If working for a mean CEO sounds awful, imagine being married to one. And yet, many of the men I’ve studied have had devoted spouses, several of whom were with them long before their husbands found success. So what’s the appeal? Aaron*—an ultra-controlling, tantrum-throwing entrepreneur I coached years ago—had been married to his wife, Lisa, for nearly twenty years when I met them. After interviewing a new client’s direct subordinates and a few other key individuals who worked with them, I would often ask to meet with his or her spouse or partner. While some colleagues considered this approach unusual, I found the spouse’s perspective invaluable. Typically, this would entail only one meeting, and I would rarely have reason to see the spouse again. Lisa was an exception.
Over the years, Lisa had learned to cope with Aaron’s deafening outbursts and his increasing need for flashy bling to show off his success. She attributed Aaron’s affectations to the trauma of growing up with an abusive father who told him he’d never amount to anything. Though she wasn’t materialistic like her husband, she grew to feel pride in their opulent, sprawling northern New Jersey mansion.
She’d grown to accept her lot in life and the daily reality of marriage to a controlling, verbally abusive, emotionally tone-deaf husband. On the upside—I imagine she told herself—he was a good provider, he loved his children, and he didn’t cheat on her (that she knew of). While far from idyllic, it could always be worse.
I was surprised when Lisa reached out a year after I terminated my work with Aaron. The voice mail she left asking if we could meet for coffee sounded distraught and desperate. She didn’t sound like the person I recalled from our in-depth conversation years earlier.
When I met up with her, the woman who sat across from me was a different Lisa. Eyes dark from lack of sleep and red from crying, and with thirty-odd pounds shed from her already svelte frame. She was a wreck.
Two months earlier, she told me, Aaron had calmly announced to Lisa that he was divorcing her. There was no discussion of their problems, no screaming tantrums, just a firm, emotionless declaration.
Confused, hurt, and feeling thoroughly responsible for his decision, Lisa groped for explanation. After reaching out to family and friends about him, she thought I might be able to provide some additional insight into what was happening with Aaron. Though I’d certainly been left with an unfavorable impression of the man, my professional boundaries left me powerless to do much for Lisa other than provide a sympathetic ear. But leaving the coffee shop, I too was confused. For all his bravado, experience told me that someone like Aaron needed a woman like Lisa to keep him steady, a dependable partner who would be there during the vulnerable moments he’d never let anyone else see.
Weeks later, Lisa discovered that Aaron had been developing a serious relationship with a woman in Chicago over the past two years. He’d originally told Lisa how excited he was to be working with a new client there, and that he needed to start spending more time there. How convenient.
After an intervening period of intense postdivorce psychotherapy, Lisa started to understand not only how much deception there had truly been in her relationship with Aaron, but also how much insecurity, denial, and rationalization she must have brought into the marriage to endure it for all of those years.
So what would make a woman like Lisa so unable to resist Aaron? Even after those around her—and perhaps on some level she herself—had seen through his façade?
Only recently has there been much research into the victims of subclinical psychopaths (a group we can comfortably include Aaron in) and what they go through. While these partnerships may often look “normal” to the rest of us, they are typically extraordinarily dysfunctional and often become hellish for the female partner.
In a 2005 study, Christine Kirkman, a psychology professor from the University of Bolton in the UK, sought insights into “the psychopathy of everyday life” with a focus on women in long-term relationships with “successful” psychopaths (that is, those who satisfied clinical criteria of psychopathy, but where the men never showed up in any criminal-justice database). Her findings revealed a mosaic of psychopathic interactions and behavior that highlight the emotional difficulties of the women who become involved with these men. Additional studies followed, validating and building on Kirkman’s findings.
Regardless of where the men fell on the spectrum of psychopathy (from mild to extreme), three remarkably consistent themes emerged from Kirkman’s data and the subsequent studies. First, the male partner was consistently reported to have superficial charm and relatively high intelligence, enabling these men to convince the woman—and her friends and family—that he was trustworthy.
Second, one hundred percent of the men in Kirkman’s study were reported to be pathological liars, providing false yet compelling details to the women about themselves, details which sometimes remained undiscovered for years. Many also consistently lied about their involvement with other women, sometimes numerous women at a time—all of them being lied to. As one woman commented to a researcher during a subsequent study, “I wonder now who I had been living with for 10 years. The man I fell in love with did not even exist.”
The third theme was an antisocial, amoral pursuit of power. Women reported that the men gained and retained power over them by a variety of controlling behaviors. Emotional and psychological abuse were also persistent factors.
Conventional wisdom tells us that men who work hard and bring home big paychecks are great catches romantically, but we best beware of the psychopath in the corner office.
*Names have been changed
Next up: “Why Women Stay with Mean Men.”