The Psychology of Con Artists—Why Your Perfect Partner May Not Be So Perfect
You and your partner have been together for a few months, and it’s going great. They wait on your every word, shower you with affection and you have so many shared interests it’s almost scary. But something has you worried. Could this person be too good to be true?
While you might chalk up your skepticism to scars from past relationships, when you feel something is “off,” it’s worth exploring. You may not be falling for a dream partner—but a skilled con artist.
Con artists are master manipulators. They use charm, flattery and false promises to win over their targets, making them seem like the perfect partner. But once they have you under their spell, they will slowly start to reveal their true colors through cheating, manipulation and lies.
But how do you spot these toxic behaviors if you’re seeing only what they want you to see? We spoke to two experts to find out.
Dating a con artist—are you at risk?
Falling for a con artist might seem like a rare occurrence but statistics suggest your chances of coming across one might be higher than you think.
In 2022, almost 70,000 people reported a romance scam to the Federal Trade Commission. Most of them were dating app users who were milked for money by a scammer who wasn't what they claimed to be.
The headlines are full of stories about people who have lost their life savings, and their dignity, to con artists. One woman said a two-year relationship cost her $52,000. The long-con she fell victim to was like the plot of a movie, involving stolen paintings, forged checks and gold.
Another woman endured serial cheating and bigamy after marrying a con man who also took hundreds of thousands of dollars from her.
So, what kind of person is at risk of falling for con artists like these? According to clinical and forensic psychologist Joni E. Johnston, intelligence has nothing to do with it. Writing in Psychology Today, she explains that we’re all potentially vulnerable, and we are “most vulnerable when we have unmet emotional needs; emotional needs that we all have but that fluctuate in intensity depending on how deprived we are or how uncertain our situation is.”
If someone is lonely, for example, they may be more motivated to believe the false promises of a con artist who says they will never leave them. If someone has a tendency to idealize romantic relationships, they may be more likely to overlook red flags in the early stages of dating. And if someone has low self-esteem, a con artist's flattery and attention can be especially seductive.
Con artists are skilled at spotting these vulnerabilities. So even if you think you're a savvy person, there's always something in your emotional makeup that a con artist can exploit.
What makes a con artist a con artist?
As a rule, con artists tend to possess one or more of the dark triad traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. Of these, Machiavellianism is the trait that is most likely to predispose people towards being a manipulator, cheat or a love fraud.
“Machiavellians are better known as master manipulators," explains Dr. Dale Hartley, retired professor of psychology and author of Machiavellians: Gulling the Rubes. “People with a Machiavellian personality are hardwired to lie, cheat, scheme and exploit others.”
Now, you might say that we’re all capable of lying and cheating to get our own way. That doesn’t mean we are all hardwired to be Machiavellians all the time.
The difference, Hartley says, is persistence. While you may occasionally lie or cheat, you usually choose not to. “Chronic schemers, cheaters, liars and deceivers are showing themselves to be Machiavellians by their persistent behavior,” he explains. They “view human interactions as contests between winners and losers,” so they choose to manipulate others as a way to win in the game of life.
How do you tell if your partner is a con artist?
A con artist may be the most charming person you've ever met and that's exactly why they are so dangerous. They know how to push your buttons, how to make you feel special and how to get what they want from you.
But according to Hartley, they will eventually slip up. “Pretenders cannot keep up the facade indefinitely. Sooner or later, their indifference, selfishness, lying, cruelty or exploitativeness will reveal itself.”
When you notice cracks in the facade, pay attention. “I once had a girlfriend who would have been embarrassed to leave a fast food restaurant without cleaning her table, and she would never think of going to a friend’s house without taking a small gift,” Hartley says, “But [she] lied to me casually and frequently. Appearances mattered to her, but trust and honesty did not.”
Dr. Brian Collisson, professor of social psychology at Azusa Pacific University, says the most essential tools to determine if your relationship is too good to be true are “critical thinking” and “self-awareness.” He and Hartley give the following red flags to look out for:
- A turbulent relationship history of seducing or abandoning multiple lovers.
- A life story riddled with inconsistencies.
- Emotional manipulation where you find yourself doing or saying things you wouldn't normally do.
- Telling you what you want to hear so you'll back down from a fight.
- Promises that seem too good to be true, such as love at first sight or instant attraction.
- Creating an illusion that you’re a perfectly compatible, devoted couple, when you’re actually not.
- A lack of empathy or concern for people's feelings or well-being.
- Mirroring your desires and expectations back at you to make you feel a deep connection.
While these are excellent examples, Hartley adds that “any type of deception in a relationship that could reasonably be regarded as exploitation or betrayal by another would qualify as con artistry.”
If that’s not enough, some Machiavellians are actually dark empaths, which means they have a high degree of empathy and use it to manipulate others. Empathy is another weapon in their arsenal to get people to trust and believe in them, and can make it even harder to spot their true intentions.
How to detach from a relationship with a con artist
The beginning of any relationship can feel like wine and roses, and it can be hard to figure out if you have a genuine connection or if a con artist is working double time to earn your trust.
To keep yourself level-headed, Collisson suggests you “be wary of excessive flattery, a push for quick commitment, and a lack of transparency.” You can save yourself a lot of heartache by paying close attention during the honeymoon period and calling out any red flags early on.
But if you're already in deeper with a con artist, make it a priority to get out. “Make your escape plan and announce it as a final, non-negotiable decision at the last minute,” Hartley suggests. He believes that you're never going to change the con artist, and engaging in long-winded justifications of your reasons for ending the relationship is just another opportunity for the con artist to manipulate you more.
“When you see the handwriting on the wall, make your plan, announce it as matter-of-factly as possible, and then end it. Anything else just magnifies the problem or prolongs it,” Hartley says.
Collisson, who prefers not to give direct advice since he isn’t a counselor, says the outcome is always up to you. However, he encourages anyone in this situation to “establish firm boundaries and disengage from the manipulative dynamics.” If you decide to leave the relationship, seek support from people who can help you prioritize your mental health such as therapists, friends and family. You'll need support to handle the pressure you face from ending a relationship with a master manipulator. Choosing your well-being is not selfish, but a vital act of self-love.