Psychopathy

How to Recognize Dark Triad Personality Traits

Why are traits like psychopathy and narcissism so destructive to relationships?

Posted Feb 12, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye

Key Points: Feeling unsafe in a relationship may signal that a partner is high on the dark triad traits of Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism. Learning to recognize five harmful patterns can minimize the likelihood of entering into an unhealthy relationship.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, many of us have love on the brain. But in between our musings of romantic bouquets and delectable chocolates, our thoughts may stray to those relationships we’ve regretted. We’ve all been there—the ones that went on too long out of fear of the unknown, the ones where politics drove us apart, the ones where they just really didn’t like your best friend. These are common relationship missteps we can chalk up to life’s lemons, and usually, there’s not much harm done other than temporarily hurt feelings and a sense of having wasted time.

But then there are relationships that are darker. They perhaps start out well, but somehow, there’s a subtle but dangerous slide into a different dynamic that doesn’t feel right. You wake up one day to find yourself feeling unsafe, unloved, uncertain, or like you don’t even recognize yourself anymore.  If you find yourself feeling like this in a relationship, it's possible that your partner has some personality traits in the dark triad.

The Dark Triad

Three types of personality profiles make up the points of this dark triangle—psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. Psychologists Paulhus and Williams coined the term "dark triad" in 2002 when they found that these three personalities tend to run together and cause trouble in relationships.

Shutterstock/Estrada Anton
Source: Shutterstock/Estrada Anton

Machiavellianism

Niccolò Machiavelli was a 15th-century Italian politician famous for advising rulers to use deception and deviousness to maintain power. Nowadays, his name is synonymous with a person who schemes and manipulates people. People with this trait are strategic in their relationships, selecting relationships with people they can use for personal social status or wealth. 

In a self-report questionnaire of the dark triad personality traits, items for measuring Machiavellianism include:

  • "It’s wise to keep track of information that you can use against people later."
  • "Whatever it takes, you must get the important people on your side."
  • "I use insincere flattery to get my way."

Psychopathy

When we hear the term “psychopath,” we tend to think of serial killers à la Charles Manson and Ed Kemper. But psychopathy is a spectrum, and we're all on it. People who have a high level of psychopathy have low empathy for others, are callous in their actions, and tend to be reckless and thrill-seeking.

Psychopaths might agree with statements like:

  • "Payback needs to be quick and nasty."
  • "People often say I’m out of control."
  • "I enjoy having sex with people I hardly know."

Of course, this is not to say that everyone who participates in casual sex with strangers has high levels of psychopathy. A psychopathic portrait would also include many hints of high risk-taking together with a lack of empathy. 

Narcissism

Narcissus was a beautiful hunter in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection. But now, when we say that someone is narcissistic, we mean something more than just vanity. Someone with high levels of narcissism feels entitled to adoration, power, and high status, so much so that if they don’t get these things, they may lash out.

They might agree with statements like:

  • "Many group activities are dull without me."
  • "I have a natural talent for influencing people."
  • "I like being the center of attention."

If they don’t get the attention they crave, they might, for example, lie about how many gifts they received for their birthday. 

Based on the ominous name, you might think people would know to avoid those with the dark triad. Ironically, we’re often attracted to people who have a smidge of psychopathy or a hint of dominance, especially because people with the dark triad tend to be good at making themselves appear more attractive.

Dark Triad Relationship Patterns

There are five destructive patterns you can take note of to recognize people high on the continuum of dark triad traits.

1. Lying

Researchers have found that those higher on the dark triad continuum lie more often, and think of themselves as good at deception. More specifically, Machiavellianism is associated with telling more white lies, while narcissism is associated with lying about popularity. The most troubling are those with high levels of psychopathy, who are more likely to lie for no reason at all.

When you catch a partner with these traits in a lie, you might begin to sense that something doesn’t add up. These erosions of trust, whether big or small, can start to chip away at your sense of security.

2. Infidelity

It’s well-known that those high on the dark triad scale are more likely to cheat on romantic partners. Given their penchant for impulsivity, lack of care for others’ feelings, and ability to lie easily and often, this isn’t surprising. What’s more interesting is which traits in the dark triad lead to which types of infidelity outcomes.

When people with higher levels of psychopathy cheat, it tends to lead to a breakup. But when people who are more Machiavellian cheat, they can manage to keep the relationship going. This might be because their strategic approach to everything lets them fly under the radar. Even when they get caught, they’re better able to manipulate their partner and may get off scot-free. In fact, you might find yourself wondering if you’re the bad guy when the boyfriend you just caught sexting with someone else says you’re the one driving him away by being too overbearing. Don’t fall for it! This is classic Machiavelli.

3. Jealousy and revenge

Those with the dark triad tend to have higher levels of preventive jealousy—that is, feeling jealous before they’ve been given reason to—than the average person.

One study found that those with the dark triad are not only more likely to have cheated on a partner but also expect to be cheated on. If they do find themselves in an unfaithful relationship, they’re more likely than the average person to want to take revenge, like shouting at their partner or spreading a rumor about them.

Interestingly, the dark triad women in this study said that even though they would want revenge, they wouldn’t necessarily end the relationship if their partner cheated. This speaks to wanting emotional control over their partner for control's sake rather than doing hurtful things only as an impulsive reaction.

4. Superficial relationships

Given their lack of true emotional devotion, people high on the dark triad scale don’t tend to choose serious, committed relationships.

Now there’s nothing wrong with flings, dating for fun, friends-with-benefits, and other not-so-serious “romances.” At different times in our lives, we have different needs, and most of us have probably had relationships that were never meant for a serious commitment.

But people with more dark triad traits tend to make a habit of emotionally shallow relationships, both romantically and with friends. Specifically, narcissism tends to go hand-in-hand with one-night-stands, and psychopathy tends to go with booty calls.

In friendships, Machiavellians look to befriend those with elite social status. Narcissists like to roll with a good-looking squad. And men with psychopathic traits just like friends who can play wingman and help them hook up with potential mates.

5. Relationships that don’t last

With all these not-so-glowing findings to recommend them, it’s no surprise that people with high dark triad traits don’t tend to have long-lasting relationships

Even if they wanted to stay in a long-term relationship, people with the dark triad have a hard time making it last, perhaps because they are simply hard to get along with. The researchers who first coined the “dark triad” term noticed immediately that agreeableness—warmth, friendliness, tact—is the one thing most people with these traits lack.

The dark triad traits have gradations of gray, and if you find yourself in a relationship with someone low on those scales, it might simply end with hurt feelings. But someone high on the rungs of psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism might cause you serious damage. 

Medical Disclaimer: All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

A version of this post also appears on Quick and Dirty Tips.

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