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Beware the Dark Triad in Your Relationship

If your partner, friend, or family member has ever made you feel insecure, unsafe, unloved, and uncertain, they may have high levels of the dark triad personality traits—Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism. What do these traits look like in action, and why are they so destructive to relationships?

By
Jade Wu, PhD
8-minute read
Episode #328
The Quick And Dirty

The dark triad of personality includes Machiavellianism (strategic and manipulative), psychopathy (lacking empathy), and narcissism (entitled, needing admiration). We all have these traits to some degree on a continuum. People with high levels of dark triad traits tend to have destructive relationship patterns, which include lying, infidelity, jealousy, and revenge.

We've all had our share of relationships we regret. There was the one that went on too long because we were afraid of change. Maybe one where there was a lot of chemistry but it turned out you were on opposite sides of a political issue that was a deal-breaker. Or you clicked well, but they just couldn’t get along with your family. 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.

If you find yourself feeling like this in a relationship, chances are good that your partner has some personality traits in the dark triad.

But then there are relationships that are darker. They perhaps start out passionately or even lovingly, but somehow, there’s an insidious 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’ve totally lost your sense of self. If you find yourself feeling like this in a relationship, chances are good that your partner has some personality traits in the dark triad. Today, we'll talk about what these personality traits are and what relationship patterns they portend.

The dark triad

The dark triad refers to three types of personality profiles that all spell trouble for relationships—psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. Psychologists Paulhus and Williams coined the term in 2002 when they found that these three personalities tend to run together.

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, associating with people they can use to get more social status, wealth, or other things for their own gain.

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"

Think of the way Lindsay Lohan’s character in Mean Girls faked bullying evidence in the Burn Book to get her rivals into trouble.

Psychopathy

The term "psychopath" doesn’t just refer to serial killers like Ted Bundy and Jeffery Dahmer. 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 impulsive and thrill-seeking.

The term "psychopath" doesn’t just refer to serial killers like Ted Bundy and Jeffery Dahmer.

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 likes to have 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. Someone who engages in a relationship and then gambles their partner's retirement savings away on a doomed stock market without feeling bad about it is an example of psychopathic behavior.

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 nrcissistic, we mean something more than just vanity. Someone with high levels of narcissism feels entitled to admiration, prestige, 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 big the crowds were at their birthday party.

Ironically, we’re often attracted to people who have a smidge of psychopathy or a hint of dominance.

You can imagine, based on the ominous name, that someone with the dark triad might be bad to other people. 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 ... at least on the outside. But of course, the thin veneer of “sexy bad boy” or “hot bad girl” can only go so far.

It's important to note that the dark triad isn't an official psychological diagnosis. And just as importantly, it’s a continuum—or rather, three continuums that often go together. Many of us are just a little narcissistic while others are very much so. This might combine with just a dash of psychopathy or perhaps a whole dollop of Machiavellianism. So don’t worry, someone is not automatically Patrick Bateman or Frank Underwood just because they sometimes lie or tend to be entitled. We all live in the gray areas of personality. It only gets to be a serious problem when someone runs high on these scales and ends up repeatedly hurting others.

Dark triad relationship patterns

Today, we’ll focus on five destructive relationship patterns people high on the continuum of dark triad traits tend to have.

Lying

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

People with high levels of psychopathy are more likely to lie for no reason at all.

This makes it hard to trust a relationship partner with dark triad traits. Sooner or later, you catch them in a lie, or at least, you might begin to sense that something doesn’t add up. Even white lies, when used too often, reveal a person’s insincerity. These erosions of trust, whether big or small, can start to chip away at your sense of security.

Infidelity

It’s well-known that those high on the dark triad scale are more likely to cheat on romantic partners. This isn’t surprising given that they’re prone to impulsivity, care less about hurting others’ feelings, and are self-described "good liars." What’s more interesting is which traits in the dark triad lead to which types of infidelity outcomes.

When people with Machiavellian traits cheat, they’re often able to talk their way out of trouble by manipulating their partner.

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 able to talk their way out of trouble by manipulating their partner. 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 at work.

RELATED: Are You Getting Gaslit? Here's How to Respond

Jealousy and revenge

The thing about cheating is that cheaters are on the lookout for it to happen to themselves, too. Those with the dark triad have higher levels of preventive jealousy—that is, feeling jealous before they’ve been given reason to—than the average person.

Those with the dark triad are not only more likely to have cheated on a partner but also expect to be cheated on, themselves.

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, themselves. And if so, 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.

Superficial relationships

It may not be surprising that, given their lack of true emotional devotion, people high on the dark triad scale don’t tend to choose serious, committed relationships.

Don’t get me wrong—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 serious commitment.

Narcissism tends to go hand-in-hand with one-night-stands and psychopathy tends to go with booty calls.

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 choose companions with high social status. For them, it’s important to have friends in high places. Narcissists like to roll with a good-looking squad. They feel average people aren't special enough to hang out with them. And men with psychopathic traits just like friends who can play wing man and help them hook up with potential mates.

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. Men with these traits particularly don’t seem to seek long-term relationships. Instead, they prefer short-term and perhaps exploitative trysts.

Even if they wanted to stay in a long-term relationship, people with the dark triad have a hard time making it last. The biggest reason might be that they’re 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 everyone with these traits lacks.

Take note of name-calling outbursts or casually cruel acts early in a relationship. They might be a stress-induced fluke, or they might be a sign of the dark triad showing its colors.

That's not to say that a Machiavellian person can’t sometimes act agreeably to get on the right side of powerful people, or that a psychopathic person can’t pretend to be warm and charming to seduce you. But in the long run, they can’t keep up the act forever, and sometimes they’ll let slip that they can be callous, uncaring, and even cruel. This is why you should take note of name-calling outbursts or casually cruel acts early in a relationship. They might be a stress-induced fluke, or they might be a sign of the dark triad showing its colors.

In the next episode, we'll explore other ways to spot red flags. 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. So, we’ve started today with understanding who this dangerous person might be. In my next episode, we'll continue with ways to recognize their signature early so you can protect yourself.

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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.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD

Dr. Jade Wu is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine. Do you have a psychology question? Call the Savvy Psychologist listener line at 919-533-9122. Your question could be featured on the show.