How To Identify Covert Narcissism In Relationships

By Russ Womack|Updated June 22, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Aaron Horn, LMFT

A covert narcissist can be one of the most harmful kinds of narcissist, as their behaviors are more subtle and not always immediately noticeable. A covert narcissist may come off as shy or withdrawn; however, they still share the same traits as overt narcissists, such as a lack of empathy, need for admiration, unrealistic sense of self-importance, and difficulties maintaining relationships. They may make others feel bad and guilty for doing something they never did using various manipulation tactics. These behaviors can be subtle, damaging methods of asserting themselves in a relationship, which can result in lasting negative effects for the other person.

Narcissism Can Be Hard to Spot - Learn the Signs
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Why are covert narcissists so difficult to identify? Covert narcissists differ from those who display more overt or grandiose behaviors. A covert narcissist will normally have more subtle behavior and may respond to criticism in a more withdrawn way, making them seem sensitive from the outside.

Overt narcissists are easier to identify as their behavior is more obvious and grandiose. Covert narcissists can appear to be the opposite of what society views as narcissism. In general, they may appear shy or even humble; but they may also take things personally and feel mistreated, unappreciated, and misunderstood. Although they devalue themselves, they dream of greatness and wonder why people don't appreciate and understand them.

The difference between an overt and a covert narcissist is like listening to your favorite song while blasting the volume compared to listening to that same song on a low volume. The song itself hasn't changed, just the volume at which you are listening. The covert is playing the song nice and low, almost like background noise in the waiting room of the doctor's office.

They can be more destructive to relationships than an overt narcissist, as the other partner may not be immediately aware of their tactics. The emotional abuse they place upon their partner might be more subtle, but emotional abuse can be just as dangerous as physical abuse.

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, it’s important to seek help right away. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for support. They can be reached online or by calling 800.799.SAFE (7233).

The emotional effects can last throughout an individual's life. The covert narcissist usually lacks empathy for their partner and may do anything necessary to maintain power and control in the relationship. Common narcissistic traits may make them selfish and dominant, and their wants and needs will typically take precedence over their partner's. As a result, the other person may be left feeling isolated and neglected.

With so much on the line, including the long-standing effects of emotional abuse, it's imperative to identify what covert narcissism in relationships looks like. So, how do you identify covert narcissism in relationships? Here are some tips.

How To Identify Covert Narcissism In Relationships

Flipping The Charm Switch

The covert narcissist may turn on their charm at any given moment and turn it back off just as quickly. They might utilize their charming attributes when they want something from their partner or the people around them. They often use various manipulation tactics to gain power and control over an individual. While they may seem charming, it's important to remember that they probably are not unconditionally charming, as they often turn it on for their self-serving goals.

Blaming And Shaming

Shaming their partner is a common tactic for the covert narcissist because of their frequent need to maintain their control in the relationship. In contrast to the overt narcissist, the covert narcissist utilizes an elusive approach to pinpoint why the fault lies with the partner while the covert narcissist is not to blame. At the end of a discussion or argument, the partner may feel like they were at fault. On the rare occasion that the narcissist does concede and apologize, they may only be standing down because they’ve gotten what they wanted.

Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where the abuser manipulates situations to trick an individual into distrusting their memory and perceptions. Numerous gaslighting techniques can make it more difficult to identify, which is a prime tactic for the covert narcissist. Some of these techniques are:

  • Withholding – Feigning a lack of understanding during a conversation, refusing to listen to their partner, or declining to share emotions with their partner.
  • Countering – Calling into question their partner’s memory of a situation despite them remembering things correctly.
  • Blocking or Diverting – Changing the subject from the discussion at hand or questioning their partner’s thoughts, thereby controlling the conversation.
  • Trivializing – Causing their partner to believe their thoughts or needs aren't important.
  • Denial – Pretending to forget things that have occurred, including promises that have been made that are important to the partner.

Distancing Themselves Emotionally

You might be unable to feel close to a cover narcissist no matter what you do because of their lack of emotional intelligence. They might exhibit passive-aggressive behavior to further maintain their sense of authority, making you feel frustrated, confused, or alone. Remember a narcissist, including a covert narcissist, is usually incapable of building and nurturing emotional bonds with others because their emotional energy and focus is typically on themselves.

They Have Trouble Complimenting You

Covert narcissists have a difficult time getting emotionally close in a relationship. It may also be hard for them to give compliments to someone else. They are usually either consciously or unconsciously focused on maintaining the authoritative position in a relationship. They may find it difficult to compliment you, and it may even feel counterproductive for them to do so.

A One-Sided Relationship

A relationship with a covert narcissist will typically be one sided. You may usually give them more attention than they give you. In fact, they may have no desire to shine the spotlight on you (unless they want something) because they will usually make things about them, not you.

Passive Self-Importance

The more overt, extroverted narcissist may appear obvious in their inflated sense of self when interacting with others; however, the covert narcissist is less obvious and usually more vulnerable. They may give back-handed compliments and use other passive-aggressive measures like minimizing their accomplishments or talents so that people will, in response, reassure them of how truly talented and amazing they are. In doing so, you may end up spending more time and energy focusing on lifting them while neglecting your own needs.

You're In A Relationship With A Covert Narcissist. What Do You Do?

Now that we've identified some traits of a covert narcissist in a relationship, here are a few tips on what to do if you have found yourself in a relationship with one.

Don't Take It Personally

When in a relationship with a covert narcissist, it may feel very personal when you’re on the receiving end of their sense of entitlement, manipulation, and deceptive behaviors. Even though it may be difficult at times, especially when the goal of a covert narcissist is often to belittle and shame you in order to build themselves up, it is important to remember that it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. Try not to take it personally.

Set Boundaries

Just like narcissists often lack a certain degree of emotional intelligence, they also typically don't have healthy boundaries. In fact, a lack of boundaries can be one of the most damaging aspects of their relationships. They need boundaries watered down to cross those lines whenever they have a need to enforce their control on the relationship. Setting boundaries for yourself and your relationship is a positive step for you to take your power back. Consider your values, and then work to create boundaries to support them.

Advocate For Yourself

Because a covert narcissist's primary tactic is often to demean and shame you, you may easily lose your voice in the relationship. Their manipulation tactics are often subtle, and you might find that you've lost your voice in the relationship before realizing what is going on. It’s important to spend quality time by yourself, value yourself, and stand up for yourself. If necessary, it may be helpful to step away from the relationship and take some space to gather your thoughts. Remember what your goals and desires are in life. Building your strength back up is often necessary to stand your ground and communicate your feelings and needs with a narcissist. The narcissist will see your strength and self-confidence and may become aware that you know their tactics. This may make it less desirable for them to continue with their negative behavior toward you.

Create A Healthy Distance

Narcissism Can Be Hard to Spot - Learn the Signs

To set boundaries and advocate for yourself, it may be helpful to create a healthy distance between you and the covert narcissist. They may use tactics to distance you from healthy relationships, such as family or friends, to ensure that no one tells you the truth about how neglectful and damaging the relationship may be. Although it may be difficult to get away and set boundaries, it’s vital that you heal and take back your ground. Find opportunities to create some healthy distance between you and the narcissist. This could include something as minimal as spending more alone time for or something as drastic as cutting off all contact with them. Protect yourself and create a space where you can heal.

Seek Professional Help

Being in a relationship with a covert narcissist can be extremely confusing and often damaging. Seeking professional help is a great option for those looking to heal from such a relationship. It’s important to know you are not alone. Having a professional counselor who understands relationship dynamics and narcissism may bring you one step closer to overcoming any emotional distress that may have occurred.

Conclusion

If you or a loved one are in a relationship with a narcissist and are experiencing difficulties, a relationship therapist may be able to help. ReGain is an online counseling platform specializing in relationships that can provide you with the support that you need. They can give you tools and guidance to overcome any challenges you may be facing in your relationship with a narcissist. Reach out today to begin your journey to an improved relationship and an overall healthier life.

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