- Isabelle Morley, PsyD
"Is My Ex a Sociopath?"
The question we all ask ourselves after a relationship ends, and we really hope the answer is yes. If you've wondered if your ex is a sociopath, let's see if they check off the criteria.
Listen, I've been there.
I've had bad breakups after bad relationships and wondered if that person might be... well... a sociopath. We often ask ourselves questions like- Did they care about breaking up with me? Are they even sad about it? Do they have any feelings at all??
When we think "sociopath," we think of serial killers and criminals. But in actuality, the majority of people who meet criteria for this term don't fit that stereotype.
Before we casually diagnose your ex with a pretty serious personality disorder, let's first define what "being a sociopath" actually means.
What is a Sociopath?
In the psychology manual for disorders (called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the DSM) there is no diagnosis of "psychopath." People colloquially use sociopath or psychopath (although these two are different) when they are referring to someone who has traits that are consistent with Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD).
When we say sociopath, we usually mean someone who does whatever they want and seems to lack regret. They don't have normal feelings, they don't have remorse, and they act in their self-interest no matter the cost to others.
Sociopath vs Psychopath
The key difference here is even the smallest bit of conscience; sociopaths have one (minuscule as it may be), psychopaths don't. Psychopaths can be high functioning members of society because they know how to mimic emotions, make you feel important and as though you have a special connection to them, and then they know how to exploit you. Psychopaths are charming and manipulative and calculating, and they are very dangerous people because they can appear incredibly genuine and engaged.
Sociopaths are less... controlled. They can better recognize "bad" behaviors as problematic, even though they may not change them. Sociopaths are impulsive and irrational, they act quickly based on their feelings and never take the time to factor in how their actions might impact those around them. This isn't a great quality, to be sure, but it's less intentionally cruel than your neighborhood psychopath.
But as I said, these both fall under a diagnosable personality disorder with very specific criteria.
Criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) per the DSM-5:
Failure to obey laws and norms by engaging in behavior which results in criminal arrest, or would warrant criminal arrest
Lying, deception, and manipulation, for profit or self-amusement,
Irritability and aggression, manifested as frequently assaults others, or engages in fighting
Blatantly disregards safety of self and others,
A pattern of irresponsibility and
Lack of remorse for actions
Some other criteria they need to check: be 18 years or older, meet criteria for conduct disorder before age 15, and these antisocial behaviors aren't occurring because of another condition like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Research shows that only about 1-4% of the population meets criteria for ASPD. At the time I'm writing this, the current US population is 332,810,202. So that means anywhere from 300k- 1.3 million people in the US have ASPD. In other words: not a lot.
How's It Looking for Your Ex?
Alright, you have the criteria right there. They need to meet 3 or more of the 7 criteria listed above (and also need to be 18+, have a history of problematic behavior seen in childhood, and not have another psychiatric illness).
I know what you're feeling right now. Disappointment.
Chances are that your ex, as frustrating and mean and irrational and uncaring as they have been, is probably not a sociopath. And that's because humans who are not sociopaths can still have characteristics of sociopaths, which is why diagnosis can be so challenging.
For example- I'm betting that you have lied before ("I was home before curfew!"), or have broken a minor law that seemed inconsequential (anyone jay walk or roll through a stop sign at night?), or acted impulsively (buying that shirt that was way too pricey but looked amazing), or started a fight with someone... you get the idea. We all have degrees of these traits, but that doesn't make us antisocial in the clinical sense.
We all have a certain degree of sociopathic traits, such as cheating on a quiz or or speeding on the highway, but this does not mean we have antisocial personality disorder.
Good People Can Do Bad Things
This is the tough thing to accept- good people can do bad things and still be good people. Truly decent people can lie, or cheat, or end relationships in harsh ways. Their actions aren't good, but they may still be good people (good people doing bad things).
Good people can do bad things and still be good people.
Even more upsetting is when this ex gets into a new relationship and treats that person so much better. They answer texts, they bring gifts, they meet their partner's family- they do all the things you wish they had done with you, but with someone else. Isn't this a sign that they're an emotionless, manipulative, uncaring, unfeeling, unbelievable sociopath?!
No, this still doesn't make them a bad person. It means that they learned and grew from your relationship. Perhaps they realized their behavior was immature or hurtful, perhaps they're now in a better headspace to be in a relationship, or maybe their new partner fits with them in a way that you didn't and is bringing out the best in them.
People can be bad in some relationships and great in others, or they can do bad things and then change, or they can love and care for one partner more than a previous one, and, you guessed it, they can still be good people.
So Why Do We Wish That Exes Were Sociopaths?
Now this is the really interesting question that people don't like to ask, and they certainly won't like the answer.
We wish our exes were "crazy" because it would make us feel better about ourselves. It is incredibly painful to realize and accept that someone we dated and loved is a normal person, with normal feelings, who just didn't want to be with us. It makes us ask the question, incorrect and unhelpful as it may be: "Then what is wrong with me?"
It is incredibly painful to realize and accept that someone we dated and loved is a normal person, with normal feelings, who just didn't want to be with us.
It's so much easier to say that our ex is an emotionless sociopath who cares about no one and nothing, and we're so much better off now without them, and the poor person who gets caught in a relationship with them next.
Even if that's not how we actually feel.
Even if we really miss that sociopath, and the way they used to cook breakfast on weekends, and how they grabbed your hand before crossing the street, and the sound of their laugh, and the genuine love they showed us that proved they weren't a sociopath.
It's easier to say that they're awful and unfeeling and cruel than to say that we're heartbroken and confused and wish they would still love us.
"But They Don't Care That We Broke Up"
Yes, they do care.* You don't see that person mourning the loss of the relationship. You don't see them crying at night, or looking at your old photos, or questioning their decision even if they know it was the right thing to do.
What you see is the picture of them out at a bar (before they end up crying later that night), or the photos of you gone from their Instagram account (because they deleted the public ones but kept other photos saved in their phone), or your text message that they left on read (when they want to text back but know it's not right to restart things).
I see and hear the truth of what people feel after relationship endings. No matter the reasons for the breakup or divorce, people who end relationships are also in pain. They don't show this to you because you are the only person that they can't and shouldn't show this to- you are the person they hurt even more than themselves, that they disappointed, that they let down by letting go.
*I had to include the asterisk because there are some people who don't care. It's a very small number, I've only encountered one or two in my years of clinical work, but they do exist.
So to end with some hope- there is still a chance your ex is one of these few, that they're one of the 1-4% of the population with ASPD, and if it helps to think that they're a sociopath to help you get through a breakup, I totally get it.