Toxic Trio: What Hooks you to a Psychopath

Have you ever been mesmerized or “swept of off your feet” by a man almost instantaneously or very early in the relationship? Did you feel understood for the first time in your life as if you had finally met your true soul mate or your kindred spirit?  Was there a mystical sense about the way he looked at you and catered to you?  Did he have uncanny ability to know just what you needed to hear and did he deliver it eloquently and beautifully?  And at some point, much later in the relationship, did you realize he was too good to be true, and are therefore reading this article? If so, chances are your heart was in the hands of a very clever, charming “psychopath”. The writer will be referring to the term psychopath to denote personality disordered individuals who are on a spectrum of what Sandra Brown (2009) calls the low or no empathy/conscience group (as discussed in a previous article, The Bad Apple).  This article is to educate the many bright and articulate women who have found themselves spellbound by their psychopathic partners, and incapable of breaking the ties without a great deal of pain or struggle. The writer will be focusing on the Toxic Trio, the three interconnected dynamics that keep women “hooked” to their psychopathic mates. The Toxic Trio includes unmet emotional needs, attachment and bonding, and high risk personality traits.  Let’s start where the psychopath starts, the most vulnerable part of a person, emotions. 

A psychopath is like a shark that smells his prey from afar.  Unlike a shark, the psychopath does not smell blood, but rather “smells” weakness, pain, and/or insecurity.  A psychopath has the ability to scan a room full of beautiful women and select the women who are dealing with hardships or emotional pain of any kind.  Perhaps the woman is going through a divorce, is grieving a loss, is lonely, or is having a midlife crisis. She possibly struggles with low self-esteem from the residual effects of unresolved childhood issues.   It is as if the psychopath has a sixth sense for vulnerable women.  All women at some point or another are vulnerable, so knowing your vulnerabilities, and when they are being targeted is the first step to avoiding the psychopath.  Please note, even the most experienced psychiatrists and psychologists can be fooled by a psychopath (Hare, 1993).

Once the psychopath makes his first assessment of weakness, he moves to the next level of his game.  He is now going to assess his prey for agreeability, openness, and compliance.  He may start off by testing her compassion, perhaps by speaking of his own pain and troubled childhood.  If the psychopath can get you to sympathize with him, he is building your trust, or disarming you.  If he can disarm you, he can get you to talk about your own pain, your past, and perceptions, all of which he studies and memorizes to equip him with instruments he needs to orchestrate his symphony of exploitation upon you (Brown, 2006).    An anonymous writer wrote a poem to depict her experience with a psychopath.

                                Disarming and alert with white teeth and glimmering eyes overwhelming with confidence he approached me like a lion stalking his prey.  6 ‘2’ inches and as handsome as can be, he exudes a mesmerizing effect on me.

                                From his head to his heart he spoke with only the truth, while sizing me up to find a feast for his needs.

                He thinks to himself, “A heart and a smile, a cute figure won’t hurt, I’ll see what she’s made of, that’s my very first step.

                I will charm her and bribe her to suit my own needs. She is definitely a keeper indeed.

                Are you a native and such, or are you just beautifully tan? You look lip smacking good; do you need a good man?

                My name is Drew, I am really ok. I’m a diver, a pilot, and a black belt too.  I’ll be anything you dream of just give me a clue.

                I’ll read you like a book, taking notes to a tee: I’ll figure out your needs though I really cannot please.  I’ll mimic the life you feel you deserve, while smothering your dreams as I act so reserved.

                I’ll lie as I feel like it, and justify as such.  Petty lies never hurt anyone, although you will be feeling I’ve done you unjust.  I’ll throw it in your face to make you feel bad; exploiting your weaknesses is the art of my mad. I’ll bring you down whenever you are up. I’ll stir your suspicions and watch them pervade, then I stealthily quell them with my smooth masquerade.” 

                You’ll say to yourself:

                                “It must be me; I am crazy, I’m paranoid, I’m just plain mean.  Why can’t I trust a man who aims only to please?”

                He thinks to himself, “The answer is now clear; you’ve outsmarted your master.  I’ve invalidated your every thought as I impostured myself to meet my own needs.  My appetite for control runs wild in me. 

                You opened your heart to the wrong guy you see.  That was your first mistake, it led me to greed.  You deserve what you got, and should have sniveled, yet not.

                So be on your way, you no longer serve my needs. I will now move on the next treat who can be easily manipulated and lied to by a love thief.

                And remember . . .I am a really nice guy but don’t take my word for it”

(Anonymous, 1993)

                It is imperative to gain insight into how one’s family of origin has been wounding and perhaps non-nurturing.  Without this insight, it is almost impossible to know when a psychopath is playing upon your heartstrings of unmet emotional needs.  Many women have histories of neglect, emotional, sexual, physical abuse which remain largely unresolved by adulthood.  Other women may have had “normal” childhoods but came from families in which emotions were controlled or constricted, and attention was not freely given, leaving one to feel insignificant or invisible.  The psychopath is all too eager to make you feel “visible,” “special,” “smart,” “important,” “not alone”, etc.  Whatever need is unfulfilled in you, the psychopath will not only meet it, but he will build your broken dreams (Brown, 2009).   This is a very strong hook for women who have felt an emotional void for the vast majority of their life.  It is easy to see how once these needs are perceived to be met, reason and reality may go awry when the dichotomous behavior starts to erupt.  It feels too good for the first time in many women’s lives.  Dismissing the “ugly” behavior is easier than going without these newly met emotional needs. The first toxic hook is unmet emotional needs.  Let’s discuss the evolution of the magnetic bond and attraction to the psychopath.

What are the predominant hormones that drive a man and a woman towards one another?

What makes a man attractive?  This of course is a highly loaded, subjective question; however, the answer not only includes personal preferences and strong particularities, it is riddled with the biological underpinnings that make a man a desirable candidate for the survival of our species.  Biologically, women seek a man with high TESTOSTERONE levels!

Testosterone is present in both men and women, but it is the hormone that truly makes a man a man.  Did you know that up until 8 weeks, the fetal brain is female? Starting at eight weeks, a testosterone surge kicks in making the fetal brain a male brain.  With this surge of testosterone comes a decrease in the cells associated with the communication center of the brain, and an increase in the cells associated with the sexual and aggression centers of the brain (2006, BRIZENDINE).  What does this mean, and why does it matter?   It means that Testosterone is the driving force behind male masculinity.  His biological drive is first and foremost affected by his testosterone levels.  Although men may desire to have monogamous, long term relationships with women, they go about it in a different manner.   As a general biological rule, men are more driven by the physical drive for sexual pleasure than by the emotional drive for connection.  Men emote to secure sexual activity.

In addition to its role in reproduction, Testosterone helps build bone and muscle, and it is associated with energy, assertiveness, focus and concentration.  

 Men with high Testosterone exude dominance, strength, protection, virility, and confidence.  These are the very qualities that women find “scientifically” attractive; that is, they are more likely to ensure the survival of the woman and her offspring. So, why does this matter in the discussion of psychopaths?

It matters because research shows us that psychopaths have a strong tendency to have increased testosterone levels in relation to their cortisol levels (2011, Glen   Cortisol helps us respond to stress appropriately.  It tells us that there is something to fear and it helps us deal with that fear.   The psychopath has an abnormal response to the fight or flight response, which makes him relatively unaffected by his risky behavior; he is somewhat fearless.  This means that psychopaths may portray themselves with even more confidence and bravado than their non-psychopathic, high testosterone laden counterpart.  This non anxious, self-assured, risk taking demeanor coupled with a virile, sexual energy could render a woman spellbound, and spellbound is exactly what she is when she falls for a psychopathic man.   Women who have been involved with psychopathic men have reported that their sexual attraction to their psychopath was much more intense, magnetic, and passionate than their attraction to their non-psychopathic partners. (Brown, 2006).  

Biologically, on some level, women are attracted to psychopaths! This strong, physical attraction coupled with the budding emotional bond sets the stage for the chemical reaction that takes place when people are sexually active.  Let’s understand the woman’s chemistry. 

What makes a woman attractive? A woman’s health and fertility is visually assessed in a matter of seconds.  Woman who sport a healthy, vibrant physical appearance, attract male suitors.   Biologically, women with large breasts, wide hips, and rosy cheeks communicate fertility.  Estrogen is responsible for the voluptuous curves that deliver and sustain life. Estrogen is also associated with aggressive and or seductive behavior in females.   The most applicable understanding of estrogen is its friendly relationship with dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin (2006, BRIZENDINE).

 What else do we know about the female brain and how it organizes sexual behavior?

 Recalling that at eight weeks, the fetal brain is female.  If the testosterone surge is absent, the fetal brain cells sprout more connections in the center of the brain associated with communication and the processing of emotion (2006, BRIZENDINE). Hence, the woman is formed.

Women receive validation and gratification through communicating.  When a person connects to a woman on an emotional level and cares to communicate deeply, thereby increasing intimacy (into me you see), the woman’s pleasure center of the brain reacts by producing dopamine (2006, BRIZENDINE).  Although dopamine is involved in all pleasure, when women are feeling emotionally connected and understood the increase in dopamine levels increases sexual drive and pleasure, as well as feelings of being “in love.” Whereas men emote to secure sex, women have sex to secure emotional connection. Recall that psychopaths charm their victims with emotional attention and overtures. 

With this understanding of the chemical reactions that take place in the male and female to stir interest in one another, it is time to move towards a basic understanding of how humans bond. 

Women have more oxytocin receptors than men.  Men have more Vasopressin receptors than women.  Oxytocin and Vasopressin comprise the superglue that aids in keeping couples together and attached.  It is the bonding and the trust hormone (Brown, 2009).  Vasopressin will not be discussed in this paper.

Oxytocin is considered the bonding and trust hormone. Oxytocin is stimulated by estrogen and is secreted in the brain during orgasm, breast feeding, and cuddling and or hugging.  It is also present in  semen.  Women are able to bond once they experience the dopamine rush, triggered by feelings of intimacy and pleasure, coupled with the oxytocin rush predominantly triggered by physical touch.   Oxytocin is also produced when one is feeling trustworthy.  When a psychopath is sharing his “sad” story, he is actually stimulating your Oxytocin levels, thereby increasing your natural inclination to trust.  As your Oxytocin levels are increasing, so is your subjective experience of trust (Brown, 2009).

Secretions of Vasopressin and Oxytocin increase Dopamine levels, the pleasure neurotransmitter, which in turn secures pair bonding.  In short, pleasurable experiences are what keep people connected to and bonded to one another. The repeated experience of pleasure with a mate, lays the groundwork for the attachment network in the brain which creates long lasting feelings of contentment, relaxation, and fearlessness (2006, BRIZENDINE).  Oxytocin is the hormone for long term relationships, parenting, and most of all bonding.

To reiterate, the psychopath provides you with more emotional attention than you have ever received, thereby increasing your dopamine levels which on a sexual level, register to a woman, intimacy and readiness to partake in sex.  The physical act of sex and touching increases the bonding hormone Oxytocin, which increases your attachment to and trust for your psychopathic partner.   

This information underscores two of the reasons women find it so difficult to leave their psychopathic partners—they are chemically and emotionally bonded.  This chemical bond, coupled with environmental factors, may impede a woman’s ability to reasonWhen her brain is basking in bonding hormones, she cannot readily access the part of her brain that registers “something is greatly wrong here;” or if she can, she minimizes it, preferring to feel the pleasure she derives from the “love” hormones, over the discomfort she will experience when this newly found pleasure and emotional attention cease.  In short, if it seems too good to be true, it is too good to be true!  If someone has honed in on your emotional vulnerabilities and is delivering to assuage them, step back and take a closer look.  You may be dealing with a pathological man.  Take time to really get to know someone before becoming too personal, emotionally and/or physically.  These are two major red flags- rushing emotionally and physically.   Time, distance, and reflection may prevent you from falling for a clever psychopath.

In her fascinating research, Sandra Brown (2006) found that women with certain personality traits, which she coined super traits, the final part of the Toxic Trio.  These super traits are considered to be high risk traits for involvement with psychopaths.  Each of the forthcoming super traits fall into one of three categories, cooperativeness, selfdirectedness, and self-transcendence

Although the following super traits are very admirable and desirable, they are the very traits that put one at risk for exploitive, abusive relationships.

They are:

Self-Reliance and Resourcefulness

High Empathy

Low Impulsiveness

High Sentimentality

High Attachment

High Relationship Investment

High Regard

High Harm Avoidance (For example, I could never find anyone else if I left him) or

Low Harm Avoidance (For example, he is not so bad, I can change him)

The combination of the aforementioned traits depicts a person who is willing to try everything, work extra hard, and sacrifices self to make the relationship work out.

Unmet emotional needs, bonding and attachment, and the super traits comprise what the writer calls the Toxic Trio.  They synchronize together to increase one’s odds of pairing up with and staying with a pathological man.   As the psychopath quenches his thirst for insatiable control and gratification of his needs, he leaves behind a woman with shattered dreams, broken promises, and a wounded heart. The good news is these women have the internal motivation, intelligence, and perseverance to work through the pain that the pathological man so glibly and easily inflicted upon her.

With support and education, these women can learn how to safeguard against another relationship with a pathological man, heal their wounds, and build a relationship based on equality, truth, love, and shared power. 

Please remember, that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true!

Julie Discenza M.Ed., M.S., LMFT #92632



Brizendine, Louann. (2006). The female brain.  New York, NY: Random House.

Brown, Sandra L.  (2009). Women who love psychopaths: Inside the relationships of inevitable harm with psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists.  Penrose, NC: Mask Publishing.

Glen, Al, (2001). Increased testosterone-to cortisol ratio in psychopathy.  Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 120(2):389-99.doi: 10.1037/a0021407.

Hare, Robert. (1993). Without conscience: The disturbing world of the psychopaths among us.  New York, NY: Pocket Books.

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