Revised on 1/2/21.
What is a Covert Narcissist Husband? In this post, I’ll describe both the 5 traits of a severe covert narcissist as well as subtypes and what is considered “healthy” narcissism based upon research. 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 sophisticated version of the NPD.
In a previous post, I’ve discussed the problem of narcissistic personality disorders.
It’s a mistake to think that narcissism is always 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 my wife calls “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 more subtly. 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 establishing his superiority.
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 it in a sincere or genuine 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 “as a favor to help her career” staying with the children and “sacrificing” his fun. Covert Narcissist husbands conveniently forget spousal requests. 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 nagging, 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.
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.
When provoked, they’ll spew a litany of withheld resentments, and cruel comments which shock their unsuspecting partners. But moments later, he’ll accuse you of being so hostile he sometimes “just can’t take it” and has to “give it back to you.”
Covert Narcissist husbands are emotionally disengaged and passionless toward any perceived demand, including the “demand” to love. Sex can start out steamy and end up feeling like a “favor” he’s doing to you and for you. But, you won’t “feel” him in bed and will end up feeling “done to” before many 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 another insult he must endure.
Not only with you, but even with other family members, he seldom makes genuine eye contact. He also engages in narcissistic parenting, claiming the children just don’t “like him” as much as they like you. 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. They 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 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 what he wants but won’t say it. 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 ultimately 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.
Impeccable Hyper-Sensitivity. 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 appreciate it.
Their most obvious narcissistic traits are to be witheringly dismissive but in a way that’s hard to put your finger on and if pointed out, will be denied. Or they skulk off into sullen silence and withdrawal. 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 attacked, he attacks back.
Utter and Complete Self-Absorption. 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, deem it dull, stupid, or beneath their attention, and then they will disengage (not that they were particularly engaged in the first place). And instead of sharing this evaluation, they simply won’t ask questions, act annoyed, and walk away absentmindedly in the middle of your sentence.
Vitamin E Deficit
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 behaviors, their Covert Narcissist husbands somehow manages to shift the discussion back to their own needs or accomplishments. Or get rageful. Their wives’ unhappiness is a personal injury to them, an intolerable judgment that they hostility 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 entitlement.
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. 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.
If you believe you are married to or dealing with a narcissist let’s define our terms.
A “normal” Covert Narcissist husband is only slightly more narcissistic than the average person. They are much farther down on the lower end of the narcissism spectrum than the Clinical Covert Narcissist husband. A healthy person with narcissistic traits not only do good things worthy of praise–they are responsible family members, hard workers, and give to their communities–but they also feel good about themselves. They don’t need others to bolster their fragile egos to feel capable and worthy. Of course, praise feels good when they get it, but they don’t angrily demand it nor are they resentful when they don’t get it. More importantly, they set goals and invite you to have a say in those goals. One of those goals is to be happily married and instead of simply being the “empty suit” in the corner trying to disappear, he’ll be actively engaged. You’ll feel loved not because he says it, but because he demonstrates that love.
A calm sense of poise and confidence is naturally an attractive trait to others. How genuine this self-confidence is, however, and how resilient and unshakable will determine the adaptive man from the “poser.”
A recent study of 340 Italian adolescents found that, although young narcissists were self-centered, they did better on their exams than their IQ levels might have predicted. They were, however, more often the “overt” type.
Here’s the thing. Narcissists are not more intelligent.
But they believe that they are, and that belief bestows an assertive self-confidence. Covert Narcissist Husbands probably became husbands in the first place because of their active efforts to woo you. Their ambivalence was less pressing. It was only later, as they grew attached to you, did their feelings of being “put upon” having to “relate” to you become more apparent. The husband that created the most wonderful dates now keeps “forgetting” about going out at all. He’s “too tired” for sex, and finds the entire role of intimacy invasive.
Dr. Kostas Papageorgiou was the lead researcher who reminds us again of the “Dark Triad” that we discussed in an earlier post. He wrote:
“Narcissism is considered as a socially malevolent trait and it is part of the Dark Triad of personality traits — narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. Previous studies indicate that narcissism is a growing trend in our society but this does not necessarily mean that an individual who displays high narcissistic qualities has a personality disorder. In our research, we focused on subclinical or “normal” narcissism. Subclinical Narcissism includes some of the same features of the clinical syndrome — grandiosity, entitlement, dominance, and superiority. If you are a narcissist you believe strongly that you are better than anyone else and that you deserve a reward.” Dr. Kostas Papageorgiou
Dr. Papageorgiou believes that mental toughness is the key:
“What we are talking about here is an important trait…mental toughness. Resiliency. An abiding sense of self-confidence. If a person is mentally tough, they are likely to embrace challenges and see these as an opportunity for personal growth.
People who score high on subclinical narcissism may be at an advantage because their heightened sense of self-worth may mean they are more motivated, assertive, and successful in certain contexts. Previous research in our lab has shown that subclinical narcissism may increase mental toughness. If an individual scores high on mental toughness this means they can perform at their very best in pressured and diverse situations.” Dr. Kostas Papageorgiou
Most wives who collide with their husband’s self-focused behavior want to know if breaking up is the healthiest choice.
Dr. Papageorgiou suggests that we should try to think about narcissism in a more complex way.
On the low end of the spectrum, many “normal” Narcissist Husbands can be highly attractive. They have an unshakable self-confidence and mental toughness. They convey a self-possession, a poise, and self-confidence that bestows a quality of resiliency and inner calm. If you have a relationship with a narcissist, it may surprise you to find out it has any mental health benefits at all!
Dr. Papageorgiou believes that wholesale classifications such as the “Dark Triad” are reflections of limited conventional notions of morality.
He believes that we have an unfortunate tendency to classify emotions or personality traits as being either “bad” or “good.” However, these traits exist for a reason. They are the products of ongoing evolution, and as such, are neither truly “bad” nor “good.” Low levels of narcissism can be socially useful.
At the end of the day, narcissistic traits are either adaptive or maladaptive…they either work for you or they work against you.
And if a Covert Narcissist Husband is in the normal range, he can be an attractive mate. He is not devoid of empathy, and he has a greater ability to bestow attention on others than a spouse with a full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
These men possess a mental toughness and inner strength that often exceeds the actual parameters of their abilities. They are bold. We know that confidence and resilience are highly adaptive and valuable traits.
The idea that a smidgeon of narcissism is good for you is coming up regularly in recent research but will remain a controversial idea for some time to come. And research has clearly demarcated the confusing findings when the overt and covert narcissist is confused. While the overt narcissist has mental toughness, the covert narcissist is more prone to mental health issues like depression and nagging self-doubt. When meta-studies separate out both types, the findings become more transparent.
The “sub-clinical” or “normally” narcissistic husband is one who displays an occasional obtuse narcissistic behavior. These men may respond quite well to couples therapy. Many extremely narcissistic husbands, in contrast, do not respond well to marriage counseling. Careful phone screening and assessment may help our clinicians to understand the marital dynamics of each case, but it’s impossible to know over a brief call if a true personality disorder exists. It’s a matter of degree and true motivation to change.
For those with more clinically dysfunctional spouses, Hopeful Spouse counseling with a trained science-based couples therapist can help you unpack negative encounters with his covert narcissism. It can also help you to keep your sanity and establish healthy boundaries…whether you stay married to your Covert Narcissist Husband or not.
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.