Covert narcissists are tricky. To most people who know them, they seem to be easy going, likable, kind, and generous. But behind closed doors it is a totally different story. I lived in that world for 35 years. And I had no idea how to tell people that something was terribly wrong, because I knew nobody would see or understand based on what he showed them. But I was wrong. When things finally went public, I was amazed at how many people responded with stories of things he had done to them when nobody was looking. And in the end, the vast majority of people believed and supported me through my healing.
So, if you think your husband is a covert narcissist, what can you do? How can you heal when the whole world thinks he is amazing and you live in his “wonderful” shadow? As a general rule, you must first learn to identify the signs of a covert narcissist. If he fits the pattern, then confide in a couple of friends that you trust not to go back to him with what you talk about. Learn everything you can about how to gain strength and emotional health. And then you will be ready to either live with your covert narcissist with good boundaries in place or move on to a healthier life if he is not able to help you heal the marriage to an acceptable state.
That is a lot to put in one short answer. Let’s break it down a bit more.
Table of Contents
Signs of a Covert Narcissist Husband
A covert narcissist looks so different from his overt counterpart that many people will not be able to pick up on it. An overt narcissist will be loud and clearly in charge in his own mind at the very least. He will be intimidating and demanding. You won’t want to mess with him.
Covert narcissists, on the other hand, have an appearance of humility and empathy, at least when they are trying to fool people into giving them the shirt off their back. But that isn’t the true person you are seeing. What you are seeing is the act or mask that allows them to get just close enough to others to determine if they are good for narcissistic supply. This has nothing to do with you loving each other and everything to do with the narcissist geting narcissistic supply in order to keep on doing their thing behind closed doors.
Here are some of the signs of a covert narcissistic husband toward his wife. It isn’t a complete list. I’m sure you can share your experiences well beyond what I have listed here!
A Covert Narcissist Husband Studies You
This tactic actually started the moment you met. Something about you intrigued him. And immediately he wanted you, not as a companion, but as a possession. So he studied you. He wanted to know exactly what you thought, what you loved, what made you tick. But not because he wanted to get to know you. He did it so he could use those things to make you think he wanted all the same. To make you seem like soulmates.
I can clearly see that now. I thought we were talking and getting to know each other. But I later learned I was nothing but a project for him. I was a pursuit that he was challenged to win.
Later, as we got married and began our life together, he used all of that knowledge against me. And then he twisted it to suit his own needs. And eventually, there was very little of the original me left in the relationship. And yet, I had no idea. I didn’t realize that we weren’t both working on the relationship until the middle of a fight 31 years after we met. All those years I just assumed we were working on us. And that day, I realized it was all about him. I told him so in the middle of that argument. And he was dead silent. No denial. No honesty. The silence spoke volumes. I had hit the nail on the head.
A Covert Narcissist Husband is Passive Aggressive
The passive aggressive behavior was one of the first things I noticed, before we were even married. We dated off and on for four years before we married, so there was plenty of time to pick up odd behaviors. But I excused them all away. I either said I didn’t deserve “all of his attention.” Or I would say that I’m not perfect, so I shouldn’t be expecting perfection from him.
Most of his passive agressive behavior was taking credit for things I did and then telling me he was just trying to be helpful. Or he would steal things and tell me that it was the kids, while being so offended that I would even think he would do that. (One time he stole money off my dresser and blamed it on our kids, who were 12 months and 2 years old at the time.)
He would make plans over my plans and then make it look like the conflict was my fault. Then he would “sacrificially” give up his plans so he would look like the one working so hard on making things right.
Additionally, he would say nice things about me to others, while smirking in contempt at me when they ween’t looking. You could actually see his body change as he slipped into the role he was about to take on to show everyone what a kind and loving husband he was to me.
A Covert Narcissist Husband Lacks Intimacy
Because narcissists cannot relate to others in a healthy way, relating to his wife intimately is an impossible task. But he has to make it look like he relates well. So again, he studies his wife. And he watches other people and listens to how they talk. And then he mimics everything he observes.
Toward the end of our marriage, we went to a homeschool convention. Actually, the one in Richmond, VA, which at the time was the largest convention in the nation. It had the best speakers on every subject in school and life. So I suggested we take a marriage seminar, in the hopes that we could learn something that would help repair the rough place we were in. He agreed.
The speaker was talking about how to engage with your wife after a long day at work and a long day for her with the kids. And he said that husbands need to give their wives their undivided attention for 20 minutes after getting home. Then, in a tongue-in-cheek demonstration, he sat in one of the chairs in the auditorium, next to one of the women there (not his wife). And then he stared intently into her eyes. No talking. Just staring in an awkward, yet kinda funny way. Everybody laughed at the humorous way he made his point.
Unfortunately, my husband did not understand the humor and thought he actually meant to do that. So, the week after the conference, he would come home and sit us on the sofa in the living room. Then he would just sit there, lean forward, and stare at me. By the second day, I begged him to stop. And he actually got mad at me for criticizing him because I had “made him go to this embarrassing seminar” and then not like when he was following the directions.
No matter what I did, I couldn’t make him understand that the speaker was joking about the staring being considered undivided attention. And this is the perfect example for the covert narcissist not being able to show genuine intimacy.
As far as sex went, it was a process. It was like a checklist of ticking off all the boxes. And then it was done. No personality. Just a goal without relationship.
A Covert Narcissist Husband Expects You to Read His Mind
The covert narcissist husband expects you to take care of all of his needs and desires all of the time. If you are his wife, you should know him well enough to know what he wants even before he does.
Honestly, I did this for many years in the form of walking on eggshells and trying to get ahead of whatever it was he wanted. And for a lot of those years, I was happy to do that because I wanted to be a good wife. But eventually, that was all I was–a not-really-even-glorified servant. Eventually, I was exhausted from the one-sided relationship and told him I was done making him the center of my world, which I shouldn’t have done anyway.
And that made him very angry because I took away something that he had had for 25 years. And it was at that point that things really fell apart in the marriage. He was so angry that I would no longer take care of him without even a word on his part. I did still cook, clean, and treat him nicely. I just wasn’t allowing myself to be his doormat anymore.
He started “reporting” me to pastors and eventually counselors. He was going to make me his “obedient wife” and if I wouldn’t do it on my own, he would make other people force me. This did not work out well for him. Once we started professional counseling, they realized early on what was happening. And as soon as they started leaning in to his behaviors, he spiraled out of control.
A Covert Narcissist Husband Will Punish You for Making Him Look Less Than Perfect
Covert narcissistic husbands expect you to make them look good in public. In fact, the whole reason they married you was so you could bolster their reputation. And most of the time, you likely do. But for those times that the mask slips a little bit and you don’t help him to cover it up before anyone sees the narcissist, he will be angry. He won’t show it while you are still in public. But once you get home, there will be hell to pay. He will “make sure” you don’t do that again. It is your ultimate responsibility to make sure he looks good all the time.
I got a lot of silent treatment when these types of things happened. Just for the record, I was always very careful to paint my husband in a positive light, just like most wives do. I would do that for anyone that is close to me. But when he would be angry at me for making him look less than perfect, it wasn’t because I intentionally tarnished his reputation. Often, it wouldn’t have been anything offensive at all. He just didn’t like what I said.
I know of people whose narcissistic husband actually refused to take them out in public after they felt that their reputation had been ruined by their wives. Notice I said “felt.” It has nothing to do with what happened in reality. Their wife may have said something that wasn’t bad at all. And the person who the wife spoke to may not have taken it in a bad way either. But if he feels that his reputation is hurt, he doesn’t let the actual facts get in the way.
A Covert Narcissist Husband Always Positions Himself as a Victim
I believe that narcissists know exactly what they are doing when they abuse others, including their wife. They have to know what they are doing in order to know what to hide from others when they are trying to make others think they are so different than they really are. So when the covert narcissist husband positions himself as a victim, he knows very well, at least initially, that he is not the victim. But he has to make sure that is what everyone thinks.
Let me give you an example. Say the narcissistic husband sabotages his wife in order to come out ahead in a competition or some other activity. Even though he was the sabateur, he will still go out of his way to make it look like he is the victim and his wife is the sabateur.
For those that are not very close to the couple, it will be hard to see what is really going on. People will likely believe the narcissist because the wife isn’t trying to defend or protect herself from the unseen attack of her husband. And because the attack is usually done behind her back, she won’t understand when others start avoiding her or treating her unkindly, all because they believed the lies of the narcissist.
Keeping everybody out of the loop so they can fool them all is one of the greatest tricks narccissists keep in their bags. And because everything happens in isolation, the narcissist can continue to abuse in this way for many years.
A Covert Narcissist Husband Will Not Hear a Word You Say
Actually, a narcissist does absolutely hear your words. Especially when they get an opportunity to use them against you later. They can remember every last word you said about something when it benefits them. But they won’t hear what you are actually saying. Instead, they will hear what they want to hear. And they will respond (when they bother to) with whatever it is they want rather than responding in relationship to you, with the give-and-take and communication of a normal relationship.
Often, a covert narcissist is so in their own world that they don’t even realize what they are doing. My ex would ask me or the kids a question and then before we finished even a sentence of the answer, he was walking out of the room, oblivious that we were talking to him. Or, he just wouldn’t listen. I can’t tell you how many times I stopped a statement or an answer mid-sentence and he didn’t even realize because he was so into his own world. Even though he had asked the question.
It just got to the point in our family that if he was in the room or anywhere near us (the car was especially awkward) we wouldn’t say a word. The silence would be deafening. But he actually liked it. He had no problem with the total silence. In fact, there were a couple of times that he said he was loving how quiet things were. I guess it gave him more ability to be in his own world.
By the end of the relationship, the kids and I would stay in my bedroom until he was either in bed in his own room or at work. Then we could come out into the living area. Obviously, this was for more than a lack of paying attention and listening to us. But it was just easier to not have to deal with him not wanting to deal with us.
A Covert Narcissist Husband Expects Constant Adoration
This point goes hand-in-hand with the one above about the covert narcissist husband needing his wife to make him look perfect in public all the time. Actually, he also needs his wife to make him look perfect in front of the kids. But in addition to that, he needs his wife (and everyone else) to absolutely adore everything he says and does.
One time in a class at church, he was talking about his need to receive credit and appreciation for everything he does. I was floored that he would say that in public. I didn’t understand it. But then I realized it was because in his narcissistic mind, he NEEDED that kind of praise. At one point, he told me he needed praise as much as he needed oxygen. I didn’t understand why he would need it to that degree.
I now understand that it is because it keeps the mask on and the shame hidden. It allows him to think everything is okay for those times that people are seeing him in a positive light. What they don’t realize is that their praise makes him think that his narcissistic behavior is okay as long as he gets a positive response to the manipulation and mind games that they aren’t seeing behind the scenes.
A Covert Narcissist Husband Does all of His Abuse When Nobody is Around
Speaking of behind the scenes, a covert narcissist husband is very careful to make sure that people do not see what he is doing to you or whoever else he is using as narcissistic supply. That is one reason that I fully believe narcissists know what they are doing. If they didn’t realize what they were doing, they wouldn’t be working so hard to hide their tactics behind closed doors while playing the nice guy or victim for the whole world to see.
Another reason they play their narcissistic games when nobody else is around is because they know that if they keep everyone isolated or compartmentalized they will be able to continue their behavior to their narcissistic victims for a very long time, especially if they are crafty enough that their victims don’t realize what is going on. Which often they don’t for many years. I knew things weren’t exactly right. But I didn’t realize what was really going on for over 25 years.
A Covert Narcissist Husband Will Convince the World About How Much He Loves You
Narcissists will show you utter contempt in your home, especially at the end of your relationship or in the devaluing phase. But in public, they will never stop singing your praises. It is actually one of the times that a covert narcissist will treat you the way they want to be treated. Because that’s the way they want the world to see them. If they can show the world they are an amazing husband, then they have done their job well. It doesn’t matter that things are totally different behind closed doors.
One thing that makes this point confusing to wives of narcissists is that there are times that their husband will also show great love in the home. This causes women to think that things aren’t so bad or that they have been too critical of their husband. It lulls them back into thinking things are fine. And then the narcissistic abuse will begin again. The constant roller coaster keeps her confused.
Many women will naturally look internally for what the issues are and not start blaming their husband for their own bad behavior. They will think that they caused something to make him treat them that way. So they will try to be a better wife. And when their husband starts messing with them again, they will try even harder. Until 30 years down the road they realize that trying harder isn’t helping. It’s only causing their husband to treat them even more poorly.
The Covert Narcissist Husband Needs You to Think Everything is Wonderful
As long as he can plant in your head that everything is fine and he is not the problem, the covert narcissist husband can continue to use you for narcissistic supply indefinitely. That is the goal. It is much easier to keep narcissistic supply than to go out and find a new supply, especially when it is their wife. So, just like the point above, the narcissist will periodically lavish the best of life on you in order to reel you back in.
As he does this (also called love-bombing), you will start to feel silly that you thought such bad things about your relationship with him. And you will once again be so grateful that you are married to him. And then the chaos begins again. Your whole marriage will exist in this cycle, or merry-go-round as my counselor called it.
You have to find balance and get off the merry-go-round. I remember my counselor telling me that. And for a few months, I kept asking her how to get off if he was the one putting me on it. And then one day I realized, I don’t have to allow him to put me on it!
Do you want to know how I finally realized this? My counselor told me I needed to read The Emotionally Destructive Marriage by Leslie Vernick. In it, she talks about C.O.R.E. principles that help you to maintain healthy boundaries and a good life regarding your relationships. Here is what each of the letters of CORE mean:
C – I will be committed to truth, both internally in my own heart and mind and externally. I refuse to pretend.
O – I will be open to the Holy Spirit and wise others, teaching me, maturing me, and guiding me into his way of living my life.
R – I will be responsible for my own responses to destructive behavior and commit to being respectful without dishonoring myself.
E – I will be empathic and compassionate toward others without enabling people to continue to abuse and disrespect me.
In a response to a follower, she goes on to say, “When you know and believe that you are a loved, valuable, worthwhile human being and live from that core place, toxic people lose their power to manipulate you. They can’t control and intimidate you as they once did when you felt worthless, dependent and needy.”
Once I learned these 4 really important steps and started practicing them, my whole world changed. Tell me how it worked for you too!!!!
The Covert Narcissist Husband Needs You to be the “Bad Guy”
Not only will your covert narcissist husband need to look amazing in front of everyone, but he will need to do it at your expense. He will look even better to everyone if you look worse. This gets kind of tricky for the covert narcissist, though.
He needs to find a way to make you look bad without saying bad words about you. So, he will do things like talk about how concerned he is about you. Or he will ask someone to pray for you because you are really struggling. So people start seeing your “flaws” without seeing him as smearing your name. In fact, they will see him as even more loving because he is staying with you and trying to help you through this very difficult fictional struggle you are going through. It is pure evil. And nearly impossible for you to get on top of. That is because he isn’t telling you what he is telling all of these other people. And they aren’t coming back to you with the information. My ex did this to me for years. And most of those people still to this day believe there is “something really wrong with me” while he is a saint for having done all he could before divorcing me and marrying his next person just 6 days after our divorce is final.
The evidence is there for those people to see. You can’t force people to see what is really going on. And honestly, it really isn’t worth your energy to do that. The people that fall for the narcissist’s schemes are not emotionally healthy themselves to see and do the right thing.
Things Covert Narcissists Say
Believe it or not, narcissists seem to have the same few phrases that they say repeatedly. It doesn’t even matter that they have never met each other or even live on the same continent. The narcissistic paybook is the same regardless of who they are or where they live. That is a scary thought. Some people actually believe that because of t his narcissists are demon possessed. I’ll let you come to your own conclusion on that.
So, what things do covert narcissists say? Here is a good, although not complete, list of some of those things.
- “I was just joking.” This is usually about something that isn’t even remotely joke material. Like in my case when he told me he had to buy a new toilet to replace ours because it randomly broke by itself.
- “I didn’t say that.” And then he will subtly change a few words of what he said that significantly changes the whole meaning of the original statement.
- “You are blowing things out of proportion.” He will usually say this after turning your world upside down while preserving his own world.
- “There’s something really wrong with you.” He said this to me every day for years. Until toward the end, when I found healing in counseling. When I told him he could never say that again, he didn’t. But he did come up with other similar things to say.
- “If you didn’t _____, then I wouldn’t have ______.” Everything always has to be your fault.
- “I didn’t lie. I misremembered.” This was my ex’s go-to phrase when we started only communicating through texts and writing. So when I could actually tie down all of the lies, this was his new way out of them. At one point, he said he was going to look into why he did that. That was just before he left his 5th or 6th counselor and said he no longer “needed counseling because he was fine.” Oh, and that’s another thing narcissists say all the time!
- “There’s nothing wrong with me.” This is what they say every time you try to bring up an issue. They will turn everything on you so they don’t have to work out anything themselves.
- “I don’t need counseling.” This is a continuation of the previous phrase. When you get to the point you realize there is nothing you can say to make them realize and make things better, you ask them about counseling in the hopes that an outside party can get through to them. But that is the last thing they want.
- “The counselors are wrong.” This is what they say when by chance you actually get them to go to counseling. He would sit there and argue and demean them the minute he realized he couldn’t charm them like he could other people. He burned through 7+ counselors by the time we were done.
- “I don’t need to see the counselor anymore. I’m fine now.” This is what my ex said every time he left a counselor. All of them were left befuddled by this statement because they said they had no idea what made him think that. And then the court or his church leadership would tell him in order to heal himself and the marriage he needed to return to counseling. So he would move on to the next one. Until the divorce was final and he found a church that was as narcissistic as he was and justified his position.
There are so many more phrases you can attribute to your narcissists that they all say. I could literally write a whole book about it! At the end of the day, none of them are even worthy of a response from you because there is no response that will ever cause them to heal and make things better.
How to Deal With a Covert Narcissist Husband
Dealing with a covert narcsissist husband is a huge endeavor. You need to realize first of all that your relationship with your husband will never be a normal one in the way that you relate to each other. If he does not rank high on the narcissism scale, you may be able to work some things out with intensive counseling. But the higher he ranks in narcissism, the less chance you will be able to have even a slightly emotionally healthy relationship. Let’s take a look at both what not to do and what you should do regarding how to deal with a covert narcissist husband.
What Not to do When Dealing With a Covert Narcissist Husband
- Don’t try to reason with him! You will never get anywhere and will constantly feel like you are trying to get through a brick wall.
- Don’t feed into their need for constant admiration. I must admit, I still struggle with this one a bit. Covert narcissists use every tiny compliment to justify their narcissistic abuse. So I got to the point that I wouldn’t praise him even for a job well done. But when other people did, he still took that as justification to keep on treating people badly behind the scenes because what he did in public was admirable. And because I didn’t participate in the praise fest, he just had outright contempt for me.
- Don’t respond to his crazy-making. The more you respond, the more satisfaction he gets out of it. If he realizes he can’t get to you, it takes the fun out of the game for him.
- Don’t take it personally! He thinks of everyone and treats them basically the same: they are either a source of supply or worthless in his sight. And believe it or not, being worthless in his sight is the best case scenario for you in the long term!
What You Should Do When Dealing With a Covert Narcissist Husband
- Set healthy boundaries. This is especially hard to do with a narcissist because they will push back hard until you give in. But you will have to stand your ground. If you feel that it puts you in an unhealthy position, you need to get yourself to safety! Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Or you can visit online at thehotline.org.
- Use the grey rock technique. If you are not familiar with that, what it means is that you become as boring as a grey rock. When he says or does things to stir you up, don’t get stirred up! Force yourself to be as non-reactive as possible. I say force because I understand how crazy they can make you feel when they just keep at you. If your narcissist becomes angry with the grey rock method, do not keep going, though! Just get away from him long enough for things to settle down. Unless you feel you are in danger. Then refer to the contact info in the previous point above!
- Learn the predictability of the narcissist so you can head off the attacks before they begin. My counselor taught me how ridiculously predictable my narcissistic husband was. I could see something coming just by the way he walked into a room or the first thing he said. You will catch on to this quickly too once you stop allowing him to stir you up and start paying attention to his patterns.
- Position yourself to be healthy around him. Don’t allow yourself to be alone with him, even if you don’t feel physically threatened. The covert narcissist does his “best work” when there is nobody around to witness what is going on.
- Get the help you need sooner than later. Everybody needs help with a narcissist. Click here for the best resources I have found. These were the exact resources that were instrumental in getting me to a healthy and safe place.
Divorcing a Covert Narcissist Husband
Most women who are married to covert narcissists eventually realize there is literally nothing they can do to get their marriage to a safe and healthy place. While a few do end up staying, usually because their narcissist is not full blown, the vast majority of women end up divorcing their covert narcissist husband.
Divorce in itself is a traumatic and difficult phase in life. But getting yourself through it when you are living in an abusive marriage will make you happier and healthier in the long run.
Getting a counselor and lawyer who are experienced in narcissistic issues is a must. And finding a good support group will be life-changing for you.
For Christians, Divorce Care is an amazing support group that is available nationwide. If you click through, you will find a page that shows you what groups are available in your area. Every quarter, hundreds of churches open groups nationwide. And now there are several popping up all over the world. This was one of the biggest steps for me because it showed me that I was not alone in my suffering. And it is geared towards people who are about to separate, separated, divorcing, or divorced (even a long time ago). The emphasis is on how to be healthy throughout the process. And they walk you through the processes of reconciliation, long term separation, divorce, and post divorce. Check it out! You will be so glad you did.
There is so much more to divorcing your covert narcissist than what I have written in this small section. I will be writing that post next and linking it here.
Realizing your husband is a covert narcissist and learning how to deal with it and become healthy may be part of the biggest battle of your life. But more and more women are finding great healing once they take the steps discussed above. Healing yourself in a way that you are looking out for your own needs is a necessary step.
How did you realize your husband was a covert narcissist? How did you decide to get yourself to safety? How are you doing now? Where are you in the process? Feel free to share your story below or if you don’t feel safe commenting in a public forum, feel free to contact me here.
Blessings and hugs,
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