The covert narcissist’s hooks won’t catch everyone, but they’re likely to entrap co-dependent and empathic personality types almost 100% of the time. The covert narcissist differs in some ways to their louder counterpart – the overt narcissist, who is easier to spot with their strong sense of entitlement, arrogant nature, disregard for others and lack of empathy. These folks are loud and proud and have earned their place and title in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The covert narcissist is not recognised in the DSM and often presents as the happy-go-lucky sweetie, an altruistic eunuch or the friendly quiet guy who smiles at you every day. They may appear harmless and unassuming, but they are anything but. They do all their damage behind closed doors and use emotional manipulation to gain control. An overt narcissist will stamp on any random stranger who gets in their way (i.e. road rage) but the covert narcissist saves all his or her bad behaviour for their loved one.
The covert narcissist may say, ‘Oh you don’t want to listen to me go on but thank you so much for being there for me, I don’t know what I would’ve done if you had not been there, ugh I shudder to think, thank you, from the bottom of my heart, you are an angel.”. This may make the recipient feel overly responsible for the emotional wellbeing and safety of a person they don’t even know very well. It also moves the relationship from that of a casual acquaintance into something much more significant.
The covert narcissist really comes to life in the bedroom. Physical intimacy and seduction are their main speciality and they will move in on their target quickly and relentlessly in the early stages of the relationship. The emotional connection feels very real and the intensity of it makes the connection feel deeper than it actually is. They promise their new girl/boyfriend a lifetime of support, but when they are called upon to give any, they back away and complain that their partner is too demanding.
In the later stages of the new relationship, there may be random passive aggressive insults or accusations thrown around that are not based in reality but still prompt the target to defend themselves. The attention and blame then move away from the narcissist and onto the target. This type of gaslighting throws victims of narcissistic abuse off guard and cause them to doubt themselves and start to feel they are somehow indebted to the narcissist.
When the relationship ends or when the target wakes up to see the narcissist for who they really are, they’ll experience a range of emotions and are likely to feel very confused. Their mind will be pre-occupied with working out where they went wrong, what they can do to ‘fix’ it, or what can they do to get over this person. In time they will start to experience glimmers of awareness and helpful insights, but for now this person is going to feel emotionally and psychologically drained. Their self-worth has taken another dive, they’re walking around in a daze and they’re feeling intense loneliness. To gain an understanding of what happened right under their very nose, they need to work out how they came emotionally enmeshed with a master manipulator in the first place.
Was the narcissist genuinely INTERESTED in who I was during our time together?
A narcissist is generally disinterested in anyone other than themselves. They have no regard whatsoever for what goes on inside another person. This makes it unlikely that they’ll attempt to find out more about their new boy/girlfriend or existing partner unless this information serves a purpose. This means they don’t care about anyone else’s opinions, values, thoughts, emotions or what their favourite movie is. You can tell them about something that has affected you deeply, but it goes right over their head and doesn’t seem to be even acknowledged. This is because not only is any of what you say of any interest to the narcissist, but they are threatened by someone else’s stuff as it takes the attention off them. The narcissist continues to minimise or ignore the everyday activities, worries or joys of their ‘loved’ one because they simply don’t care, but also, they are mindful to never reward another person’s ‘stuff’ with their attention.
A narcissist is only interested in learning what they need to know to support the illusion they are genuinely invested in the wellbeing of another person. If their partner believes this, (or desperately wants to believe it) then the narcissist can get what they want from them. They have to pretend to be interested in the life of their romantic partner and will be, for the most part, quite convincing if their co-dependent partner is ‘asleep’. Co-dependents are great people watchers but once they start to wake up, their BS detection skills, along with their powers of observation improve dramatically. They are able to see patterns within their relationships and begin to realise that the types of people they have been attracting have all been self-serving, one-sided and in-genuine (including friendships).
The narcissist’s ‘lack of interest’ is really a nicer way of describing their underlying contempt – which sums up all they really feel for their romantic partner (as well as most other folks). Their lack of interest can be detected in a number of ways, the most notable is how they brush over anything their partner has to say. They may respond to their conversation with total silence, by changing the subject, accusing their partner of being negative, or flattering them in an overt way that has nothing to do with the actual topic of conversation. These tactics work well to stop them from sharing their every-day concerns, worries, feelings, emotions or personal goals, or whatever is uniquely to do with THEM, and not so much with the narcissist.
There are only one or two circumstances whereby the narcissist will verbally express an interest in their partner’s personal stuff. Fear of losing their partner may prompt them to act and this is when a suspiciously timed, kind and considerate comment or question will be pulled out the bag. Much to the co-dependent’s surprise, they find out that the narcissist HAD been listening to them during the initial conversation but was in fact saving any acknowledgment of it for emergencies (manipulation purposes) only. They also show interest in their partner’s ‘stuff’ as they judge and criticise it. The narcissist will never genuinely support any of their partner’s dreams, aspiration or decisions because all that is about another person and not the narcissist. If you feel like you’re not being heard – ever – then it’s because the person you’re talking to only hears what they need to hear, which is anything that relates directly to them.
The covert narcissist will appear to be totally infatuated with their new girl/boyfriend, they seem to be in love with the very essence of you, yet all the unique aspects that make a person who they are, i.e., their personal history, what they enjoy doing, their thoughts, feelings and their specific goals, will be rejected by the narcissist when he or she turns their back on any conversation that is not focussed on them or their needs. The co-dependent notices that this pattern of behaviour doesn’t quite align with how the narcissist has presented themselves, but will often dismiss it by thinking, “Maybe this is just his way of keeping me on track and focussed on what really matters”. Which is very true.
The following tactics are used by covert narcissists to manipulate their targets into believing they’re loved and supported instead of being used for gain.
Flattery and Fantasy
The covert narcissist is an expert flatterer and they love to engage in fantasy talk during the early stages of a would-be romantic connection. These tactics are also used by the overt narcissist, but not as consistently because the overt narcissist expects flattery to be directed at them, not the other way around. Flattery is a highly manipulative tool and works well on those who’ve seldom heard a kind word from previous romantic partners or their parents. To be told you are beautiful, sexy, wonderful, funny and smart, over and over again, is a powerful grooming technique when used on the right person. But the narcissist’s flattery doesn’t align with their actions or their responses to actual conversations and everyday reality. Their sweet talk and promises of a wonderful life are an oasis in the desert to the approval and acceptance starved co-dependent but like the oasis, none of it is real. The covert narcissist also appears to be very in touch with their emotional side, and this can be very appealing to the co-dependent who has only ever known overt narcissists and/or emotionally abusive parent(s).
Flattering comments are intended to hit the mark and will be carefully customised around what they think the other person needs to hear. If the co-dependent steps in to help the covert narcissist in some way (as they are likely to do) they’ll be given the “You’re such a good person – truly one in a million, there’s not many people left in the world like you” line, which makes the co-dependent feel accepted, wanted and approved of, and are likely all the things they never felt as a child. Random golden nuggets of acceptance are delivered into the conversation but are often inappropriately placed and non-specific, i.e. the same complement might be said to a random stranger. Comments that refer to ‘being together’ in the future cement the deal for the co-dependent and although these suggestions are out-the-blue and inappropriate to the relationship timeline, they don’t seem to notice because they already believe they’ve met the man of their dreams.
Are they living in the Real World?
The covert narcissist’s thinking is largely fantasy-based, and conversations often revolve around plans for the future or escaping from, or idolising their past. They will draw their partner into their fantasy world where the present is seldom discussed. They don’t wish to know what’s happening in the everyday life of their girl/boyfriend and if they are being subjected to any details about it, they’ll play a mini-silent treatment or quickly change the subject to their preferred type of conversation – one that fantasises achieving the near-impossible, such as winning the lottery. They live their life idealising everything in life they want but don’t have and keep drawing their partners into the delusion.
Poor Me Syndrome
The ‘Poor Me’ tactic works well on the sleeping co-dependent because it activates their deeply embedded people-pleasing programme. They were likely watching their parent(s) from a very early age instead of climbing trees and are experts at making someone ‘feel better’ because when someone else feels OK, their life gets better by default.
If they see an injured bird, they’re there – running through fire and traffic to help. An emotionally injured narcissist lets out a distress signal that only the co-dependent hears. Their wounds are often the result of the unwanted departure of their long-suffering wife or husband. This causes a huge narcissistic injury and the co-dependent is now racing towards them with their superhero cape flapping behind them. They are now on hand to mop the brow of this individual who is clearly suffering. The narcissist is not used to being on the receiving end of suffering as they are the ones who routinely dish it out – this situation is new and totally unfair for them.
The narcissist laps up all the loving concern and advise and starts to demand more and more of it, and all the while, the truth of their situation is withheld or concealed. Being secretive, withholding information under the guise of it being too painful to discuss, or they are not emotionally ready to disclose it yet, buys them time and more attention. The co-dependent fills in the gaps to the story but is often way off the mark. The amount of pain the narcissist expresses makes the co-dependent think that their former partner must have passed away and he can’t yet say the words, ‘my wife has died’. Whatever is said, not said, lied about or fantasised about, their goal is to secure empathy, support and narcissistic supply.
When the co-dependent finally realises that not all is what it seems to be, they have already been seduced, hooked and weakened. If they listen to their instincts and their friends, they’ll soon join the real world and see things as they are, and the ‘cruel’ (or presumed dead) ex-wife will be seen more like a victim.
What Happens when you Terminate a Relationship with a Covert Narcissist?
Here a narcissist’s true identity will be revealed, and their target has their suspicions confirmed – they are dealing with a master manipulator who couldn’t care less about them. Guilt-tripping tactics are used with gay abandon and suddenly the narcissist’s victim is no longer the most amazing person in the world, they are the worst person in the world. They’ll say, “You were all I had in the world, now I have no-one” – even though you first met only a few weeks ago. They’ll tell you how devastated they are and will shout and scream, over and over “What did I do?”, dramatically on the street, or in front of neighbours or work colleagues.
But they are not bullshitting this time, they truly are devastated – they don’t want to be alone, because they can’t be alone. They engage in some self-bashing in an attempt to get their target to feel sorry for them but will quickly revert to blaming the other person for misleading and not being open or honest (which is really a projection of their own behaviour). They will ignore the target’s personal boundaries and bombard them with more ‘poor me’ talk, accusations, blaming or whatever works to get their target back in place. They will make this already exhausted person feel responsible for ruining their life and abandoning them.
The guilt-trips are effective in preventing the target from remembering what is real and what is not and distracts them as they try to heal and recover. Meanwhile, the narcissist won’t be suffering for long, he will already be out fishing for his next victim and he’s very good at what he does.
Repelling or Avoiding the Covert Narcissist
The saying, ‘prevention is better than cure’ comes to mind here. It is far easier to deflect a highly manipulative person in the early stages of a relationship or friendship than later on down the track. The post-separation stage will feel like psychological warfare and the victim will become acutely aware of just how low the narcissist will go in their attempts to turn them – the victim, into the bad guy.
The following guidelines are taken from Dr Todd Grande’s (2019) YouTube video – Repelling a Vulnerable Narcissist/Borderline/Histrionic and Dependent Traits and details the steps we can take to gently untangle ourselves from someone who is getting way too close for comfort. Most rejections will repel a vulnerable narcissist.
- Don’t do things for them that they can do themselves.
- Don’t accept any in-genuine help from them.
- Encouraging them to make decisions on their own will likely repel them – they want you on board to help.
- Keep away from, or don’t express interest in a physical relationship – they will typically want to advance this quickly and they are very persuasive.
- Maintain your boundaries, i.e. let them know what is OK for you, and what is not.
- Don’t let them do you any favours – this will be used against you and give the narcissist an opportunity to say you owe them.
- Put them in their place – let them know exactly where they fit into your life. If they try to gaslight you into believing the friendship is more than it is, or that they have known you for a lot longer than they really have – state the reality for them.
- Be happy for them when they do anything that doesn’t involve you. Encouraging them to do things separately from you will repel them because they want you to need them as they need you.
- When they try to advance the relationship, i.e. changing the mode of contact to a more intimate one, or suggesting you have lunch in a café together instead at work with other colleagues, say, “I like the way things are now”.
Recovering and healing begins by looking inside ourselves for answers. What was it about us that attracted such a person in the first place? Why did we ignore the signs and our own intuition? Why do we need to pretend all is OK when it isn’t? Have we been seeing reality for what it is, or only what we want it to be? Have our previous partners been looking for love or looking for help?
What do we need to address within ourselves, to make the shift towards attracting emotionally healthy, authentic people into our lives?
If this post resonates with you or someone you know, please comment and share! My goal is to connect with others to bring awareness and choice to those affected by childhood emotional neglect and narcissistic abuse.
Zoe is a Kinesiologist and Natural Health and Wellbeing Practitioner, specialising in the healing from co-dependent relationships. See www.innerhealthandhealing.net to learn more about how kinesiology can help us recover and heal energetically from toxic relationships and previously held co-dependent patterns, so we can live more meaningful lives. Follow the BLOG – “A Recovery of Self” for notifications of upcoming posts on recovery and healing from childhood emotional neglect, codependency and narcissistic abuse.
Photo by Heleno-Kaizer on Unsplash
American Psychiatric Association (2013): Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 2013 (5th edition). U.S: American Psychiatric Association.
Grande, T (2019) Repelling a Vulnerable Narcissist/Borderline/Histrionic and Dependent Traits, YouTube video, viewed September 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzsbviqDEx0
This was a great summary.
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SPOT ON… and basically, whether already IN a relationship with a covert narc, or meeting a covert narc, being an autonomous, boundaried, genuine person, will always repel them. That’s how my marriage ended! I got emotionally healthy after 4 years of living through his covert devaluing and codependency, gained boundaries, learned how to kindly enforce them, while still giving genuine love… but they dont WANT real love, they want control…. so he found new supply REAL QUICK and started in on the discard and slander phase!
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Very clear explanation of the levers a covert narcissist uses to manipulate and get his way.
My husband had me fooled for 21 years, it took Covid and a lockdown for me to wake up.
I had seen him flatter ruthlessly everyone and anyone to one-up them immediately after.
One night, as he was asking me what he did wrong, since I had made all our life decisions, I told him that I had come to realize how clever he had been in making it appear like I was the decision maker while he was in fact pulling all the strings. That was irresistible for him, and he answered “yes, I believe you are right (for once) about that”. I am still laughing inside. Plus so happy to have seen the light and to be on my way out! Thank you for the great article
This is an excellent description with good examples.
I spent ten years in a situationship with someone who portrayed these patterns. I worshipped the man who moulded his personality into mine, claimed my phrases, would use my likes and dislikes cleverly in his non stop texts had me obsessively overthinking every minute of the day. Had me addicted to my phone telling me I was his goddess, the love of his life and all this whilst he was in a ‘ desperately unhappy marriage’ which he couldn’t leave because of finances.
I’m embarrassed at the blatant lies he told me which I forgave. I’m embarrassed that a few months in I found him doing the same thing with someone else under my nose and ashamed that I allowed him to twist it into my fault. I was so trauma bonded to him and every time he pulled back a little I’d ask what the problem was, I’d get tears and a sad story about something which I’d end up helping him with and gving advice. He would immediately stop the tears and the sad story would never be mentioned again.
I ended up being blamed for all his problems.
The cycle of idealise and devalue was very subtle, he would disappear when he had attention elsewhere and come back with an excuse which any nice person would feel bad doubting. I spent the first five years neglecting some serious various family issues whilst I could think of nothing else but him, yet I didn’t have the strength to let him go. I was too deeply hooked.
It took in the end for me to have a long hard look at what he’d given me in that time, no trinkets, no gifts for a souvenir. He just disappeared without even saying goodbye. By then I was recognising the pattern but the final time hurt the least.
I wish I’d taken heed of all the red flags in the beginning but the flattery tears and begging was very believable, even to someone intelligent.
My past 3 relationships in a nutshell. Thank you very much for this comprehensive explanation.