Therapists Explain What to Do If You’re in a Relationship With a Dark Triad Personality

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IF YOU’RE SOMEONE who always sees the good in people, it can be tough to get your head around a dark triad personality type. But, experts say it's important to know how to recognize them because these individuals can be malicious and even dangerous.

“The dark triad refers to someone who carries the traits of what we call Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and there are elements of narcissism in there, too,” says Wendy Behary, L.C.S.W., a therapist and author of Disarming the Narcissist.

Dark triad isn’t a clinical diagnosis, however, she says. But, people with this personality usually have a dark side. They often struggle to recognize others’ feelings and how their own behavior can harm others—and, that makes them dangerous, Behary adds.

“There’s just something missing in that ability to have a conscience around that,” she explains. “It’s almost like it doesn’t exist in their realm of knowing.”

The dark triad personality is often linked to the dark empath trait, which is when someone understands the feelings of others but doesn’t feel these feelings themselves and may actively use someone’s feelings against them. They might act like they care, but deep down, they don’t feel sympathy for you or have a desire to help. They use their understanding of your feelings to manipulate you.

Dark triads can be especially dangerous because they’re hard to spot, experts say. That’s because they tend to use manipulation, bullying, sarcasm, guilt, and gaslighting.

“There's a lot of complexity to these personality types, and it's really important that we understand it so we can better liberate ourselves from the danger that can come with being affiliated with them,” Behary says.

Signs of a Dark Triad Personality

Dark triads can be a paradox, says Phoenix Adams, D.S.W., L.C.S.W., executive vice president of Florida programming for Caron Treatment Centers. On one hand, they can be kind and supportive, and on the other, they can be callous. Here are some signs of a dark triad:

They have a collection of personality traits.

The three personality traits of a dark triad include:

  • Narcissism, when someone has an inflated sense of self, craves attention and admiration, and feels superior to others.

  • Psychopathy, an antisocial disorder where someone lacks empathy, remorse, and the ability to control their behaviors. They may be manipulative and commit crimes.

  • Machiavellianism, which describes someone who’s vindictive, abusive, cynical, prone to lying, and lacks empathy.

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People with these traits have little interest in other people. They may be manipulative or malicious, with no sense of responsibility, accountability, or remorse, Behary says.

They can portray a dark empath persona.

“A dark empath is a person who basically has the cognitive knowledge of empathy—they know how to relate to somebody, they know how to understand if someone's going through something or is feeling something—but they don't know how to follow through with any actions,” says Alyza Berman, L.C.S.W., founder and clinical director at The Berman Center.

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Research published in 2021 in the journal Personality and Individual Differences suggests that dark empaths can be aggressive, extroverted, and agreeable, and exhibit dark triad traits at varying degrees.

Dark empaths don’t necessarily lack empathy, however. They just have a “calculated way of experiencing empathy, which is expressed in a cognitive way versus an emotional way,” Adams says. They might use it to manipulate, gaslight, or bully others, instead of genuinely caring for or helping someone.

They display several distinct characteristics.

Dark triads can be hard to identify since they manipulate to mask their behavior. Here are some signs to pay attention to:

  • They act like Prince Charming in front of others, but are cold, disconnected, and belittling behind closed doors.

  • They lie a lot.

  • They’re malicious and put people in embarrassing or compromising positions.

  • They may appear kind, but are also direct, bullying, and mean if you cross or disagree with them.

  • They’re incredibly self-centered.

  • They use their charms to exploit and manipulate.

  • They constantly self-promote.

  • They exploit people and situations for their own benefit.

  • They get upset when others experience something positive and downplay others’ achievements.

  • They’re impulsive or promiscuous.

  • They show no remorse for their behavior and never worry about consequences.

These traits might remind you of someone you know, but Adams cautions that labeling them as a dark triad can be stigmatizing. Only a mental health professional can diagnose the symptoms of a personality disorder.

They might make you feel like you’re losing your mind.

If you regularly interact with a dark triad, you might spend a lot of time blaming or doubting yourself, or questioning your reality, Behary says.

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Dark triads are typically manipulators and gaslighters, Berman says. “They’ll say the right things, but their actions are doing something totally different. It makes you feel like you’re losing your mind.”

Dealing with someone like this can take a toll. You may experience anxiety, self-doubt, insecurity, diminished confidence and self-esteem, confusion, guilt, and even trauma, she says.

Relationships with a dark triad will likely involve lots of manipulation and power differences, says Darren Moore, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., owner of the counseling and consulting practice I AM MOORE.

And, it might be difficult to escape from these relationships, he says.

Someone consistently dealing with a dark triad may use maladaptive coping strategies, like alcohol, drugs, overeating, overspending, or acting out sexually, to deal with the pain of being in the relationship, Adams says.

It could also put you in an unsafe situation, Behary adds. “Partners can end up losing a lot, both in terms of security and stability and even sense of self.”

They’re unlikely to get help.

Dark triads don’t usually see their behaviors as problematic, so they’re not likely to seek mental health treatment, Behary says. Their sense of entitlement and perceived justification for their actions would make them perceive therapy as unnecessary.

Someone who just displays narcissistic behavior might be prompted to see a therapist by a partner who gives an ultimatum, Behary says. A dark triad would likely need a legal mandate, like a court order, to seek treatment.

They might be more likely to seek treatment for other problems, such as depression, substance abuse, addiction, or relationship issues. “However, they may appear to seek help, if there’s something they feel they can gain from it, such as manipulating others or obtaining buy-in from an expert,” Moore explains.

What to Do If You Know a Dark Triad

Set boundaries, Adams emphasizes. You may need to see a mental health professional for help setting healthy boundaries and coping with the effects of a relationship with a dark triad.

Sometimes, ending the relationship is the best approach, Berman says. If it’s a family member who you can’t separate from, “The best thing you can do is continuously set boundaries, even if you feel like you’re being manipulated.”

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