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For a long time now, I’ve been reading personal stories of people who have been hurt by hierarchical relationships and the cultures that surround them. Now, hierarchy exists in many forms, and in many cultures, and it’s something that we actually reduce to points on a scale sometimes — we cite Geert Hofstede, for example, to describe the difference in “power distance” between a typical man and woman in the Netherlands, as opposed to a typical man and woman in the United Arab Emirates. Cultural study is something I’m sort of supposed to specialize in.

But subcultures are typically more fascinating than the mainstream, and one that hits close to home is the courtship culture. The idea behind it is that by involving family or friends in a blossoming romantic relationship, we can protect naïve individuals from becoming entangled with men or women who would hurt them, or who are in some way unfit life partners. And that sounds pretty reasonable. We would do well to pay attention to what our families and friends think of this person or that person, particularly if they’ve spent quite a bit of time with him or her. This is assuming, of course, that our family and friends are wise, and kind, and have no agenda of their own.

There are times, however, when the “courtship” model, and hierarchy in general, actually contribute to the thing it’s trying to prevent — becoming entangled with unfit life partners. Sociopathic and certain other aberrant behavior is relatively easy to mask in such situations, and in structured environments where there is an obviously-expected answer, it’s harder to spot falseness.

Perhaps most importantly, sociopathic traits are actually encouraged in certain courtship circles. This is not to say that people who court are automatically sociopaths (far from it), but it is to say that what might otherwise be a warning sign gets glossed over as normative in some cases. Take a step-by-step breakdown of the sociopathic personality and how this may go unnoticed:

1. Glibness and Superficial Charm.
Staying superficially charming is easy when you have only a handful of people you need to seduce (e.g. the girl and her parents, and possibly her pastor).

2. Manipulative and Conning. Though they appear to be charming, they are covertly hostile and domineering, seeing their victim as merely an instrument to be used. They may dominate and humiliate their victims.
However, they can very easily spin this dominance into “biblical headship,” and claim that any hesitation you have regarding their behavior is a problem with God-ordained gender roles.

3. Grandiose Sense of Self. Feels entitled to certain things as “their right.” May state readily that their goal is to rule the world.
This may be spun as a desire to take dominion of the world, or their particular area of it, in the name of God.

4. Irresponsibility/Unreliability and Pathological Lying. Has no problem lying coolly and easily and it is almost impossible for them to be truthful on a consistent basis. Can create, and get caught up in, a complex belief about their own powers and abilities. Extremely convincing and even able to pass lie detector tests.
Lying is not well-received in the Christian canon. However, this is not the sort of fibbing that most people catch on to unless they dig into something other than, say, the doctrine the person claims to espouse or what the person claims to be from one year to the next. These people actually believe themselves. They can be wildly inconsistent and still believe they’ve really got it this time. They will be offended if you call them out on their unreliability, and claim it is due to e.g. their busy schedule and the great demands put on them by others. Most often, they will claim that their unreliability is actually your fault and/or that they didn’t actually say what they said.

5. Lack of Remorse, Shame or Guilt.
The sociopath will probably admit to anything he’s caught red-handed at. He may be extremely eloquent at expressing his regret and will pad his Christian image with confessions of sin. But watch to see if he actually apologizes to his victims and, if so, how he treats them an hour later, or a year later.

6. Does not see others around them as people, but only as targets and opportunities. Instead of friends, they have victims and accomplices who end up as victims. The end always justifies the means and they let nothing stand in their way.
Once this comes to light, it can be hard to ignore. But this may be hard to spot unless they’re pushed. One thing that might clue you in is a lack of deep friendship in their life, or the fact that the only friends they have are that one guy they call to have someone’s website hacked and that one girl they call when they want anything else. Another thing that might clue you in is their lack of long-term history with people, or a habit of being extremely vindictive to people who exposed them or let them down in some way.

7. Shallow Emotions/Callousness/Lack of Empathy. Unable to empathize with the pain of their victims. When they show what seems to be warmth, joy, love and compassion it is more feigned than experienced and serves an ulterior motive. Verbal outbursts and physical punishments are normal. Outraged by insignificant matters, yet remaining unmoved and cold by what would upset a normal person. Since they are not genuine, neither are their promises.
If your darling, who five minutes ago was singing your praises, viciously lashes out because you interrupted his study time — and doesn’t have any trouble plotting the destruction of that guy who lashed out at him once — do not assume he is just expressing his God-given masculinity. Do not assume things will be better when you’re married. Do not assume that this is your cross to bear and that all Christian relationships will be hard. Do not assume that you just need to submit and all will be well. Assume he is an ass.

8. Incapacity for normal love, but excels at adoration and will become your ideal mate almost instantaneously.
This is dangerous in a movement that accepts as normative the late expression of love — that says you need to have doctrine first, and love later. By the way, threatening to demean you in some way if you leave him, or hinting of his own self-destruction, is not an acceptable expression of love.

9. Need for Stimulation. Poor Behavioral Controls/Impulsive Nature. Parasitic Lifestyle.
The need for stimulation can be mental as well as physical. Sociopaths tend to frequently reinvent themselves. They may have a garage full of toys they no longer use, garnered through numerous thrill-seeking phases. They probably won’t talk too much about their past phases, though, particularly if they were at all deviant. They may have problems with money stemming from impulse buying or gambling. They probably won’t tell you about this either. Ask how much money they’ve gotten in the last few years from parents, for example, and why they needed it.

10. Early Behavior Problems/Juvenile Delinquency.
If he jokes about his cruelty to animals or classmates as a child, watch out. And don’t buy his quick assurance that he’s repented and changed. Why is he still laughing at that stuff if he’s repented?

11. Only rarely in difficulty with the law, but seeks out situations where their tyrannical behavior will be tolerated, condoned, or admired. Conventional appearance. Goal of enslavement of their victim(s). Exercises despotic control over every aspect of the victim’s life. Has an emotional need to justify their crimes and therefore needs their victim’s affirmation (respect, gratitude and love). Ultimate goal is the creation of a willing victim.
Once again, this can be spun as a desire for “biblical headship.”

Perhaps one of the scariest parts of this is that anyone who is believes that his girlfriend, wife or children really should obey his whims, however odd, inconsistent or dangerous, with no regard as to how they feel about it, is submitting himself and his family not to the headship of a loving God, but to the headship of a psychopath. In his grandiosity, he becomes “like God,” and thus demands idolatry. Opposing this is not opposing Christianity, unless you believe Christ was a madman.

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