New Research Reveals The Love Styles Of A Dark Personality
Researcher Alyson Blanchard explores how vulnerable dark personalities express and interpret love and what it could mean for their romantic partners.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | October 7, 2023
A new study published in Personality and Individual Differences examines the love styles of individuals with vulnerable dark triad traits and how they differ from those with traits of primary psychopathy and grandiose narcissism.
I recently spoke to Alyson Blanchard of the department of psychology at the University of Salford in the UK, lead author of the study to discuss the real-world implications of these love styles for engaging in romantic relationships with 'dark' personalities. Here is a summary of our conversation.
Can you briefly describe the "vulnerable dark triad" traits, and how they differ from primary psychopathy and grandiose narcissism?
Vulnerable dark triad traits are the more neurotic, emotionally unstable versions of their dark triad counterparts.
Secondary psychopathy has more to do with being reactive to situations that lead to antisocial activity, sometimes stemming from negative urgency, rather than primary psychopathy which concerns premeditated interpersonal interactions such as callousness and manipulation.
Vulnerable narcissists have ideas of grandeur and think they are better than others but get annoyed and angry when other people don't agree with this view. Grandiose narcissists on the other hand, are unaffected by other people's opinions of them.
Borderline personality disorder is similar to secondary psychopathy, with some suggestion that they are the same phenomena expressed differently across sex. Individuals who are high in borderline personality disorder traits are emotionally changeable and their behavior may be driven by a strong fear of abandonment.
Overall, vulnerable dark triad traits are shaped by an underlying anxiety which is generally absent in primary psychopathy and grandiose narcissism.
What inspired you to investigate the connection between the vulnerable dark triad, the capacity for love and love styles?
There is an ongoing debate with regards to factorial models of psychopathy which is often not acknowledged in dark triad literature. Early research in the 1940s demonstrated that individuals high in psychopathic traits can be differentiated by anxiety. This explains why there are psychopaths who are premeditated in their antisocial behavior (and these are the type that are featured in films and TV) and those that are reactive, sensation seeking and engage in criminal behavior.
Measures used in dark triad research often clump these profiles together which does not necessarily dovetail with what research suggests, and when doing so, explanatory detail is lost. Previous research has shown different behavioral outcomes for both types of psychopathy and narcissism and therefore it is important to continue with this type of investigation.
What was your methodology and what were your key findings?
We used an online psychometric survey across three studies.
In study 1, reduced capacity for love explained relationships between primary psychopathy, and love styles of:
- Agape (selfless)
- Eros (passionate)
- Pragma (logical)
- Storge (friendship)
Although no effects were found for secondary psychopathy or vulnerable narcissism.
In study 2, contrasting findings emerged in that reduced capacity for love partially mediated relationships between borderline personality disorder traits, agape and eros, only, yet indirect effects were not observed for primary psychopathy, secondary psychopathy and associated love styles.
In study 3, reduced capacity for love partially explained the relationship between vulnerable narcissism and agape, eros, ludus and storge, but not those between grandiose narcissism and related love styles.
How does someone with vulnerable dark triad traits usually behave in a romantic relationship, and how does the reduced capacity for love impact their love style?
Individuals higher in secondary psychopathy reported increased game playing in one of the studies, however this was not explained by a reduced capacity for love—which might instead be explained by some capacity for emotional connectedness as well as the need to engage in multiple romantic partnerships due to their increased sensation seeking and risk-taking behavior.
In contrast, a reduced capacity for love partly explained less passionate, friendship-based and selfless love styles and increased game playing in higher vulnerable narcissistic individuals. This might be explained by the vulnerable narcissist's tendency to be angry at others who do not recognise the esteem that they hold themselves in - thus, they love themselves but are unable to love others because they care about how others think about them, in contrast to the grandiose narcissists who simply do not care.
A reduced capacity for love was implicated in friendship and passionate love styles in those higher in borderline personality disorder traits that may stem from an overall issue with the ability to love and feel compassion for themselves, which does not provide an effective internal model to work from. Congruently, a reduced capacity for love did not explain their manic approach in romance, because it may operate via a fear of abandonment.
Can you elaborate on how game playing behavior manifests in relationships and why?
From our research, game playing behavior emerged from individuals who were higher in both primary and secondary psychopathy, although in neither case was this explained by a reduced capacity for love which suggests that other factors are implicated in this approach to romantic relationships, although potentially for different reasons.
Primary psychopathy is associated with an interpersonal manipulation, likely stemming from difficulties with empathizing rather than an ability to love per se. It might be the case that individuals high in primary psychopathy would also want to give the impression that they can fall in love and so answered deceptively in the survey. They need to give that impression otherwise no one would ever date them!
Individuals higher in secondary psychopathy do not have issues with empathizing in the same way that those higher in primary psychopathy do and, although they may be less agreeable, they are more emotional. Subsequently, their game playing tendencies might emerge from anxiety manifesting as a fear of rejection.
Interestingly, in one of our studies, those higher in vulnerable narcissism did report a reduced capacity for love which did explain their game playing love style.
Do you have any words of wisdom or practical advice for individuals who may recognize some of these traits in themselves or their partners?
It's useful for anyone recognising that they are perhaps not functioning as well as they could do in their close relationships to seek therapy, either on an individual or couple basis (or both). Perhaps speaking with your partner and acknowledging areas that you need to address would be helpful for them, so that they can understand the situation better.
How might your research inform clinical efforts to improve romantic relationships?
Therapy could be more tailored in terms of understanding the specific outcomes associated with different personality styles in romantic relationships which would improve the likelihood of treatment success.
Individuals will have an improved understanding of how and why they are responding in the way that they are—this could also help to remove any sense of shame from the situation because it's not them being a "bad person."
Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on this topic go in the future?
We are currently investigating a number of other psychological phenomena in relation to people's capacity for love and their love styles, seeing as it can be informative into our understanding of how we operate in relationships, beyond attachment.
Other explanatory factors for why people high in low agreeable traits operate as they do in relationships as revealed here also needs to be examined because in some cases it wasn't down to a reduced capacity for love.