Are You Bogged Down in a Covert Narcissist Marriage?

Revised 5/2/21

The Covert Narcissist Marriage is not like other narcissistic marital dynamics. Clinicians don’t tend to see the flamboyant attention-seeking, charisma, or the natural and easy charm of the typical narcissist.

However, as I mentioned in an earlier post, not all narcissists are openly expansive and hungry for dominance or adulation.

The Covert Narcissist, (sometimes described as the closet, vulnerable, or hypersensitive narcissist) is a particularly toxic, introverted, (some erroneously would say camouflaged) form of narcissism.

Although it is more subtle and doesn’t seek the limelight, Covert Narcissism is particularly toxic because of its preoccupation with being either critical or being criticized.

The Covert Narcissist doesn’t telegraph their superiority. They are more reserved and aloof, and deeply insecure.

Because attempting to connect with others is so inherently difficult, the covert narcissist marriage is characterized by a variety of defensive mechanisms designed to keep people away. Their social circle may be narrow and predicated on mutual interests. These social activities may also aid them in enacting their secret sense of self-importance.

As you can imagine, a Covert Narcissist Marriage is often a lonely place for their partners.

The Covert Narcissist Marriage Dynamic

Covert Narcissists tend to be quiet, and self-contained, often bestowing minimal attention on their spouses.

Empathy is not an active feature of a Covert Narcissist Marriage. The Covert Narcissist Marriage dynamic will not allow room for a dialogue about their partner’s thoughts and feelings. Even when their spouses make bids for attention, and complain about their loneliness, the Covert Narcissist will always turn the conversation back to their exclusive singular focus…themselves.

Another salient aspect of the Covert Narcissist Marriage is a heaping dollop of passive aggression. Their spouse may plead for consideration, while the Covert Narcissist will offer vague promises and annoyed reassurances. But they rarely follow through.

The one issue that defines a Covert Narcissist Marriage is in the way the notion of criticism is handled by the Covertly Narcissistic spouse.

Covert Narcissists are extremely critical, but paradoxically, they cannot abide criticism themselves.

This is couples therapy quicksand for the generalist therapist.

The notions of a “softened start-up,” followed by a feeling state, and a proposed solution, with an invitation to a fair and open dialogue, may fail in a spectacular fashion.

In the face of any perceived criticism, Covert Narcissists will either become smug, or belligerent.

Then they skulk off into a sullen and moody withdrawal. It’s not unusual for a spouse, particularly in the early months of a Covert Narcissist Marriage, to be utterly perplexed by their spouse’s abrupt tendency to withdraw whenever a behavioral change is carefully and courteously requested.

The Covert Narcissist Marriage and the Perplexing Problem of Perfectionism

The Covert Narcissist holds themselves aloof from the riffraff. They are God’s special creatures. They have a toxic mixture of extreme entitlement and nosebleed lofty expectations of their spouses, children, and others as well.

Researcher Logan Nealis, the lead author of a recent study on Narcissists, offers an example of the pursuit of perfection:

“A narcissistic perfectionist parent demands perfect performance from his daughter on the hockey rink, but not necessarily from anyone else out there. They’re getting a sense of vitality or self-esteem through the perfect performance of other people, and they bask in that glow vicariously.”

Logan’s research had an interesting design. For this research, students were asked to keep 28-day diaries.

The results revealed that narcissistic perfectionists were socially toxic. Dr. Simon Sherry, who also worked on the study, reported on the findings:

“Our most consistent finding across the two studies is that narcissistic perfectionism is associated with social negativity in the form of anger, derogation, conflict and hostility…When you look at what appears to be happening between the ears of a narcissistic perfectionist, you see they’re thinking really negative, hostile, critical things about other people”

The Covert Narcissist expends a vast amount of emotional energy propping up a high degree of self-worth:

Essentially conveying ‘”I’m perfectly awesome, and you’re not. Therefore, you’re defective, and a poor reflection on me.”

The study’s authors analyzed the biographies of famous narcissistic perfectionists, include former Apple CEO, Steve Jobs:

“According to one biography, [Jobs] expected perfection from others in an entitled, demanding, and hyper-critical manner. Employees reported going from ‘hero to zero’ in Jobs’ estimation after even minor mistakes; employees also noted Jobs routinely derogated them in front of co-workers.”

Along with these overt characteristics, Jobs certainly had what many professional psychologists believe to be at the root of all Narcissistic Personality Disorders, including Covert Narcissism, a fundamentally insecure sense of self.

The Pride-Shame Split…the Terror of Not Being Good Enough

We know that people with NPD have a “pride-shame” split. At their emotional core, these people are deeply wounded.

They are terrified that they are not good enough. They fear they are fundamentally unlovable.

Consequently, particularly in the light of failed expectations, they work overtime to foster an image of superiority upon the world, (and in their Covert Narcissist Marriage) with a relentless effort to compensate for their unspoken, underlying insecurities.

For the Covert Narcissist, this tendency to project a superior demeanor emerges under perceived stress. They tend not to lead with it. This is the essential difference between the Covert and Overt Narcissist.

Logan Nealis commented on the socially toxic behavior of the Covert Narcissist:

“If you have elevated expectations of someone, that may well be a positive thing—if it’s paired with a warm, nurturing interpersonal style. But grand expectations paired with feelings of grandiosity and entitlement to the perfect performance of others creates a much more negative combination.”

Dr. Sherry, one of the study’s co-author, weighed in with a similar assessment:

“We may be characterizing a problem of our times. It may very well be that we live in an age of entitlement where grandiose demands are often made in everyday life. Narcissistic perfectionists have a need for other people to satisfy their unreasonable expectations… And if you don’t, they get angry.

Making them more aware of the impact [their actions] ultimately have on others might—(keyword, “might”)—spark change.”

Criticism May Make a Covert Narcissist Aggressive

Spouses who possess healthy self-esteem will respond well to a softened start-up. They are not particularly triggered by a marital complaint.

But Covert Narcissists are deeply invested in their brittle self-image. They cannot abide criticism in any way, shape, or form.

The Covert Narcissist feels Entitled, Exploits, and Lacks Empathy

Any spousal complaints will usually result in a curt response that is both aggressive and dismissive.

In this study on criticism and narcissistic aggression, psychologists measured the self-esteem, narcissism, and aggressive behavior of 540 undergraduate students. They found that the students with more pronounced narcissistic traits tended to verbally lash out more often when facing criticism.

The study’s authors write:

“Narcissists mainly want to punish or defeat someone who has threatened their highly favorable views of themselves. People who are preoccupied with validating a grandiose self-image apparently find criticism highly upsetting and lash out against the source of it.”

People with a healthy degree of self-esteem do not become more aggressive towards others when criticized.

Covert Narcissists, however, find the threat to their ego too great a risk to leave unchallenged. The Covert Narcissist Marriage is one of constant deflection and dismissiveness.

The seeds of narcissism tend to be sown at a young age, said Professor Brad J. Bushman, the study’s first author:

“…if kids begin to develop unrealistically optimistic opinions of themselves and those beliefs are constantly rejected by others, their feelings of self-love could make these kids potentially dangerous to those around them.”

covert narcissist marriage

If provoking the narcissist sounds dangerous, then another method of identifying the narcissist is simply to ask them. Professor Bushman, speaking about a previous study, explained:

“People who are willing to admit they are more narcissistic than others probably actually are more narcissistic. People who are narcissists are almost proud of the fact. You can ask them directly because they don’t see narcissism as a negative quality — they believe they are superior to other people and are fine with saying that publicly.”

Covert Narcissists can be frank and direct about their superior self-image and exacting standards. They’re just not as flamboyantly open about it as conventional narcissists.

They project and pursue perfection desperately to keep their demons at bay. They suffer from an unusually brittle and fragile sense of self and sometimes are unable to hide it.

The Covert Narcissist Marriage is a criticism spiraling ever outward.

Spouses have an impossible task requesting behavioral changes, in the Covert Narcissist Marriage. They often seek individual or couple therapy to help them more effectively engage with their rigid, perfectionistic spouse.

Are there 3 Kinds of Covert Narcissism?

Psychiatrist Dr. Addul Saad in Sydney Australia describes 3 kinds of covert narcissism:

  • The lowest level is the Hypersensitive Introvert. This level is deemed the least pathological. They have a core need to be accepted and recognized. They are negativistic, sensitive to criticism, withdrawing to lick their wounds. Most Covert Narcissist marriages function at this level.  When activated, they oscillate between self-loathing and anger toward others who have thwarted their greatness. For the Hypersensitive Introvert, job one is giving up or at least curbing the tendency toward harboring a victim mentality.
  • If they fail to do that, they may become an Envious Scapegoater. Shifting from feeling inadequate, to wanting to get even. Now they blame others for their victimhood and unfulfilled promise. These are the long-suffering outcasts marinated in envy and hostility. Unlike the Hypersensitive Introvert, the Scapegoater finds a blameworthy scapegoat (spouse, child..etc.) the key idea is that they are proximal and willing to endure the spite and malice of the scapegoater. The scapegoater is now highly skilled at displacing their aggression.
  • As envy builds, so do self-defeating behaviors. personal responsibility is not worth the cost of surrendering victimhood. Because the Covert Narcissists demean, malign, and frustrate others, some Covert Narcissists become Punitive Avengers. This is a dangerous admixture of narcissism and psychopathy.
  • Punitive Avengers are delusional …exacting revenge, and punishing perceived enemies. A bad outcome such as a job loss, or relationship breakup could result in a violent psychic break.

Final Thoughts About the Covert Narcissist Marriage

Let’s not be too hard on the garden-variety Covert Narcissist.

On the hypersensitive, lower end of the spectrum, they are capable of some degree of empathy and can respond well to couples therapy, and learn to become even more empathetic and emotionally responsive.

The Covert Narcissist is compensating for a deep wound that never healed.

But they can be challenging to love, and even harder to live with.

They need an opportunity to appreciate the impact their behavior has on their families. Narcissism occurs on a continuum, and the milder forms are treatable. Envious Scapegoaters require deeper individual work, and Punitive Avengers are probably beyond the reach of psychotherapy.

Science-based couples therapy is the best way to confront a mild case, but a great many Covert Narcissists will not respond in couples therapy due to a lack of motivation and an inability to confront themselves in any meaningful way.

But Hopeful Spouse counseling with a trained science-based couples therapist can help you unpack these experiences, keep your sanity, and work toward establishing more firm, healthy boundaries…whether you stay married to your Covert Narcissist or not.

Do You Need Hopeful Spouse Counseling to Recover from Covert Narcissism?

Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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  1. I have just read all the comments below and I feel so very sorry for what people are going through in their marriages.
    I was lucky, by comparison. I was in a two year affair with a person who exhibited a lot of covert narcissistic/borderline traits that are so well described in this article. He used me without any remorse, doing over and over again several things he knew for sure that would have hurt me: triangulation, manipulation, silent treatment, jealousy, lies, threatening to leave me if I got tired and asked him to change his behaviour, all interspersed with love bombing, devaluate and discard cycles, victim mentality, perfectionism, depression, feelings of inadequacy towards me, self-sabotage, destructive mistakes…
    I didn’t know about covert narcissists but after the last humiliation I got rid of him and the thought suddenly hit me. All my suspicions that I could not put a name to, had a name at last: covert narcissism. It was devastating.
    It was clean break, a little over a year ago and I haven’t had any contact since. I am so much better but there are days it still hurts and I don’t know when this wound will really heal. Other times my mind disassociates and it feels that such a things could not have happened to me, that surely that was not my life. I am on antidepressants and I don’t know when I will be able to stop. My trust in people is over and for months I had suicidal thoughts and no self esteem. The trauma was absolutely real.
    I can only imagine what it means to go through this for decades and feel unable to end a marriage.
    I wish you all the best in keeping strong and finding happiness away from the people who hurt you.

  2. thank you for this article and the comments below. Married 28 years to Covert Narcissist. Every conflict over the years ended in silent treatment. No matter what i did we would never be able to 'repair' following disagreements or differences. too crazy and too much to share. "I can't talk to you because we are so different. That is unhealthy." My biggest issue- what makes it so hard to help therapists understand this. my wife presents as a sweet angel, 'little girl' almost, vulnerable and defenseless, which activates the therapists' protect mode, and they align with her 100%. It is astounding. At home she is cold and withdrawn. in public she is sweet and outgoing. Her whole life- hundreds of acquaintances but no deep friendships. She adored and doted on by her father. the joke in the family is that he would do anything for her. She grew up with crazy indirect talk in her family. When I try to share openly and directly, she shuts down, and secretly calls her support to tell them how angry and aggressive I am! oh, everything is a criticism! Even when I preface what I say. But then the flying monkeys tell me, "you must be criticizing her." oh man! I am the codependent who needs to regain my life on my own…but we're 28 years and 7 kids into this. youngest in 8th grade. Im not going to tear the family apart. But the loneliness, craziness, and flying monkeys who just swallow her narrative hook, line, and sinker are very very painful. All normal rules of relationships go out the window as her support group just, almost jedi like, repeat her talking points…and when I gently try to ask clarifying questions- "can you give me an example of what I said or did that was angry" – its like i violated some rule…no answer. NUTS.

    1. This is my life. Exactly. I have lost a therapist because my narc was able to manipulate her, the therapist and the therapy and she allowed it by buying into his act. He presents so well! I have never met an adult that is so childish.

  3. Thank you for this insightful assessment of the Covert Narcissist. I think I am the spouse of a person that displays many of the attributes and behavioral traits described in the article. I need help to navigate these challenges…..after 32 yrs of marriage, I’ve lost my way.

    1. Wow, just wow. I have been married for almost 40 years. From early on in our relationship I was told I was the problem and I was a narcissist. I was actually believing that I was the problem. Can you say gaslit? Turns out she she is a covert narcissist, who was raised by a grandiose narcissist. I’ve been on and off antidepressants for the last 25 years feeling inept and incompetent. In 40+ years of a relationship, I have never heard her say “I was wrong” or “I’m sorry.” Im so tired of the passive aggressive digs, and her clinging on and reminding me of the the past mistakes I’ve made, even though I’ve confessed, and apologized for them.

      This all came to an ah-ha moment for me a few weeks ago when my narcissistic boss was let go. I knew he stretched the truth and was narcissistic. After talking to his superiors after he was let go, I found out what a total liar he was. Pretty much anything he said was a lie and the truth was the exact opposite. Now, I’m realizing the same is true with my wife. I’m done with being gaslighted and lied to.

      Not sure where this will go with her. She has given me a ultimatum. I’ve come to the point where I will no longer be bullied or threatened. Previously, I would cave and say I’m sorry to keep the peace. (That is my mistake and codependency). I’m calmly and politely holding firm this time. If we separate or divorce, I will be sad. She seems to care, and just follows the pattern of how she grew up. Maybe there is hope for her. I hope for her sake she can find some peace and forgiveness for the narcissist mom she was raised by. Maybe then she can heal and our marriage can heal.

  4. Problem is you’ll be responding badly to criticism whether you’re the narcissist in the relation or the codependent, the codependent has been primed by early caregivers and narcissistic spouse both, through their constant derision and criticisms, to be hypersensitive and do their utmost to anticipate and avoid the constant criticism and consequently low self-worth, it ois this hypersensitivity that makes them idealise themselves as “empaths”. They will be equally pone to shifting blame. Especially with covert narcissists couplings it can be really tricky telling the codependent and narcissist apart …

  5. I just couldn’t take it anymore, 2 weeks ago I left my covert narc wife after 25 years of marriage. There was constant contempt, angry retorts, belittling, always opposing my position over every little thing, decades of isolating me, repetitive threats of divorce for the last 15 months during covid lockdown. And I was laid off last June, so I was stuck with her 24/7. One morning 2 weeks ago she said “Why don’t you just leave.”… so I did! I’m done with her sullen, brooding, uncaring, selfish, highly critical, emotionally immature crap, I’ve taken it far too long. She’s been gaslighting me for 8 years. She created a fake setup, a circumstance that enabled her to accuse me of doing something that could have hurt her. Except I didn’t do it, she did it to herself, and has been accusing me ever since! I developed depression shortly after that all started, then I had a heart attack. She picked a fight in my hospital room…and ran out! My best friend went after her and asked “what’s the matter?”, she told him “I don’t want to have to take care of an invalid!”. He told me what happened and I confronted her with it, she said “He’s a liar” and “you can’t be friends with him”. A couple years later I got cancer and had to undergo chemo. She wanted me to stay in a hotel after each round so that she “wouldn’t be exposed to anything toxic coming out of me”. Well, we happened to be in couples therapy at the time, and I thought the therapist was going to fall out of her chair when my wife told her that. We spent that session coming up with a plan to have me stay at home in a separate bedroom and I thoroughly cleaned the bathroom each time. Let’s add No Empathy to that earlier list. Fast forward to now, right after I left, she tried to hoover me with emails and texts saying “I Love You, When are you coming back?” I replied, “I’m not” she said “who’s going to cut the grass?” and “that my stuff would be out on the lawn”. I went no contact. The letter from my lawyer should have been delivered yesterday. The marriage was actually pretty good for the first 10 years, and then she slipped into covert narc mode after her grandparents and parents all passed away within just a few years of each other. I have codependent tendencies, and this is very difficult, so I’m going back into therapy this week. it really sucks to be married to a covert narc, they crush your soul and rub out out every shred of happiness in your life. I just hope to move on and I pray there will be better days ahead being single.

  6. Married 30 years. Two grown daughters. I have never heard my husband say, “I’m sorry”. I have heard, “ I’m sorry if what I said or did made you mad”.. Gaslighting?
    He is the pillar of community. Ever on the look out on what or who he can do good deeds for, then announce the deeds at church, saying how appreciative and thankful they were. He is such a “fine man”, so I’m told. I take care of a 400 acre farm. No help from him. He is too busy getting pats on the back for good deeds. I’m tired at 60. I have so many stories but am just fed up.

    1. My exnarc was violent, picked a fight at celebrations, cheated etc. I forgave everytime. Bought into the lie that he had a bad childhood and if i loved him he wld heal. Somehow skipped my attention that in 23 years of loving him – he hadn’t changed one bit!
      However ur comment caught my attention because when I finally did leave it was because I realized in 23 years he had never apologized for anything. Even when he is wrong and I’m determined not to speak to him first he wld be silent for weeks. If i say something first, he is contrite, so I always put it down to insecurity.

      He wld apologize for the big things like being caught cheating or hitting me but nothing else.

      I just realized this is weird. After 23 years together, 17 of those married and 2 kids – wld this guy really watch me walk away jst cause he can’t bring himself to apologize?

      He did.

      I moved out to show him I meant business and he filed for divorce!

      I didn’t even mind. I’d been trying to leave him for years.

      But about 5 years into the divorce and discovering I had had absolutely no idea who the person I married was I still marvel at how it all came about.

      Jst that feeling deep down that, it’s absolutely NOT normal to find it this difficult to apologize when u r wrong.

      I’m still blown away by this.

      If u do decide to leave, do not do it on a whim like
      me – plan that shit to the smallest detail.

      Its almost better to stay at this point. Leaving him will trigger an epic rage that u may not survive.

  7. No hope for narcissists. The spouse will continue to get hurt emotionally and verbally as she waits on the narcissist to change. Moor pounding. It is a waste of time and a dead end and more damage to the spouse’s inner self.

  8. Great article. I have been married to a covert narcissist wife and the amount of beat downs you get is never ending! Nonstop. I’m 57, she tricked me into getting married, I didn’t want kids cause I had already my Daughter, my one and only child. I now I have a 4 year old and 8 year old absolutely beautiful girls. I guess that’s something good she did but she tricked me as well on that. Fertilization . I can’t spell the first word. We had been together 20 years and we also have a business together. I am so tired and just defeated. My children are the only thing keeping me going. I don’t know how to get help, she of course controls all the funds. I work 15 hours 7 days a week cutting glass and mirror for our shop.she makes me. I’ve been doing that for 15 years. She shops on Amazon and I still have the same shirts I had when we got married. We have a picture with puppies in and I have the same shirt on in the picture that I had o the day I looked at the picture. Those puppies passed away a year ago at 15. I know this is a waste of time but it helps to see it written. And also I’m an Empath. Great combo. Kind, loving , caring , affectionate, with no one to give it to me. I just learned all about this mental illness about a year ago. I have been searching for a long time to find out what was going on. But I stayed dillengent and found it. How can I leave her with those two beautiful children? As a Father I could never leave my babies in danger. Who could? I’m so lonely, exhausted and defeated. We dated 5 years and it was amazing. Day 2 of the marriage I knew something was off. But as an Empath I feel and see people’s energy, and hers went from off white ( something wasn’t right) and it has now turned into black, evil, energy that makes me nauseous. I’ve been so sick, on and off. It’s always a Monday , is my first sick day. Thank you so sorry, great Article.

    1. Man. I feel you. I am in a similar boat. Only I am 37 and have 1 child w her.

      My life is a constant balance act. Walking on tip toes trying not to get 6 days of silent treatment for nothing at all.
      My boy is almost 10.
      Old enough to reason with.
      I suppose I just have to point out the shit she starts. But that’s not in me. However she is very good at making me out to be the bad guy.

      This sucks.
      I was once happy. The girl that I fell in love with disappeared a long time ago. (Been together 13 years). I’m still me. But thats not good enough

    2. I’m so sorry you’re going thru this. But sadly, it seems that you are telling my story almost perfectly. I wasn’t forced in to marriage at all though. I just live this life of constant criticism, eye rolls, put downs etc. But when I speak up for myself I’m called a narcissist and basically told I do everything wrong and she plays no part in it. Sex is a joke now with her being taken care of very well by me but always tells me that she’s sure that I think she’s not enough for me because I don’t finish. But after everything I have to endure before, foreplay is a major control issue for her, my attempt at completion. Well you probably get it. I pretty sure she loves me but not enough to ever admit her portion of the issue. Sadly, these constant beat downs just make me want to go jump off of a bridge or something similar. I truly feel worthless after 29 years of this. I’m so alone and lost.

  9. My husband, well soon to be ex-husband I guess…. ok some of this fits him. In the beginning when we met it was so wonderful. He was so proud to be with me, so happy. He talked to me every waking moment of the day. He showered me with attention and love. He made me feel special. My husband of 18 years had just had an affair and left a few weeks before I met my present husband, and I was very vulnerable. I was used to being honest about my feelings and my life (and I still am) and so when we were talking I did tell him how I’d feel alone when my ex-husband was sitting in the same room. We dated, and then I became pregnant. I lost the baby and he walked me through the Walmart past the baby aisle and told me “Honey, don’t be so sad I can’t stand to see you this way.” I got angry about that. I was in pain, I had just lost our baby and here he was saying that? Walking me down the baby aisle saying that?! He stopped making love to me, then he became cold and distant. His adopted father died just after I got the DNC, and he withdrew more. I told him how it made me feel, I asked him to please talk to me. He would talk to other women on the internet, but he wasn’t “talking” he was flirting and sharing inappropriate pictures. He left me. I was heartbroken. He told me it was all my fault, that after the DNC which was part of a surgery I had that left me in severe pain for weeks, I was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. When I was Hyde I was too needy, I wanted too much of his time, I wanted him to make love to me too much, etc. He started flirting with me and came back, but when he did he was cold and distant much of the time. He left again, this time after calling me names a lot. He told me his leaving was my fault. He came back again… now every time we argued I was a slut or a whore or a bitch. He’d turn everything around on me “Oh I want you to cuddle me, I love you so much” he’d say sarcastically to me. Then we married, and everything evened out and got better for a little while until I found out that he was talking to his ex, trying to get back with her the day AFTER we married. That was my fault too according to him. Every time we argued he’d flip things around on me, making it out like I was the one with the problem, when it was him that was causing the problem. He wouldn’t pay any attention to me, I’d ask to watch a movie or play a game wit him and he’d say not right now. He flat out told me he controlled my sex life and I wasn’t going to have much of one. He continued to “play” with other women telling them he loved them, but when I demanded he choose between me or her he’d block her and keep her blocked and then find another woman to play with. Now we’ve been married just under 4 months. September 2, he was caught telling a woman who was to live with us he wanted to be with her. Then when we argued about it he told me “You wanted this from the beginning.” He’d ask me why I married him, tell me I didn’t love him, this was all my fault. Just the next day on the 3rd, which is kind of still today for me as I write this, he took my kittens knowing I love them. He got mad that I wouldn’t give him some of his stuff because he had never paid anything towards bills and had promised to repay the money that he got from pawning my dead mother’s wedding rings. He told me “You don’t care who you hurt.” Excuse me? He left me for another woman, I was just holding his stuff hostage until he paid what he promised! But I don’t care who I hurt? I had spent the whole day before weeping as he told me he loves me but he’s leaving me to be with her. He told me he doesn’t love her, but he’s going to live with her. He saw my pain the whole day and DID NOT CARE. He screamed at the friend I was talking to on the phone “The woman you’re dating is a slut, the woman you’re dating is a whore, the woman you’re dating is a bitch!” He was screaming “She’s using you man, she told me you were going to — all night long!” The guy I was talking to found it funny, but I did not. He kept trying to beat me down more and more. Him and his girlfriend have been attacking me since he left, he told his friends lies about me and even twisted some of my friends into believing that I was the one doing everything to him and his girlfriend. His attacks, over and over and over… and yet I still love him go figure. I can’t handle this though! I don’t know if he’s narcissistic, my best friend says he is and has from the start, but this article actually seemed to click with my experiences with him. We have been in marriage counseling 2 months, and it does no good. Our therapist gives us “homework” he refuses to do it. If I say anything against him he turns it back on me or he will say something about me that’s not right, but he does it in such a sneaky way that she doesn’t seem to understand what he’s doing.

  10. My soon-to-be-ex husband, a sociopathic narcissist, attended our couple counseling sessions (18 long months of them) like a college freshman auditing a course. He cordially engaged when asked to do so, but at home applied little to nothing of the therapist’s recommendations. What’s worse, he had new terms like “validation” to apply only to himself.

    Therapy exhausted me and left me feeling doubly burdened. Good luck to all of you reading this in proving to your therapist that your spouse is a covert narcissist, which is what you will have to do. It took 18 months for us, at which time the therapist essentially turned the focus on my husband exclusively until it became apparent that he didn’t need to do this. We never got that far. Not even close. My husband cordially agreed. And then at home abused me as never before. He gaslighted, stonewalled and sadistically took pleasure in my anguish.

    Treating a narcissistic spouse in the context of couple therapy is an irresponsible and damaging (to the non-narcissist) protocol. I do not recommend it.

    Narcissists need an intervention-type therapy with involved witnesses because they are not self-inquiring and they are pathological liars. To my knowledge there is no such therapy being done. If you find yourself involved with a narcissist, urge them to seek INDIVIDUAL therapy in which you can sit in. If you go to a couple therapist, ask first off that they evaluate each of you using clinical narcissistic measures. If the therapist won’t do this, find one who will.

    Otherwise, your best alternative option is to leave the relationship. There is no cure for clinical narcissism.

    1. I agree 100%. During the first 10 years of my marriage to a covert narcissist, he was happy to drill me with questions about my individual therapy, then used every bit of information to gaslight me and almost had me questioning my sanity. Then I tried to leave him but wasn’t narc-savvy and therefore got hoovered back in. The couple’s therapy at that time was a textbook example of him telling the therapist “yes, I am aware of needing to make an effort but let’s concentrate again on my wife’s issues”.
      13 years and two kids later, I am divorcing him for good. I tried another couple’s therapy first, with plenty of individual sessions. Between two couple’s sessions I would get a whole week of absolute silent treatment (this was during covid so he was physically in the house 24/7). I nearly lost it. Our therapist told us she couldn’t do couple’s sessions with us as she felt conflicted about what she was hearing during individual sessions. Emotional dissonance for the therapist, imagine that! I hope she’s alright though…
      Definitely not an option with a covert narcissist, nope!

  11. My husband had covert NPD. He has no intention to change and wants me to make all of the changes. I have read a lot about NPD and it’s starling how accurate a description of him it is. What are the conditions of a mild NPD that is amenable to counselling?

      1. My husband, in our couple sessions exhibited these traits: self-observation and repair and apologize… they were lies he enacted in front of the therapist. Apologizing is a simple thing for a narcissist to make appear authentic. Repairing takes time, often and usually more time than any one session grants. One of the abuses I endured in our therapy was being made to feel obligated by the therapist to acknowledge and accept apologies that I knew to be inauthentic. It didn’t matter how I tried to tell our therapist that he’s just paying lip service, the therapist would encourage us to wait and see. Wait and see. In the meantime, I suffered more at home with an even more emboldened narcissist. It was really a disaster.

        1. This! If you notice a kid having trouble or resisiting saying “Thank you” and “I’m sorry”, it’s a red flag and quite likely means they’ve been forced into submission by narcissistic caregivers by means of aggression or påssive/aggressive shaming and guilting, and then humiliated further by having to say they were sorry or thank the caregivers for the lesson. Adults forcing kids to say they’re sorry when they still are convinced they’ve been wronged and not listened to are doing lots of harm.

  12. Im in total tears after reading this article.

    the first 20yrs of our marriage, not a single lash out, argument nothing….I was in bliss. About 6yrs ago now, i read somewhere that a relationship of any type of disagreements is a red flag, watch out. I also worried about us both since we both were molested at young ages, but my wife was severe. From 5yrs old to her early teens, he trusted older brother and baby sitter since her father left and divorced her mother about 6yrs old. With this heavt drama filled past, i got really scared. Emotionial and physical abuse for over a decade, being forced to mask her outcries from the horrors she suffered, has only played into her emotional state today. Think of a narcisist, the stack that on top of a Female Leo character, combine that with the abuse, and has proudly mentioned she is “The Queen of Passive Aggressiveness”. More recent has accepted and proudly stated among the neighborhood, “She is like Saddam Husein, the Dictator”. I cringe in horror knowling what she has done to me in the last six years. I beleive she also Projection issues, coupled with all this and a massage lack of Empathy. Example, A key employee in our company came to us and asked for time off, her Dad was dying an needed to go see him in Hawaii where she was from. We all knew that he was ill and didnt have much time. My Wifes response to her was awful, she said,”I cant pay you for that time off”. I shook my head in disbelief and dropped my head and walked out of the room so only my employee could see me. I waved her over as she was visibly shaken about the whole thing. I apologized for my wifes satatement and got her airfair immediately for a free flight round trip. I brought that up to my wife that what she said was awful, her response to me was, “We cant pay her for time off, its that simple. I expressed there was better things to say than that. I couldnt believe what i was finding. Now, today, and in the past 10 days, i went thru payroll and started finding things that wasnt adding up. Mind you, she manages my corporation and she works from home doing it. I have placed her in a cushy job that paid $1750 a week and she paid no bills for the home. None. All by my choice, but then i noticed an odd date on payroll, normaly every 2 weeks, a paycheck, so I added up her checks, last month May of 2020 she payrolled herself to $24,000 that month, I went back to April, $16,000. Come to find, she has cleared $75000 thru May! I was in complete disbelief. so I went thru2019, same thing, she cleared $120k and she was authorized to pay herself $91000 a year. She starts her day around, 10am and ends around 2-4pm and sometimes later. Here i sit with my wife committing fraud against my company, trashing my emotions for the past 6 years agressively. So much so I went and saw a Pshychologist, He said I was suffering from PTSD???? I was like what are you talking about? No way. He expressed that something in the past few years has disrupted my sense of reality. With another visit, we unfolded my wifes treatment vs what she had provided for the first 20 yrs changed. A level of being so cold with intent to emotionally hurt me was unmeasurable. This is just what i have explained her today, its way worse than these topics Im covering here so people get a sense of how bad it can get and how fast what your holding onto, the love of your spouse, fades away with hurtfilled intent and acts like nothing is wrong. It will mqke the sane, absolutely insane. Today, with all this fraud she perpetuated on herself, I want to call the police and have her put in jail for fraud, and my attorneys says its a slam dunk case both civil and criminal. Crazy how this unfolds. I went from the Perfect marriage to living in hell with the devil herself….This article rang truer than any others about this subject. It broke me down, on top of all these new facts. I love her so much and cant think of starting over a 2nd time. Also have a 7yo Son who is stuck to his Mommy which is making things worse in so many ways but she cant see it. Im at wits end and not much left to do but call the authorities and leave her and needless to say, fire her. anyone else go thru something like this?

  13. Thank you for this amazing article.

    I have been married to a man like this for almost 6 years. To say it’s lonely and difficult is an understatement. I have had to suppress any need for intimacy, trust, communication, and connection to get along with him. And without all that, we get along just fine. He goes to work daily and comes home and helps with chores. On paper it looks fine.

    But the second I even get close to discussing our relationship, no matter how gently or non-judgemental.. I will pay the price. He immediately shuts down. Immediately defensive. Immediate denial of even obvious facts. This started pretty much as soon as we got married. At first I believed he was extremely passive aggressive. I worked hard to get him to stop that behavior. But over the years he’s flat out told me “I have no empathy”. Or “I really don’t care if you’re here or not”.. or even “I don’t really care if she’s (his daughter) here or not”.. he is genuinely neutral about us. He says the only thing that keeps him with us is guilt.

    His mother is a narcissist and he was her golden boy. I get along with her fine as I’m very skilled at dealing with narcissists (I was the scapegoat of a narcissistic mother). But she is a very mean woman; constantly criticizing people’s looks, weight, etc. She is also really mean to our daughter, because she likes to eat (the horror!) and because she likes to climb on couches.

    He recognizes his mother was a narc. He recognizes the impact it had on him (he claims he just wants to live alone and not be bothered by me or his pesky toddler because he always had to worry about his mother’s moods as a kid and take care of her).

    Despite the fact that I’m nothing like his mom, and that I’m extremely considerate of him and his feelings/needs… nothing is ever enough.

    He just hates people. But he stays with me because it’s convenient? I don’t know.

    My mind is boggled. How does someone throw away his own family so easily? He just doesn’t care if we’re here or not. Recently an opportunity arose for me to move 900 miles away. I asked him if he wanted to move and he was excited at first. He looked into new jobs. But then it faded a day later. I asked him if he didn’t really want to move and he said no, he just wanted me to move with the baby so that he can just come home every day and play video games without guilt.

    I don’t guilt him ever. He literally plays video games from the moment our daughter goes to bed. He only spends around 45 minutes with her from the time he gets home from work until bed time. I spend all day with her. Yet his measly 45 minutes is too much for him.

    I am planning on taking her and leaving. It’s hard for me because I grew up without a dad and I desperately wanted her to have one.

    But she can probably sense that he doesn’t give two shoots about her.

    I’m so sad. I would have done anything to save this marriage. We don’t even fight, that’s the crazy part. The only way we argue is if I dare to bring up my feelings in any way.

    He acts exactly like my sister does (also a golden child of a narcissistic mother) cannot handle an iota of criticism and will lash out at any suggestion that she’s less than perfect.

    I don’t know if there’s any Hope here

  14. Since marriage counseling is counterproductive with personality disorders (due to their inability to introspect or collaborate), why aren’t marriage counselors competent to identify personality disorders in a spouse? Thanks to the internet, I now know my husband has covert NPD. I was disbelieved by a certified Imago therapist with 25 years of experience and told I was fabricating my husband’s symptoms and I needed to see a psychiatrist and be placed on anti-psychotic medication. I have no history of mental illness. I filed a complaint with her state board. They took it seriously and are investigating her.

  15. Why aren’t marriage counselors trained to recognize covert narcissism? I was on my last attempt after other failed marriage counseling. I was disbelieved and actually accused of being psychotic and fabricating my husband’s defensive deflecting behaviors every time I tried to address feeling lonely in the relationship.

  16. WOW! Mr. Dashnaw, I may have read 500+ articles on this topic over the past 10 years – this is by far the best as far as a match for my experience. Constant critique, deflection, passive-aggressive, dismissive, refusal to discuss, angry response to criticism, indifferent to any type of personal development (stupid me, how do you improve perfection), attempted counseling, etc.. Twenty years of marriage (announced intention to leave 2 weeks prior to 20th anniversary) and 3 fabulous children – did all I could do and think to do – was never good enough – she had to destroy our family because she “wasn’t happy”. Impact on me was devastating in every way – spent last 10 years discovering the dynamics of this condition. Having the “reason” helps some but does not give me back the 30 years – life is a learning experience. Now rebuilding a professional career in late middle age while dedicated to building successful mindset in children; especially 2 daughters. I had invested much effort in son (middle) and he is doing wonderfully; had thought wife was working with the girls – wake up call – when one possess no relationship intelligence, have nothing to pass on! Making progress there as well. Thanks for the forum to “share” a bit. Mr. Dashnaw, if you ever have a need for research material; I’ve got 30 years worth; from first date to date with the judge – from the first to say “I love you”, to the only one to say, “I hate you!” and everything in between. Thanks for your great work!

  17. While reading this article I felt like the author had a secret window into my marriage. It’s so accurate that I am considering forwarding it to friends who are having a hard time understanding why my marriage is so unhappy.

    Thank you for such a thorough explanation of an insidious personality disorder.

  18. Not sure if I’m married to a covert narc. Or not. But the criticism and anger are unbearable. I think I’m going out of my mind trying to rationalize my behavior. I don’t think I’m that horrible a person to warrant this kind of treatment.
    I’m going insane trying to keep up with my emotions.

  19. I just kept gasping and saying, “oh my god.” I have read so many articles on and off for years…. I don’t know if I wasn’t ready to accept it, or frightened… but this all made so much sense to me…

    I must look more into this. My husband is in 3 sessions of therapy and emdr and well… it’s been interesting. He has been 1/10 times I see him okay and others majorly on edge. Tired. Lacking. Not happy. Tired. AND MEAN. This guy can yell at me for 25 minutes sometimes to 6 hours strait… blaming me for everything. I can’t keep up. When I told my friends, nobody believed me. Because he is so happy when wwe are out. Then again, he has ZERO friends from anywhere and no family. As I type this I know that this is why we have been doing so awful.

    Woah. A tragedy in his family set off a series of events and 5 years later he is just horrible to be around. I don’t think we have gone two days in a row with him being kind to me. Probably for months. Maybe even half a year. The truth of writing this is all too staggering. What am I doing? How do I get out? Is there hope? Help.

  20. Very enlightening article. Out of EFT, Gottman Method, Solution focused, and Development model works the best for the Narcissist marriage?

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