Road under a dark sky, symbolizing the dark triad

The Allure of Toxic Partners

Ursula found Derek to be alluring, somewhat mysterious, fun, but a bit domineering.  Nevertheless, he seemed to be exactly what she needed at the point of life she had reached. 

The one thing she knew is that she did not want another man who was either boring or, in a word, servile.  This time she wanted a real man—someone whom she could respect. 

She knew she had a dominating personality, and the only men she respected were the ones who stood up to her.

Derek proved to be all she expected him to be but quite a bit more, in ways that Ursula found surprising, even astonishing. 

He was totally into himself.  He never stopped talking about himself and all his accomplishments, which were certainly creditable but scarcely admirable. 

He always put his own needs first.  He also had ingenious ways of ensuring that his needs were met.  He was manipulative, sometimes in subtle ways, but other times in ways that were totally transparent. 

When she tried to talk about her own aspirations and hopes, he seemed neither to listen nor to be interested. 

When once she hurt herself, he seemed utterly unconcerned.  In his business, he seemed to take pleasure not only in his own successes, but also in defeating his rivals. 

She often wondered whether he was more motivated by the desire to succeed or the desire to see others fail. 

 Ursula was not sure how much Derek really cared for anyone but himself.  Given what she had discovered about him, she knew she could not get out soon enough. 

What puzzled her was not so much Derek—she had met others like him, although not quite as extreme—but herself. 

She knew she should be running fast, yet she didn’t want to leave.  She found Derek to be incredibly charming and even charismatic. 

He did not pretend to be anything other than what he was.  He wore his personality with pride.  She even knew there was a psychological term for what he was like, although the term eluded her at the moment. 

She was not going anywhere.  She knew that she would keep getting sucked in deeper and deeper, and yet, she found herself eagerly awaiting each meeting with Derek. She was hooked! 

Ursula recognized Derek for what he was, even though she could not remember the term.

The dark triad

Certainly, he is a narcissist. He is seriously into himself!

He is more than that, though.  He exhibits in his personality what is sometimes called the “dark triad”—narcissism,  Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.

Narcissism is found in someone who needs to be endlessly flattered and admired, and someone who has a tremendous sense of entitlement and who cannot brook dissent. The narcissist looks at others as existing to serve him.

Machiavellianism is a tendency to manipulate, deceive, and, as necessary, to exploit others to advance one’s own interests.

Psychopathy is characterized by lack of empathy, lack of inhibition, antisocial behavior, and disregard for others.

What is the attraction of toxic partners?

Why, asked Ursula of herself, was she so drawn to a guy who was obviously a creep?  More generally, why have so many countries elected leaders blatantly showing dark-triad behavior?  What is it that draws people to such toxicity? Are most people just interpersonally dense or oblivious, or is there something more?

Jean Lipman-Blumen, in her book The Allure of Toxic Leaders, has suggested that there is something more.

Many people, especially those who prefer simplicity in their life, who are prone to avoid critical thinking, and who are drawn to authoritarians, find toxic leaders attractive and often vote for them, hoping that the leaders will provide the kind of "firm" leadership their community, state, country, organization, or whatever needs.

They want to believe, and suspend their critical thinking, or believe that their self-interest can be served with such a leader. They may truly believe that such leaders offer a kind of "salvation" from the ills of society.

Some believers later become disillusioned.  Others latch on and never realize that the leaders are in it only for themselves.

What is it that people find attractive about toxic partners?   It probably depends on the person.  But there are certain commonalities.

They may be attracted to the person’s supreme self-confidence.

Or they may find attraction in the person’s utter preoccupation with themselves—how many of us would like to feel that we are at the center of the universe but, instead, hardly can find a place at all?

Or people may find the person’s sheer brazenness refreshing—they are so obvious about it that it may even seem breath-taking and even, ironically, honest.

But whatever the reason, many people are attracted to partners who exhibit dark-triad traits. Such partners arouse great passion in people who are attracted to anti-social traits. Of course, we would like to think that only other people are this way, but that is precisely the problem for many people--they see it, or think they see it in others but not in themselves.

Challenges of being with a dark-triad personality

People have widely varying tastes and of course it is important to respect the wide variation in tastes people have.  But there are some challenges that tend to be associated with dark-triad partners.  Here is a very incomplete list.

  • It will be very hard to establish true intimacy. They likely will not have your interests at heart, or at least, not in a way that may satisfy you if or when you really need them.
  • Further regarding intimacy, you never can have much confidence in the truth of what they say, just in case you care.
  • They may view you as dispensable, as that is just the way they see other people. They see others as there to serve them for about as long as the others are useful to them.  So, commitment may be rather minimal, regardless of what they say. We all like to think we are the exception--that they don't care about others but they do care about us.  But that is one reason why "dark triad" personalities often succeed.  We think we are special to them until we discover that we are not.
  • You better be ready with compliments and hold back on criticism. They will not take criticism well, and even abject flattery may not be enough!
  • If they turn against you, which may well happen, you need to be prepared to deal with someone who is willing to go to great lengths to hurt someone else and may be experienced at doing it. Moreover, they may be sufficiently charming with others that those others believe the partner rather than you.

If you are with someone who has dark-triad personality traits, you might do well to have an exit strategy in reserve. You may well need it, sooner rather than later.

Do you think you are with someone who has a dark-triad personality?  Take the quiz below to assess whether, indeed, you are with such a person!

Get Your Quiz Here!

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