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Five Signs That You’re Married to a Covert Narcissist


Marrying a covert narcissist can lead to a complex and often distressing marriage, marked by emotional turbulence, confusion, and frequent arguments. Covert narcissism, unlike its more blatant counterpart, overt narcissism, manifests through subtle traits and behaviors that you might initially overlook. While overt narcissists openly display their sense of superiority, entitlement, and need for admiration, covert narcissists operate under a facade of humility, sensitivity, and introversion, making them harder to identify. This brand of narcissism is hidden behind self-effacement and victimhood, which can be misleading.

The importance of recognizing the signs of covert narcissism in a spouse cannot be overstated, as it is crucial for understanding the dynamics of your relationship and seeking appropriate support or intervention. Without awareness, individuals may find themselves trapped in a cycle of emotional manipulation and stress, undermining their well-being and the health of the marriage. With awareness, though, you can decide on a way to confront the covert narcissism, which might include filing for divorce.

Are You Married to a Covert Narcissist?

Five telltale signs that your spouse is a covert narcissist include:

  1. Lack of empathy disguised as sensitivity: Covert narcissists, despite their outward appearance of sensitivity and compassion, lack genuine empathy—the ability to truly understand and share the feelings of another—based on psychological definitions. This deficiency is masked under the guise of concern and attentiveness, making it particularly deceptive. They often engage in behaviors that superficially resemble empathic responsiveness, such as nodding, mirroring expressions, or offering clichéd words of support, but these actions lack depth and genuine emotion. The disconnect arises because their motivations are self-serving, aimed at maintaining a facade of being caring or manipulating situations to their advantage, rather than stemming from a real desire to comfort or connect with others. This imitation of empathy can lead to confusion and hurt for their partners, who may initially perceive them as deeply understanding individuals, only to later grapple with the realization of their emotional unavailability and the superficiality of their support.
  2. Passive-aggressive behavior: Oftentimes, covert narcissists display passive-aggressive behavior as a coping mechanism for day-to-day tasks and challenges, a trait that becomes particularly pronounced within the privacy of their homes due to their introverted natures. Unlike their public persona, which might be carefully curated to present an image of agreeableness or humility, in private settings, they often resort to indirect expressions of hostility and resentment that manifest through procrastination, deliberate inefficiency (“weaponized incompetence”), subtle insults cloaked as humor, and non-verbal cues of discontent, such as sighs or eye rolls, especially in response to tasks or requests they disagree with but won't openly oppose. Such behaviors serve as a covert means to exert control and express dissatisfaction without direct confrontation.
  3. Victim mentality: Covert narcissists play the victim in many scenarios, a manipulative tactic designed to deflect blame, garner sympathy, and maintain control over their partner and the narrative of the relationship. By portraying themselves as perpetually misunderstood or wronged, they shift the focus from their own problematic behaviors to the supposed shortcomings of their partner, thereby avoiding accountability. This victim's stance can be damaging to a marriage. The constant need to cater to the narcissist's emotional state can lead to an unhealthy dynamic, where the true needs and grievances of the non-narcissistic partner are sidelined and it becomes impossible to find mutual respect for one another.
  4. Control issues confused as flexibility: Covert narcissists possess a subtle yet pervasive need for control, which they cleverly disguise under the facade of flexibility and accommodation. This manipulative behavior is rooted in their deep-seated desire to maintain dominance and influence over others' decisions and perceptions without appearing overtly authoritarian or demanding. They achieve this trick by employing tactics such as guilt-tripping, shaming, or feigning ignorance or vulnerability, thereby coercing their partners into conforming to their wishes under the guise of mutual agreement or concern for the narcissist's well-being. This duality enables the covert narcissist to manipulate situations and relationships to their advantage, all while maintaining an image of benevolence and understanding. Such behavior not only confuses and undermines their partner but also erodes the foundations of trust and genuine communication within the marriage.
  5. Emotional withdrawal used as punishment: Emotional withdrawal and increased introversion can be strategically used by covert narcissists as a form of punishment toward their spouses, rather than as a means to protect their own emotions. This tactic involves deliberately creating emotional distance and withholding affection or communication in response to perceived slights or to assert control. By retreating into themselves, they leave their partner feeling confused, isolated, and desperate for reconnection, effectively turning the tables to place the blame on the partner for the narcissist's self-imposed isolation. This manipulative behavior serves multiple purposes: it punishes the partner for not adhering to the narcissist's expectations or desires, reinforces the narcissist's perceived superiority by making their partner seek their approval or forgiveness, and allows the narcissist to avoid confronting their own problematic behaviors. The result is a destabilizing dynamic within the marriage, where the partner may constantly strive to appease the covert narcissist in a futile attempt to regain emotional closeness, further repeating the cycle of manipulation and control.

What to Do If You’re Married to a Covert Narcissist

If you find yourself married to a covert narcissist, you probably want to do something about it. After all, not many people can feel truly happy for long while they are being subtly manipulated by a covert narcissist. With some professional help, you can start to look for ways to address the situation.

Two of the most common ways people address their spouse’s covert narcissism are:

  • Marriage counseling: The first option is to seek marriage counseling or individual therapy. Professional counseling can provide a safe space to explore the complexities of the relationship, with the guidance of a therapist who understands narcissistic behaviors. A skilled therapist can help both partners communicate more effectively, and potentially help the narcissistic partner recognize and address their behaviors, though this can be difficult and requires a willingness to change. For the non-narcissistic partner, therapy can offer strategies for setting boundaries, protecting their self-esteem, and deciding on the best path forward.
  • Divorce: The second option is to consider seeking a divorce with the guidance of a divorce lawyer. This step might be necessary when the emotional toll of the relationship becomes unbearable, or if there's a clear pattern of manipulative and harmful behaviors with no sign of improvement. A divorce lawyer can navigate the legal complexities and represent their client in and out of court, ensuring that their rights and interests are kept in the conversation as the divorce progresses.

If you live in Orange County, California, Gill Law Group, PC can help you explore your options if you think a divorce is a right way to distance yourself from the harm caused by your spouse with a covert narcissistic personality disorder. We can help you plan a divorce and prepare to file the papers without notifying your spouse upfront, which might be necessary; after all, narcissists often try to manipulate their way out of a divorce if they know it is coming. For more information about our legal services and attorneys, call (888) 392-1941 and schedule a complimentary consultation.