11 red flags you’re in a relationship with a covert narcissist

by Brendan Brown | June 15, 2024, 10:24 pm

Love can blindside us, especially when it’s tangled up with someone who knows how to play the game a little too well.

Covert narcissists excel at seeming genuinely charming and sincere until the cracks start to show. 

If you find yourself constantly questioning your own worth or feeling like you’re walking on eggshells, it’s time to take a closer look. 

Here are 11 red flags that might signal you’re in a relationship with a covert narcissist.

1) They play the victim

Constantly playing the victim is a classic move. 

Your partner makes every issue about them and paints themselves as the one who’s always wronged. 

Does it sound familiar? 

That because covert narcissists always seem to be misunderstood, and they are excellent at playing this role. 

So good that you end up feeling sorry for them, even when logic tells you that you shouldn’t have to apologize.

2) Subtle put-downs

It’s the sly comment about your appearance, the sarcastic joke at your expense, or the casual critique of your work. 

The truth is I had a personal experience with these types of people 0 highly suspect my ex was a covert narcissist.  

I remember feeling a slight sting, then shaking it off because ‘it’s just a joke’, right?

But that’s their tactic – it’s subtle, constant, and it chips away at your self-esteem over time. 

Your once vibrant confidence has taken a back seat, and now you seem to need their approval for everything. 

3) Withholding affection as punishment

When you don’t fall in line, suddenly the warmth disappears. 

They withhold love and affection until you ‘behave.’ 

It feels strange that the day before they might have hugged and kissed you and all of a sudden they go cold like ice. 

Worst of all, this most often comes with silence, so you may not even know what to do to regain peace!

I know what it’s like to be there, missing the love you know they can offer but are choosing to withhold. It’s a manipulative way of training you to act according to their whims.

4) Gaslighting

Gaslighting is sinister and profound. 

A covert narcissist will insist they never said something that you clearly heard, or that the problem that’s obvious to everyone else doesn’t exist. 

But that’s not all, gaslighting will make you start questioning your own memory and sanity!

Don’t be mistaken though –  this is part of their game, which brings me to my next point:

5) Manipulation is their game

Whether through emotional theatrics or cold indifference, covert narcissists know how to get what they want from you, often at your own emotional or material expense. 

I recall the days when my ex would switch between passionate love and chilling silence. It felt like a rollercoaster – one I couldn’t get off from. 

For instance, one moment, she’d cuddle me with love when she needed something, and the next, she’d turn cold as ice, making me feel like I was walking on eggshells.

I spent so much energy trying to navigate her sudden shifts, attempting to avoid that cold, distant side of her. 

I’d find myself giving in to her demands, rearranging my schedule or not seeing my loved ones, all in an attempt to keep the peace and avoid her emotional storms. 

In retrospect, I can see it was her way of maintaining control; she knew exactly which buttons to push to get her way.

6) Emotional unavailability

Here’s how it works with a covert narcissist:

They can write a love letter that brings tears to your eyes but ask them how they feel about an issue in your relationship, and suddenly they close up and leave or get defensive.

Put it this way, they’re great at displaying what I like to call “surface-level” emotions. That’s the big displays of love, buying you things or taking you out. They’ll even post about it all over social media. 

But when you try to dig deeper under the surface, they freeze up. They don’t want to delve too deep into their commitment or feelings towards you. 

This is a pretty telling sign to look out for. 

7) Chronic flattery of others, but not you

You may notice how they give others compliments, particularly in public settings. 

But they don’t do the same to you. 

There’s a reason for this – it’s to keep you eager for their validation. 

They know you’re watching and listening. They know that you’ll also crave a kind word or compliment here or there. They deliberately withhold, as they know it’ll make you want it more.

It’s a sick mind game. 

Furthermore, if you question them, they most likely will come up with a condescending comment about how you’re making things up…gaslighting as I mentioned before.

8) Exploits your weaknesses

Remember that time you opened up about your deepest fears? 

If you’re in a relationship with a covert narcissist, it’s likely that they will use your insecurities against you

This all comes down to one thing:

Control. 

My ex did this, so I know how painful it can be. I also know that it might stop you from being so open with others in the future, but it’s important to remember that not everyone is a narcissist out for their own gain

9) Avoids taking responsibility

Mistakes, in a covert narcissists world, are made by others. 

If something goes wrong, it wasn’t their fault – it was the circumstances, or it was you. 

They masterfully dodge accountability. 

Here’s what they don’t realize: 

Frequency matters. 

The more times they deflect blame, the more unlikely their stories sound. Nobody is perfect and the time comes for all of us to take responsibility for our actions.

10) They are always right

Trying to argue with a covert narcissist is like trying to debate the color of the sky. No matter what facts you bring to the table, they have a spin that puts them back on top.

And, as exhausting as it is, you often just concede because having peace feels more important than having your say.

After all, that’s why people distance themselves from these individuals, it seems to be their way or the highway. 

11) Their past relationships are always dramatic

Everyone else was crazy or wrong, and they were the martyrs. 

How many times have you come across an individual that sounds like this?

Some try their best to hide it, but the real narcissism comes out sooner or later. 

I remember sitting across from my uncle’s ex-partner as she spun yet another tale where she was the innocent party, constantly caught in someone else’s madness. 

In her stories, she was always the calm and rational one — but the truth is, we had spent too many Christmas together to see the real her. 

This pattern, where they’re perpetually the ‘victim’ of someone else’s irrational behavior, is a classic covert narcissist move

It’s subtle, but it’s a recurring theme designed to evade accountability, maintain control, and keep you on the back foot.

Practical ways to uncover a covert narcissist

Sometimes, love can wear a mask. 

If you’re feeling a growing sense of unease that something isn’t quite right with your partner’s behavior, trust that intuition

Here are some grounded steps to help you uncover if you are dealing with a covert narcissist:

1) Reflect on your feelings

First and foremost, how do they make you feel? Drained? Invalidated? On edge? 

Your emotions are your internal compass, and if you’re consistently feeling diminished, there’s a reason. 

2) Consult with trusted friends or family

Sometimes we’re too close to a situation to see it clearly, so don’t hesitate to reach out to someone you trust and ask for their perspective. Perhaps the truth is clearer to those outside of the relationship.

In my situation, it was my best friend who finally blurted out that they thought my ex was a narcissist and treating me unfairly. It was an eye-opening moment for me. 

3) Set boundaries and observe the reaction

Assertively setting a boundary can be akin to turning on a spotlight.

A covert narcissist will often react poorly to set limits, showing resistance or even disdain.

It’s an important sign, so keep an eye out for any attempts to undermine or belittle the boundaries you set.

4) Seek professional insight

There is no shame in seeking help — in fact, it’s a step of great strength. A therapist or counselor can provide you with insights that are both professional and unbiased. 

I’ve found that talking to someone trained to identify patterns can be very empowering.

5) Keep a journal of interactions

When you’re doubting your memories or feelings due to constant gaslighting, a journal can be a solid anchor. 

So, write down incidents when you felt belittled, manipulated, or gaslighted, but try to keep it factual and emotion-free.

6) Ask direct questions and notice the answers

When you ask straightforward questions about their past relationships or their view on accountability, do they become defensive or evasive? 

You’ll find that their responses to direct questions can be very telling.

Recognizing you are in a relationship with a covert narcissist is a significant and brave first step. 

It’s time to reflect on what you truly deserve: a relationship based on mutual respect and genuine love. 

Remember, you are deserving of a love that lifts you up, not one that wears you down.

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