Choosing a love partner? Beware of The Dark Triad

Choosing a life partner is the most difficult task young adults face. Furthermore, due to mistakes in choices, older adults also find themselves single and choosing again. The desire to have a life partner comes from our needs for sex and companionship; but, given how difficult it is to compete in society, the desire for a mate also may be influenced by more practical matters. In choosing a mate, sexual attractiveness, compatibility and social status all factor in to the equation. To avoid a mistake, then, it is necessary to be aware how sexual attractiveness, compatibility and social status influence our choices, and to couple this awareness with an understanding of the qualities that make a good life partner.

The problem with sexual attractiveness is that “beauty is only skin deep,” and many people, especially men, place too much of an emphasis on sexual attractiveness when choosing a mate. A choice based on sexual attractiveness has a high likelihood of being an incorrect one. Erotic passion clouds judgment and prevents us from considering compatibility and practical matters in our choices. The good news is that we do not have to allow ourselves to be seduced by beauty, and if we are, we have only ourselves to blame.

Once we get beyond sexual attractiveness, compatibility and status concerns weigh into our decisions. This is where the Dark Triad comes in. The Dark Triad of personality represents those who make their partners miserable. The Dark Triad is Psychopathy, Narcissism and Machiavellianism. To varying degrees, all three personality types entail a dark, interpersonally destructive character with tendencies toward grandiosity, emotional callousness, manipulation and dominance. Psychopaths and Machiavellians have high self- esteem, and are charming and fun but psychopaths are also impulsive and cunning. Narcissists are grandiose and have high self esteem, and may also be intellectually gifted. Research has shown that these three personality types are all a bit different and yet also highly overlap.

A common theme underlies The Dark Triad; that theme is a preoccupation with dominance and power. Personality tests of Machiavellianism come the closest to identifying non-criminal psychopaths. There are high correlations between these three personality tests in college students who take all three tests. The numbers indicate that these three concepts are different but have some common underlying theme. That theme is pleasure in power.

The Dark Triad

I want to explain why a preoccupation with dominance and power makes a person a poor mate. A gut level, emotional understanding of this subject (as opposed to an intellectual understanding) is especially important for women who very often choose mates on the basis of status concerns. Psychopaths, Machiavellians and Narcissists all commit love fraud in that these people also want mates but are incapable of love. Many people, especially women, naively believe that all people who claim to want a mate, and say “I love you,” do indeed, love. Why would an unloving person even want a mate? The answer is power.

Within every person there are two levels to social motives. The first, superficial level is a general desire to be around people. It is rare for people to be so disordered that they lack the desire to be around others. A temporary lack of desire can come with depression and other illness, but I am referring to a constitutional lack of desire. This is only seen in schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders. It is important to know, then, that there is a whole host of disordered people who want to be around others and who do not enjoy being alone—among these are Psychopaths, Machiavellians and Narcissists.

The second, deeper, social motives are sex, affection/love and dominance/power. A romantic relationship that is based on sex and love is pleasant, fulfilling and leads to well-being. Please hear me, a romantic relationship can also be based on sex and dominance/power. These relationships undermine the well-being of the subordinate partner. Since people who are motivated a great deal by personal dominance do not really like being around other dominant people, they are less likely to get caught up in or stay in a relationship with a power-hungry dominant. It is loving people who end up trapped with a member of The Dark Triad.

People who are more loving may still want status, they just prefer not to personally compete for it. This preference also attracts them to The Dark Triad. It might seem good to have a mate who does the competing and goes after the status. There are studies showing that Machiavellians who are stockbrokers, bankers and salespersons make more money. Psychopaths and Machiavellians often do better than control subjects in competitive laboratory games.

The conditions of The Dark Triad are especially common in America. Our child rearing practices deemphasize love and communion, and train children to be competitive and independent. Rarely, we produce individuals who are great leaders, who are loving and yet effectively competitive. We would all probably want such a person as a mate, but please realize that these individuals are relatively rare. More likely, we face a choice between loving and competitive traits.

Many women are turned off by “nice guys” who are lower in status drive. Guess what, though, studies of college students show that guys who are high in Machiavellian traits are very likely to coerce sex and commit date rape. The acceptance of competitive men who do this is so ingrained in our society that many blame the woman who made the mistake of going to the guy’s apartment.

I was out biking with a male friend the other day and we discussed the subject of sexual attraction and dominance motives. My friend also said that some men are “attracted to bitches.” “Some men really like that,” he said, referring to dominant women. It appears, then, that both men and women may be attracted to those who behave dominantly, even though this may actually signal the person’s undesirability.

Why is it so hard to have it all? Why is it rare that a person is both loving/empathetic and effectively dominant/competitive? The reason is that affection and dominance motives are not compatible. We can be motivated by a combination of sex and love or a combination of sex and power, but we cannot simultaneously experience love and power motives.

Furthermore, dwelling in the power realm suppresses the development of empathy. Empathy is a skill that must be nurtured and practiced. Empathy, if not practiced, diminishes. We are designed this way because assertion of dominance often necessitates overt or covert aggression. How can we be aggressive toward someone we have empathy for? We can’t, thus the most loving people are the least aggressive and the least domineering.

If you are in a relationship and are considering a deeper commitment, or are attracted to someone and considering a relationship, please take stock of what I have said. Consider the person’s Inner Triangle, don’t go after The Dark Triad.

The Inner Triangle is our Ability to Love, Impulse Control and Moral Reasoning. Seek to surround yourself with loving people who have morals and impulse control. Avoid, at all costs, connecting with a member of The Dark Triad.

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48 Comments on "Choosing a love partner? Beware of The Dark Triad"

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I don’t know about anyone else, but I LOVE getting older. I’m more sure of myself. I like myself. I love talking and exchanging ideas with older folks … because they have the wisdom that they acquired from living a full life! I don’t know how being elderly became a dirty word … not in my book! Never would I not respect a wiser individual. Never!


My ex is a pure sociopath. However, his favorite book was Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” Telling, isn’t it?

> I’m not sure holehearted is still around, but your response is interesting to a very good thread and article

I understand. But I can’t start new thread if all I want is to respond to some specific comment. Maybe she will read it, or maybe not. In any case you read it and found it interesting 🙂

Hey Matt: My EX loved John Wayne. Go figure?

The more I read the more I just want to give up on a committed relationship – it’s all just to confusing – is it just me or does it seem like russian roulette? – I think being a sociopath would be less painful, how do you get rid of a conscience?

Thanks for being here. After almost one year of not talking to my ex, I’m still struggling with the hurt. I have gone into counseling, and working on my issues. The best defense against these lesser beings is to educate ourselves so we avoid them in the future. The truth is, that as much as I miss him sometimes, I know that there is no way that my life would be happy with him. I still miss the man i thought he was, but not the real him, because I don’t know who the real man is. My hate for him is gone, but I also don’t feel pity for him, although my counselor said he’s still a dangerous man to me. I have sorrounded myself with a good support system, family and friends who have been very supportive, so it is getting better, and it will get better for you too. Slowly, you will reclaim the little pieces of your soul, and be whole again.

Blackrose – [The truth is, as much as I miss him sometimes, I know that there is no way my life would be happy with him.] I relate, I don’t hate him even if he deserves nothing but that, has been 9 months no contact for me. Slowly I am recovering myself. I think part of the pain of loving a sociopath is realizing we were in love with (our) fantasy, (our) ideal of true love. I have to stop loving fantasy people and love real people. It’s work I must do on me – I have to fix me – take care of me. It’s like oop’s I have had it all wrong – it doesn’t work like that..

Henry, you are right about learning to love people who are real. I’ve decided to stay away from dating for a while until I learn more about myself, and what attracted me to this man, and what makes it hurt so much is that we feel we’ve lost, not just our lover, but our best friend. My ex and I shared the same interests, family values, political views, but they were my interest, family values, etc. I used to feel sorry for him, but I don’t anymore, he didn’t even have the decency to call me and tell me it was over, the lack of respect, lack of remorse. People ask me if I’ll ever forgive him, I forgave myself, I don’t owe him that much. But, to keep hating him wasn’t healthy for me, and he doesn’t even deserve that kind of emotion from me.

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