In the realm of intimate partner abuse, many abusive partners may fit the description of narcissism. Some types of overt narcissism, such as grandiose or malignant narcissism, are easy to spot. The covert narcissists (also called the vulnerable narcissists), however, have similar qualities to those of the overt types yet act quite differently, making it all the more confusing to identify. This situation can interfere with seeking help.
Overt vs. Covert Narcissism
Overt narcissism is easily recognized, but covert narcissism is not always as apparent until you recognize it by the manipulative behaviors of its practitioner.
The overt narcissist is the one who easily shows self-importance and exaggerates accomplishments while seeking admiration from his audience. Exploiting others to serve one’s self is done without concern for and a lack of empathy for others. Overt narcissists tend to have difficulty building and sustaining relationships for these reasons.
The covert narcissists also seek control in their intimate relationship, but with behaviors that are subtler. Like the overt narcissist, they too want to be thought well of and admired to offset not feeling appreciated. Rather than displaying arrogance, however, they often act withdrawn, anxious, and at times self-critical. Additional characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder that can help to identify covert narcissism are quiet superiority; passive-aggressive behavior; envying others and believing they deserve what others have; lack of empathy for how people feel; and a propensity to step up to help others out of a strong desire for recognition (Raypole, C. 2019).
The Covert Narcissist’s Abusive Behaviors
The covert narcissist is sensitive to being criticized or being shown to be in the wrong and uses coercive tactics to externalize and blame a partner to avoid responsibility. These self-serving tactics can include gaslighting and distorting reality; manipulations to get what they want; showing contempt and giving the silent treatment; dominating and controlling their partner; and belittling and humiliating verbally and emotionally.
The Partner of the Covert Narcissist
Relationships with a covert narcissist who needs to overpower and have control in the relationship will eventually cause the other partner emotional pain. If the non-narcissistic partner speaks up about their concerns to their highly sensitive partner, they are often heard as being critical and attacking, which in turn, opens them up to retaliation that can be the silent treatment or hurtful, demeaning comments.