Living with a Covert Narcissist Husband – 7 Simple (But Important) Things to Understand

You love your husband but he gets hypersensitive and defensive over the slightest things. He’s not a flashy person, but he often carries an air of calm smugness. Your covert narcissist husband doesn’t fit the mold of the stereotype with a grandiose in-your-face style. Instead, he broods and holds grudges with little concern about how it affects his family members and friends. When he is feeling good, he can be really fun to be around. But sometimes, you just need to know how to cope. His narcissism isn’t as plain and clear to the casual observer, but it is just as impactful on you.

Realizing Your Husband is a Covert Narcissist

If you realize that you share a life with a covert narcissistic husband, you’ll need to arm yourself with some knowledge. When you understand how things work covert narcissists,  you can evaluate whether your marriage is viable for the long haul or not.

Narcissism is a trait, not an all-or-nothing diagnosis. Because narcissism is something that many people possess to some degree or another, a person with these characteristics may not necessarily have a disorder.

It completely depends on how hooked they are on feeling special and unique. If this need is strong, they are more likely to do whatever it takes to feel like they are on top. If the desire is more fleeting or circumstantial, problematic behaviors are more easily absorbed and managed within the context of functional relationships. Take a look at these seven simple but important aspects of being married to a covert narcissist.

Narcissism Falls on a Spectrum

The most important element to understand is that narcissistic traits fall across a spectrum. Your husband may have a few traits that make your marriage difficult at times but don’t pose a large threat to your relationship as a whole. Or your husband may be much further up the scale with a disruptive psychological disorder. And there are men that would fall somewhere along the middle of those two extremes.

The solutions that may work for a man with mild tendencies will not be effective for someone with much stronger and persistent traits. It is definitely possible to have a successful marriage while dealing with a few mild issues. Your relationship will be disrupted by this, but you have a good chance of getting things back on track and maybe even improving your marriage over time. However, a more disordered narcissist will not make a good marriage partner. Your most important task is to determine what end of the spectrum your husband is on so you set appropriate expectations.

A Narcissist Is Good at Deception; A Covert Narcissist Is Even Better

A narcissist is so good at deceiving you and others because he needed to master the art of deceiving himself. He’s had to spend many years spinning falsehoods in his mind to navigate through his own troubled life. For a critical period of time, lies kept his ego afloat so he could function on a daily basis. As a child, he knew no better than the destructive examples given to him every day.

In his adulthood, he continues to lie and exaggerate even though he has grown up and his situation has changed. Instead of dropping those maladaptive coping methods after childhood, he has woven such an elaborate net of lies he often doesn’t realize how damaging they are to his personal relationships. Fully facing the truth would make him crack, and he has no remedy for that.

A covert narcissist does perhaps a better job than most hiding the fact that he is narcissistic. Most would be turned off by a blowhard with an overstated ego. The covert style makes it easier to blend in and hide his worst behaviors from most of the world. Only his closest family and friends get the brunt of his emotional pain.

The Depth of Your Communication Will be Limited

He may listen somewhat but will have little patience for details and cannot afford to get into the habit of intimately listening to someone else’s perspective. If he does, he risks taking a much closer look at his own pain than he wants to. He will feign some surface level interest in what you say and will likely view or discuss it in terms of how it affects him.

As mentioned above, narcissism falls on a spectrum. For covert narcissists, the expression of traits often appears more introverted and self-isolating rather than brash and outlandish. It’s possible that in some situations or over a long span of time, you can eventually find ways to communicate with your husband more effectively. However, if he is feeling threatened or boxed in, he may willingly cut you off and hold you at a distance for lengthy periods of time. It likely feels like a justified action to him but can leave you feeling very alone and rejected.

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You Are Likely to Feel Somewhat Used

You give of yourself in your marriage, expecting to get some effort in return, some kind of reasonable give-and-take. But a narcissist will mostly take, and he will resent anything or anyone forcing him to give of himself too much. The covert narcissist won’t be so much obsessed with his own reflection, but will likely do everything possible to protect his best interests with an understated moody style.

If he does give, he may occasionally flip the situation by making such an impressive effort that he’ll expect praise for being the hero. Or he will give you praise and affection based on the accomplishments that fit in with his best interests, rather than just for you being yourself.

For him, giving is losing. He has already lost so much because of pain in his childhood, so he simply won’t give of himself any more than necessary. This will set up some inequity in your marriage that will be difficult, if not impossible, to change. You will likely be the one doing inconvenient things in the household and with childcare.

He won’t want to bother with anything that pulls his focus away from him and his sense of emotional stability. Unfortunately, it will not take much to set him off because of his sensitivity to being slighted and his low (or complete lack of) empathy for your needs.

They Calmly Resist Accepting Personal Responsibility for Their Bad Behavior

The web of self-deception includes lying to themselves about hurting another person. Since the important people in his life didn’t apologize for causing him emotional pain, he certainly doesn’t owe that to anyone else. It’s not something he learned and it would make him appear weak. In nearly every case, he will find a way for someone else to be at fault. Even when his behavior is at the center of the problem, he will shirk it off.

Suppose for a moment that he bursts out yelling and says several unkind things to you. He will immediately have an excuse like claiming that everyone his family yelled when he was a kid and he can’t do anything about it. He’ll minimize his yelling while making you appear overly sensitive by saying, “Geez, it wasn’t even that bad. It’s just words.” Or he’ll completely dismiss your observation by shrugging his shoulders and quietly turning away.

Humor Is a Terrific Communication Strategy

It’s the playful good-natured kind of humor that can send a message while not being too direct or cause him to lose face. When you nudge him gently with your elbow and say, “Yeah, I’m sure your complaints about my cooking are just “helpful comments”. I can’t wait to give you all my “helpful comments” when you cook on the grill this weekend, right? It’ll be so much fun!” You flash a big smile, show you’re having fun, and the mood shifts.

You demonstrate a give-and-take approach to get a message across, something that probably wasn’t shown often in his childhood. His choice was to verbally strike out at you with a “zinger” comment, but you showed another choice that’s more inclusive. If he’s at least somewhat entertained or distracted, you can diffuse a tense situation like this.

You won’t always be up for it, because a narcissist who feels threatened will sling out mean and unkind comments all day long every day of the week. That’s like breathing to him. But even if you counter with humor some of the time, it will draw his attention to his behaviors without feeling like he got a “zinger” from you.

The Bottom Line with a Covert Narcissist Husband

Your husband is mired in a lifelong struggle with painfully low self-esteem. This is at the core of his problems, and because of his maladaptive coping strategies, he’s unlikely to truly make significant progress with this. He is likely to continue stumbling over his own behavior, causing a pattern of frustrating if not emotionally damaging behavior. Having some sympathy for this can help you to react with a bit more compassion and calmness.

It doesn’t excuse his behavior, but it makes it more understandable. You’ll know how firm the foundation is under your marriage by keeping this in mind as you move forward, with or without him.

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