Can Sociopaths Love?

Relationships with an antisocial personality-disordered partner may not be what some would call 'loving.'

People with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) are sometimes called sociopaths. People with the disorder can be fun, charming, and flattering but also cold, reckless, and devoid of empathy. With that mix, can they love another person? The research isn't encouraging.

That's mainly because people with ASPD have difficulty feeling empathy, compassion, or concern for others. They're also more likely to harm the people around them, including those closest to them. Read on to learn about the disorder and what to consider if you're considering dating someone with it.

What Is a Sociopath?

A sociopath is a name for someone with ASPD. "Sociopath" is not a clinical diagnosis, but ASPD is. The condition is known by a cluster of traits that make people with it act problematically. People with ASPD have “a deeply ingrained and dysfunctional thought process that focuses on socially exploitive, delinquent, and criminal behavior,” according to the National Institutes of Health.

People with ASPD behave in ways most wouldn’t and don’t feel bad afterward. They can act irresponsibly, harm or take advantage of others, and not feel any guilt for the pain or hardship their actions cause other people.

Healthcare providers may only diagnose someone with ASPD if they fit specific criteria, which include the following:

  • Being at least 18 years old
  • Having evidence of, or being diagnosed with, a conduct disorder before age 15
  • Not behaving in antisocial ways due to another mental illness like schizophrenia or addiction
  • Having a “pervasive pattern” of disregard for the safety of self or others

That pattern must have at least three of the following elements:

  • Reckless disregard for the safety of other people
  • Lack of remorse for hurting, mistreating, or taking advantage of another person
  • Irritability or aggressiveness, often resulting in fights
  • Deceitfulness, lying, or conning
  • Failing to plan/being impulsive
  • Failing to conform to social norms or acting in illegal ways
  • Failing to honor obligations, including monetarily and at work

“Those who suffer from this disorder often engage in self-­serving behaviors that are harmful to others,” explained Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Santa Rosa, Calif. “These behaviors include lying, manipulation, verbal and physical assaults, impulsivity, and deception. And these individuals often engage in actions that are illegal or bordering on illegality.”

Sociopaths and Relationships

For someone with ASPD, maintaining a normal loving relationship might prove challenging. That’s because ASPD features a disregard for social obligations and callous unconcern for the feelings of others. That mix of character traits doesn’t bode well for romantic relationships, either.

That’s because healthy relationships are based on:

  • Respect for each other
  • Trust
  • Honesty
  • Compromise
  • Good communication
  • Individuality
  • Fighting fairly
  • Being able to manage anger properly

A healthy dose of self-sacrifice is also helpful. Yet people with the disorder aren’t likely to put others first.

The cornerstone of an ASPD diagnosis is a self-serving ideology. Sociopaths make their decisions based on their own needs and desires and don’t think about how their actions affect others—including those they may be in a relationship with, Manly said.

“Sociopaths value themselves above others,” Susan Masterson, Ph.D., a psychologist based in Lexington, Ky., told Health. “They don’t bother to think outside the scope of what they want or need, and others’ feelings are either secondary or a non-issue for them.”

Considering that successful relationships are about compromise and intimacy, that kind of singular focus wouldn’t exactly make a sociopath a great partner.

“It’s these very personality characteristics that affect the individual’s ability to love on many levels,” Manly said.

Sociopaths Can Appear To Be in Love

That’s not to say sociopaths, or people with ASPD, can’t seem to be in love.

“A sociopath can be really good at faking feelings of love,” Darrel Turner, Ph.D., a forensic psychologist from Louisiana, told Health. “It’s common when a sociopath enters into a relationship to behave very lovingly or otherwise affectionately toward their partner—at least at the beginning.”

Sociopaths can be charismatic, charming, and flattering, and someone with ASPD can seem to love others when it suits their end goal. But that will erode or disappear once the individual’s needs have been met, Manly said.

They May Be More Likely To Hurt Their Partners

Some people with ASPD can be controlling and manipulative, Turner added. And some take pleasure in hurting other people.

“They’ll enjoy making the other person feel bad, ruining their self-esteem, demeaning them, and alienating them from their family and friends,” Turner said. And since people with the disorder don’t feel remorse, they’re certainly not going to feel bad about what they’re doing to their partner.

They may also be more likely to abuse their partners. A 2021 study of 475 people who left abusive romantic relationships found that sociopathic traits in their partners were predictive of frequent, versatile, and physical abuse. A 2018 study of 152 people also found that antisocial traits strongly predict intimate partner violence.

Sociopaths are short-term thinkers, and long-range plans for relationships are of no interest to them, Masterson explained. “They may tell you that’s what they want, but it’s only to get something in the here and now.”

In some ways, people with ASPD may also be incapable of loving themselves healthily. They put themselves in danger, too. They die of natural causes at higher rates. They are also more likely to fall prey to accidents, suicide, and homicide.

Helpful Factors

While there isn't a cure or approved treatment for ASPD, there's some limited evidence that therapy may help those with mild ASPD traits. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to approve an effective medication, although someone with ASPD may have other disorders that would benefit from medication.

Some factors do seem to help people with ASPD behave in more socially acceptable ways.

They include:

  • Marriage
  • Employment
  • Early incarceration
  • Some degree of socialization
  • Age older than 40

While these may help some people with the disorder behave more conventionally, it doesn't cure them. Antisocial personality disorder is the hardest personality disorder to treat. Most people with it only seek treatment after being threatened with legal or financial consequences. They could change if they wanted to, but they often don't see the need.

A Quick Review

Antisocial personality disorder is a lifelong condition in which someone has a pattern of behavior that includes violating the rights of others without feeling guilty about it. People with it are often incapable of putting others' needs before their own and operating in a mutually beneficial partnership.

Some things that can help moderate a person's behavior include being married, having a job, and getting older. That said, sociopathic traits can predict intimate partner violence, and people with the disorder usually don't see the need to change.

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