In HBO’s drama series The Undoing, Grace Fraser, played by Nicole Kidman, is a highly trained psychotherapist who never recognized that her husband of seventeen years, Jonathan (Hugh Grant), was a sociopath. This has led many to wonder: if a Harvard-educated therapist could be in denial (even a fictional one), could I be married to a sociopath? Our Founder and Clinical Director Matt Lundquist recently answered questions about the depiction of Jonathan’s psychological condition and how a partner might recognize sociopathic traits in The Cut.
In “Could My Exceedingly Charming Spouse Be A Psychopath?” Matt explains that Jonathan’s clinical diagnosis would most likely be antisocial personality disorder or “what historically was called sociopathy,” which he defines as “someone who operates in ways that don’t conform to societal norms and who is not capable of typical human emotions.” As Jonathan’s mother articulates in the show, Jonathan “doesn’t know how to suffer,” meaning in cases where most people would feel bad for having acted (or not acted) in a certain way with a certain conscience, her son simply didn’t.
Sociopathy is oddly both under- and over-diagnosed. We have an idea of sociopaths as murderers or people who run Ponzi schemes. While this is true, most sociopaths don’t operate in such extremes and most people have encountered plenty of sociopaths in their lives. However, using the term sociopath is a way to identify something distinct from mere bad behavior. Certain individuals lack or have a severely impaired conscience, the part of our psyche that allows us to consider the moral consequences of our actions.
It’s important to note that while sociopathy as a diagnosis is binary (a given individual either meets the diagnostic criteria or not), many people can fall short of that criteria, but still have “sociopathic traits.” Some people can be a kind of antisocial light.
Identifying some of these traits in the article, Matt pinpoints grandiosity, observing that it’s not only merely thinking you’re great, but “thinking you’re great and therefore don’t have to follow the same rules as other people.” It’s worth noting that grandiosity is more specific than arrogance. With sociopaths, there’s often a belief that rules and conventions don’t apply to them–that one’s smarts or charms exempt them from having to follow rules of decorum. There’s also often a belief that they’re destined for greater things, which doesn’t always align with their actual accomplishments.
Beyond grandiosity, other signs include rage or anger that quickly resets in a way that can feel jarring in its extremity. Most meaningfully, there’s also an absence of a normal shame response. For instance, someone forgets an arranged plan, arrives late, or accidentally steps on your toe and doesn’t seem to be bothered at having hurt you or that botheredness doesn’t feel sincere.
While the show itself may not have exactly created a believable narrative about Grace’s denial (as Matt asserts in The Cut), there are certainly very bright, insightful people who have discovered they’re married to (or dating, or working for or with) a sociopath. There’s especially a tremendous amount of denial in love relationships. Typically someone who is married to a severe sociopath may likely have a history of trauma, often (though not always) including having been raised by a parent or parents who exhibit this sort of bad behavior.
So what should you do if you think you’re married or in a relationship with a sociopath? Diagnosis actually matters very little. What’s important is a coming to consciousness and a coming out of denial, which should include reflecting on the question of how you got into such a relationship to begin with. This is not just for the purposes of self-reflection and preventing yourself from being in the same situation again, but because that reflection is key to becoming more immune to the coercion of a sociopath. If there is concern for physical safety (and there often is), concern for children, and/or concern for financial shenanigans when leaving the relationship, working with a therapist who understands how sociopaths operate is crucial so you can extricate yourself without triggering the worst of their rage and manipulations.