Recently, I read about a woman’s whirlwind dating experience that started out feeling romantic and ended with her seeking therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. She described feeling infatuated with her handsome, glamorous boyfriend, who entered her life with a larger-than-life charm. But then she started to see another side of him, one that abused alcohol and drugs to the point of needing her to caretake multiple nights per week, one that lied about money, and one that alternated between making aggressive outbursts and pleading apologies.
By the end of the relationship, this woman said, she felt emotionally and physically exhausted. She felt like she was spinning out of control, feeling uncertain of herself, sometimes even doing things in the bedroom that were uncharacteristic of her. She finally made a full break to help herself heal.
Narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism are a trio of personality traits that spell trouble.
Sadly, this kind of relationship happens to many people, men and women alike. What they have in common is a partner who may very well have the dark triad—narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism, a trio of personality traits that spell trouble.
Last week we walked through the destructive relationship patterns of people with the dark triad. I hope nothing in that episode resonated with your own experiences with a past or current partner, but if so, you might now be able to put a name to why a relationship feels or felt traumatic.
Now the question is: How do we protect ourselves from falling into a dark triad relationship in the first place? What are the warning signs? And how do we get out of that situation?
What is the dark triad?
First, a quick recap of what the dark triad includes.
This describes someone who is strategic and manipulative in their use of other people for personal gain. For example, a politician who flatters rich campaign donors and starts a rumor about their opponent is being Machiavellian.
This trait boils down to a lack of empathy with a helping of recklessness and thrill-seeking. Someone who laughs at other people’s pain or commits crimes without much concern may have psychopathy.
This refers to a strong need for admiration and high status while also feeling entitled to special treatment. A celebrity who says “Don’t you know who I am?” when they don’t get special treatment at a restaurant might have a dash of narcissism.
How to spot dark triad behaviors
Add those three personality traits together, and you’ve got someone with ways of thinking and behaving that challenge the people around them. There are, of course, different degrees of the dark triad—it’s not black or white. One person could have just a bit of a tendency, another might have full-blown pathological levels of these traits, and others could fall somewhere in between.
Here’s how you can spot someone who may be on the dark triad continuum.
1. Not so warm and fuzzy
Regardless of what proportions of Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism a dark triad person has, one thing always jumps out—they’re not so agreeable.
So how do we see through this act? Sooner or later, disagreeableness leaks through.
In psychology terms, agreeableness refers to a person’s general friendliness, warmth, kindness, and ability to get along with others. The tricky part is that, sometimes, people on the dark triad continuum can act like they’re agreeable when it suits them. For example, that Machiavellian politician might be very good at talking sweetly to someone with the power to help them climb the ladder.
So how do we see through this act? Sooner or later, disagreeableness leaks through. If you notice that your partner is rude to waiters, or doesn’t seem bothered by seeing someone in pain, or casually makes cruel comments about someone behind their back, these are red flags.
2. Prone to taking risks and being impulsive
Another tell-tale sign of the dark triad is recklessness. People with this personality profile like to take risks and get short-term rewards, even if it’s bad for long-term consequences.
Look out for repeated instances of someone making rash decisions.
One interesting study asked people to make blackjack bets. They found that the higher their dark triad score, the riskier their bets tended to be. The same study had participants do a temporal discounting task, which boils down to making decisions between a smaller reward now versus a larger reward later—for example, $3.50 now versus $10 a few months from now. The higher the Dark Triad score, the more likely a participant was to give up on the bigger long-term reward.
So, look out for repeated instances of someone making rash decisions, like overspending money, committing petty crimes, or doing things they feel like doing even if they know that it would upset you.
3. Dark or aggressive humor
Sometimes, the way we express humor can be telling. Someone with Machiavellian and psychopathy traits are more likely to use an aggressive humor style, like using ridicule, sarcasm, or put-downs. They’re also more likely to use self-disparaging humor, which might seem like a sign of humility, but might actually show a sense of defensiveness or neediness when used too much.
If you’re involved with someone funny, notice whether their jokes often involve putting someone down or calling them names, even if it’s themselves.
Here’s a good example—the fictional Dr. House using insulting humor at every turn.
Be aware that sometimes people who are Machiavellian are good at positive humor, too. Don’t let this excuse other red flags.
4. Difficulty understanding emotions and having inner awareness
People who have high levels of dark triad traits have low emotional skills. Those with psychopathy, especially, have a low ability to describe emotions or put themselves in others’ shoes, emotionally and otherwise.
Having dark triad traits is also associated with having more externally oriented thinking. That means they have less of an “internal world,” and instead, spend more time thinking about what they can get out of the situations and people around them.
To spot this in real life, notice whether your partner has self-aware moments where they consider the meaning of their actions, their values, and their feelings. They should be able to pick up on other people’s emotions, like noticing when you’re upset, and feeling uncomfortable when others are angry or sad. If they don’t, they may be high in dark triad traits.
5. Flexible (or non-existent) moral fiber
Unsurprisingly, with ingredients like Machiavellianism, you may have guessed that the Dark Triad is associated with looser morals. One study investigated participants’ moral leanings by asking how much they agree with some common moral beliefs, and also how much they would need to be paid to do things like stealing from a poor person or kicking a dog. Those with higher psychopathy levels simply cared less about moral considerations, such as, “Whether or not someone did something to betray his or her group,” or “Whether or not someone suffered emotionally.” People with higher Machiavellianism had more mixed responses, showing that they are potentially morally flexible. Those with higher narcissism tended to agree with moral items that would make them look good to other people.
In real life, all of us sometimes lie or cut corners or do other things we end up being ashamed of. But you should be concerned if your partner seems to do these things often, or doesn’t seem concerned or remorseful about it. It’s also a red flag if they don’t seem to have convictions, but rather, takes or leaves moral rules as it suits them.
Perhaps nobody captures this Machiavellian moral flexibility, not to mention the ability to make us root for him even when he’s committing crimes, better than Saul Goodman:
How to get out of a relationship with a dark triad personality
It can be scary to realize that your partner has dark triad traits. At the same time, it might feel like a morbid relief to put the pieces together. Either way, if you find yourself finally understanding why you feel insecure, emotionally spent, or like you’ve been gaslit, it’s a good first step to changing your situation.
To safely get yourself out of a relationship with someone with dark triad traits, here are good places to start:
1. Surround yourself with supportive people
People with high dark triad levels are known for playing mind games and undercutting your confidence. Bolster your defenses with people you can trust to be in your corner who will believe what you say and offer you a safe emotional haven.
2. Get your affairs in order
In some tragic cases, people have lost their financial resources, independence to move around, or other important safety mechanisms during a messy breakup.
Ideally, you’ll want to secure:
- An independent bank account
- A safe place to physically go to
- A private place to communicate with your supportive people
- Anything else you may need to stay safe in case the othe person acts recklessly
3. Make a clean break
Like Dua Lipa said, “Don’t pick up the phone … Don’t let him in … Don’t be his friend.”
You don’t need to keep justifying why you’re leaving, especially if the other person is trying to excuse away your concerns or gaslight your feelings.
Commit to a clean break without giving in to crocodile tears that can seem convincing. Don’t linger in a shared living space. Don’t bargain. You don’t need to keep justifying why you’re leaving, especially if the other person is trying to excuse away your concerns or gaslight your feelings.
4. Be compassionate with yourself
It’s so hard to be in a relationship (and to break up) with someone with dark triad traits. It’s not a sign of weakness or foolishness on your part that you got sucked in! Be kind to yourself. In extreme situations where safety is a concern, make sure you use your resources, including law enforcement, legal representation, and therapy.
It’s not a sign of weakness or foolishness on your part that you got sucked in!
You deserve to be respected and loved in a relationship, not lied to or manipulated. Now that you know the signs of the dark triad, you know how to spot a bad relationship in the making and get out before you get too deeply into it. And if you’re already in it, don’t be afraid to let go. You’ve got this!
Jakobwitz, S., & Egan, V., The dark triad and normal personality traits. Personality and Individual differences. 2006
Crysel, L. C., Crosier, B. S., & Webster, G. D. , The Dark Triad and risk behavior. Personality and individual differences. 2013
Veselka, L., Schermer, J. A., Martin, R. A., & Vernon, P. A. , Relations between humor styles and the Dark Triad traits of personality. Personality and Individual Differences. 2010
Martin, R. A., Puhlik-Doris, P., Larsen, G., Gray, J., & Weir, K. , Individual differences in uses of humor and their relation to psychological well-being: Development of the Humor Styles Questionnaire. Journal of research in personality. 2003
Jonason, P. K., & Krause, L., The emotional deficits associated with the Dark Triad traits: Cognitive empathy, affective empathy, and alexithymia. Personality and Individual Differences. 2013
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.