One Possible Reason Why Your Ex Will Not Leave You Alone

Psychologist Miguel Diaz discusses the reasons behind post-breakup vengeance in his new research.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 6, 2022

A new study published in the journal Acta Psychologica shows how people with dark personality traits have the potential to express vengeful and spiteful behavior following a breakup.

I recently spoke with lead author Miguel Diaz from Coruna University in Spain about why dark personality individuals commit harmful actions toward their ex-partners. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of dark personality traits and their effects on intimate partner relationships?

I began to use the concept of dark personality traits when trying to find explanations for the fact that some divorced people (especially men) were capable of dedicating the rest of their lives to doing all kinds of things and actions, even using the justice system, to make life impossible for their ex-partners (especially women).

All these former male partners did not accept the breakup of relationships, and in the most serious cases, revenge consisted of killing the children, so that this is a way of killing the mothers while they are alive.

First I used Machiavellianism as an explanatory variable, then the dark triad, and now the dark tetrad and moral disconnection.

Can you give a brief description of what dark personality traits are and how they relate to moral disengagement?

The concept of dark traits began to be studied under the premise that there are people who have a personality that violates social values and, at the same time, act against specific people.

Research showed that the three "dark" traits were Machiavellianism, subclinical narcissism, and subclinical psychopathy; the dark triad nomenclature was used.

Shortly after another variable was added, sadism, which is why the term dark tetrad is currently used.

Soon the investigations of the authors who work in this field showed that there is a very high correlation between all the dimensions, for which some authors (mostly European) have established that one should speak of a "dark core," and it is unnecessary to study each dimension separately.

The inclusion of moral disengagement is due to the investigations of my team, since any person who is capable of carrying out cruel and clearly antisocial actions needs to look for a series of moral justifications that allow him to think that his way of acting is correct.

Our team considers that moral disconnection is what allows the justification of antisocial actions.

You demonstrate that dark personality traits and levels of moral disengagement are more prevalent in men? Why do you think that is?

Research, not just my team's, shows that this is the case, with men scoring higher on both dark personality and moral disengagement dimensions than women.

Multiple explanations have been offered, from genetics (Y chromosome), to cultural and environmental. We prefer to study the latter. Women have been socialized in a higher respect to social norms.

Surely with the progress of society towards equality between roles, this difference will disappear.

Something similar has happened and is happening with the different rate of committing of crimes. A few years ago there were very few women convicted in prison, but this rate is increasing.

What do you think underlies the relationship between dark personality traits and behaviors such as excessive pornography use?

From a scientific point of view, it has yet to be determined exactly, but the truth is that pornography is characterized by a series of elements that are present in the abuser's profile: continuous change of partner (the duration of a couple usually is very brief), continuous cheating on the partner, a search for new emotions in sexual relations, trying new experiences, etc.

In short, in pornography there is usually a dominant person (which is usually the man) and someone who is dominated (which is usually the woman).

This is one of the reasons why dark personality traits and levels of moral disengagement are higher in men.

Women are often despised, as they are an object that satisfies the pleasures of men, and one of the pleasures of men is domination using the pain it causes in women (that is, they tend to exhibit very typical traits of the narcissist and the sadist).

You mention that dark personality traits are significantly associated with levels of moral disengagement in an intimate relationship. What sort of behaviors do these people typically express inside and outside of their relationships?

Within a partner, the abuser continually expresses that he is the victim, and continuously tries to annul his partner, so that he comes to assume that he is the guilty one and should be mistreated.

The victim fears going against the designs of the abuser. It is something similar to the so-called "Stockholm syndrome."

The best form of domination is the one accepted by the dominated. And that is achieved by making the victim accept small things out of politeness, and gradually increasing the actions of humiliation.

But, in turn, the abuser believes that the abused deserves those punishments and that she likes to be annulled and punished. Unfortunately, many victims accept the abuse and call the abuse "love."

Did you find any gender differences or other demographic differences?

In our research, in addition to the gender variable, we have only verified the influence of the age variable, and we have not found significant differences. What is certain is that older people are much more hesitant to recognize abuse.

How might your research inform clinical efforts to manage behavioral processes such as moral disengagement?

Moral disconnection was considered from the beginning, since the Bandura concept was created, as a cognitive process that allows people to carry out actions that are morally reprehensible.

Unfortunately, it has hardly been used within a context of treatment of criminals, and of course, not in that of the aggressors of their partners.

We believe that its measurement can be very useful to be able to subsequently carry out interventions such as cognitive restructuring therapies.

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

We are focusing more on children who suffer the consequences of parents who want revenge on their ex-partners. We want to verify how these revenges affect their development, and how on many occasions contact with judicial institutions develops higher levels of Machiavellianism in these children.