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.
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.