Advice For Dating A Vulnerable Narcissist

Updated November 29, 2023by Regain Editorial Team

Narcissism can be difficult to navigate in a relationship, particularly when its expression is subtle and harder to understand. Vulnerable narcissism is a less overt, potentially more difficult-to-address form of narcissism that can be contrasted with grandiose narcissism, the form that most people are familiar with. If your partner has vulnerable narcissism—also called covert narcissism—they may be introverted, sensitive, and shy. Instead of using more forceful forms of manipulation, they may exhibit passive-aggressive behavior and utilize indirect methods of getting their way. Although being in a relationship with a vulnerable narcissist can be challenging, it can also result in a meaningful and rewarding connection. In this article, we’re providing advice for dating a vulnerable narcissist, helping you understand the signs of covert narcissism and the ways you can safeguard your mental well-being while also fostering a healthy, happy relationship.

Recognize The Traits Of A Vulnerable Narcissist

Often, narcissism is a sign of a mental health condition called narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), which is characterized by an outsized sense of self-importance and a desire for attention and admiration. (It’s important to note that someone can exhibit narcissistic traits without living with NPD.) There are two main types of narcissistic personality disorder: grandiose and vulnerable. 

While many people are familiar with the characteristics of a grandiose narcissist—bold, aggressive behavior that seeks to reinforce the individual’s importance—fewer people know about vulnerable narcissism. The root of narcissistic traits is generally the same in both types. It’s primarily the expression of their traits that is most noticeably different. Where a grandiose narcissist may be more bombastic and self-aggrandizing in order to garner the attention of others, a vulnerable narcissist might utilize self-deprecating remarks or appeals to the empathy of others. These less-obvious forms of manipulation can make covert narcissism harder to spot and more difficult to confront in relationships.  include:

  • Hypersensitivity

  • Introversion

  • Self-consciousness

  • Lack of self-esteem

  • Defensiveness

  • Tendency toward depression

What Is A Relationship With A Vulnerable Narcissist Like?

If you’re in a relationship with a vulnerable narcissist, you’ve probably noticed that your partner is highly sensitive. They may be averse to receiving feedback or constructive criticism, and they can become very upset at critical remarks. While these presentations of their narcissistic traits are different from those of grandiose narcissists—who may simply shrug off feedback or criticism—they can still strain your relationship.

You might feel like you’re frequently walking on eggshells with someone who is a vulnerable narcissist. When covert narcissists feel threatened, they tend to withdraw and use tactics like passive-aggressiveness to manipulate the emotions of others. Much of this comes from a place of anxiety and fear on their part. If you are dealing with a partner who exhibits vulnerable narcissistic traits, it’s best to remember that they may be coping with a mental health disorder that usually requires a professional diagnosis and treatment.

How To Navigate A Relationship With A Vulnerable Narcissist

Because of a vulnerable narcissist’s subtle way of focusing on their self-interests, interacting with a partner who experiences this form of narcissism can require both a gentle approach and firm boundaries. Below are several ways you can address potential challenges in a relationship with a covert narcissist. 

Understand Your Partner’s Sensitivity   

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If your partner is a vulnerable narcissist, it’s important to recognize that they may be more emotionally fragile than others. Their self-esteem may depend on what others think of them, and they can be hypersensitive to the things that people say to them. Your partner’s delicate emotional state means that they may consistently seek positive affirmation or reassurance from you. This self-consciousness can also lead to when their feelings are hurt. In fact, anger is thought to be more pronounced in those who are covert narcissists than overt narcissists. 

It’s also important to understand that your partner may struggle to communicate effectively. Vulnerable narcissists tend to be more introverted. They often live with social anxiety that makes socializing difficult and causes them to shy away from people. This could mean that your partner may actively try to avoid social situations. They could be fine with hanging out with you but unwilling to go eat out at a restaurant. 

Set And Maintain Boundaries

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Setting healthy boundaries is important in any relationship, but it can be particularly crucial in a relationship with a vulnerable narcissist. Decide what you will and will not accept in the relationship and be very clear about it. If something makes you uncomfortable, you can speak up and let your partner know that you feel that way. You have a right to your feelings and to be respected. A person with vulnerable narcissism may try to push your boundaries, but it’s important to remain firm from the beginning. 

An important boundary to set might be related to the time you’re willing to spend with your partner. Often, people with vulnerable narcissism desire a lot of attention from others, which could be draining for you. It is perfectly okay to let your partner know how much time you’re comfortable spending with them and that, if you find yourself overwhelmed at times in your relationship, you may need to maintain some distance. Coming from an empathetic place, you can outline the reasons you’d like space, explaining that you want to honor your own needs. 

A vulnerable narcissist may go to great lengths to manipulate your emotions and ensure you’re giving them what they want in the relationship—whether that’s your time, admiration, etc. It can be easy to lose your sense of self when your partner is always taking center stage. While it’s important to acknowledge your partner's feelings, remember that your own emotions matter just as much. When dating a vulnerable narcissist, put yourself first, stand up for yourself, and let yourself be heard.

Try Not To Take Their Behavior Personally

When dating a vulnerable narcissist, it may seem as though their deception or lack of empathy is meant as an attack on you. However, it’s important to remember that their behavior is likely not in response to anything you did; rather, it is a result of their personality. They probably behave similarly toward other people in their life and are not singling you out.                                                

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Consider Seeking Professional Help

Maintaining a healthy romantic relationship with a vulnerable narcissist can be challenging. Seeking professional help for your partner—and for your relationship—is one effective way of addressing narcissism in your partnership. A therapist can provide tools and guidance that may help you both cope with narcissistic behaviors and strengthen your relationship.

Studies suggest that online therapy is a useful modality for couples who want to strengthen their relationship while also improving individual mental health challenges, such as those related to narcissistic behavior. For example, the results of a study of over 150 couples show that online therapy improved relationship quality and satisfaction while alleviating anxiety symptoms, which are common in those living with vulnerable narcissism. The study notes the increased availability and cost-effectiveness of online couples therapy compared to in-person therapy.

Online therapy can be there for you and your partner if narcissism is leading to complicated feelings in your relationship. With an online therapy platform like Regain, you can participate in therapy remotely, which can make it easier for you and your partner to attend sessions and address challenges related to vulnerable narcissism at the same time. Online therapy is also an affordable option—Regain subscriptions start at $65 per week (billed every 4 weeks), and you can cancel anytime. A licensed couples therapist can give you and your partner the tools to better address tension and set boundaries in your relationship. Read below for reviews of Regain therapists from those who have sought help for similar concerns in the past.  

Therapist Reviews

“Austa has been wonderful thus far. She has helped my partner and I during an unimaginably difficult time... She has also guided us in communicating effectively and setting appropriate boundaries in our relationship. I was hesitant to pursue counseling initially, but I truly believe that it makes a difference in our relationship. Austa is easy to talk to, and she is a great listener. I would wholeheartedly recommend her as a counselor.”

“Sessions with Natalie are very insightful and give practical advice on implementing new habits and changes. Be prepared to engage and be challenged to think differently. I know that my partner and I can already see improvements in our relationship and feel more positive about working through our issues together.”

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Takeaway

A relationship with a vulnerable narcissist often requires a tactful, delicate approach; but it can still lead to a rewarding relationship. By setting boundaries, communicating effectively, and standing up for yourself, you can develop a strong connection with your partner while safeguarding your emotional well-being and helping to improve the mental health of your partner. If you’d like further support, consider reaching out to a licensed therapist online. Working with a couples therapist can be the first step toward mental wellness and a happy and satisfying relationship. 

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