What is a Covert Narcissist Husband?
In this post, I'll describe both the seven traits of a covert narcissist and how these traits show up in marriage. We'll talk about why the covert narcissist is so hard to recognize; 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. Still, the Covert Narcissist is just a less happy and more complicated version of the NPD.
You can read here about narcissistic wives.
In a previous post, we discussed the problem of narcissistic personality disorders.
Most people believe that a boastful braggart characterizes all narcissism. Not so.
Another form of narcissism is closet narcissism, which is essentially covert in its expression. These men are often shells or what might be called "empty suits" who look to other people to fill their sense of self. These marriages are often long-term because, despite the wives feeling drained and unhappy, they can't articulate what's wrong.
Closet narcissist husbands are often hyper-sensitive and perhaps less keenly aware of their need to dominate by manipulating others. Nevertheless, the behavior leaves their spouses feeling confused and at fault somehow.
All narcissists can look confident and act like they are better than others. Extroverted narcissists are vocal about their giftedness. In contrast, the covert narcissist husband may feel superior but has learned to hide it. 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 accomplishments, and it shows. This isn't narcissism; it's positive self-esteem.
Sex and the covert narcissist husband
Covert narcissist husbands are emotionally disengaged and passionless toward any perceived demand. This includes 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.
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 husbands 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 his showing no genuine interest. 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.
7 Essential Traits of a Clinical Covert Narcissist Husband
1. He's "nice" and "helpful." This helpfulness demonstrates that he is being a "good spouse." The wives of covert narcissist husbands may feel a withering contempt wrapped up in a superficial long-suffering or "helpful" demeanor. He learned this strategy early in childhood, often from a harsh, abusive, or guilt-inducing parent.
For the average person, doing one's share is an organic acceptance of adult living. In contrast, his "helpfulness" is designed to boost his fragile sense of self. It is also a weapon he uses to defend himself and torture his partner.
He can "help" while ending up causing her more work. He may complete promised tasks 80% of the time, but the last 20% will be unpredictable. And if you mention it when he doesn't do it, he'll resent you and point out how critical you are of him.
He will claim that he can't do anything to please you.
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 he reserves for private interactions. In public, he's a stellar husband and proves it to anyone who's watching.
2. Passive aggression. Clinical Covert Narcissist husbands are often passive-aggressive. Like the overt narcissist, they may act attentive to 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...). He's "accidentally" planned 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." He will stay with the children, "sacrificing" his fun. Without ever saying so, his wife will stop planning weekend trips, especially for pleasure, because she feels his covert misery. It kills her own joy.
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, implying she's a nag, or he'll mope as he attempts to "meet her demanding standards."
In the face of failed expectations, he'll provide some lame or self-flattering explanation of why he didn't follow through. It doesn't even have to be convincing. He doesn't appear to care whether it is or isn't.
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.
3. He's withholding and resentful. Wives are often confused that their covert husbands can simultaneously be so helpful and resentful. So he won't ask you to do anything for him but will resent you for not doing it. Asking for help is loading your gun.
He substitutes superficial "niceness" for genuine honesty and emotional involvement/engagement. He doesn't tell you what he really thinks (until he does...). He's too "kind" for that. He's too "considerate."
On the other hand, you are the "mean" one who talks directly about what you want, sets goals and expresses your disappointment. HE isn't "allowed" to do that.
HE keeps his critical comments about you to himself. He silently takes your "abuse" (i.e., expressed disappointment) but is hurt by it.
He resents that you get to express your wants while he doesn't. What he wants, he won't say. "Why bother? Who cares about me?" It's infuriating.
When provoked, he'll spew a litany of withheld resentments and cruel comments that 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." He has to "give it back to you." You will never realize that expressing valid disappointment is considered abusive by the covert narcissist.
And you, as the wife, end up carrying all the anger he won't directly express inside of you. You will feel 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 learn from his behavior that this isn't the best time.
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.
4. Exaggerated hyper-sensitivity. Covert Narcissist husbands are extremely hyper-sensitivity. They will take offense to criticism, real or imagined. They despise even trivial complaints because these imply that he has failed somehow, even when they clearly have.
When extremely covertly narcissistic, these husbands can be highly emotionally abusive. Wives may feel emotionally abused but are told they are the ones who are being emotionally abusive. It is disorienting to the wife.
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 you have wronged him 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..." This is gaslighting.
Their most apparent trait is the subtle way he acts dismissively. It is done in a way that's hard to put your finger on. Even attempting to identify this attitude will be met with complete denial or outrage that turns into the "silence treatment."
This withdrawal could go on for days or even weeks.
Don't ask the covert narcissist how you've offended him. Instead of expressing his upset and asking for what he wants, he expects you to know what drove him to this state. Can't you see how obvious your transgressions are? When he feels any imagined attack, he attacks back.
5. Don't look for outward signs of confidence. His smugness and air of superiority is a mask he removes only with certain people. Covert Narcissist husbands keenly observe their world and often evaluate it harshly before the world harshly evaluates them. They may or may not tell you who they judge harshly.
Sometimes they hold these feelings for YEARS before blurting them out like it should have been obvious. They ruminate about how they aren't adequately "appreciated."
They have an air of being "absent." Even with the job of parenting, they look down on the task. But when asked directly: "Is something wrong?" they'll deny it.
6. Self-absorption and introspection about the wrongs that the world has done to him. A covert narcissist husband is a poor listener. They manage a hostile internal voice so it is hard to pay attention to anything else.
Many can be clever, judging or sizing up a person or a social situation. When it captures their attention, they can be delightful company. It is clear that they deem it dull, stupid, or beneath them when it doesn't.
7. Empathy Deficit All clinical narcissists lack empathy for others. And share a sense of entitlement. The negative impact his behavior has on his wife is not worth discussing.
Try, and the Covert Narcissist husbands bring the conversation back to their own needs or accomplishments. Or get rageful.
If they are forced to listen, their wives' unhappiness is a personal injury to them, an intolerable judgment that they hostilely reject. The sentiment seems to be: "You can't be unhappy with me. That offends me and hurts my feelings!"
You're witnessing the empathy deficit if you feel it's challenging to talk about your feelings without the conversation turning around to him. And if you are expected to "know" what he's thinking, feeling, or needing, you're experiencing the mind-reading linked to his feelings of deep entitlement.
If he withholds vital information from you, that's legitimate. He "knows" how you'll react to the news and doesn't want to "hear it" from you. His internal ruminations trump whatever real-world thoughts or feelings you may actually have. He doesn't have to ask you; he already knows.
Covert Narcissist fathering
Not only with you but even with his children, he seldom makes genuine eye contact. He engages in narcissistic parenting, claiming the children don't "like him" as much as they like you. His statement justifies his parental withdrawal in preference for hobbies or more solitary pursuits.
Even the dog hates him.
When he is disengaged (not that they were engaged in the first place), the entire family feels his empty presence. Children are acutely aware of this "on-again/off-again" parental switch. Like intermittent reinforcement, kids will try to hold their father's attention hungrily.
Sometimes they'll get his attention if they find a subject that interests him. If not, they find that Dad won't ask them any questions, he'll act annoyed, or walk away absentmindedly in the middle of their sentence.
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. They are also 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 their vulnerability and painful self-doubt. 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," making him both reactive and thin-skinned. His belief in his profound 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 his resentment will increase when the praise doesn't come spontaneously. He'll covet it. Nurse it.
How they act that out is also more covert than their overt counterparts, as well.
Is my husband a narcissist?
As tempting as it is to label your spouse a narcissistic husband, even spouses trained in mental health should avoid labeling their own partners. Address the specific behaviors you want him to change, and keep the labels to yourself. Good couples therapy can often help a confused spouse separate out the marriage and the man who is "beyond hope" from those who need an attitude readjustment.
He's a "Nice Guy." He just doesn't like YOU.
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 only see his mask. They don't feel what you feel: he just doesn't like you but won't come out and say so.
He considers your actions a clear demonstration of his mistake in marrying you.
You've disappointed him 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, engaging with, and loving you.
But he won't leave. Or if he leaves, he won't be the one to initiate divorce.
He will never be the first to divorce because he's much too nice for that. He'll drive you to do it, often after 20-30 years married. These marriages are often long-term, and when they end in divorce, all the casual acquaintances will dispair.
"They were such a nice couple. He is such a nice guy. She left him. Terrible that she'd leave such a nice guy."