- People use a variety of breakup strategies to end friendships and romantic relationships.
- The personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy can predict breakup behavior.
- Psychopathy predicts greater use of manipulation, cost escalation, and distant communication during breakups.
Many relationships, including friendships and romantic relationships, do not last. So what causes breakups?
Friendships may end because of transgressions such as lying, not being supportive, or divulging private information; changes in circumstances, such as moving or getting married; and other factors (e.g., having very different values).
People in a romantic relationship may break up due to unmet needs for intimacy, passion, or sexuality; diverging interests; recurrent conflicts; boredom; communication issues; desire for more freedom and autonomy; and infidelity.
Aside from asking why relationships end, an interesting question is this: Can we predict how they end? Yes, according to new research.
The term Dark Triad refers to the following three personalities:
- Narcissists: People who feel self-important, superior, grandiose, and entitled.
- Psychopaths: Individuals who are charming, fearless, impulsive, and callous.
- Machiavellians: People often described as cold, calculating, planful, and cynical.
To investigate the role of the Dark Triad personality traits in relationship dissolution, Brewer et al. conducted two studies, as described below.
Termination of Romantic Relationships
The study sample comprised 722 individuals (580 female), with an average age of 25 years (ranging from 18 to 75 years). Among this sample, 283 were single and 391 were in a serious relationship (with an average length of 54 months).
Measures in the study included the Short Dark Triad-3 and the Break-up Strategies Questionnaire.
The specific break-up strategies evaluated in the study, plus sample items, are listed below:
- Avoidance/withdrawal: I avoided contact with my partner as much as possible.
- Positive tone/self-blame: I avoided blaming my partner at all costs.
- Open confrontation: I openly expressed to my partner my desire to break up.
- Cost escalation: I picked an argument with my partner as an excuse to break up.
- De-escalation: I procrastinated in saying or doing anything in the hopes that things would improve.
- Manipulation: I promoted new relationships for my partner to make the breakup easier.
- Distant/mediated communication: I terminated the relationship indirectly (e.g., through texting).
The researchers found that Machiavellians were more likely than others to use “avoidance/withdrawal, cost escalation/manipulation, and de-escalation and less likely to engage in open confrontation.”
There are important consequences to engaging in these strategies. For instance, de-escalation and avoidance/withdrawal make direct conflict less likely and, as a result, may force the partner to end the relationship. This creates additional opportunities for manipulating the partner, particularly if that person feels responsible for why things did not work out and guilty for having to end the relationship
Unlike Machiavellians, narcissists engaged in “open confrontation.” Why? Perhaps narcissists, feeling entitled and focused only on their own desires and wishes, find it easy to confront their partner to end a relationship that does not satisfy their needs.
Other people, however, may worry that open confrontation could hurt their partner’s feelings.
Finally, the data showed psychopaths were less prone to engaging in self-blame but more inclined to use cost escalation, manipulation, and distant communication.
Due to a lack of empathy, psychopaths may not have realized (or cared) that these approaches often cause unnecessary pain and anguish and that providing an opportunity for closure could have helped soothe their partner’s post-breakup distress.
Let us now turn to the study of friendship termination.
Termination of Friendships
The sample in this study consisted of 177 individuals (135 female), with an average age of 22 years (ranging from 18 to 64 years). The average length of friendships was nine months.
This study used the same measures of Dark Triad personality traits and break-up strategies as the previously described study.
The researchers found that individuals with psychopathic traits were more likely to break up using distant communication, an approach that suggests a “lack of respect and compassion for the former friend.” Machiavellianism and narcissism, however, did not predict the strategies used in terminating friendships.
Overall, the Dark Triad was less predictive of friendship break-up strategies, possibly because ending friendships is easier than terminating romantic relationships.
After all, unless there is a clear transgression, terminating a friendship directly and completely may not be necessary.
In other words, two friends can become gradually more distant (e.g., interact less frequently) without officially breaking up. Obviously, this technique would not work for ending a romantic relationship.
The research showed that it is possible to predict how people with Dark Triad traits break up with romantic partners.
Depending on the personality, commonly used strategies for ending romantic relationships were as follows.
- Machiavellians: manipulation, cost escalation, avoidance/withdrawal, and de-escalation.
- Psychopaths: manipulation, cost escalation, and distant/mediated communication.
- Narcissists: open confrontation.
As can be seen, individuals with these personality traits tend to end romantic relationships using manipulative break-up strategies. Otherwise stated, they are less likely to let honesty, respect, and compassion guide their actions when ending a relationship.
This is not surprising because what these three personalities have in common is a tendency to overvalue themselves, devalue others, and endorse beliefs that serve as justifications (e.g., a sense of entitlement).
For instance, previous research shows that psychopaths are more interested in one-night stands than in getting to know their partners. And narcissists who feel jealous engage in cost-inflicting behaviors (e.g., intimidation, coercion) to keep their partners from leaving.
Indeed, just as people with the Dark Triad personalities show little concern for their partners’ happiness and well-being during the relationship, so do they when breaking up.
Hence, if you are in the middle of a breakup and your partner has traits associated with narcissism, psychopathy, or Machiavellianism, make sure to protect yourself:
- Do not readily believe your ex-partner’s breakup reasons; they may be excuses or justifications.
- Be on the lookout for manipulative behavior (e.g., shaming, guilting).
- Prioritize self-care and self-compassion during this period.
- Give yourself the closure you needed and deserved but did not receive.
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