Experts explain the threat of those with 'Dark Triad' personalities in relationships

Megan Sutton
·9-min read
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

You've possibly never heard of Dark Triad personality traits, but if you're someone who goes head over heels into romantic relationships, it's worth taking the time to clue yourself up.

We all know people who, when they fall in love, go quickly and all-in. Although in some cases, these are one-off whirlwind situations, when a pattern emerges it can be because of a relationship tendency known as emophilia. Emophilia applies to people who tend to fall in love fast, easily, and often, specifically because of the feelings of reward it brings them.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with falling in love quicker than you can say 'swipe right', but it can leave some people in a vulnerable position, with partners who take advantage of them. This is where the Dark Triad comes into play.

What is the Dark Triad and emophilia?

A recent set of studies explored how emophilia is linked to the Dark Triad personality traits of Machiavellianism (being cunning and manipulative), psychopathy and narcissism.

In one study, people were asked questions about their own personality traits, including emophilia, as well as describing their ideal partner’s personality. Researchers found people who scored high in emophilia, compared to those who were low, reported their ideal partner would be higher in all three of the Dark Triad traits.

Photo credit: Tooga - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tooga - Getty Images

In a second study, women were asked to evaluate mock online profiles of men who varied in their Dark Triad traits. (The authors chose to focus on women’s reactions to men because men generally tend to be higher on Dark Triad traits.) The women high in emophilia, compared to those who were low, were found to be more attracted to every profile, including the ones displaying Dark Triad traits.

This paints of picture of those who fall in love fast being more vulnerable to potentially damaging relationships with those who possess Dark Triad traits.

“People who fall in love quickly and who are motivated to see the potential positives a relationship can offer, may be more likely to end up in relationships with individuals high in the Dark Triad because they don't have the same time to experience these partner's negative qualities alongside their seemingly engaging and confident veneer before they make themselves vulnerable,” explains Dr Veronica Lamarche, a social-personality psychologist at the University of Essex who studies how people balance trust, vulnerability and dependence in their romantic relationships.

"You may not even realise you're in [a relationship with someone with Dark Triad traits]... because they are very charismatic. Narcissists always like to be looked at in the best light, the Machiavellian character is somebody that is very deceptive and good at getting things they want. They can behave in a very charming way and they can put a very good act on," says Simone Bose, Relate Counsellor.

"You might fall for that for quite a long time until that changes. Before you know it you've already fallen for the person, you're already in relationship, and then find yourself under spell in a way," she adds.

What are people with Dark Triad traits like in relationships?

While their manipulative personalities can become clearer as time goes on, those with Dark Triad traits can initially be pretty charming.

“People high in the Dark Triad personality traits often exhibit both an inflated sense of self-importance and a disregard for other's emotions. Importantly, people who are high in the Dark Triad traits also tend to be highly manipulative. In short bursts, these are people who can come across as confident, charming and extroverted; traits that are often highly valuable in a potential partner,” Dr Lamarche says.

Photo credit: Peyton Fulford - Getty Images
Photo credit: Peyton Fulford - Getty Images

“Similarly, someone who is manipulative often knows how to say the right things to get what they want. For example, they might use flattery or make grandiose promises to get someone to do what they want. Over time, these empty promises and the disregard for others make people high in the Dark Triad personality cluster unappealing partners,” she adds.

While some people might possess Dark Triad traits to a lesser degree, if they're higher on the scale, it's a "worst-case scenario" in a romantic relationship, according to Simone.

"If they're very high on the scale for all three traits, then that is probably the worst-case scenario if you're dating somebody because they're going to be very manipulative, abusive and self-absorbed, with no empathy," she explains.

The connection with those who fall in love quickly

Speaking about people with a tendency to fall in love fast, hard and often, Dr Lamarche says their “enthusiasm and desire to connect with others may also make them appealing to people who are motivated by self-interest and aggrandisement. So it may also be the case that people high in Dark Triad traits are seeking out interactions with people who will give them a boost of positive energy, and whom they feel they can manipulate right away.”

Photo credit: Stephen Zeigler - Getty Images
Photo credit: Stephen Zeigler - Getty Images

She adds: “In order to establish satisfying relationships, people need to be able to open themselves up and be vulnerable in the relationship. This can be a mutually satisfying experience with a partner who is caring and responsive to one's needs. However, someone high in the Dark Triad personality traits are not responsive and other-focused partners. This means that they can ultimately exploit their partner's trust and vulnerability.

“For example, in my own research, I have found that social rejection can prompt people high in narcissism to endorse sexual coercion against a romantic partner as a way of securing validation and positive reinforcement for themselves (through sex) while disregarding how their sexual partner's preferences in the moment. This is clearly a violation of trust and the expectation of responsiveness and partner-focused pleasure that is characteristic of satisfying relationships.”

Dr Lamarche makes the important point that blame should never be placed on those who are open and trusting from the off. Instead, we should be questioning those who exploit the personalities of others in order to manipulate them.

“It should be emphasised that people should not be condemned or criticised for being open, trusting and vulnerable in a relationship - these are at the core of every successful partnership. Rather, it is the people who take advantage of these prosocial norms who should be chastised for breaking the trust and hurting others for their own gain,” she says.

Is there a Dark Triad test?

It's not quite that simple, so there isn't a Dark Triad test, but Simone feels the following are all signs to watch out for:

  • "They make fun of people in quite a cruel way. They can be quite nice, and then they suddenly lose it and they change before going back to being nice again. You might notice they can't keep up the traits that maybe you liked in the first place, like being nice and kind and caring. Somehow it changes and they can become quite cruel and mean and can say really nasty things."

  • "They can put you down or gaslight you, make you feel like your opinion might not be the truth, and be dismissive of you, but then they apologise and they can be very manipulative in the sense that they can also be very charming afterwards. They can actually use it the other way and say: 'You shouldn't have done that - you know it was your fault, you made me do that.' They can shift the truth."

  • "They can look at something and not have any empathy. They don’t mind seeing pain. They can be mean about people behind their backs for no reason. You might notice that they don't really reflect on themselves at all - on who they are and how they're behaving and the impact they have."

  • "If they’re very interested in talking about themselves and amping themselves up all the time, I think that's the narcissist in there. They always have to look really good [and they're thinking about] what they can get from a situation."

Simone points out that it's not always easy to spot these traits, so don't be hard on yourself if you haven't.

"Anybody can be manipulated by somebody. It's not like you have to be stupid or ignorant to be manipulated by somebody like this. Don't be down on yourself because these types of characters are very good at playing with you, manipulating and making you feel like perhaps you're the one that got something wrong," she says.

Photo credit: Wulf Voss / EyeEm - Getty Images
Photo credit: Wulf Voss / EyeEm - Getty Images

What to do if you suspect your partner has Dark Triad traits

"If you’ve noticed that you're feeling very different about yourself and you've lost your confidence or your sense of who you are and you doubt yourself, you should really get out of a relationship like this - especially if you can see these [above] signs - because this isn't going to change in somebody - this is their nature," Simone says.

"You’re not going to be able to get them into therapy and reduce the narcissism or psychopathy because they don't have empathy, and actually narcissists can lie to make themselves look the best and [are good at] putting themselves in a good light. So you probably wouldn't get very much from that," she advises.

Instead, Simone recommends seeking support from people you trust and hearing different opinions from your Dark Triad partner's in order to build up your confidence to leave with a clean break.

"If it’s really bad you’ve got to get out of there and it has to be a clean break with people with these traits, especially if they're a little bit higher [on the scale], because you might find that they use all sorts of tactics like crying and pleading, they can be very convincing and can make you feel like you’ve misjudged. Make it a clean break because people like this might bring you back in again," she says.

"If you’re in a long-term relationship with this person, then you obviously need to get your finances and your life in order so that you can also do that clean break as well."

A key thing to remember is: don't be hard on yourself.

"Don't put yourself down because it’s easy to get into these types of relationships without realising it. It starts off so well, they start off very nicely, and they can confuse you because they can be nice hen they can go into a dark mood again. It’s not your fault, so be kind to yourself, start to build your confidence, and don't be hard on yourself," Simone says.

Cosmopolitan UK's current issue is out now and you can SUBSCRIBE HERE.

Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more articles like this delivered straight to your inbox.

Follow Megan on Twitter.

You Might Also Like