How Covert Narcissists Operate in Relationships

What does everyone need to know about narcissism and romantic relationships? The blanket term “narcissist” covers both covert and overt narcissists. As a therapist, I can tell you that the damage done by covert narcissists can often be more severe simply because connecting the signs can take longer. While you may feel that something is “off” in the dynamic, picking up the signs that you’re twisted up in a narcissistic snare may not happen until you’re in crisis mode. Here’s a quick guide to spotting a covert narcissist when they show up in your life.

What Is a Covert Narcissist?

Like overt narcissists, covert narcissists are driven by extreme feelings of shame, insecurity, hypersensitivity to rejection and criticism, and lack of empathy. However, they often escape suspicion by appearing shy, introverted, and emotionally vulnerable compared to bombastic, grandiose overt narcissists. This vulnerability makes them dangerously disarming. You may even fall for their dark, broody vibe that makes you want to be the one to make them happy. What’s more, their emotional intelligence allows them to earn trust and connection with their targets. The big signs of covert narcissism include:

  • Introversion
  • Shyness
  • Negativity and pessimism
  • Subtle hostility
  • Envy

In a romantic relationship, a covert narcissist is known to hold grudges, engage in circular arguments, and carry out passive-aggressive behaviors. They also tend to “keep score” in the relationship.

How Covert Narcissists Manipulate Their Partners

Subtlety is the calling card of a covert narcissistic. They are masters at simultaneously delivering praise and insults in a single breath. Count on them to try to take credit for the accomplishment you earn. They will also beat you down with sarcasm that leaves them with the perfect accusation that you’re “too sensitive” when you feel offended. Finally, they are known for their “if you loved me” sentences. They constantly put you in a place of proving your devotion by doing exactly what they want.

Protecting Yourself Against a Covert Narcissist

You need ironclad boundaries to stay protected from a covert narcissist. A big part of managing interactions is simply avoiding taking the bait. There’s no need to enter into circular arguments. If you’re caught in a repetitive argument, the narcissist already has you exactly where they want you because you’re being forced to prove or defend yourself.

Related: How to Stop a Breakup From Hurting Your Mental Health

If you’re in the process of escaping the clutches of a covert narcissist, practice self-compassion to stay connected to your worthiness without listening to their external voice of criticism. Do “reality testing” by spending time with friends, family, and other means of support that can help to drown out the delusional, convoluted logic of the covert narcissist. It may feel like it’s taking everything you have to develop emotional and interpersonal boundaries after being immersed in the abuse dynamic that a covert narcissistic inflicts on partners. Finally, consider connecting with a licensed therapist to dissect your experience, learn to spot the signs of emotional abuse, and discover tools for self-compassion.