Linda Lewis Griffith

How to handle life with an antisocial loved one

‘My adult son has been a constant source of problems,” the woman in my office began. “He has a lengthy criminal record. He can’t hold a job because he lies to his employers. He shows no remorse for his bad behavior. Then he complains when we don’t give him money.”

This man is suffering from antisocial personality disorder, a type of chronic mental illness characterized by faulty and destructive patterns of thinking, perceiving and relating to others.

People with this disorder have little regard for right or wrong and frequently violate the rights of others. They may be unable to fulfill normal responsibilities of work or family. Suicide, alcoholism, homelessness and social isolation are common.

At the same time, they can come across as charming, intelligent and convincing. They have no trouble gaining sympathy for their plight. They can persuade unsuspecting folks to give them money or let them freeload. Then they feel minimal angst when they skip out on the deal.

According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistics Manual, a person with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) must be at least 18 years old and have been demonstrating three of the following symptoms since the age of 15:

Failure to conform to social norms, such as routinely breaking the law.

Deceitfulness, lying, using aliases or conning others for profit or pleasure.


Irritability and aggressiveness, leading to repeated physical fights or assaults.

Consistent irresponsibility, such as failure to show up for work or honor financial obligations.

Lack of remorse for having hurt or mistreated another person.

It’s no surprise that ASPD is closely linked to both criminal behavior and substance abuse. It occurs in 1 percent of the general population, but it’s found in nearly half of all incarcerated men. A study at the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ residential drug abuse program found that 38 percent of its male inmates also had ASPD.

The causes of the disorder are complex. Contributing problems such as ADHD, learning difficulties and alcoholism tend to have genetic components. However, antisocial personality disorder is also impacted by poverty, lack of parental supervision, erratic or inconsistent discipline, and removal from the home.

A diagnosis of ASPD can’t be made before adulthood, but the behaviors are often present at an early age. The term “conduct disorder” describes a childhood constellation of repeated bullying, cruelty to animals, deliberate destruction of others’ property, stealing and lying. Conduct disorder frequently develops into antisocial personality disorder later in life.

Antisocial personality disorder is notoriously difficult to cure. There are no medications specifically approved to treat it. And sufferers seldom seek treatment on their own. If they do enter therapy, they tend to manipulate and lie to cover up their faults. They also possess minimal insight into the causes of their behavior.


Get support. Join a group. Find a knowledgeable therapist. There are plenty of people who can help you in your journey. Take advantage of them all.

Be informed. Learn the symptoms. Recognize the course of the illness. Understanding what you’re dealing with is half the battle.

Don’t argue. People with ASPD love to bicker. They’re quick to point out where you and others are wrong. Refuse to take part in the discussion. If they don’t stop debating, you can always walk away.

Don’t believe lies. If you think they’re lying, they probably are. That’s what folks with ASPD do. Don’t point out the flaws in their logic. Don’t try to sway them to your point of view. State your case, then remain silent. You’ll feel and appear stronger if you do.

Set firm guidelines. Decide how you’ll handle particular issues. For instance, you may decide not to bail them out of jail or hang up if they become verbally abusive on the telephone. You can’t change their behavior, but you can change how you respond.

Let go of guilt. You didn’t cause your loved ones’ problems. And there’s little you can do to fix them. Feeling bad only wastes precious emotional resources. Save your energy for something useful.

Take care of yourself. Dealing with another’s ASPD can be exhausting. Make sure your personal needs are met before dealing with theirs.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit