Why Some of Us Commit Romantic Revenge

New research into those for whom two wrongs really does make a right.

Posted Sep 21, 2015

Source: wrangler/Shutterstock

Infidelity can create a messy situation. If your partner has an affair, what do you do? Do you work through it and forgive? Or do you enact revenge?

Revenge seekers exist. A recent study suggests some people are more likely than others to seek out romantic revenge (Brewer, Hunt, James, & Abell, 2015). How do you know who might be revenge-seeking? It seems we can pay attention to a set of personality factors often known to wreak havoc in romantic partnerships. These insidious traits are called the Dark Triad: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. In love, Dark Triad traits tend to predict exploitation, coldness, a lack of empathy, and a tendency towards manipulation and “using” a partner. Might these personality factors also predict responses to a partner’s infidelity?

Prior to this work, much of what we knew about the Dark Triad and infidelity came from the perspective of the actor: Studies have typically asked, “Are individuals higher in Dark Triad traits more likely to commit infidelity?” The resounding evidence suggests that they are (e.g., Adams, Luevano, & Jonason, 2014.) Brewer and colleagues’ 2015 study, which sampled heterosexual women, offers additional support for this tendency, highlighting the particular role of narcissism in predicting past infidelity—and future intentions of infidelity.

So who are the revenge seekers? To examine revenge, the researchers invited about 100 women to answer personality inventory questions (in order to measure their Dark Triad tendencies) and then presented the participants with hypothetical scenarios in which a romantic partner cheats on them. Participants responded to questions about their likelihood of seeking revenge, either directly (e.g., shouting) or indirectly (e.g., gossip).

The findings suggest that certain personalities are more inclined towards romantic revenge. Specifically, those women higher in secondary psychopathy (i.e., an antisocial lifestyle) reported being more willing to seek revenge against a partner or a romantic rival. Such revenge can have damaging consequences, but perhaps for some, these consequences are worth the satisfaction of aggressive revenge (or maybe they aren’t fully considered before taking action). The other facets of the Dark Triad, narcissism and Machiavellianism, were also correlated with revenge seeking, but when all facets of the Dark Triad are considered together as predictors, psychopathy stands out.

As to direct and indirect revenge, no specific facet helped understand who might be inclined to use these different styles. This opens the door to additional research about what factors (empathy? compassion?) might drive different revenge types.

Revenge can be sweet after a partner cheats, but only for some. Those who have more psychopathy in their personality might be more inclined to seek revenge than those who are low in this trait.


Adams, H. M., Luevano, V. X., & Jonason, P. K. (2014). Risky business: Willingness to be caught in an extra-pair relationship, relationship experience, and the Dark Triad. Personality and Individual Differences, 66, 204-207.

Brewer, G., Hunt, D., James, G., & Abell, L. (2015). Dark Triad traits, infidelity and romantic revenge. Personality and Individual Differences, 83, 122-127.