Infidelity and the Machiavellian: A Therapist's Tale
Originally posted in Huffington Post on October 6, 2016
After finances and communication, the third most challenging problem for a couple’s therapist to treat is infidelity. Infidelity is second only to physical abuse as having the most damaging impact to a relationship. There are different reasons that people violate their commitment in relationships. Those who give the reasons attractiveness (“He/She is too sexy to resist.”), conquest (I couldn’t pass it up.”), and insecurity (“I wanted to feel desired.”) as the top reasons for their infidelity appear to share similar personality traits. These traits make it hard for them to feel empathy and compassion for others.
These traits are challenging when working with couples. As a result of these traits, these individuals are unopposed to exploiting others; opportunistic, and have poor commitment in relationships. These are characteristics of the Machiavellian personality type (MPT). In 1513, Niccolò di Bernardo de Machiavelli authored The Prince, a work which defines deceit and sacrifice of “innocents” as common practice in politics. The Machiavellian personality type is characterized by the same manipulative and exploitative relational style.
Many partners have contacted me bewildered and confused by the extent of deception they are experiencing within their relationships. Some of these partners are unwittingly in a relationship with someone with a Machiavellian personality type. With Jenny and Paul, they have been married and in a monogamous relationship 20 years. Paul found out that Jenny has been in two 10 year extramarital relationships. Paul had confronted Jenny several times over the last 10 years. Paul questioned his wife’s emotional detachment, unusual financial activity, and her late night phone calls. Jenny explained away each questionable behavior with confidence and plausibility.
Deception is an important characteristic in relationships that includes someone with Machiavellian traits. Specifically, persons with Machiavellian traits are able to craft more plausible lies and show more confidence in their capacity to deceive than most people. Their partners find it difficult to disbelieve. With this scenario, Jenny demanded that Paul stop worrying about these silly things. She said she could not be in a relationship where she is not trusted. Thought policing, verbal threats, and emotional blackmail are mental weapons used as intimidation tactics.
Approximately 20% of men and women report that they have participated in a sexual affair in their present relationship and there is a high probability that they have had affairs in previous relationships. A 2014 study reports that men and women with high levels of Machiavellian personality traits are more likely to participate in infidelity. The researcher found that Machiavellian men and women use many motivations for their sexual behavior, including: increased self-esteem, status or popularity, stress relief, novelty of the experience, revenge, and others.
For Denise and Richard, partners for 5 years, Richard expressed that Denise is not as attractive as other women. Richard compared Denise to other women and felt entitled because he financially supported her. Continuously, Richard gave the reasoning that “she has nothing to complain about. She has a house, food, and anything she wants.” Over the years, his continued projection of shame and guilt onto Denise about not being up to his “standard” aesthetically had chipped away her identity and worth. Denise had little defense against Richard’s false accusations that she did not deserve his commitment of fidelity, admiration, and fondness for her.
Being able to identify the manipulation, mental and verbal abuse, and deception, at times, can be a challenge. The subtle and covert invalidations and insults become evident over time. Once the therapist discovers these traits in action, a process of disarming is necessary. Disarming is a process by which the mental and emotional weapons of the Machiavellian are brought to light, an thus rendered less effective. The finesse of disarming requires engaging and empowering the partner who was betrayed. Simultaneously, the therapist, due to the self-serving personality associated with the Machiavellian type, must motivate them by demonstrating that the change is for their benefit.
Some therapists may make an error if they view hypersensitivity, reactiveness, and emotional volatility of the betrayed partner as an indicator that “they are the problem.” It’s important to consider that years of gaslighting (denying of someone’s reality), deception, and devaluing can result in these emotional and mental reactions. The Machiavellian personality type is highly deceptive, exploitative, and dismissive. Partners seek help out of desperation for understanding and validation. Many times, it is a struggle to get the Machiavellian partner to participate or engage in couple’s counseling due to blaming, self-seeking, and avoidant behavior.
Therefore, the presentation of the couple may be of opposite extremes. One may be exhibiting a roller coaster of emotions. In contrast, the other is showing calmness and seeming-cluelessness, implying that they are witnessing an irrational response from their partner. This is intentional to present the betrayed partner as less than believable. Some therapists consider the betrayed partner may be emotionally reasoning and overreacting. Convincingly, the Machiavellian minimizes and offers plausible but untrue explanations. As a therapist it’s important to not jump to conclusions.
The public has in recent times witnessed several overt Machiavellian personality types such as Donald Trump and Anthony Weiner. Weiner and Trump are convinced that their account of events is beyond reproach. This extends to proxy emotional deception and gaslighting with their spouses, campaign staff, and media representatives actively and naively being complicit in their rouse. In contrast, within my practice, the playing field is even. Inconsistencies, untruths, and complicit behavior are challenged and eradicated. This is the most effective way to disarm.