-school guilt. All he had to do was be honest.
When you’re a sociopath in a marriage, especially one with children, honesty is critical — even more, I would argue, than for people in “normal” relationships. As a sociopath, I had difficulty prioritizing telling the truth, but as a wife and a mother, I forced myself to learn.
Outside of my family, my loyalty to the truth is what has enabled me to connect with other people. As a doctor who specializes in the research of sociopathy, I prize credibility and integrity as my greatest asset.
Granted, it hasn’t been easy. People claim to want complete honesty from their partner or spouse, but I have found they aren’t always happy when they get it, especially when that honesty is coming from a sociopath.
My husband was never thrilled to hear that I had spent the day in a stranger’s house without that person’s knowledge or committed other misdeeds. But his real anger was reserved for the fact that I never felt guilty about these things.
For my husband, guilt is a driving force. His formative years were shaped by his overbearing and infirm mother. And then he married someone who seemed immune to it. He wanted to know: Why did I never care what anyone thought? Why was my behavior never limited by guilt?
For a long time, he was angry. But eventually he began to understand it wasn’t my fault that I was born with a reduced capacity for remorse. And it wasn’t his fault his mother was so negatively attached.
A few years after we married, with his encouragement, my behavior started to shift. I would never experience shame the way other people do, but I would learn to understand it. Thanks to him, I started to behave. I stopped acting like a sociopath.
And thanks to me, he started to see the value in not caring as much about what others thought. He noticed how often guilt was forcing his hand, frequently in unhealthy directions. He would never be a sociopath, but he saw value in a few of my personality traits.
He learned to say “no” and mean it, especially when it came to activities he was doing purely out of obligation — family visits or holiday gatherings he didn’t enjoy but couldn’t decline. He started to recognize when he was being manipulated. He noticed when emotion was clouding his judgment.
What a pair we are. Certainly, there have been setbacks. He isn’t always patient. I’m not always on my best behavior. And on those occasions, I leave a token on his desk to let him know when I have been up to no good (minor mischief like sneaking embarrassing items into a line-cutter’s grocery cart). The token I leave is an innocuous trinket, a Statue of Liberty figurine from a key chain. Anyone else who saw it wouldn’t think twice. But he knows what it means.
Whenever I leave the figurine on his desk, it means I’ve done something wrong. The second he sees it, he comes to find me, gives me a kiss and slips it back into my purse. Often, he doesn’t ask what I’ve done, but if he does, he knows he can trust me to be honest. And I know the same, so I never stray too far outside the lines.
Which is why his denial of his office crush was so confusing.
For the first time in our relationship, it wasn’t my interpretation of the truth that was causing a shift in our marriage; it was his. Believe it or not, I could appreciate the cause of his dishonesty. On good days, I was almost entertained by it. His clumsy white lies were like a toddler’s, and nearly as endearing.
On those days I wanted to hug him for being so cute. “You see what you’re doing?” I wanted to say. “You’re not being honest about your feelings for her. You’re lying. Now, how is this any different from what I used to do?”
And just like that, he would have gotten a lesson in empathy — from a sociopath, no less! And we would have laughed and understood each other better and gone back to sharing everything. At least I’d like to think so. My husband, after all, was the one who said we must be honest without exception. And he was the one who insisted I confess to every single thing every single time. So why wasn’t he playing by the same rules?
I have been forced to come clean about everything, even when — especially when — I don’t want to. It’s hard, frustrating, confusing and annoying, but I have done it for him, for us! If he wasn’t willing to do the same, then what? Should I leave him? Go back to being dishonest? Wait for him to leave me?
On bad days, these were the thoughts that dominated. When I couldn’t help but wonder: Is this what fear feels like?
I think it was. My husband was lying to me. Gaslighting me. Sneaking. Acting like a sociopath. And isn’t that how we sociopaths are defined — as liars without the ability to empathize? On such days, I saw what it must be like to be married to someone like me. And the irony is almost shimmering.
Still, I couldn’t help but smile thinking of the future, of the days when we would be able to joke about the time we almost split up because he started acting like a sociopath. And that in doing so, my husband was finally able to teach me the one thing I have been trying to learn all of my life: empathy.