Personality Profiles of Women in Relationships Involving Men with Pathological Personality Features
Authors and Contributors
Katherine Lucas (0000-0002-6262-5933)
Susan C. South (0000-0003-0341-7074)
Douglas B. Samuel (0000-0003-3592-1523)
Department of Psychology, Purdue University
The Institute for Relational Harm Reduction
Katherine Lucas is now at the Department of Psychology at the University of Mississippi.
We have no conflicts of interests to disclose.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Douglas B. Samuel, Department of Psychology, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Relationships involving people with antisocial (ASPD), borderline (BPD), and narcissistic (NPD) personality disorders are known to be distressing to partners. There is a relative dearth of research, however, into the personalities of the partners of people with ASPD, BPD, and NPD. The current study examines the personalities of women in relationships with men with ASPD, BPD, or NPD.
Participants completed a battery of online questionnaires, including measures of normal range personality traits for both the participant and their partner, extreme ends of personality traits for both the participant and their partner, and partners’ personality disorder features.
We found that our sample of women was significantly more conscientious and agreeable than a normative sample on both personality scales given. We also conducted a latent profile analysis to account for multiple, conflicting personality profiles that may skew the whole sample comparisons. We found 4 personality profiles for each personality measure that are consistently high on agreeableness and conscientiousness but vary on neuroticism and extraversion.
Our results suggest that that there are several distinct personality profiles of women who find themselves in a relationship with men perceived as high in maladaptive personality features. This information can be used in testing interventions addressing the maladaptive personality features in the men, as the interaction between both partners’ personalities can negate successful interventions aimed at personality. In addition, future research on this topic can determine if these deviations in personality are a result of the relationship or could indicate a vulnerability to entering these maladaptive relationships.
Personality Profiles of Women in Relationships Involving Men with Pathological Personality Features
People with personality disorders have distressed intimate romantic relationships (e.g., South, Turkheimer, & Oltmanns, 2008). In particular, those with elevated levels of antisocial, borderline, histrionic and narcissistic (the Cluster B disorders in Section II of the Fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual; DSM-5, 2013) personality features are more likely to be involved in distressed relationships marked by daily negative behaviors (South, 2014), conflict (South, Turkheimer, and Oltmanns, 2008) and intimate partner violence (Dowgillo, Menard, Krueger, & Pincus, 2016; South et al., 2008). Despite the negative behaviors observed in these individuals, they continue to find partners and enter relationships, even marriages (Whisman, 2007). Research to date has largely focused on how individuals with personality pathology fare in romantic relationships. We know much less about the partners—those who enter into and try to maintain a relationship with someone with maladaptive personality traits. In the current study, we examine the personality traits of individuals who identify their former partners as having high levels of antisocial, borderline, or narcissistic personality pathology.
Negative Impact of Personality Disorder Traits on Relationship Functioning
A person with elevated levels of personality disorder (PD) symptoms is more likely to self-report low levels of relationship satisfaction. In a community sample of married couples, South and colleagues (2008) found that total PD symptoms explained a significant amount of the variance in self-reported marital satisfaction. Higher levels of personality pathology, as reported by the target and his or her spouse, were associated with lower levels of overall self-reported marital satisfaction. Stroud, Durbin, Saigal, and Knobloch-Fedders (2010) also looked at maladaptive personality traits and relationship satisfaction. In a sample of married couples with children, they found that self-reported PD features were positively correlated with marital dissatisfaction. More recently, narcissistic and borderline symptoms have been associated with lower relationship satisfaction, as reported by the target and his or her partner (Lavner et al 2015; Lavner et al 2016).
Beyond marital satisfaction, intimate partner violence is also more likely in couples in which one partner has elevated levels of PD pathology (Spencer et al 2019). For instance, higher levels of target PD symptoms are associated with greater verbal aggression and increased likelihood of physical aggression (South et al., 2008). Dowgwillo, Menard, Krueger, and Pincus (2016) found significant associations between IPV perpetration and self-reported pathological personality traits as measured by the PID-5 (Krueger et al., 2012), an assessment instrument for the alternative trait model of PDs in the DSM. There are also numerous studies that find PD features in samples recruited from individuals with documented histories of partner violence (Hoyt et al., 2012; Buck et al., 2014; Brem et al., 2018).
Among the ten DSM-5 PD categories, antisocial, borderline, and narcissistic PD features tend to be most negatively associated with relationship functioning. Buck, Leenaars, Emmelkamp, and Marle (2014) focused their study specifically on ASPD, BPD, and NPD, finding strong correlations between ASPD and BPD with overall IPV. ASPD traits have also been linked to lower relationship overall reported satisfaction (Strout et al 2010), daily conflict behaviors (South, 2014) and perpetration of psychological and physical abuse (Ehrensaft et al 2006). BPD has also been correlated with lower relationship satisfaction in both the individual with BPD and their partner (Bouchard, Sabourin, Lussier, and Villenueve, 2009; Lavner, 2015). Lastly, while NPD is not as strongly associated with IPV as ASPD and BPD (Spencer et al., 2019), individuals higher in narcissistic features report relationship conflict and dissatisfaction (Back et al, 2013) and have partners that report low satisfaction (Lavner, 2015). Overall, ASPD, BPD, and NPD are consistently connected with dysfunctional relationship features.
Who Are the Partners?
All the research to date on individuals with PDs or elevated PD features capture reports of satisfaction or partner violence once the relationship is under way. We know little about the beginning of these relationships or if the negative impact of PDs on relationships is present from the beginning. It is unclear when in the course of a relationship the negative impact of PD features begins, as the research to date has utilized couples ranging from newlyweds (e.g., Lavner, 2015; Lavner, 2016) to long-term, older, married couples (e.g., South et al, in press). In South et al. (2008), participants had been married on average 3.7 years and 12-15% of the sample met criteria for a PD, according to presence of self-reported symptoms. Similarly, in the Decuyper, Gistelinck, Vergauwe, Pancorbo, and Fruyt (2018) study, in a sample of couples with a PD present in at least one member of the couple, the mean relationship length was 13.3 years and 56.9% were married.
A possible explanation for the initiation of these relationships is that personality pathology from cluster B personality disorders may take time before it begins to negatively impact a romantic relationship. For instance, research on individuals with narcissistic PD has found that on first meeting, and for some time afterward, they are seen as charming, outgoing, and fun; only over time does the arrogance and self-centeredness become damaging to interpersonal relationships (Paulhus, 1998). Friedman, Oltmanns, Gleason, & Turkheimer (2005) found when strangers are presented with a recorded interaction with audio only, video only, or both, they find those with ASPD attractive in both the audio only and video only conditions. Strangers also find those with NPD to be attractive in the video only condition and both attractive and likeable in the audio and video condition and the audio only condition. This indicates that the socially destructive aspects of their personalities are not apparent in initial impressions, but only become apparent over time as the individual’s more maladaptive traits become more visible.
A major methodological limitation of the research to date involves how participants are sampled in studies of pathological personality and relationship functioning. Studies either start with samples of “batterers” or individuals with known history of perpetration of IPV (Hoyt et al., 2021), or they recruit dyads from the community where severe PD pathology is less common (e.g., South et al.). No research to date has started by asking individuals to identify their partners as high in personality pathology and then examined the personalities of those who reported the relationships with high PD partners. The personality similarity of romantic partners on normal (Decuyper et al., 2011) and PD symptoms (South et al., 2011) is low; there may be some assortative mating for personality pathology, such that individuals with maladaptive traits end up together more than would be expected by chance, but for the bulk of couples where one person is elevated on PD pathology, the other is most likely much lower. The goal of the current study is to determine if there are certain personality traits, or certain personality profiles, common among people who get into – and stay in – relationships with people with PD traits.
The current study examined the personality traits of women who identified their former romantic partners as having antisocial, borderline, or narcissistic personality disorder. Our overall goal was to determine if there are certain personality traits that characterize the women who are partners of men with ASPD, BPD, or NPD. Our first aim was to compare the mean personality of the participants to normative personality data, to determine if there are any traits that appear to be more prevalent among women who have been in a relationship with a man with those PDs, than would be expected by chance. We first tested the mean difference between the average personality of the total sample and normative data from Rojas & Widiger (2013).
Even though ASPD, BPD, and NPD, share certain features (e.g., low levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness; Samuel & Widiger, 2008) they also differ in important ways. For example, BPD tends to be defined by high neuroticism, while ASPD and NPD tend to be lower in neuroticism (Lynam and Widiger, 2001). Thus, we would not expect one personality trait or set of traits common to everyone in a distressing relationship with someone with these disorders. Our second aim was to identify different personality profiles displayed within our sample of women. In pursuit of this second aim, we used latent profile analysis to identify different “profiles” or “groups” within the sample; subsequent groups were used as the basis for mean difference comparisons.
The sample consisted of women (n = 601), 18-70 years old, who have been in relationships with men they rated as having antisocial, borderline, or narcissistic personality disorder. Participants were recruited and data collected through the Institute for Relational Harm Reduction website and newsletter. Participants followed a link from the Institute’s webpage to the questionnaires and completed the demographic questionnaire, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Assessment, Five Factor Model Rating Form (FFMRF) self-report, FFMRF informant report, Five Factor Form (FFF) self-report, FFF informant report, and Multisource Assessment of Personality Pathology (MAPP) informant report. All recruitment methods and procedures were approved by the Purdue University Internal Review Board. Participants were excluded if they were male, outside the age range, or had not been in a relationship with someone with ASPD, BPD, or NPD according to their informant report of symptoms.
Demographic Questionnaire. Participants completed a 12-item questionnaire on demographic information such as age, gender, race, and income. Participants who did not meet the criteria for the study were removed at this point.
Personality. Personality was assessed through two questionnaires. Participants completed these questionnaires about their own personality (self-report) and about their partner (informant report). The Five Factor Model Rating Form (FFMRF) is a 30-item questionnaire assessing the 30 facets of the Five Factor Model in lay language. Items are on a 5-point scale (1- extremely low to 5- extremely high). Participants completed a self-report version and an informant report version. This measure has good internal consistency and validity as demonstrated by convergent associations with other measures of the Five Factor Model (Mullins-Sweatt, Jamerson, Samuel, Olson & Widiger 2006).
In addition, the Five Factor Form (FFF) was used as a self-report measure of the participant’s personality and an informant report measure of their partner’s personality. This measure is a 30-item version of the FFMRF where participants rate themselves on a scale of 1 (maladaptive low) to 5 (maladaptive high) on items aimed at more extreme levels of the Five Factor Model (FFM) personality traits (i.e. Angry hostility ranges from (5) rageful to (1) won’t even protest exploitation). This measure has been shown to have strong convergent and discriminant validity down to the single-item facet level when compared to other measures of personality (Rojas & Widiger 2013).
Personality Disorder Features. The Multisource Assessment of Personality Pathology (MAPP) was used to assess the personality pathology of the participant’s male partner. The MAPP consists of 114 items that assesses the criteria of the 10 PDs as defined by the DSM-5 Section II. The MAPP items consists of the DSM-5 criteria translated into lay language (i.e. is sympathetic and kind to others). Items are rated on a scale from 0 (never this way) to 3 (always this way). The participants filled out a 3rd person informant report version of the MAPP for their partner. This measure was used to determine if the partner met the criteria for antisocial, borderline, or narcissistic personality disorder. This measure has been shown to have high reliability and substantial agreement with other measures of personality pathology, if slightly more conservative (Okada & Oltmanns 2009). (Additional data was collected but not used in this study.)
Data analysis proceeded in two parts. The first step was to use a t test to determine if there are any mean differences between the average personality profile of the total sample of women and normative personality data on the FFMRF and FFF from Rojas and Widiger (2013). The Rojas and Widiger (2013) normative data were collected from a sample of 510 community adults completing the FFMRF and FFF as part of a study to determine the validity of the FFF. Therefore, it will be an adequate normative personality comparison for the sample collect in this study. In the second step, Latent Profile Analysis (LPA) was used to analyze the FFMRF and FFF data. This method of analysis groups participants based on common trends in their personalities. An ANOVA was then be conducted on the resulting groups to look for mean differences on the FFF, FFMRF, and MAPP.
Multiple post hoc power analyses were conducted using G*Power 126.96.36.199 to determine the achieved power of the study in various scenarios. A power analysis was run to determine the power to compare the total sample with the normative data. The analysis was run using a t test for the difference between two independent means with an alpha of 0.05. Group 1 was our sample (n = 601) and group 2 was the sample from Rojas and Widiger (2013; n = 510). This analysis indicated that a medium effect size (d = 0.5) could be detected with 100% certainty and a small effect size (d = 0.2) could be detected with 95% certainty. A second power analysis indicated using an ANOVA fixed effects, omnibus, one-way and alpha at .05 with a sample of n = 601, a medium effect size (f = 0.25) could be detected with 99% power with 2, 3, and 5 profile groups. The power only fell below 99% when there were 17 groups; however, this many groups is not expected. Due to the exploratory nature of the study the expected effect size is not confident, therefore, another power analysis was run with the same criteria, except to detect a small effect size (f = 0.10). A small effect could be detected with 69% certainty with 2 groups, 58% with 3, and 47% with 5. These effect sizes were chosen based on other studies with similar comparisons that have found medium to small effect sizes (Hoyt, Wray, Wiggins, Gerstle, & Maclean 2012) Results of our power analysis indicated that we were well powered to detect an effect if one exists.
Comparison of FFMRF scores with a normative group
An independent samples t-test was conducted to compare the FFM personality trait means for the sample of women in these relationships with a general sample of undergraduate women (Rojas and Widiger 2013). There was a significant difference among all five personality traits; p < 0.001 for all traits. The analysis revealed a large effect size for agreeableness (d = 1.01), medium effect sizes for neuroticism (d = 0.31), extraversion (d = 0.31), and conscientiousness (d = 0.49), and a small effect size for openness (d = 0.13). These results suggest that, on average, the women in our sample were higher on all the FFM traits than a general sample of women (Rojas and Widiger, 2013). The effect for agreeableness, in particular, is large suggesting a substantial degree of discrepancy between women in the general population.
Comparison of FFF scores with a normative group
An independent samples t-test was conducted to compare the personality trait means on the FFF from this sample of women in these relationships with means from on the FFF from a sample of undergraduate college women (Rojas and Widiger, 2013). There was a significant difference among all five personality traits; p < 0.001. Analysis revealed medium effect sizes for agreeableness (d = 0.41), openness (d = 0.31), conscientiousness (d = 0.31), and neuroticism (d = 0.24), and a small effect size for extraversion (d = 0.01). These results suggest that on average the woman in our sample were higher on all FFF domains than the general sample of undergraduate women (Rojas and Widiger 2013).
Latent Profile Analysis
The fit statistics for the 2- to 6-profile solutions for the FFMRF and 2- to 7-profile solutions for the FFF can be found in Table 1. The fit statistics for analysis of the FFMRF data steadily decrease until the 4-profile solution, after which the BIC increases and the other fit statistics decrease at a slower rate. This suggest that the best-fitting solution was the 4-profile solution. The fit statistics for the analysis with the FFF data steadily decrease until the 4-profile solution, after which they decrease at a slower rate, beginning with the 5-profile solution, the BIC levels off. This suggests the superiority of the 4-profile solution for the FFF data. This is confirmed by one group dropping to 2.2% of the sample in the 5-profile solution; after a certain number of profiles the fit statistics may still decrease, but the class sizes will become smaller and begin to resemble each other (Daljeet et al., 2017).
The 4-profile solution was chosen for the FFMRF and group membership assigned to each participant. Z-scores were used to determine how exactly the groups differ from each other and are displayed in Figure 1. Each group is characterized by a unique combination of traits. Compared to the entire sample, group 1 is higher in introversion and lower in openness. Group 2 is higher in neuroticism, extraversion, and openness. Group 3 is higher in neuroticism, but lower in extraversion and conscientiousness. Lastly, relative to the sample, Group 4 is higher in extraversion and conscientiousness, but lower in neuroticism. It is important to note that these are comparisons within the sample, so a group being lower on a trait like agreeableness does not necessarily mean they are low on agreeableness, as this sample is extremely high on agreeableness compared to a normal population. Therefore, the raw means of each group’s traits are provided in Table 2.
The 4-profile solution was also the superior solution for the FFF as evidenced by the fit statistics in Table 1. Z-scores were used to determine how exactly the groups differ from each other and are displayed in Figure 2. Group 1 is neurotic and extraverted when compared to the entire sample. Group 2 is comparatively more neurotic, introverted, and disinhibited. Group 3 is introverted, disagreeable, and not open relative to the sample. Lastly, Group 4 is neurotic, extraverted, open, conscientious, and agreeable. Again, these are comparisons within the sample, so being higher or lower on a trait is not indicative of this group being high or low on the trait compared to a normative sample. Therefore, the raw means of each group’s traits are provided in Table 3.
Similarity Between Measures
The validity of these profiles is supported by the way the FFMRF and FFF profiles mirror one another. The z-score differences between profiles can be seen in Figure 1 and Figure 2. As seen when comparing these graphs, FFMRF group 1 resembles FFF group 3, FFMRF group 2 resembles FFF group 4, FFMRF group 3 resembles FFF group 2, and FFMRF group 4 resembles FFF group 1. These groups have similar builds that are unique from the groups outside of their pair but differ in how extreme they are on each trait. This is to be expected as the FFF is aimed at the extreme ends of the same traits as the FFMRF, therefore the FFF may show some extremes capped by the FFMRF while the FFMRF shows a broader range within normal personality, resulting in similar profiles differing in their extremity. This similar build across measures supports that these are true profiles within the sample.
The relationship functioning of people with elevated symptoms/features of ASPD, BPD, and NPD are well studied; however, most of the studies that assess the personality traits of both partners utilize community samples where the prevalence of severe pathology is relatively low. This limits the ability to understand the personality traits of partners of individuals with levels of personality pathology. Understanding the personality traits of individuals who get into relationships with men with personality disorders can inform treatment for distressing relationships. There is almost no literature on couples’ treatment for individuals with PDs. Understanding the partners, and the different ways in which they may enter and maintain a relationship with someone with these PDs, is an important step in understanding and treating the relationships in a broader sense.
We found that women in these relationships are significantly higher on many of the FFM personality traits, as measured using two different inventories. This was especially true for their levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness to a lesser extent, suggesting that these personality traits might be linked in some way with having been in a pathological relationship with men who displayed symptoms of antisocial, borderline, and narcissistic personality disorder. However, from this data we cannot determine the cause. One potential explanation would be that women in this sample are just as likely to enter a relationship with someone with ASPD, BPD, or NPD as any other woman in the population, but their typically adaptive, agreeableness works against them in these relationships. High levels of agreeableness lead to a greater desire to work at maintaining all relationships (Harris & Vazire, 2016; Braithwaite et al., 2011); however, this trait that has helped foster many friendships and relationships (Malouff et al., 2010) in the past now helps to maintain a maladaptive relationship.
One possible mechanism for the role of agreeableness in staying in relationships with men with high levels of pathology is that higher agreeableness (and conscientiousness) are correlated with higher commitment in relationships (Ahmetoglu, Swami, and Chamorro-Premuzic 2009). Higher commitment, in turn, has then been found to indicate greater willingness to maintain maladaptive relationships due to a higher tolerance for both physical and verbal aggression (Arriaga, Capezza, and Daly 2015). Taken together, these studies support the idea that high agreeableness may indicate a risk factor for staying in a pathological relationship. If this were to be true, this information could have clinical implications for psychoeducation about one’s personality and an increased risk of maintaining pathological relationships.
Latent Profile Analysis
Upon conducting an LPA four distinct profiles emerged within the study’s sample of women for both the FFMRF and the FFF. Through the FFMRF LPA, the four profiles were consistently high on agreeableness and conscientiousness, as found in the overall analysis of the sample. Notable differences between the profiles were lower conscientiousness in group 3, lower extraversion in groups 1 and 3 but higher extraversion in group 4, higher neuroticism in group 3 but lower neuroticism in group 4, and lower openness in group 1 but higher openness in group 2 (Figure 1). Through the FFF LPA, the four profiles were also consistently high on agreeableness and conscientiousness. Notable differences between the profiles were lower conscientiousness in group 2, lower extraversion in groups 2 and 3, higher neuroticism in group 2 but lower neuroticism in group 1, and lower openness in group 3. Group 4 was higher on all traits compared to the sample means (Figure 2).
Implications and Applications
These personality profiles have implications for treatment of maladaptive relationships or therapy clients who have a pattern of maladaptive relationships. Understanding which profile a client falls under can provide insight into the perceptions motivating some behaviors that are less adaptive in navigating or exiting relationships that are likely to be distressing. In addition, a client who fits into one of these profiles may gain insight about themselves and feel validated by the knowledge that there are other women with a similar personality type experiencing similar relationship challenges.
The overall differences between the women in this sample and a normative sample, could also inform treatment. The higher agreeableness and conscientiousness found in these women could signify a vulnerability to entering maladaptive relationships, be it romantic relationships, friendships, or professional relationships. Further research is needed to determine this vulnerability, however the knowledge that high agreeableness and conscientiousness is found in women in these maladaptive relationships can inform treatment similarly to the individual personality profiles.
Limitations and Future Research
There are limitations to this study that must be considered when interpreting these results. To begin, there may be personality differences between other women in these relationships and the women on the Institute website, volunteering for a study without compensation. This sample is also compared to a normative sample with different inclusion criteria, including data on both men and women. These differences in samples may lead to an over- or underexaggerated effect in personality differences. In addition, all information on the participant was self-report and information on the partner was informant report, neither of which can be verified. The study is also lacking information on the relationships that may contribute to better understanding these women. Lastly, it is important to interpret the LPA used in this analysis cautiously. The main argument against use of the LPA is that it will find groups within any population. The fact that the LPA finds a group does not necessarily mean that the finding is meaningful (Specht et al., 2014). However, we have chosen to include the LPA in this case as we believe it provides potentially helpful information for clinicians, it exceeds the standards for a valid LPA, provides validity in replicating between the two measures, and can build a base for future research to test recurrence of these profiles.
Future research can address if there are differences among these profiles in relationship duration, level of distress within the relationship, and reason for exiting the relationship. In addition, as cause cannot be determined within the limitations of this study, future research can focus on understanding whether these personality traits indicate a vulnerability to entering and maintaining these relationships or if they are a lasting “scar” from the relationship.
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Tables and Figures
Model fit statistics for the 2- to 6-profile and 2- to 7-profile models.
Sample-size adjusted BIC
Raw means from LCA of FFMRF: 4-Profile Solution
*superscripts denote significant differences between traits but not classes
Raw means from LCA of FFF: 4-Profile Solution
*superscripts denote significant differences between traits but not classes
Mean differences from LCA of FFMRF: 4-Profile Solution
Mean differences from LCA of FFF: 4-Profile Solution