Mind & Body

Psychopaths Stay Friends with Their Exes for a Terrifying Reason

Have you ever had an ex that you just couldn't seem to get rid of? You broke up for a reason, but somehow they always seemed to charm their way back into invites to your parties, requests for favors, and maybe even late-night hookups. How do they keep managing to do that? And why won't they just leave that chapter of their life behind? We have bad news: your ex might be a psychopath.

Breaking (Up) Bad

According to a 2017 study by Oakland researchers Justin K. Mogilski and Lisa Welling, people who score high on dark personality traits (such as Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy) just aren't very good at breaking up with their partners. Even after it's supposedly over, they tend to keep their former partners in their lives. Most relationship experts caution against staying friends with exes as a rule, though that's not to say that it's impossible or shouldn't ever be attempted. But when a narcissist, psychopath, or somebody else with a penchant for manipulation wants to keep a broken relationship afloat, it's often not for good-faith reasons.

In the first of the researchers' two studies, 348 participants were asked to nominate possible reasons for two former romantic partners to stay friends with each other. The reasons they gave were sorted into two categories. Reasons of reliability/sentimentality might include statements like "I want what's best for her even if we're not together" or "I trust him to help raise our children." By contrast, reasons of pragmatism might include things like "She always loans me money" or "She'll do anything I tell her to." Then, they took those suggestions to the next study, where they asked 513 more participants to rank those reasons by how valid they are. Finally, they gave the second group of participants a questionnaire to gauge their dark personality traits. What they found was that not only were psychopaths and narcissists more likely to stay with their exes, but they also ranked the selfish and manipulative reasons for doing so as the most compelling.

Breaking Free

Let's say you're the non-psychopath in this fizzled-out relationship. It's not an enviable situation. You're dealing with somebody who has trouble seeing things from your perspective, who acts impulsively and without regard for consequences, and who, apparently, sees you as a resource that they can exploit. If you break it off with somebody like that, you can expect a lot of resistance — and for them to turn on the charm. Stay strong! Here are some tips to keep from falling back into their trap:

  • Pay attention to actions, not words. You'll hear a lot of arguments and promises — but judge them on what they do instead.
  • Cut off contact. As one wise woman said, "One, don't pick up the phone ... Two, don't let him in ... Three, don't be his friend."
  • Make sure you have someone in your corner. The thing is, psychopaths and narcissists can be very charming, and some of your friends may have been charmed. Reach out to somebody who will hear your side.
  • Give yourself space to grieve. Even if somebody never had your best interests at heart, you still have a relationship to mourn.
  • Find things to do for yourself. Since narcissists take up so much mental space, you might feel lost without them. Find something to fill what they left behind.
  • Develop stronger boundaries and relationships. When you learn about yourself, you'll learn what you can live with and what you can't. Once you understand yourself better, you'll understand your relationships better too.

If you haven't read Jon Ronson's "The Psychopath Test" yet, you've got to (it's free with your trial membership to Audible!). It's an eye-opening look into not just the minds of psychopaths, but the minds of those who decide what psychopaths are. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas June 15, 2018

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