The No. 1 Trap That Keeps People In Relationships With Psychopaths
We often talk about gratitude like it's the miracle cure. Don't get me wrong: While I have a lot in my life to be grateful for, gratitude—like mindfulness, eating clean, and other well-intentioned solutions—can have their dark sides.
The then-partner of one of my clients once told her she should be grateful he hadn't laid a finger on her since the year began. Another's told him he had nothing to be depressed or traumatized about and should be grateful she was still there with him, despite her escalating abuse. My ex-partner held me emotionally hostage for every tiny piecemeal change he made before regressing to worse behavior.
You see, gratitude can sometimes become your blinders, your ball and chain in an abusive relationship.
How psychopaths leverage gratitude.
Here's how it happens: Someone charming sweeps you off your feet. They bombard you with so much attention and accelerate intimacy by sharing their vulnerabilities with you, and before long you're spending too much time together. You don't quite have the space to think for yourself.
Once they're confident they have you hooked, they start to transgress your boundaries in subtle ways. Every time you stand up for yourself, they tell you you're crazy or ungrateful. You feel guilty. They punish you for behavior that doesn't suit them and reward you every time you do what they want. So, like a trained dog, you learn to cave in.
Slowly, they convince you that you shouldn't be interacting with the other people in your life. You become increasingly isolated and lean on them as your reference point for reality. And they manipulate your sense of reality by gaslighting you.
This loving creature is the last person you'd expect to hurt you. Unfortunately, they're a master of manipulation, having spent their entire life perfecting the art of playing people like puppets. The transgressions grow bigger; their refrain that you're crazy and ungrateful becomes stronger. A lie, repeated often enough, feels like the truth. As you feel more disconnected from others, they tell you you should be grateful they're still there in your life.
Gratitude's dark side.
When you want to look for evidence that there's something in the relationship to be grateful for, you will.
After all, the initial phases of the relationship were filled with their exemplary behavior, even if it was all based on lies. A dark personality type also drip feeds intermittent loving behavior so that you have some crumbs of hope to hold on to—something to be grateful for. It's also a form of Stockholm syndrome; you identify with your abuser to deal with the horror of your reality. You believe that if you are grateful and tolerant, they'll become the same sweet person you once knew. Put these all together, and it's the perfect storm for how gratitude is leveraged to keep you shackled in a toxic relationship.
Before long, you learn to talk yourself into finding evidence for reasons to be grateful. Even if their behavior has worsened, you convince yourself they spent two weeks sober, even if they were still abusive. You learn to be grateful for a day when you're merely walking on eggshells, even if it's your right to have psychological safety.
This is the dark side of gratitude we fail to talk about.
According to Professor Alex Wood, gratitude must be regarded with caution when we are in objectively bad situations, especially when in abusive relationships. Like most well-intentioned ways of life, gratitude must be used with discernment, especially when it stops us from seeing a situation realistically. Or when someone else manipulates the situation and uses gratitude to keep us trapped.
There are times in our lives when it becomes hard to write another entry in our gratitude journals—because we have indeed hit rock bottom. Realizing that we no longer have the capacity to be grateful isn't a reason to get upset with ourselves or feel guilty for being ingrates. J.K. Rowling once said, "Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life."
Here's what you can do when pursuing gratitude isn't helping.
Resolve to create a life where you have something you can truly be grateful for. Here's what that means:
1. Curate your relationships. Make sure that they are reciprocal and that you're growing as people together—rather than simply tolerating unacceptable behavior because you've known each other for a long time. After all, we have limited energy every day.
2. Live a life where you feel grounded and psychologically safe. That means you feel safe enough to express who you are and make mistakes with the people around you. When we experience psychological safety, then we have a reason to count our blessings because our lives are relatively stable.
3. Know that everything in life must be approached with discernment—including ostensibly positive practices like mindfulness and gratitude. These ideas cannot be plagiarized from a thousand-year-old scripture or the latest Netflix trend; instead, examine whether it truly suits your life.
4. And above all, recognize what you should really be grateful for. When you're past your darkest times from the toxic relationship, be grateful not for the relationship but for your capacity to come through and your hard-won wisdom.
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.
She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.