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 and boundaries. 

But some narcissists exhibit tendencies that are just the opposite of these. While they appear to be 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.

What is “real” narcissism?

Narcissism isn’t just a trendy catchphrase. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a clinically diagnosed mental condition. A diagnosis of NDP requires an evaluation by a qualified mental health professional who will interview the individual, consider their behavior and history, and make a diagnosis based on criteria set out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). For an official NPD diagnosis, the person being evaluated must meet five of the following: 

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance
  • A preoccupation with success, power, beauty, brilliance, or ideal love
  • A belief that they are special and unique and should only associate with other special people
  • A need for excessive admiration
  • A sense of entitlement
  • Exploitative interpersonal behavior
  • Shows a lack of empathy
  • Envies others or believes others envy them
  • Demonstrates arrogant or haughty behavior

Even if someone seems to meet the criteria of narcissism, the only person who can make a clinical diagnosis or advise someone who struggles with these behaviors is a mental health professional. 

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 how 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 genuinely connecting with others.
  • 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. 

Legal strategy and documentation

Dealing with a covert narcissist spouse is challenging enough considering their manipulation, lack of empathy, and combative behavior. And if you’re divorcing one, these traits will come out full-throttle during your divorce. Understanding the legal and emotional implications and guarding yourself accordingly is crucial. 

Prepare yourself

Before you go any further, ensure you have access to financial resources and credit in your own name. Narcissistic spouses often try to control financial resources as part of their manipulation.

Protect your privacy

Change your passwords, and secure all your personal information. Make sure your spouse doesn’t have access to your email, personal accounts, social media, or other platforms where there might be sensitive material. 

Hire a lawyer known for their experience with high-conflict spouses

Not all attorneys are experienced with high-conflict spouses. You’ll want a lawyer who understands narcissistic personalities and can provide sound guidance and advice on how to communicate and negotiate effectively with one in a divorce. 

Document everything

Narcissists are masters of distorting facts, so gathering evidence is essential in a divorce with a narcissistic spouse. Documenting any financial, psychological, emotional, or physical abuse is a key step in protecting yourself and your legal interests. 

  • Collect all your financial documents, keep them secure, and have backup copies.
  • Document any instances of your spouse’s financial control or abuses, including making large financial decisions without your consent, withholding money, or trying to ruin your credit. 
  • If you suspect that there has been some financial deception or that your spouse has hidden assets, you might want to get the advice of a forensic accountant who can help you research your suspicions and obtain accurate financial records. 
  • Keep a detailed journal of all your interactions and correspondence with your spouse that reflect threatening and manipulative behavior or stalking and harassment. Note each interaction's date, time, and content. 
  • Get evaluated by a mental health professional who can attest to any psychological effects your spouse’s abuse has had on you. Collect copies of medical records that indicate treatment for your stress, anxiety, or depression.
  • Take photos of any personal property your spouse may have destroyed. 
  • If others have witnessed your spouse’s behavior, ask them if they'd be willing to offer a witness statement or testify during your divorce procedure. 

By providing extensive evidence of your spouse’s behavior, you’ll be able to build a stronger case for yourself. 

Read: How to Negotiate Divorce Terms with a Narcissist

Navigating the divorce process

Divorcing a narcissistic spouse requires a proactive and reactive strategy that considers all the ways these traits could potentially express themselves if your spouse feels cornered. You and your attorney will need to work together to develop a deliberate plan accounting for these potential challenges. 

Limit direct contact with your spouse

If you need to communicate with your spouse, do it through your lawyer as much as possible. If you do need to communicate directly, keep it in writing. Texts and emails will provide you with a clear record of anything that was said. 

Focus on your kids

If you have children, your attorney will help you present your case in a way that focuses on their best interests. This might even involve custody evaluations by professionals. 

Make safety a priority

If there’s any history of abuse, your and your children’s safety is your number one priority. Your attorney can help you develop a safety plan and secure a protective order, if necessary. 

Take care of yourself

Divorcing a narcissistic spouse can take a toll on you, physically and emotionally. Prioritize your well-being, and help offset stress by doing things that bring you happiness. Create a support network of people who understand what you’re going through. You may want to consider getting professional guidance to help you understand narcissism better and help you cope with the emotional turmoil of divorcing a narcissistic spouse. 

Read: Do You Need to Implement the No-Contact Rule with Your Ex?

Rebuilding and moving forward

How do you heal from a tumultuous marriage with a narcissist? It will take time, patience, and a lot of understanding. After all, you’ve lived in a type of alternate reality where things weren’t always as they seemed, and you were controlled by the whims of someone who didn’t always have your best interests at heart. It will take time to process and understand the past so you can trust yourself again and move forward into the future. 

Be kind to yourself

Healing from a narcissist’s abuse will take time, and there might be setbacks. Expect that this healing won’t be linear and will take whatever time it takes. Be your own best friend during your healing, and treat yourself with the same compassion and understanding you would offer to someone else in your situation. Remind yourself that you deserve a life that is happy, secure, and free of emotional abuse. 

Understand what happened

One of the keys to healing is learning from the experience. Start by processing what happened and recognizing that it wasn’t your fault, despite what your spouse may have told you throughout your marriage. 

Take time to educate yourself about narcissistic abuse, and seek professional help or join a support group for survivors. Right now, your focus should be rebuilding your sense of self and learning how to trust your opinions and decisions again. These are things that may have been worn down over the years of abuse but will provide a strong foundation for your future. 

Surround yourself with unconditional support

Unless someone has experienced a narcissist firsthand, they will have little understanding of the scope of manipulation that a victim endures. Not everyone will understand what you’ve been through, and that’s okay. You can be as private as you want about your ordeal, but you need and deserve the support of trusted friends and family who know, understand, and are unconditionally there for you while you heal.

Learn how to create strong boundaries

During your marriage, your boundaries may have been non-existent. You’ll need to learn how to reassert your voice, recognize your worth and needs, and protect yourself from toxic behaviors and relationships. Learn from the past, understand what you’re no longer willing to tolerate from others, and decide what you will do if you recognize that it’s happening again. You’re coming from a position of strength and understanding right now. Don’t let yourself be taken in again. 

Focus on the future

Despite the difficulty of the past, divorce has opened the door to new beginnings, and the future is where you want to set your sights. But given your recent history, you’ll want to take it slow and with a great deal of consideration. 

What will the future look like for you? Reflect on what you value most in life and in your relationship with others. Build new goals gradually around the things that bring you joy and support your new sense of self. 

If you’re considering dating, take it slow. The last thing you need after a divorce with a narcissist is to find another one lurking in the shadows. Unfortunately, narcissists seem to be able to detect vulnerability in others. Don’t ignore glaring red flags. Protect yourself with a vengeance until you’ve healed enough to thoroughly trust your own instincts again.

How to stay strong during your divorce process

If you’ve been married to a narcissist for any period, 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. As mentioned, you may want to keep any communication 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


Narcissistic Personality Disorder Overview. Mayo Clinic.

Divorce Content Specialist
Mediation, Divorce Strategy, Divorce Process, Mental Health
Candice is a former paralegal and has spent the last 16 years in the digital landscape, writing website content, blog posts, and articles for the legal industry. Now, at Hello Divorce, she is helping demystify the complex legal and emotional world of divorce. Away from the keyboard, she’s a devoted wife, mom, and grandmother to two awesome granddaughters who are already forces to be reckoned with. Based in Florida, she’s an avid traveler, painter, ceramic artist, and self-avowed bookish nerd.