Many have accused an ex of being crazy, but what if it turned out that your husband was an actual psychopath? Author Jen Waite explores this in her memoir, A Beautiful, Terrible Thing. For several years, Waite seemed to live a perfect life; she was an actress and model who lived in New York City with her adoring husband, beloved step-son, and brand new baby. But one month after giving birth, Waite discovered that her husband was carrying out a secret affair throughout her pregnancy. While she was in labor, Waite claims he took calls from his mistress, and she goes on to allege that he used his paid paternity leave days to shack up with his young lover.
His affair unraveled slowly, as Waite unearthed a pile of evidence over a series of months. Through untangling her husband's web of deceit, Waite discovered that the man she was married to had a surprisingly common diagnosis: Her husband was a psychopath, someone who lied without remorse and refused to acknowledge or take accountability for his own actions.
According to a Psychology Today article, "Psychopathy is among the most difficult disorders to spot. The psychopath can appear normal, even charming. Underneath, he lacks conscience and empathy, making him manipulative, volatile and often (but by no means always) criminal." Although people consider psychopaths to be violent criminals or serials killers, many of them walk among us. Neuroscientist Dr. Kent A. Kiehl believes about one in 150 people qualify as psychopaths.
Waite chronicles the collapse of their marriage, and her path towards healing from the aftereffects of marrying a literal psychopath, in her new book. Over the phone, she gave us some advice on how to spot red flags. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Broadly: What are some signs that the person that you have been with or are currently dating or married to that they might be a psychopath?
Jen Waite: At the beginning, there are a bunch of red flags to look out for. In my experience, the most prevalent is something called love bombing: It's a constant bombardment of flattery and attention, and communication—just constant. At first it kind of seems too much, and then you get used to it, and it is like a drug. You need your fix. You feel like the center of the universe, you feel adored, it feels like you're in a movie. But if you really step back and think about, "Should you be feeling this strongly after a couple of weeks?" It's like, alright, red flag.
What are other red flags?
Another one that I experienced a lot of is the pity play, the sob story. [You may] notice that their actions are not always aligning with their words, and you call them out on it, and they have a sob story, but it's not really relevant to what you're calling them out on. It's just something that makes you feel really bad for them. Suddenly they're the victim and they're changing the narrative. That's another one that happened a lot with my ex-husband. They're kind of preying on the normal person's immediate response of empathy and guilt.
Do they repeat behaviors?
Try to be as objective as possible and learn about their past, because a lot of psychopaths really go through the same relationship cycle over and over again. If they have a lot of supposedly "crazy" exes, and a lot of other people that they've kind of tossed aside in their path, and don't have a great relationship with their family or a lot of friends, that's because they're going from person to person and destroying those bridges.
If someone is in a relationship with a psychopath, or still in contact with one, what would you suggest be their next step?
It's tricky because it's not like getting out of a normal relationship because the psychopath does thrive on drama and wants to make your life as miserable as possible. Through my own experience, I realized that being really boring helpful. Don't engage with the kind of dramatic texts you're inevitably going to get. It really sucks, I'm not going to lie.
Are there any misconceptions that you've encountered when talking to people about psychopaths?
Just that there are a lot of them that appear to be completely normal and likable and charming and attractive. They're not all serial killers. A lot of people think and associate the word psychopath with serial killer—that's not the case. A lot of serial killers are psychopaths, but there are also a lot of people walking around amongst us who have a cluster of the traits and have just decided that it's not their taste. Their taste is more for emotional destruction or financial destruction. They're not necessarily killing people, but they are going around destroying people's lives.
If you are currently or formerly involved with a psychopath, check out Waite's website.