Is he a psychopath — or just a manipulator?

At some point in dating you have, no doubt, encountered jerks, players, and self-absorbed individuals. Perhaps you labeled some narcissists. But have you ever encountered someone you’d deem a psychopath?

In researching a relative’s extreme personality disorder, I decided to read Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work to determine how to best respond to the anti-social behavior with which I was having to deal. While the book focuses on psychopaths in the workplace, I thought I’d glean some ideas for identifying and dealing with these folks anywhere.

First, what’s the difference between a narcissist, sociopath and psychopath? I’m not a psychiatrist or psychologist, so I can only paraphrase the authors’ description.

  • “Narcissistic personality disorder involves … displaying a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, sense of entitlement and lack of empathy.”
  • “Sociopathy refers to patterns of attitudes and behaviors that are considered antisocial and criminal by society at large, but are seen as normal … by the subculture … in which they developed…. Many criminals might be described as sociopaths.”
  • Psychopaths and narcissists have some overlapping characteristics, like lack of empathy, and grandiosity, but psychopaths couple these with deceitfulness, lack of remorse, without conscience or loyalty, refusal to accept responsibility and antisocial behavior. While these may sum up the things you loath about your ex, it’s not likely he was really a psychopath! More probably, he was probably just a jerk.

Not all psychopaths are criminals — or at least only a fraction of those with this disorder have either committed crimes or have been caught. The authors say approximately 1% of the population could be diagnosed with psychosis. They point out that only a small percentage of them have been put behind bars, so they are loose in society. Because psychopaths are often intelligent and present themselves well, you’d never know to look at them that you are about to be manipulated for your money, job, belongings or sex.

And not all manipulators are psychopaths. There are plenty of people who will lie, cheat, and steal, but that doesn’t mean they have this personality disorder.

So if so few people qualify as bona fide psychopaths, why am I telling you all this? Because I found the book a fascinating read and if you deal with anyone — at work or personally — who is a smooth manipulator, it may be useful to you.

Secondly, to encourage you to disengage from anyone who has extremely abnormal behavior that you feel is harmful to you. I had to extricate myself from a bullying manipulator, even amid pleading from friends and family to not do so. I am making that same decision about the aforementioned relative. You don’t have to put up with harmful behavior — whether it be emotional, verbal or physical — no matter who it’s coming from.

Have you encountered a manipulator in dating? If so, what was the final straw and how did you end it?


To explore other examples on whether he’s a keeper or not, get your own copy of Real Deal or Faux Beau: Should You Keep Seeing Him? today!


9 responses to “Is he a psychopath — or just a manipulator?”

  1. Julie Avatar

    Interesting topic. And, I’ve heard there are degrees of narcissism, ranging from narcissitic tendencies to the diagnosed narcissistic personality disorder.

    I knew someone that at least seemed narcissitic in some way, and even according to the therapist I needed to see after it was over. He was charismatic and really got the better of me. We started out as a real relationship, but because I wouldn’t tolerate everything and questioned him, he started to loose interest…. but he would still come around once every couple of weeks or so.. and he knew I was sincerely looking for a someone to be with. He would even disappear for a month or more, then show up again. Because we did have a real boyfriend girlfriend relationship at first, there was a certain trust level. I felt like he was harmless… but then at one point after about a year of this popping in and out stuff things started to shift and I could sense he was more distant.. confusing, isnt it… but up until that point, when we connected every few weeks, he still seemed engaged with me and nice to me – then I felt that change and I felt needy at that point… and anyhoo…. suddenly it was apparant that he was just trying to make this in to a booty call situation and wasnt trying to hide it. It was odd… so I ended it. I told him the second to last time he called that he was welcome to stop by but we were going to keep it friendly only. He did not come by and 2 days later, he made a point to call me up and formally end it. And, he had never done that before.. just outright ended it.

    I found out he got married just a month later – no not 2 months later, just a month later. When I first met him, he said he’d like to get married again, he believed in it.. and then as time moved on, he grew more distant… he would say ‘he did that already’ (been married) and then would say, “I’m not a relationship guy.”… and as I described he got married shortly after I ended what was turning in to blatant attempt at booty callness. Here is someone who was still trying to see me during a time he must have been planning his wedding, and seemed to end our connection only because I let him know there’d be no physical relationship any longer. So, he ended it with me and married a month later.

    To me some of it sounds like ‘dog’ guy behavior, but I ended up feeling kind of weirded out wondering what’s wrong with him that he’d be trying to keep things going with me when he obviously has someone else and at some point, decided to get married… but still continued to contact me.. like I said, there was a trust level established the first year or so even tho he stopped coming around as much, i already had a trust for him and most of all…. I guess I believed he was harmless.

    This guy has a prominent position in government and gives talks in the bay area on subject matter related to his profession.

    I learned a big lesson. I had not come across anyone like this before. I had always just had boyfriends, no brief relationships or booty call situations, so I was naive as to what can happen. And we were both 50 years old. I thought it was a little odd for a guy that age to be acting like that. Therapist suggested someone in their 20’s maybe not that unusual, but to be 50 and acting like that… she felt there was an issue.. all I know is when i heard he actually married someone so quickly it made me feel so strange i needed to go talk to someone about it.

  2. Julie Avatar

    And, I forgot a major point… about 2 months before this final ending thing, and then his marriage a month after that… he came over to my house and announced that he was ready to start thinking about being a relationship guy. In other words, he came over to let me know he was ready to start seeing me again more regularly. By the time a week had passed, I was completely confused again because he back pedaled on everything he told me when he stopped by that day… he said it was a misunderstanding… actually, by the time he left that same day he started back pedaling on what he said to me before we had the sex that day. I was being manipulated but I couldnt quite see it because i was in the middle of it. So, after this last visit, there was basically not much contact for a month or more…. then one last stab by him to see me again but i said ‘friends only’ then he ended it, then got married.

    Yuck! What I just said here is why i felt so manipulated in the end.

  3. Mark Avatar

    I read that it’s estimated that about 15% of the population suffers from personality disorders. There are actually about nine different ones, clustered into three types. Some of the others that DG didn’t mention include borderline and paranoid personality types. Sociopaths, too, who are the really scary ones. These are often the ones who become the serial killers.

    People with these disorders can be highly functional, yet very hard to live with. And to outsiders, they may appear completely normal. Even when you are dating someone, you may not notice any behavior that sticks out. However, if you get into a live-in relationship, chances are sooner or later you’ll see it and you’ll find it difficult to be with this kind of person.

    The sad thing is there’s no real cure for these. They are psychological disorders and not something that can be treated with drugs. Therapy is the primary treatment, but the nature of these disorders is that the person suffering from one typically refuses to believe he or she has a problem. Further, they are often quite clever and learn to say the right things in therapy; in other words, they can often outwit the therapist.

    I’m sure most of the estimated 15% suffer from mild versions of these disorders. If you run into someone who’s full-blown, look out. I once had a conversation with a true paranoid, and it was out of this world crazy. The guy was convinced his laptop had a secret internet connection he couldn’t find and that someone was stealing his information. He thought he heard morse code messages on his car radio when it was tuned between stations. He thought the company I worked at was some kind of undercover government organization. And he was on full disability. You’d never be able to convince him he was paranoid. He would assume you were working for “them.”

  4. Linda Avatar

    A narcissist who worked for a non-profit related to mine took a liking to me, and I explained to him that since we were both married at the time it was inappropriate. He used manipulative and insidious techniques to stay connected to me and began turning up the heat, eventually revealing his plan that I run away with him and leave my spouse and four children behind. It was rather surreal. When this hit the fan and came to light, he turned 100% of the blame on me and accepted zero responsibility for his actions. And then, six months later, ran off with a woman young enough to be his daughter. He was a bona fide predator, and I think that earns the “sociopath” or even “psychopath” label. Very hard to spot in the earlier stages, however! Too smooth and polished. YES, it gives me the creeps — too easy to miss the signals unless one has a high index of suspicion from the get-go.

  5. Karen Avatar

    This hits close to home! I was married to a guy for 9 years, who has a classic case of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). He is extremely charming, but also extremely dishonest, controlling, manipulative, and crisis-prone.

    Life with him was one “Huh? You’ve got to be kidding!” moment after another, and after we split up I went to counseling for a year to try to figure everything out. He’d tell me black was white, he’d do & say stuff one day and claim he didn’t the next–it was all extremely confusing. I’d never heard of NPD before, but counselor filled me in on it and that’s the only explanation for his behavior.

    When we met, I thought he was very charming and intelligent and fun but maybe a bit dishonest, manipulative and slightly “off” somehow. Unfortunately, I didn’t pay attention to the red flags, instead I assumed my slight discomfort was probably due to cultural and language issues or possibly some subconcious discrimination from myself that I was anxious to overcome (he also claimed that when I thought he’d lied, it was my mistake in understanding his accent, or his mistake in not understanding clearly what the English words he said really meant. He also claimed cultural issues caused misunderstandings, like when I complained about him flirting with other women & he said it was normal in his culture and didn’t mean anything.). He also had a doctoral degree & good job (professor at the same large US university where I work), so he seemed OK.

    While we were married, he not only lied all the time, didn’t do things he said he’d do, siphoned off money that I didn’t know about, etc, but he also was investigated through work for sexual harrassment (3 times), using work computers to view porn (4 times), professional fraud (twice, not convicted), and prescription fraud & drug abuse (once, forced into treatment). He drank and had drug problems, and once he had a psychotic break with reality and had to be involuntarily committed overnight (I later found out it was from drug withdrawal).

    I kicked him & filed for divorce when I caught him in an affair with a student. He sent me thousands of abusive emails, called me dozens of times each day on my work on cell phones, told lies to my supervisors at work to try to get me fired, asked my physician to alter my past medical record to say I was psychologically unstable, kidnapped our children from the daycare, stalked my babaysitter, harrassed the court-assigned child custody officer on our case, filed a spurious restraining order against me, and called the police on me (multiple times).

    Fortunately, all his harrassing actions were recorded and I kept my head and used my lawyer to document what he’d done & prove my innocence from his accusations. I received custody of the children in the divorce and multiple legal orders to prevent his harrassment, & my workplace took his workplace abuse of me very seriously and threatened him so it (mostly) stopped.

    In the past few years there have been a few episodes involving the police, him telling the children he was going to disown them (they were extremely upset), accusing me of professional fraud (again), etc. It only got him in more trouble with the law and our workplace–I just wish he hadn’t upset the kids so much (& not surprisingly, you can’t disown your own children to avoid child support, so he’s still paying it through garnished wages).

    I also recently heard that he’s gotten into unrelated trouble at work for not showing up to teach classes when he was supposed to, for harrassing other people, for abusing his expense account, and for claiming positions and degrees that he doesn’t have.

    Is he a psychopath? I don’t know exactly–he’s certainly not in touch with reality all the time, and he seems to give little thought to the impact of his actions on others, even how others might view him.

    I just hope and pray that he keeps somewhat stable and keeps his job, so he doesn’t have a melt down and do something awful like kill himself or hurt the kids sometime during the next few years before they leave for college. The stories in the media about fathers (it’s always fathers) who lose their jobs and kill themselves and all their kids absolutely freak me out. It’s just exactly like something he could and would do.

    But yes, despite his documented drug abuse and psychosis and abuse and etc he still enjoys lots of court-ordered parenting time—he’s the “magical” father after all who is supposed to be so beneficial to his children not matter what! I have my doubts, but the custody system makes it clear that they think that any father, even a very unstable guy, is going to have just such a wonderfully positive effect on his children. I hope I’m wrong and he stays stable until they can get safely away from him if necessary.

    Sorry for the lengthy reply….it’s a topic very close to home for me. I still worry about my kids a lot when they’re with him.

  6. Julie Avatar

    Karen I’m not a psychiatrist but he sounds like a psychopath! The guy I mentioned had an attitude like as long as he’s not married, it’s OK to have the best time possible… but I think in every other aspect of his life, he has control of himself. And, I believe this guy feels that once he’s married, he’s married. No fooling around. I would feel terrible knowing someone I was getting ready to marry was calling an ex-girlfriend, who he never totally let go of. I still don’t quite get it. The shrink said it sounds like I challenged him too much and someone that self absorbed wouldn’t like that. Maybe it’s much simpler – he probably just completely disrespected me and did so because I allowed it, and the temptation was too much for him!

  7. Mitsy Avatar

    Interesting posts. My ex-boyfriend (who is the alcoholic) exhibited many bizarre and unrealistic personality traits. It’s hard to say how much of his addiction is at the root of his strange behavior, but I’d say a large percentage of it is alcohol-related. However, he oftentimes acted in a way that made me (and others) believe he’d taken leave of his senses. There seemed to be no true remorse for his bad behavior. He could apologize hundreds of times, yet repeat that same behavior within days. I usually blamed his boozing on his behavior, but a part of me believes he also suffers from bi-polar disorder or some other undiagnosed psychosis. To this day, he has managed to keep his job and he’s a great manipulator in getting others to think that he’s OK, at least temporarily. But apologies mean nothing if the guy doesn’t seek help to change the offending behavior.

    The mistake most women make (and I include myself here) is that we tolerate the bad behavior WAY too long and allow ourselves to be emotionally abused to where we can’t even think clearly. The longer I’m away from my exbf, the more I can see just how damaging he was to me. I should have kicked him to the curb about 18 months sooner than I did.

    He still occasionally calls & leaves messages but I erase them. He walked into the store with me one night a couple weeks ago and tried to act like I was a long-lost friend. I can’t muster any phony fondness for him anymore–he killed that along with the love I used to have for him. It was later that evening that he left his last message. I think he’s finally gotten it that I’m done with him and his addiction, bizarre behavior, and self-absorbed drama. He may try to call again, but he’s only wasting his energy at this point. After a while, these misfits in society lose all their friends and any potential relationships they might otherwise have.

    Julie, trust me, the guy who married this other woman after a month of ending things w/you has a long, hard road ahead of her. Just be happy you dodged that bullet. That is what I tell myself about more than one of my ex’s.

  8. Karen Avatar

    OK, and I’m dating this guy now & I’m wondering….is he one, too? Am I just too blind to see it (again)? Sometimes I wonder if I have a huge blind spot, or a sign on my forehead saying “gullible”!

    He told me he was separated & in the process of divorcing, when we first got together about a year ago. I actually checked him out online and indeed, he’d lived in his small apartment for a couple of years. I know that divorces where kids are involved can take a couple years, so it seemed legit.

    But for months he’d show up & things would go great, but then I wouldn’t hear from him, but just when I was going to write him off he’d show up and be great again. He’d confessed to being unfaithful while married, but apparently the marriage hadn’t been a good match and was pretty miserable—a red flag, but I gave him a pass on that–anyone could do something stupid, y’know? I asked him Thanksgiving at my sisters but then he bailed at the last minute. He also bailed on Christmas, saying he was off to visit his folks in another state, but later he said he didn’t go (& I didn’t see him either). I figured he was just non-commital and I was considering dropping him. Suddenly around January he got more serious and wanted to spend lots of time together. I asked him “what happened?” and he told me he wasn’t sure I was serious before,which didn’t make any sense since I hadn’t changed or said anything different. It was puzzling….then he said one night he had something to tell me….and told me he’d had a years-long affair while married with…his church pastor’s wife! He eventually broke it off but he was still racked with guilt. I was upset and wondered why he was telling me–it seemed like a really awful thing to do–and I stopped seeing him for a while but he said he’d reformed & etc and I tried to move past the uncomfortable knowledge about that betrayal. He also finished his divorce so I thought he was getting his life straight. It just seemed so bad, moreso because he’s very religious (more than I am). Then last week I finally put 2 and 2 together….and asked him directly. Sure enough, he was still seeing her while dating me! For at least the first 6 months we were together. Even though I asked him directly at the time if he was seeing anyone else & he said ‘no’. Now he says that he knows it was wrong to lie to me, but he felt such a connection with me and didn’t want to lose that, and wouldn’t I have dropped him right away if I’d known?

    I’m worried this guy is totally rotten and without boundaries and a habitual liar. On the other hand, we click tremendously, the sex is great, and I have a great time with him and we like very similar things. He swears now (again) that he’s reforming, that’s he’s done with the double life thing, that he always hated it, that with me he always wanted to turn over a new leaf, that being with me showed him that’s what he wants to do, and etc etc. And it’s so hard to find a good man to date at my age, y’know?

    Should I trust him and go on with this relationship, or should I kick him to the curb? Honestly, I can’t imagine doing the things he’s done myself–not in a million years which makes me wonder is he a psycho too?

  9. Dating Goddess Avatar


    This guy has repeatedly shown his true colors. If you stick with him, think of it as a fling and keep dating others, as sooner or later he’ll break your heart. He’s a liar. Do you really want to be with someone who shows he has no compunction about cheating with you or his wife? You want an honest man, right? So don’t stick with him out of desperation — keep your foot firmly planted in the dating pool. Tell him you don’t want to be exclusive and dial back your emotions. There are plenty of great guys so there’s no excuse to settle for a liar. Who knows who else he’s sleeping with while he claims he’s not, thus putting your health at risk.