8 subtle signs your partner is a covert narcissist, according to psychology

When an ex-boyfriend split up with me, he said he thought he was a covert narcissist. He said it sadly, his eyes cast down and head hanging low.

What did I do? I comforted him, of course! I hugged him and told him everything was going to be OK. I said he’s not a bad person and he should be kinder to himself.

When I told my therapist what happened months later, she agreed with his statement – to my surprise. She said he was a covert narcissist – and even the way he broke up with me proved it!

I always thought I’d spot a narcissist in my life a mile away. I’d never let someone be so cruel and manipulative to me, I used to think.

But covert narcissists aren’t like “normal” narcissists. Their toxic behavior is so much harder to spot, and anyone can fall victim to it.

Think your partner might be a covert narcissist? Watch out for these 8 subtle signs, backed by psychology.

1) They always want more

Covert narcissists are no different from “overt” narcissists in that they’re materialistic. It’s why nothing is ever “good enough” for them.

They always strive for more in their life – and not in an “I have goals and am working on them” kind of way. In a way that means they’re never, ever satisfied.

Everything is about their image and how things look.

They want the latest trainers so they look fashionable. They want the latest iPhone so people think they have money. They want a good job so people respect them when they tell them about it.

Even when it comes to you, they always want more. They want you to be fitter, healthier, earn more money, or just be “better”.

They’ll never say anything too nasty to you. Like they’d never say you’re overweight and you couldn’t do better than them (like a narcissist would).

But they might say things like, “If you actually tried in the gym, your body would be even better”. Or, “You could get a better job if you actually wanted to”.

2) They stonewall to avoid conflict

Stonewalling means ignoring your partner. To you, this feels like they’re giving you the silent treatment. To them, their brain feels overwhelmed or threatened, making them withdraw and shut down completely.

This kind of behavior usually only resurfaces in times of conflict. Like if you confront them on how they hurt you. Instead of talking it through, they say nothing.

They walk away, fall asleep, or just sit there in silence – hoping if they stay quiet for long enough, you’ll drop the matter and it’ll all go away.

Having sympathy for this behavior is normal. After all, it’s sad to know your partner feels threatened or on overdrive when you call them out on something!

But it’s actually really sad for you, too. Stonewalling can be incredibly destructive to your self-esteem – with experts even classing it as a form of emotional abuse.

3) They lie to make themselves sound better

You should never lie to your partner – ever. When you truly love someone, you don’t want to hurt them. You respect them and you want them to know all of you.

Finding out your partner has lied to you hurts deeply. I know that for a fact! It makes you feel like they don’t respect you enough to tell you the truth.

But a covert narcissist doesn’t care about your feelings when it comes to lying. Their pride always wins over your feelings.

So they’ll lie about the smallest of things to make themselves sound better. If they missed their stop on the subway, they’d say it was running late. If they broke something, they’d say someone bumped into them or it just fell apart.

When you catch them out on their lies, they’ll always have a sob story about how they felt embarrassed by the truth, so they lied. Which isn’t a lie itself! They say this because…

4) They have a victim mindset

pic2278 8 subtle signs your partner is a covert narcissist, according to psychology

Covert narcissists believe that their troubles are the only troubles that matter. What they’ve been through is always worse than what anyone else has been through.

Whenever they sense you getting annoyed at them, they’ll bring up these hardships to win the sympathy vote. You’ll only notice this in small, subtle ways – usually over long periods.

Like if you ever bring up your past troubles, they won’t say much. In fact, they’ll forget you even told them it and won’t show any consideration for it later!

Yet they’ll want compassion from you all the time. They’ll especially do this if you ever call them out on their toxic behavior. They’ll play the victim and get YOU to comfort THEM – even though THEY hurt you to begin with!

5) They make you feel unimportant

Covert narcissists only really care about themselves. Even though they’d never say it or make it that obvious to you, they don’t really care about you.

They love you for what you do for them. They love that you love them – rather than loving you for who you are.

Which means? You feel unimportant, unloved, or just uncared for all the time.

You don’t quite know why. If someone asked you, you’d have a million little examples of why you feel this way, but never one big reason.

Most of the time, this behavior isn’t even intentional from the covert narcissist. They just genuinely don’t know how to love you or show you compassion due to their lack of empathy.

Yet sometimes, they’re very aware of how they’re treating you. They just don’t care enough to act any differently!

6) They apologize but repeat the same behavior

Growth in a relationship usually comes from the arguments you have. It’s normal, in fact healthy, to argue in a relationship. But it’s only healthy when you both learn something from the argument.

If you didn’t already guess, this won’t happen when you’re dating a covert narcissist!

When you’re upset by something they’ve done, they’ll apologize. They’ll say all the right things (like I love you, I’m sorry, I forgot about that, etc.). But then they’ll repeat that same behavior over and over again.

Again, they don’t always do this intentionally to hurt you. They just don’t care about you enough to stop the behavior. They also just enjoy doing what they want.

But sometimes it’s very intentional. They know they can keep getting away with it if they just apologize and act remorseful afterward!

7) They hardly ever show compassion

Narcissists lack empathy – covert or otherwise! So you’ll hardly ever see them offer you or anyone else any compassion.

Like you’ll never see them cry at a sad movie – or even cry at all! When a friend is going through a rough time, they might say nice things to their face, but then never text them to check in or bring up the matter ever again.

In the rare moments they offer you compassion, something always feels missing. It’s like they’re saying the words, but you know they don’t really mean it.

8) They act differently in private vs public

Dating a covert narcissist can be very, very confusing sometimes. How they act in public can be completely different from how they act in private (with just you).

How so? Around others, they might be incredibly charming. They might share all these personal stories, open up to people, and ask in-depth questions about people’s lives. They might be the life and soul of the party!

But when you leave together, it all falls away.

They go quiet and reserved, not wanting to talk about certain things or show any emotion. They never ask you the personal questions they were asking others or show you the same compassion!

This is all because they crave validation and have deep-rooted insecurities. Narcissists are actually very insecure, and people liking them makes them feel good.

So they always put on a show for others. It’s probably why they were so charming to you when you first met, too…

Final thoughts

Dating any kind of narcissist can take its toll. But dating a covert narcissist can really do a number on you.

Because their behavior is so subtle, it can leave you feeling like you’re a bad person or like you’re just imagining things. It can even make you feel like you’re just depressed or unhappy with life!

Knowing it’s THEM who has the problem can make you feel so much better – but what do you do next?

I was lucky enough to get out of my relationship because I had no choice (since he ended things with me). Personally, I’d leave any relationship in the future if I thought they were a covert narcissist…

But the experts say you can make things work. If the covert narcissist seeks help, things can improve. So can committing to setting strong boundaries, keeping your distance, and not taking things personally.

Just know that if you’re unhappy, there’s always a way out and there IS better out there! It just has to get worse for a while before it gets better…

Picture of Amy Reed

Amy Reed

Amy Reed is a content writer from London working with international brands. As an empath, she loves sharing her life insights to help others. When she’s not writing, she enjoys a simple life of reading, gardening, and making a fuss over her two cats.

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