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Dating the Dark Triad

Entangled with a subclinical narcissist, psychopath, and Machiavellian.

The Dark Triad… sounds like a villain on Charmed? Something that would destroy Sunnydale and stress Buffy? A threat that only Captain America or the X-Men could thwart? All compelling options, yet perhaps it is something much worse. Potentially, it’s a personality structure of people that we have, or worse, are currently, dating.

Examining the Dark Triad Profile

Before reviewing how the Dark Triad personality structure influences romantic partner communication, let’s first describe what this personality profile encompasses. At the core, it describes a personality structure consisting of subclinical narcissism, subclinical psychopathy, and Machiavellianism (see Paulhus & Williams, 2002).

Paulhus and Williams offer descriptions of this personality: a subclinical narcissist displays “grandiosity, entitlement, dominance, and superiority” (p. 557); a subclinical psychopath is a person with “high impulsivity and thrill-seeking along with low empathy and anxiety” (p. 557); lastly, a Machiavellian “in short, [is] the manipulative personality” (p. 556).

The Dark Triad in Courtship

This personality structure influences communication and courtship behaviors. For example, individuals reporting higher levels of the Dark Triad reported a strong preference for short-term relationships and, similarly, higher numbers of sexual partners (Jonason, Li, Webster, & Schmidt, 2009). Interestingly, research demonstrates that such individuals also report commitment avoidance (Jonason & Buss, 2012) but, interestingly, are actively able to steal mates and be taken from mates (Jonason, Li, & Buss, 2010).

My own forthcoming research, authored with Dr. Trey Guinn of the University of the Incarnate Word and Scott Banghart of UC Santa Barbara, reveals how the Dark Triad relates to conflict communication. In our study of romantic partner communication, we found that individuals reporting higher levels of the Dark Triad structure also reported that the nature of their partner conflict was hostile and intense. Partially explaining the hostile and intense nature of their conflict was our other finding that, in general, Dark Triad personalities reported higher levels of contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness (see our manuscript for specific findings, particularly about narcissism). The aforementioned messages are known as the Four Horsemen and are directly related to divorce (see my previous entry here). Finally, we found, overall, that Dark Triad individuals reported higher levels of romantic partner conflict.

Our communication is both dependent upon and reflective of our psychological structures. Findings relevant to the Dark Triad, such as the ones presented above, further illustrate the connections between psychology and communication. Thus, this entry further underscores how complicated dating and mating can be.


Horan, S. M., Guinn, T., & Banghart, S. (in press) Understanding relationships among the Dark Triad personality profile and romantic partners’ conflict communication. Communication Quarterly. Previously presented at the bi-annual meeting of the International Association for Relationship Research, Louisville, KY

Jonason, P. K., & Buss, D. M. (2012). Avoiding entangling commitments: Tactics for implementing a short-term mating strategy. Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 606-610. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2011.12.015

Jonason, P. K., Li, N. P., & Buss, D. M. (2010). The costs and benefits of the Dark Triad: Implications for mate poaching and mate retention tactics. Personality and Individual Differences, 4, 373-378. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2009.11.003

Jonason, P. K., Li, N. P., Webster, G. D., & Schmitt, D. P. (2009). The dark triad: Facilitating a short-term mating strategy in men. European Journal of Personality, 23, 5-18. doi: 10.1002/per.698

Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36, 556-563. doi: 10.1016/S0092-6566(02)00505-6