Living With Someone Who Has Antisocial Personality Disorder: How To Cope

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated May 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Previously referred to as sociopathy, antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) is a mental illness categorized by antisocial behavior, difficulty with empathy, manipulative behavior, and a disregard for the law. Although not discussed often in media, 7.4 million Americans are diagnosed with the condition. Although "sociopath" is a term often used to describe these individuals, it is an outdated and sometimes stigmatizing term due to its associated connotations. 

If you know someone you think might be showing traits of ASPD, you're not alone. Understanding the signs of this mental health condition, how to cope in a relationship with someone with ASPD, and how to find support can be beneficial.

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Learn about the nature of sociopathy and related behaviors

What is antisocial personality disorder (ASPD)?

The combination of emotions, behaviors, and thoughts an individual has makes up their personality. When disruptions in personality occur and cause significant adverse impacts on a person's life or relationships, they might be experiencing a personality disorder. There are several personality disorders within the DSM-5, and each has different criteria. 

One such personality disorder is antisocial personality disorder. While the exact cause of ASPD is unknown, genetics, environmental factors, and changes in the structure and function of the brain are believed to be contributing factors to its development. Risk factors for developing ASPD or antisocial behaviors include having a history of a childhood conduct disorder or a family history of personality disorders. Additionally, living in a violent or unstable family during childhood or experiencing childhood abuse or neglect are believed to be contributing factors.

With millions of Americans diagnosed with ASPD, you may have met someone with this diagnosis before. It can be challenging to discern what mental health challenges an individual is experiencing. Many people with APSD may be confused with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), a different mental health condition. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, is used by clinicians and psychiatrists to diagnose mental illnesses. According to research and the DSM-5, antisocial personality disorder is defined as "[a] pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since the age of 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of the following symptoms:"

  1. Failure to conform to social norms concerning lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest

  2. Deceitfulness as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure

  3. Impulsivity or failure to plan

  4. Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults

  5. Reckless disregard for the safety of self or others

  6. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations

  7. Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another

Those with antisocial personality disorder may exhibit traits described as both sociopathic and psychopathic within the DSM-5. However, note that it's typically unhelpful to apply psychopath vs sociopath language to an individual—i.e., calling someone a "psychopath" or a "sociopath"—as it can be derogatory and stigmatize receiving support and making healthy behavioral changes. Instead, understanding that psychopathy and sociopathy are clinical terms to describe symptoms and not people can be valuable. 

Personality disorders: What’s the difference between sociopathy and psychopathy?

Because sociopathic and psychopathic personality traits may cause one to display antisocial behavior, such as a high disregard for other people's feelings, some people use the terms interchangeably. However, there is a difference between the two terms in a clinical environment.

Psychopathic behaviors

Individuals with psychopathic behaviors may be organized in the way they act. They might have traits of obsession or compulsive behaviors to keep their plans in order. Their constant need for an organization may make these individuals favorites among employers, and they might be successful on a base level. In addition, they may have social relationships, although these relationships might not be healthy. Despite their lack of ability to experience a genuine emotional connection with others or feel remorse, some people with psychopathic behaviors may get married and have families. 

Someone with ASPD and psychopathic behaviors may have a limited ability to express emotions, feel empathy, or care for others.  However, they may be limited to understanding emotion, which may help them manipulate others. Individuals with psychopathic traits may partake in criminal behavior, abusive actions, or unkind conversations without a care for others. 

Those with psychopathic tendencies may also lack respect for authority or rules. For this reason, many famous criminals have been shown to have psychopathic behaviors or personalities. A constant need for organization, excessive attention to detail, and a heightened sense of self may cause someone with these traits to feel they can get away with their unlawful behaviors.  Many people experiencing these symptoms may plan unlawful acts carefully to ensure they go undetected. 

Not all people with psychopathic tendencies are criminals, and not all criminals have psychopathic tendencies. Mental health is complex, and therapy can be one potential treatment for integration into society. 

Sociopathic behaviors

Sociopathic traits and behaviors differ from psychopathic behaviors. While the two terms are often used interchangeably, sociopathy is not an official diagnosis, whereas psychopathy is often referred to in clinical settings. However, individuals with severe sociopathic tendencies or ASPD may exhibit similar traits and behaviors to those with psychopathy.  

People with ASPD are often considered disorganized. They may struggle to maintain normal or lasting relationships with friends, family, partners, and coworkers. Their struggle to stay focused and maintain order often results in difficulty obtaining or maintaining steady employment or housing. Their behavior may be more erratic and unplanned, and they might struggle with impulse control. 

Many people with ASPD do have a conscience. However, their conscience might not dictate their behavior. For example, they may know that a specific action is wrong or inappropriate but may engage in the behavior if it directly benefits them. A benefit might be attention, money, status, fame, or another area. People with sociopathic tendencies may also have narcissistic tendencies. 

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How do you know if someone in your life has ASPD?

It can be challenging to know what mental health condition an individual is living with based on symptoms alone. If you believe someone you care about is living with ASPD, consider suggesting professional support. You might benefit from taking them to a psychologist or psychiatrist for evaluation if they are your child. Diagnosing someone else with a mental health condition if you are not their therapist or doctor can be unhealthy and inaccurate and may contribute to harmful stigma. There are many mental health conditions with similar traits to ASPD that are not ASPD. 

Signs you may be in a relationship with someone showcasing sociopathic, psychopathic, or narcissistic traits can include the following: 

  • Isolating behaviors 

  • Verbal, emotional, or mental abuse

  • A heightened sense of self (delusions of grandeur) 

  • Risky or illegal behaviors

  • A disregard for the emotions, opinions, and thoughts of others in all situations (not only arguments/conflict) 

  • A lack of or no empathy 

  • Antisocial behaviors like a lack of interest in making friends

  • Negative opinions of others around them 

If you are in a relationship that you feel is one-sided, unhealthy, or toxic, it may be beneficial to reach out for support. Regardless of diagnosis or mental health, anyone can act abusively toward another person. In these cases, calling a domestic violence hotline, contacting local service organizations, or talking to a therapist may benefit you. 

If this individual in your life is a child, note that children may not be diagnosed with a personality disorder. Children are often diagnosed with conditions like conduct disorder or oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). Behaviors of ASPD can start in childhood or adolescence and move into adulthood. However, as adolescents constantly grow and change, strict diagnoses may limit future possibilities. 

Symptoms of ASPD 

Below are some of the symptoms of ASPD in adults to look out for in a relationship with others. Note that these symptoms may also occur in other mental health conditions. 

Superficial charm

Those with ASPD may be charismatic and charming at first, but this is often a superficial charm that seems less genuine when the person displays symptoms such as a lack of remorse. People drawn to them may state that they felt the person was unique, special, or "perfect' for them. Although the charm can initially seem genuine, it may fade further into the relationship, leading to unhealthy behaviors. 

Lack of empathy 

People living with ASPD may struggle to feel empathy, remorse, or shame. They may manipulate others for personal gain and not feel guilty for it. A lack of empathy can cause challenges in relationships. For example, if you’re in a relationship with a “sociopath” or a person with ASPD, they may hurt your feelings and not feel guilty afterward. 

Feigned love

Those struggling with sociopathic traits may act in self-serving ways. They may pretend to have compassion toward or feel love for others to get their way. However, the behavior they showcase may not be authentic or genuine. This can make living with a “sociopath” or a person with ASPD challenging. 

A sense of superiority 

People with narcissistic and sociopathic traits may feel superior to others in their life and society. They might believe they deserve special treatment or are more intelligent than others. This symptom often makes it challenging to find the best way to deal with a “sociopath” or a person with ASPD. 

Relationship difficulties 

Because it can be difficult for those with ASPD to experience emotion, developing healthy relationships can be challenging for them. These individuals might experience fractured relationships and have many past failed relationships. 

Manipulation 

Sociopaths tend to be master manipulators. They frequently use their influence to control others.  This behavior may come in the form of charm, seduction, or ingratiation.

Hostility 

While not all people with ASPD showcase hostility, some may experience persistent feelings of anger or irritability. These responses may occur for minor reasons or in response to losing a relationship. Often, they may be motivated to seek revenge or cause harm to those they believe hurt them. 

How to interact with someone with antisocial personality disorder 

Although it may feel challenging at times, there are a few areas to consider that may help prevent unhealthy behaviors from someone with ASPD from impacting your life. 

Be careful what you say

Those with sociopathic tendencies may take information from various conversations and use it to manipulate circumstances for their benefit. Avoid conversations discussing your relationships, finances, or any other topic that could give anyone information to hurt you. Although it can be tempting to be vulnerable and open up about your feelings, try not to show the individual which areas of your life hurt you the most, or they may use them against you. 

In addition, try to keep specific details away from those who might use them to get revenge on you. For instance, if you are making plans to start a new business or have connections with people who could be influential to your success, keep this information to yourself. Someone who wants to get revenge might call your place of work, write false information about you, or try to turn others against you. 

Avoid terms like “sociopaths” or “sociopathic,” even if the person has been diagnosed with ASPD by a clinical psychologist or is participating in modalities such as cognitive behavioral therapy. These terms carry harmful stereotypes and are considered outdated by today’s mental health professionals.

Be cautious 

Those with sociopathic tendencies may be skilled in manipulating. They might manipulate others to gain emotional control and cause doubt. Even if what this individual tells you seems believable, be cautious and question what is said. Note that the individual might be lying to you. Ask yourself the motivation behind what they're saying. If there's a possibility they are motivated in an unhealthy way, they may be lying. 

Avoid trying to “fix” or deciding how to “deal” with a sociopath

Personality disorders are severe mental illnesses that are often difficult to treat. If you love someone with a personality disorder, you're not alone, but the individual may not be open to seeking treatment or admitting they have a problem. Although suggesting local resources or treatment may be helpful, you are not responsible for fixing anyone else for them and you don’t have to learn how to “deal” with a sociopath in your life. Safeguarding yourself and or your family members from antisocial traits is okay. 

Note that there are several treatments approved for ASPD that can be effective, and many mental illnesses can be manageable with professional support. However, you do not have to stay in a relationship that is unhealthy for you to wait for someone to change. 

Listen to your instincts

Because individuals with these traits might act in manipulative ways, you might sometimes second-guess your instincts. If you feel like you are being manipulated or abused by someone, take the time to consider what made you feel uncomfortable. If you have given someone many chances to change, you might be in a cycle of abuse. Listening to your instincts when you first meet someone can be beneficial and is a practice you can start to perfect with professional help. 

Avoid confrontation 

Because their conscience may not influence them, some people with sociopathic traits may act dangerously and recklessly during a confrontation. They may act violently or try to hurt others when confronted. If this occurs, ensure your safety by leaving the location and asking for help. You can also call a domestic violence hotline. 

Stay alert

If you find yourself uncomfortable, stay alert and go somewhere safe if possible. If someone is acting violently, do not try to resolve the situation yourself. Staying in an escalated situation could lead to harm. 

Leave the relationship 

Although you may love someone with a personality disorder immensely, if their behaviors are abusive, unhealthy, or harming you in any way, you might consider leaving the relationship. Leaving may sometimes be the healthiest choice, and it doesn't necessarily mean you don't care about the person or want them to get help. 

If you decide to stay, couples counseling may be beneficial. In addition, if your partner is open to it, they might benefit from seeing a therapist educated in personality disorders. However, if your partner does not want to go to couples counseling or refuses to see a problem, it may be unhealthy to continue in the relationship. 

In addition, if you decide to stay in a relationship with someone with sociopathic or psychopathic traits, it may be difficult for you to accept that the person does not feel emotions or empathy in the same way as you. When understanding their behaviors and emotions, you might try to see them from your own point of view. A therapist may be able to help you cope with these differences, but many people find that it isn't healthy for them. 

Suppose you want to maintain a relationship with someone with ASPD. In that case, you might consider explaining to them how their behavior affects you and the relationship after becoming aware of their inability to understand your emotions. Set personal boundaries and clarify that violating them will result in consequences, like the end of the relationship. 

If someone you're in a relationship with is causing you harm, consider the long-term effects for yourself and those for whom you are responsible, such as children or other dependents, and weigh the benefits vs. the risks of staying in a relationship with them.

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Learn about the nature of sociopathy and related behaviors

Seek professional help

If you are in a relationship with or have been affected by the behavior of someone diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, consider reaching out for professional guidance. Caring for your mental health can help you see the behaviors that might be unhealthy in your relationship. If you have a pattern of being attracted to those with sociopathic, narcissistic, or psychopathic tendencies, your therapist can help you explore the reasoning behind this attraction. 

If you're worried about seeking support in person, you can also try online therapy. Studies have found that internet-based interventions are highly effective for those who have experienced domestic violence or abuse in a relationship. They are also often more cost-effective than face-to-face options. Through an online platform, you can remain discreet by using a nickname instead of your real name and choosing the format of counseling you prefer, whether it's phone, video, or live chat sessions. 

If you're ready to speak to a therapist, you can sign up through an online platform like BetterHelp at any time to get started. With over 30,000 therapists available, you can often receive a therapist match based on your needs, preferences, and location within 48 hours. In addition, therapy can be beneficial for those with ASPD or another personality disorder. If you are someone who is going through symptoms like those mentioned above, consider seeking support. 

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Takeaway

Antisocial personality disorder can have distressing symptoms that negatively impact those diagnosed and those in their life. If you're struggling to cope with someone showcasing sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies, reach out for support. You're not alone, and there are multiple avenues available to you.

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