Defined by limited emotional range, inability to empathize with others, and self-centered manipulativeness, psychopaths aren’t exactly fairytale lovers. Yet as Bonnie and Clyde proved, even those with the darkest personalities can become romantic icons. Still, when your relationship is based on a common interest in murder, it’s debatable whether or not it counts as true love.
Several studies have indicated that people with psychopathic personalities tend to fear intimacy and struggle to form close emotional bonds with others. In love, this often manifests as a particular type of disjointed connection called avoidant attachment.
For example, a 2015 study involving 183 French-Canadian couples indicated that the so-called primary psychopathic traits of low empathy and manipulativeness are linked to higher levels of attachment-avoidance. Meanwhile, secondary psychopathic traits such as impulsiveness and antisocial behavior led to greater levels of relationship anxiety and insecurity, which in turn resulted in avoidant attachment.
Separate research on 167 university students found that “secondary, but not primary, traits were associated with poor relationship quality, more active prowling and less willful disinterest in alternative partners, and more deactivation and hyperactivation.” Crucially, the study authors note that “avoidance significantly mediated these relations,” and suggest that working on attachment issues may therefore help those with psychopathic tendencies to have better luck in love.
Ironically, despite this inability to form meaningful bonds, psychopaths may actually find it relatively easy to attract partners. Research has indicated that young men with stronger dark personality traits have higher social intelligence, and often exude a sense of confidence that others find charming. At the same time, their talent for manipulation makes them particularly adept at reading other people’s desires and figuring out what to say in order to reel them in.
However, a separate study indicated that while many people find psychopathic traits like a lack of guilt and high self-worth to be attractive, most would only ever consider a short-term fling with such an individual. When it comes to serious relationships, these attributes are typically seen as undesirable by everyone apart from other psychopaths.
And for good reason. A study examining the memoirs of ten women in relationships with psychopathic men “determined that these relationships consist of four phases: induction, commitment, disengagement, and recovery.” According to the study authors, all of the women involved “had been conned, manipulated, or coerced during all or most phases of the relationship.”
Despite all of this, however, psychopaths need love just as much as anyone else – if not more. For instance, research into serial killers’ motivation suggests that many are painfully lonely and seek out victims in a deranged attempt to connect with them.
In particular, analyses of the notorious murderers Dennis Nilsen and Jeffrey Dahmer have indicated that “loneliness plays a significant role in the development and continuation of violent, antisocial attitudes and behavior,” and that murders are sometimes committed due to the “conviction of being unlovable and unacceptable.”
As for Bonnie and Clyde, it’s highly probable that the lethal lovers didn’t genuinely feel for one another, but instead used each other to satisfy their bloodthirsty, thrill-seeking needs. And while not all psychopaths are violent, most are probably incapable of loving others in the true sense of the word, but may still enter into relationships to fulfill their desire for companionship.