Don't Ignore These Red Flags When In An Intimate Relationship

Psychologist Miguel Clemente discusses the long-term dangers of partnering with a dark personality.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | March 23, 2022

A new study published in the academic journal Acta Psychologica offers a clear reminder not to ignore certain personality red flags when pursuing someone as a long-term intimate partner.

I recently spoke with one of the authors of the research, Dr. Miguel Clemente of the University of Coruna in Spain, to discuss these findings in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of dark personality and intimate relationships, how did you study it, and what did you find?

I started to become interested in this topic after having spent about 10 years studying the problems that many women face upon deciding to break up with their partner — especially when they have children. For some husbands who see their wives as their property, such a decision is simply unacceptable (unless of course, it comes from them); this phenomenon is commonly accepted as a byproduct of patriarchy.

In most court cases, judges grant the children's custody to mothers. Unfortunately, in trying to inflict as much pain as possible on the mother, some fathers abuse their children out of revenge, during their visits, that are normally on the weekends. Most fathers love and defend their children, but there are a few who see them as a weapon to punish their former partner.

As abuse takes place in the privacy of the home, if they carefully and deliberately plan their aggressions, they leave no evidence; they then argue that the perpetrators are in fact the mothers, who concoct all sorts of schemes to avoid complying with the visiting arrangements and want to cut the ties between the fathers and their children.

Research shows that abusive fathers are granted custody by two-thirds of the judges, who in so doing neglect their duty to help the children. Indicators of subsequent abuse usually emerge after a period of 2 or 3 years, and they end up having to rectify the sentences. When researchers came up with the concept of dark personality, I realized that fathers who are capable of manipulating their children in that way, to the extent of abusing them, must have a very particular type of personality — what we now know as dark personality.

Can you give a brief description of a dark personality?

My research focuses on ascertaining whether the abusers of their intimate partners and their children have that kind of personality. The data from my research team have confirmed this.

The concept of dark personality came to the fore with Jones and Paulhus' studies in the United States. It originally comprised three traits (Machiavellianism, subclinical narcissism, and subclinical psychopathy) and was later expanded to contain sadism. European researchers suggested that, because the so-called dark aspects of personality typically manifest concomitantly, it seems more appropriate to refer to an underlying "dark factor" (D-factor), which would entail the manifestation of 9 predominant aversive traits:

  1. Egoism
  2. Machiavellianism
  3. Moral disengagement
  4. Narcissism
  5. Psychological entitlement (a recurring belief that one is better than others and deserves better treatment)
  6. Psychopathy
  7. Sadism
  8. Self-interest (a desire to further and highlight one's own social and financial status)
  9. And, spitefulness (destructiveness and willingness to cause harm to others, even if one harms oneself in the process)

Besides Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy and sadism, individuals with dark personalities show signs of anti-social behavior; they lie, and have a propensity for taking revenge, among other variables, which constitutes a behavior pattern characterized as "dark." All this influences the relationships of individuals who display these characteristics, especially when the relationship between the couple is broken, and retaliations are commonly generated. However, studies carried out with male prisoners convicted for killing their partner or for attempted murder indicate the predominance of dark personality variables.

The four main constructs define a dark, socially destructive character, with behavioral trends such as grandiosity, emotional coldness, manipulation of others, and aggressiveness.

Can you explain the concept of moral disengagement and why it is important for the research?

Concurrently, there are other characteristics linked to the dark personality, such as moral disengagement, which allow people with this type of personality to perform cruel and even inhumane actions.

The concept of moral disengagement was first suggested by Albert Bandura (a recently deceased Canadian psychologist) and seeks to answer the question of how it is possible that, in some specific moments in their lives, amiable, well-socialized and respectful people are capable of committing inhumane, truly cruel acts.

Bandura built on the notion that circumstances force people to seek justifications for their own actions that violate their moral standards. Moral disengagement can be defined as a mechanism that enables people who commit acts that would otherwise be an attack on their self-concept, to defend themselves, and thus preserve their self-esteem.

Although we selectively self-regulate our moral control, when this control is not activated, we may take actions that violate our moral standards. There are two aspects upon which our self-regulation mechanism operates regarding our behavior: one as an inhibitor and the other, proactive. The inhibitory form is manifested by the ability to stop anti-social actions; the proactive form of morality manifests in the capacity to act humanely (Bandura, 2002).

The mechanisms of moral disengagement entail 8 processes of cognitive restructuring of reprehensible behavior, which facilitate the disinhibition of moral reasoning: moral justification, euphemistic language, advantageous comparison, displacement of responsibility, diffusion of responsibility, distortion of consequences, dehumanization, and ascription of blame.

Your research talks about dark personalities and intimate relationships. How are these two correlated? What behaviors are seen in people with dark personality traits in an intimate relationship?

This research establishes a link between the concepts of dark personality and moral disengagement and applies it to the sphere of intimate relationships. It also proves that high levels of dark personality traits, when coupled with the use of mechanisms of moral disengagement, serve to explain the emergence of intimate violence. But, as I said before, almost all this team's research concerns child abuse and the use of children to overcome break-ups within a couple. In fact, I am expecting a book (Lexington Books) to be published shortly, that makes reference to the novel concept of "legal harassment." This is the kind of harassment that many women suffer when their former partners use the justice system to attack them, as they are often less financially solvent and cannot be properly defended in court.

What are the practical takeaways from your research for someone in an intimate relationship with a person with a dark personality? How should the other person deal with it?

Humans tend to be nice to each other; we try to help others when they are in need, especially if it is our partner. It is usually reciprocal, but it is not always like that. Sometimes it is not so easy to detect any possible imbalance within the couple, especially if they are at a time of falling in love. I believe that these studies should serve to call the attention of the members of the couple who offer the other all kinds of favors without receiving a similar treatment in return. No one should be made to feel less or despised by anyone. Some couples get used to having the other member do everything for them without receiving anything in return, and even craft plans to subdue the other for their benefit (Machiavellianism); others enjoy contemplating their partner's suffering (sadistic, if they like to see long-term suffering, or psychopaths, if it is short-term), or do not allow their partner to stand out, exceeding them (narcissistic). These studies can help people find a relationship that is satisfactory to both without manipulation. If they have children, they will be able to avoid situations of abuse through manipulation.

Did something unexpected emerge from your research? Something beyond the hypothesis?

It was curious to find out that people who score high in dark personality traits might also show what we could call positive personality traits. This has led some researchers to claim that showing a dark feature is not always negative (for example, sometimes the common thought is that a good salesperson must be Machiavellian, which in my opinion is a mistake because selling should not mean cheating and attacking the customer). But in fact, individuals with high levels of psychopathy, for example, are often big lovers of their pets (they could kill their partner but would give their life for their pet). In general, psychopaths love helpless beings.

How does infidelity relate to dark personalities in a relationship?

Individuals who score high in dark personality traits are often more unfaithful. This is not the case for narcissists, perhaps because they are less prone to think about sex and are more focused on overshadowing their partner (and others) in every aspect of life.

Did you find any demographic differences for example, age, sex, etc. in the people having the dark personalities in intimate relationships?

A pervasive characteristic in all the studies that we tackled is that men consistently score higher in the four original traits of the dark personality, and in the eight mechanisms of moral disengagement. Age, however, does not seem to be such a decisive variable. Perhaps the explanation lies in how men and women are socialized within patriarchal societies. Males are encouraged to display intimate relationships as trophies, and infidelity is often seen as positive, while in women, fidelity and the care of children is held in higher esteem. Fortunately, these parameters are changing, and in a few years, we may not see any differences in dark personality traits between men and women.

How influential are one's dark personalities outside intimate relationships?

I have focused my research on couple relationships, but the analysis of dark personalities can be done in all areas of social life. We know that in the workplace, there are co-workers who are "job psychopaths," often favored by organizations that prioritize productivity over the respect for employees. The study of the dark personality has been carried out in the three areas in which we develop our lives: family, friends, and work. Dysfunctions occur in all of them because there are people who show one or more traits related to dark personality.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on dark personality in intimate relationships go in the future?

My motivation and the course of my work is the defense of children. That is why I work as a researcher and university professor, but also as an expert psychologist in the courts of justice. Detecting whether parents show dark personality traits can protect both children and the parent they intend to attack through the manipulation of their children. I strive for a fairer justice system. One of the great injustices today is that very little is heard directly from the children, who suffer the consequences of the revenge of their parents. If my research can help in that direction, I will personally feel satisfied.