Revised on 4/13/21.
What is a Covert Narcissist Husband? In this post, I’ll describe both the 5 traits of a covert narcissist as well as subtypes and how these traits show up in marriage. We’ll talk about why the covert narcissist is so hard to recognize because they appear so “nice” and “humble” and even anxious to please. They care about what other people think of them and they appear so helpful, and yet the Covert Narcissist is just a less happy and more complicated version of the NPD.
In a previous post, I’ve discussed the problem of narcissistic personality disorders.
It’s a mistake to think that all narcissism is characterized by a larger-than-life expansive grandiosity. This blatant and overt narcissism isn’t the only expression of this personality disorder.
Another form of narcissism is closet narcissism, which is essentially covert in its expression. These men are often empty shells or what might be called “empty suits” who look to other people to fill their sense of selves. These marriages are often long-term because despite the wives feeling drained and unhappy, they simply can’t articulate what’s wrong.
Closet narcissist husbands are often prickly pears, hyper-sensitive, and perhaps less keenly aware of their need to dominate by manipulating others. Nevertheless, the behavior leaves their spouses feeling off-balance or inadequate.
All narcissists demonstrate confidence and superior bearing. The extroverted narcissist can often be blatantly in your face about their giftedness. But unlike the open narcissist, the covert narcissist husband is more subtle and indirect in displaying his superiority. He expects people to tell him he’s special, rather than having to toot his own horn.
At Couples Therapy Inc. we work with extraordinarily successful couples. Many of the men we see have concrete reasons to be proud of their achievements and project an air of confidence. But when does feeling good about yourself spill over to covert narcissism?
Passive-Aggression. Clinical Covert Narcissist husbands are heavily passive-aggressive. Like the blatant narcissist, they may feign interest in what their wives want. However, they’ll seldom spontaneously show interest in a sincere or sustained way. They’ll “forget” their wife’s work weekend trip (planned months in advance…) and “accidentally” plan a fishing trip he’s “really been looking forward to.” With a long-suffering tone, he’ll agree to cancel HIS event “as a favor to help her career” and stay with the children, “sacrificing” his fun. Without ever saying so, his wife will simply stop planning weekend trips, especially for pleasure, because she feels his covert misery.
Covert Narcissist husbands conveniently forget spousal requests but make no effort to correct the mistake. Or they’ll complete the job incompetently. When confronted with their behavior, they whine that their wife is being “too picky,” or “OCD” in expecting a competent performance, imply she’s a nag, or mope as he attempts to “meet her demanding standards.” In the face of failed expectations, he’ll provide some half-hearted, self-serving explanation of why he didn’t follow through. His wife feels his resentment, but it remains unspoken. He exhibits no active joy in her company or desire to celebrate her or their love.
Don’t look for Outward Supreme Self-Possession because the Smugness/Superiority is Hidden. Blatant in-your-face narcissist husbands are obvious. You can see them coming. They crave attention and demand approval. Covert Narcissist husbands may be sly and much harder to spot. They keenly observe, evaluate, and often silently render abrupt and sometimes merciless judgment. They ruminate about how they aren’t adequately “appreciated.” They have an air of being “absent” or demonstrate bored disdain. But when asked directly: “Is something wrong?” they’ll deny it.
When provoked, they’ll spew a litany of withheld resentments, and cruel comments which shock their unsuspecting partners. But moments later, the covert narcissist husband will accuse you of being so hostile he sometimes “just can’t take it” and has to “give it back to you.”
Sex and the Covert Narcissist Husband
Covert narcissist husbands are emotionally disengaged and passionless toward any perceived demand, including the “demand” to love. Sex can start out steamy. The wife will talk about being “love bombed” by a man she can’t believe is so perfect for her and eager to please. Later making love will end up feeling like a “favor” he’s doing to you and for you. While initially, the covert narcissist husband will be an ardent lover who is responsive and eager to please, that soon fades once the relationship becomes established. Instead of a partner who is anxious to get away and have private sexual time together, he acts lackluster. You won’t “feel” him in bed. He will become passive, but deeply resentful if you don’t show him your admiration. Wives of covert narcissist husband often end up feeling “done to” before these same wives gradually withdraw sexually.
He’ll then resent you for your lack of sexual interest, despite showing no real interest himself. Your “disinterest” in “pleasing him sexually” is a constant insult he must endure. He wants you to “get help” for your lack of enthusiasm for being sexual with him but takes no responsibility for playing a role.
Covert Narcissist Father
Not only with you, but even with his children, he seldom makes genuine eye contact. He engages in narcissistic parenting, claiming the children just don’t “like him” as much as they like you. His statement justifies his parental withdrawal in preference for hobbies or more solidary pursuits. Even the dog hates him. The fate of the covert narcissist is to keep track of the folly of others to ease the imagined “unfair judgments” leveled at him by those same people. He’ll exhibit contemptuous behavior such as smirking, stifled mocking laughter, or eye-rolling. But that’s reserved for private interactions. In public, he’s a stellar husband and proves it to anyone who’s watching.
The wives of covert narcissist husbands may feel a withering contempt wrapped up in a superficial long-suffering or “helpful” demeanor. He learned this pattern early in childhood, often from a harsh and abusive or guilt-inducing parent. This helpfulness demonstrates that he is, in contrast to you, being a “good spouse.”
He substitutes superficial “niceness” in place of genuine honesty and emotional involvement. He doesn’t tell you what he really thinks (until he does…) unlike you who is “mean” to him. He’s too “considerate.” He takes your “abuse” but is hurt by it. And you, as the wife, end up carrying all the anger around inside you, feeling frustrated and upset by the on-again-off-again style of “engage-ignore.” When he wants you, he’s hurt if you are unavailable. If you want him, you’ll pick up from his behavior that this isn’t the best time. What he wants, he won’t say. Try and be an “angel” and you’ll fall short. He’s not going to trust that “act.” He knows how “mean” you are and how wary he must be of you. And you are left wondering how you can be nicer to him, so he’ll like you more.
His “helping,” however, is to boost his sense of self more than an organic acceptance of adult living. Wives are often confused that their covert husbands can be so helpful and so resentful at the same time. Or can “help” while ending up causing more work for her. He may complete promised tasks 80% of the time, but that last 20% will be unpredictable. And he’ll resent you for mentioning it and point out how critical you are of him. He can’t do anything to please you.
Covert Narcissist husbands have an impeccable hyper-sensitivity. They will take offense to criticism real or imagined. They bristle at any suggestion that they have failed in any way, even when they clearly have. At the extreme end of the narcissistic continuum, these husbands can be extremely emotionally abusive. Wives may feel emotionally abused but are told they are being emotionally abusive. A wife’s reasonable demands for love, attention, engagement, and sex can be relabeled as cloying, never satisfied, demanding, and overbearing. Your covert narcissistic husband claims that he has been wronged by you if you dare complain about him. And he’ll remind you of all he has done, and how little you’ve appreciated it.
The wives are left asking themselves: “Was I ungrateful? I thought I complimented him…a lot actually…”
Their most obvious narcissistic traits are to be witheringly dismissive but in a way that’s hard to put your finger on. Even attempting to identify the expression will be met with complete denial. Or he will skulk off into sullen silence and withdrawal which could go on for days or even weeks. They tend not to comment on how upset they are, preferring to be perfectly self-contained and aloof. Don’t ask the covert narcissist how you’ve offended him. He expects you to not only know but to see how obvious your transgressions are. When he feels any imagined attack, he attacks back.
It’s sometimes easy to confuse the Covert Narcissist husband with a garden variety introvert. Here is the essential difference:
Introverts may be quiet, but they are fully capable of bestowing attention and paying careful attention. They can love freely and ask good questions.
A covert narcissist husband, in contrast, is a reliably poor listener. They pay far more attention to their own relentlessly evaluative inner dialogue. They make a quick real-time assessment of a person or situation. When it captures their attention, they can be delightful company. When it doesn’t, it clear that they deem it dull, stupid, or beneath their attention. Children are acutely aware of this “on-again/off-again” parental switch, and like intermittent reinforcement, hungrily try to hold their father’s attention. When he is disengaged (not that they were particularly engaged in the first place) his empty presence is felt. And instead of sharing this evaluation, they simply won’t ask questions, act annoyed, and walk away absentmindedly in the middle of your sentence.
All clinical narcissists have a lack of empathy for others. And a sense of entitlement. Even when their wives complain about the negative impact of their husband’s behaviors, their Covert Narcissist husbands somehow manage to shift the discussion back to his own needs or accomplishments. Or get rageful.
Their wives’ unhappiness is a personal injury to them, an intolerable judgment that they hostily reject. The sentiment seems to be: “You can’t be unhappy with me. That offends me and hurts my feelings!”
If you feel like it’s challenging to talk about your own feelings without the conversation turning around to him, you’re witnessing the empathy deficit. And if you are expected to simply “know” what he’s thinking, feeling, or needing, you’re experiencing the mind-reading that is linked to his feelings of deep entitlement.
If he withholds vital information from you, it is because he “knows” how you’ll react and doesn’t want to “hear it.” His internal ruminations trump whatever real-world thoughts or feelings you may actually have. He doesn’t have to ask you, he already knows.
Are all displays of narcissism bad? Not according to research. If narcissism is on a continuum, those in the more “normal” range of behavior can bring desirable traits to the relationship, while being capable of keeping in check their own needs and desires in favor of their partners. They have a healthy sense of self. In contrast, clinical covert narcissists have fragile self-esteem. They project confidence but are terrified of the vulnerability and painful self-doubt they feel inside. This is one of the central overt features of the covert narcissist. The overt narcissist actually has often undeserved confidence, but they’ve learned to ignore any evidence to the contrary.
The covert narcissist, in contrast, lives with this painful awareness of being a “faker” and this awareness makes him both reactive and thin-skinned. His belief in his deep worthlessness results in a reactive need for constant reassurance, even admiration, from others. But it must be done cleverly and without being too obvious. If it’s pointed out to him that it’s normal to want to be recognized, he’ll deny it is anything HE personally craves. He’ll try to hide his desperate desires, but when the praise doesn’t come spontaneously his resentment will increase. He’ll covet it. Nurse it.
How they act that out is also more covert than their overt counterparts.
What is often confusing to wives is that on the surface, this man seems like an all-around “nice guy.” He’s well-liked and outgoing in public. Everyone says so. Those ‘out of the know’ think you are the luckiest woman alive to be married to him. But they don’t live with him. They don’t feel what you feel: that he just doesn’t actually like you but won’t say so. He considers your actions a clear demonstration that he’s made a mistake in marrying you, that you’ve let him down terribly by “criticizing” him and not appreciating his specialness. And yet, this is never said in words. But it’s a mistake you’ll feel acutely. You’ll know that he prefers to spend time doing other things rather than living with you.
But he won’t leave.
He will never be the first to divorce because he’s much too nice for that. He’ll drive you to do it, and often after 20-30 or more years married. These marriages are often long-term, and when they end in divorce, all the casual acquaintances will dispair that such a “nice guy” would ever end up divorced.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He is the Blog Editor. He currently works online seeing couples from Massachusetts at Couples Therapy Inc. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.
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