Divorcing a Covert Narcissist

Narcissism has received plenty of attention these past few years. When you think of a typical “narcissist,” you may think of someone with an exaggerated sense of self-importance and an insatiable sense of entitlement. They have little concern or regard for others’ feelings or boundaries. 

But some narcissists exhibit tendencies that are just the opposite of these. While they appear to be more sensitive and quiet, they can still be difficult people to deal with, especially in intimate relationships. 

A lot of people with narcissistic qualities have not necessarily been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD. Whether your narcissistic spouse has a diagnosis or not, they can be difficult to deal with – especially in divorce.

Overt narcissism vs. covert narcissism

Overt narcissism is what we typically think of when we hear the term narcissist. Someone who is an overt narcissist comes across as vain, self-centered, and self-absorbed with a lack of empathy. On the outside, they are caught up in their own self-importance. On the inside, they feel inadequate and use their mask of superiority to cover up low self-esteem and poor self-worth.

Covert narcissism stems from the same sense of insecurity and inadequacy, but the manner in which it manifests outwardly is quite different from that of an overt narcissist. A covert narcissist can come off as quiet and self-deprecating with a need to be liked and accepted. But these behaviors stem from the same issues as the behavior of the overt narcissist: insecurity, inadequacy, and needing others to give them a sense of self.

On both ends of the spectrum, overt and covert narcissists try to feel better about themselves and get their needs met by acting in unhealthy ways that create difficult times for their loved ones.

Possible behaviors of a covert narcissist

While their need for acceptance is the same, covert narcissists have developed different behaviors to get it. Here are some possible signs of narcissism from a covert narcissist.

  • Although they want to seem like the nice guy, they have little empathy for others. Like overt narcissists, they constantly focus on themselves. They have a hard time empathizing with and connecting with others in a genuine way.
  • They constantly find flaws in their own character to get attention and sympathy. While an overt narcissist uses self-aggrandizement to cover up feelings of low self-esteem and to get attention, covert narcissists may use self-deprecation to get the attention they want from others. 
  • They can be overly sensitive to criticism and easily humiliated by simple comments. While an overt narcissist may react aggressively to perceived criticism, a covert narcissist becomes defensive or passive-aggressive.
  • Despite appearing “humble,” they are hyper-focused on themselves and need continual reassurance and admiration. While overt narcissists are outwardly self-consumed, covert narcissists use more subtle tactics to get attention from others. 
  • They tend to suffer from depression and anxiety. Although overt narcissists can also suffer from these problems, it is much more obvious with covert narcissists. 

Read: Tips for Boosting Your Mental Health


How a covert narcissist may hurt their partner

Because a covert narcissist is so self-consumed, they’re a difficult relationship partner or spouse. While covert narcissism may appear to be “narcissist light,” these people can be equally emotionally distant and abusive in a relationship. 

A covert narcissist will often bristle at anything that could be perceived as criticism. They may resort to blaming their partner to avoid responsibility. They may become extremely controlling and manipulative. Further, they tend to be adept at the silent treatment, passive-aggressive behavior, and gaslighting

Consequently, intimate partners and spouses of covert narcissists will do almost anything to not upset the strained sense of equilibrium they live with. They’re often confused by their partner and unsure what to say or how to make things right. 

How a covert narcissist might react to a divorce summons

Narcissistic behavior can be explosive, unpredictable, and exhausting. There may come a point when the partner of a covert narcissist has simply had enough of walking on eggshells and being manipulated. They want out of the relationship, so they ask for a divorce.

How will the covert narcissist react?

They will likely see a divorce summons as a betrayal. They now feel desperate. All the manipulation and blame that has plagued the marriage is likely to go into overdrive during your divorce proceedings.

This manipulation may be devised to garner their spouse’s sympathy. For example, they may feign an illness, get fired from their job, or threaten suicide. The hope is that their spouse will not leave them at this low point. If these tactics don’t work, they may then become aggressive and even physically abusive. 

Conversely, if it’s the other way around and the covert narcissist is asking for the divorce, the blame game will go into full effect. The humble, self-effacing facade will drop, and outright emotional abuse will start. Everything will be the spouse’s fault, no matter how much manipulation and how many lies they’ve endured. 

How to stay strong during your divorce process

If you’ve been married to a narcissist for any period of time, you already know how difficult dealing with narcissistic abuse can be. Divorcing them can be even more grueling.

Even if you remain calm and reasonable, they can be unpredictable at best. But you must still negotiate your divorce terms and co-parenting if you have children. While you can expect more of their difficult and abusive behavior in the short term, keeping yourself focused on the future is key. 

Be as straightforward, non-accusatory, and unemotional as possible when dealing with them. It can be helpful to keep communication to a minimum. You may want to keep any communication you do have through text, email, or your attorney. Document all verbal communication so you have evidence of when your spouse goes into their standard manipulative behavior. 

In the meantime, get support. Whether you get the help of a support group, a therapist, or trusted friends and family members, going through your divorce alone is not in your best interests. You need people around you to remind you that there is a new life with a happy and normal future waiting in the wings.

Have questions? Want to talk to a real human? Schedule a free 15-minute phone call with one of our account representatives to understand your options. 

Suggested: High-Conflict Divorce: How to Deal with and Recover from It