How Individuals With “The Dark Triad” Traits Respond To Breakup Distress

The Dark Triad is a set of three personality traits that tend to “hang together”; that is, when somebody has high levels of one of them, they’re more likely to also have high levels of the other two. You’re probably familiar with narcissism, which is characterized by self-focus and self-importance. You may also have heard of psychopathy, which refers to people who are cold and lacking in empathy. Less well-known is Machiavellianism: a tendency to be socially controlling and manipulative.

The Dark Triad traits have been linked with what researchers call a “game-playing” love style. They demonstrate less commitment to their relationship partners, report cheating on their partners more often, and tend to prefer short-term relationships over long-term relationships. In other words: it’s not easy to be in a long-term relationship with someone who scores high on the Dark Triad traits.

Relationship commitment – or the intention to remain in your current relationship – is the single best predictor of breakup distress. Breakup distress refers to any negative emotions that you experience as a consequence of breaking up with your partner (regardless of who initiated the breakup). Since people who score high on the Dark Triad usually report low relationship commitment, we hypothesized that they would also report less distress following the dissolution of their romantic relationships.

We ran two studies asking both university and online community samples about their most recent breakup (which had to be less than six months prior to the survey). Participants responded to personality scales to assess their Dark Triad scores and responded to items measuring their commitment (and other related variables) prior to the breakup, as well as their distress following the breakup.

Interestingly, the first study – the university sample – didn’t confirm our hypothesis: none of the Dark Triad scales showed the expected negative correlation with breakup distress. Narcissism wasn’t predictive of breakup distress at all, and Machiavellianism and psychopathy both showed positive correlations with breakup distress – meaning that individuals high on those traits were actually more distressed when their relationships ended. Knowing that the three Dark Triad traits do share some variance (essentially, they are similar enough to each other that they “overlap” a bit), we conducted a multiple regression analysis to determine whether Machiavellianism and psychopathy were both independently predictive of breakup distress. We found that, when considered in context, psychopathy was less important in predicting breakup distress; Machiavellianism was the primary driver of the positive correlation we saw.

We replicated the study using an online sample and found exactly the same pattern of effects. Narcissism didn’t predict breakup distress, but both psychopathy and Machiavellianism showed a positive correlation, with Machiavellianism being the primary predictor of breakup distress when entered into a multiple regression with psychopathy.

We wondered what was going on here. Why should people who are highly controlling be unhappy when their relationships end? We followed up our planned analyses with some exploratory tests, attempting to figure out why we were seeing this unexpected result. First, we tested whether people high on Machiavellianism might show particularly high distress following a breakup that was initiated by their partner. When a partner initiates a break-up, they are essentially changing the other person’s life, and the other person has no say in the matter. We thought this might be especially distressing for people who by definition like to be in control. Our university sample showed that this was true: people high on Machiavellianism showed especially high breakup distress when they had no hand in initiating the breakup. This effect did not replicate in our online community sample, but the data did appear to be trending in that direction.

We also wondered whether it would make a difference if the person had begun a new relationship since their breakup. We thought it possible that people high on Machiavellianism simply enjoy having someone close to them that they can manipulate, and not having that person might be distressing to them. However, the presence of a new relationship did not interact with Machiavellianism in either the university sample or the online community sample.

We couldn’t conclusively identify why people high on Machiavellianism seem to report higher breakup distress in these studies. It is possible that the initiator of the breakup might play a role, but the presence of a new relationship doesn’t seem to. There are a number of other variables that we didn’t test here that could be playing a role too. For example, Machiavellianism has previously been linked with negative emotions, including the symptoms of anxiety and depression. It’s possible that people high on Machiavellianism are simply more distressed all the time – not just after their breakups. Similarly, they might remember negative events more strongly and positive events less strongly than their peers, which could also have an impact on reported breakup distress.

What we do know is that this finding represents something new to be explored in personality and relationship science. A replicated result that runs counter to our hypotheses opens up a whole new world of questions about the Dark Triad, romantic relationships, and negative emotions. Our hope is that this work will encourage researchers to challenge their assumptions about the Dark Triad and continue to investigate these fascinating traits.

These findings are described in the article entitled The Dark Triad and break-up distress, recently published in the journal Personality and Individual DifferenceThis work was conducted by Sarah Moroz, Samantha Chen, Kabir N. Daljeet, and Lorne Campbell from The University of Western Ontario.