10 signs your partner is probably a covert narcissist, according to psychology

Putting yourself as a priority is healthy and good, but when it turns into narcissism and disregard for others it becomes a problem.

This is especially true in a relationship where your partner prioritizes themselves above all, even at your expense, but does so subtly and without making it obvious.

Covert narcissists are less overt than their extroverted counterparts, making them harder to identify.

If you’re not vigilant, they can ensnare you, making you question your worth and perceptions and turning the relationship into a living hell.

Here are the signs showing your partner is a covert narcissist.

1) Low-key boasting and humblebragging

Covert narcissists excel at humblebragging. They cloak a boast within a complaint or a seemingly modest statement.

Example: “Managing a team can be so draining; I’m just a simple guy.”

Translation: He’s just a regular guy except for the significant responsibility of managing a team. He’s kind of a big deal, but it’s hard on him and he deserves special treatment due to the strain.

As psychologist Susan Albers, Psy.D. writes:

“Covert narcissists, though, are people who fly under the radar. Even if you’ve been in a relationship with someone for years, their covert narcissism may be so subtle that you’re not even aware of it for a very long time.”

2) They toss out eggshells for you to walk on

Covert narcissists exploit their sensitivity for their benefit and will often have a number of rules and limits for you to follow.

They might make their partner feel they need to tread carefully around them, using their sensitivity as leverage.

This is especially common about little preferences, sensitivities and issues that they have which they passively-aggressively bring up quite a lot.

Example: “I can’t believe you forgot I dislike that perfume. I mean, it’s not a big deal. I know you like it, but…”

As counselor Jodi Clarke, MA, LPC explains:

“The introverted, covert narcissist may have a more gentle approach to explain why something is your fault and they are not to blame.

They might even pretend to be a victim of your behavior or engage in emotional abuse to put themselves in a position to receive reassurance and praise from you.”

3) They use guilt and emphasize their struggles to get attention

The covert narcissist wields guilt subtly. Phrases like “It’s okay,” when something clearly isn’t, or “don’t worry about me,” when they want attention, are their two of their favorites.

They use these passive-aggressive tactics to induce guilt, making you feel indebted to them.

In a relationship this sadly often manifests as the covert narcissist using their own mental health struggles and insecurities as proof that they deserve special treatment from you.

They can’t take any more compromising or talking over difficult issues, can’t you see they’re depressed?

As Albers says:

“The overt narcissist would be hidden about their anxiety and depression because they don’t want that to be seen by others, but the covert narcissist may be more willing to share that information with people because it gives them a chance to get sympathy from others.”

4) They’re subtly dismissive of your experiences and thoughts

Unlike overt narcissists, covert ones are dismissive and subtly rule out the validity of what you think and feel.

Outwardly they state respect and interest in all that you feel and think, but under the surface you can see how non-committal and indifferent they really are.

This can often manifest as being “easygoing,” when really it is them being detached from your concerns, feeling they’re above them, including concerns about the relationship.

They clearly suffer from a hidden but very real lack of empathy.

5) They silently judge and categorize you without being up-front about it

Covert narcissists tend to exhibit low-key arrogance. They observe events with quiet superiority but mask it with a sweet smile or casual shrug.

They believe they deserve special treatment and more respect than you, but pretend to be humble and respect you.

They may even gaslight you about any concerns you bring up, saying they have no idea what you mean about them judging you or not supporting you.

They know you know, but they make you the problem for bringing it up.

“They tend to observe their surroundings with quiet scrutiny and judgment and listen apathetically rather than offering anything substantial to the conversation,” explains psychotherapist Fiona Yassin.

“The byproduct of this type of narcissism tends to manifest as being lukewarm in sentiment. The covert narcissist often appears calm and detached and frequently displays unsettling non-verbal cues.”

6) They feel like they’re superior but they downplay it

Instead of overt megalomania like an overt narcissist, covert narcissists have introverted megalomania.

They see themselves as unique or superior but don’t flaunt it openly.

They humblebrag, as I noted earlier, but they will also engage in many other behaviors that show how they consider themselves to be in a special category without saying it.

This includes through their body language and small signals they send out on a frequent basis.

As Yassin writes:

“Instead of the extroverted characteristics such as attention-seeking and blatant manipulation, covert narcissism manifests as:

Impolite yawns, eye rolls, sighs, strong sensitivity to criticism, withdrawing and dismissing other people, withdrawn self-centeredness and extreme sensitivity.”

7) They’re paranoid about others wanting to harm or sabotage them

Paranoid 10 signs your partner is probably a covert narcissist, according to psychology

Paranoia is a classic symptom of some forms of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and those with lesser forms of narcissism.

It’s the belief and fear that others want to harm them, sabotage their lives or in some way wish the worst for them and are judging them.

Covert narcissists harbor similar paranoid fantasies as overt narcissists, but keep them hidden.

They often also believe in elaborate conspiracies where they’re the only ones enlightened enough to understand or “get it.”

Even though they mostly keep these hidden, it’s part of what informs their more detached and dismissive attitude when you try to interact with them at a deeper level.

8) They expect special consideration and VIP treatment from you

They often seek special treatment, justifying it with their “sensitivity” or unique status.

This can get into their mental health struggles, past trauma they suffered or the amount of stress they’re having at work.

Sometimes it is a fairly valid reason why they’re struggling! But the difference is that the covert narcissist believes that you owe them this. So it’s not really a request for special treatment, it’s a demand.

They may ask for favors sweetly but believe they deserve differential treatment.

If you push back in any way on a covert narcissist, they tend to withdraw and sulk.

“Covert narcissists tend to get combative and offended at the smallest slight or perceived criticism,” notes Yassin.

“When receiving constructive criticism, closet narcissists tend to go into fight or flight mode – they will defend themselves with an increased smugness or dismissal, or they may withdraw entirely from the conversation with a quiet sullenness.”

9) They’re apathetic and complacent about anything that doesn’t impact them

Covert narcissists appear indifferent to most things unless it directly involves them.

They might pass it off as being “chill,” but they’re apathetic unless it aligns with their interests.

This relates back to the earlier point about keeping out of interactions and discussions and often approaching them with a kind of quiet superiority.

This manifests in many ways, including with back-handed compliments and subtle digs.

“With covert narcissists, back-handed statements and insults are more common even though they’re subtle,” explains Albers.

10) They avoid responsibility and delay tasks if they require commitment

Covert narcissists often use tactics like delaying and procrastination to get their way.

They tend to be passive, often avoiding responsibilities by disappearing or giving excuses, such as “it’s just not the right time.”

When they do show up, it’s on their own schedule and it’s always when it’s best for them.

Your schedule and your priorities always come second in the relationship.

As Clarke notes:

“Rather than explicitly telling you that you’re not important, they might stand you up on a date, wait until the last minute to respond to texts or emails, always show up late, or never make confirmed plans at all.”

Dealing with a covert narcissistic partner

The best approach is to avoid playing into their manipulative tactics. When faced with their subtle ploys, opt-out or refuse to engage.

The less you participate, the more likely they’ll disengage or stop trying to emotionally manipulate you.

It’s also important to cultivate a wide support network and consider couples counseling.

Covert narcissism may be less “in-your-face” than overt narcissism, but that doesn’t make it any less real, nor does it make it any less harmful to a relationship.

Picture of Paul Brian

Paul Brian

Paul R. Brian is a freelance journalist and writer who has reported from around the world, focusing on religion, culture and geopolitics. Follow him on www.twitter.com/paulrbrian and visit his website at www.paulrbrian.com

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