The Dynamics of a couple who kill
Updated: May 11, 2021
What makes some couples team up and risk it all, but not others?
This article will explore some of the theories and research into couples who commit crimes together.
"She follows through on revenge, she has agendas against people . . . He probably wouldn't of been a killer, but she probably would of been" - Katherine Ramsland Forensic Psychologist discussing the Neelley case
Roles of couples involved with crime are complex and are not gender specific.
There is no stereotypical couple involved with crime. They can range from being family members;siblings;close friends;business partners; co-workers, and even romantic partners.
Although there is no stereotypical couple, the dynamic between couples is consistent. There will generally be one dominant and driven personality type contrasted with a submissive and compliant personality type.
The dominant person will be the one making the plans and mostly calling the shots while the submissive partner will look to please the dominant person by complying to their wishes.
In many ways it will be a codependent relationship with a common goal/modus operandi (M.O.)
This dominant-submissive relationship can be viewed in a number of cases involving crimes such as: murder, torture or rape. For example: Karla Homolka & Paul Bernado; Judith & Alvin Neelley; Fred & Rose West; and Robert Thompson & Jon Venables to name a few. - Katherine Ramsland, July 1, 2014 reviewed June 9, 2016
In these instances it was clear that one strongly maintained dominance over the other .
"Jenkins (1990) has described four types of partner or group serial killer: Dominant-submissive pairs - In this group one member (usually the male) is the dominant partner . . . " - Laurence Miller 2012
In heterosexual partnerships, this dominant personality is not strictly confined to the male. There have been couples where the female displays behaviours of the dominant partner.
The types of crimes couples commit are not set in stone and will depend very much on what their ultimate goal/motivation/drives are, therefore the crimes and their extremities vary in seriousness from couple to couple.
In some cases of romantically linked couples someone who may not normally commit crime on their own will be drawn to a person they know is committing crimes or become sexually aroused at the thought of them committing crime causing them to become infatuated.
This is a condition known as Hybristophilia.
The common term for this phenomenon has been coined "Bonnie and Clyde syndrome" aptly named after one of the most famous cases of outlaw couples.
"Even the colloquial term 'Bonnie and Clyde syndrome' is based on a male protagonist and female accomplice." -M.Pettigrew 2019
An example of Hybristophilia being apparent in a real life case is the relationship between Judith & Alvin Neelley.
Katherine Ramsland Professor of Forensic Psychology explains Judith gains excitement from watching her husband commit acts of violence against other women, motivating her to continue committing such crimes for sexual gratification. Ramsland states,
"Judith might of enjoyed watching her husband rape either because she just liked to see that kind of violence against another woman or because there was an element of self hate in it, where she could envision herself as the woman being raped"
Other real life examples of this are women who are drawn to men in jail. Many of these men whom have committed serious crimes such as murder, rape, armed robbery, and arson.
These women will seek out relationships with these men and in some cases will even get married to them whilst they are incarcerated.
It is also believed that those who commit heinous crimes such as serial murder, may suffer with some form of neurological dysfunction, or developmental disorder, however more study is needed in this area to confirm this.
Some studies that have been carried out into this area do suggest there could be links with underdevelopment of areas of the brain, or brain injury could be a contribution to adverse/abnormal behaviours. However, these studies have been inconclusive and highlight the importance of further studies to confirm these statements.
"Our findings tentatively indicate that these extreme forms of violence may be a result of a highly complex interaction of biological, psychological and sociological factors and that, potentially, a significant proportion of mass or serial killers may have had neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder or head injury . . .
. . . Specific future study of the potential role of neurodevelopmental disorders in multiple and serial murders is warranted and, due to the rarity of these events, innovative research techniques may be required."
If this is the case for some couples it would mean that at least one of them may of had the potential to kill or commit the crimes alone regardless of meeting a willing accomplice.
Some may have already been carrying out acts of violence before meeting their partner in crime.
One example is the case of Paul Bernardo who was an active serial rapist before committing crimes with his wife Karla Homolka.
In this instance, his crimes became more brutal and extreme once he had Karla helping him. This resulted in horrific murders, incest, tortures and rapes, earning them titles as one of the most infamous couple killers.
Other explanations for these types of crimes is the disorder folie à deux aka shared psychotic disorder.
This is where two individuals (or a small group) share the same psychotic delusions or paranoia resulting in them displaying strange behaviours when together.
In worst case scenarios can result in them committing murder and other gruesome crimes.
"Folie à deuxis undoubtedly an intriguing condition of great relevance to the understanding of human psychopathology.
It is perhaps the most impressive example of a pathological relationship and, therefore, an understanding of its underlying mechanism has theoretical implications for other kinds of disturbed interpersonal relationships." - Suresh Kumar. et al. 2005
Overall there are many factors to consider when looking at the dynamics of couples who commit acts of crime, leaving no simple answers as to why.
The ideas and theories discussed above are only a small portion of the research done into this area and are by no means the only things to consider as to reasons why couples choose to commit crime together.
There are many possibilities in regards to why some choose to commit crime and others don't, from ideas of biological predispositions, and sexual gratification to simple shared blood lust or desire for money. Whatever the reasons and motives we will always have a slight fascination with couples of crime.
The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology Vol 30, 2019 - Issue 3 419-428 M.Pettigrew
Indian J Psychiatry.2005 Jul-Sep;47(3): 164–166. P.N. Suresh Kumar. et al.
Criminal Psychology - Nature, nurture, culture 2012 PP:261-262 Laurence Miller