The term ‘narcissist’ is carelessly thrown around a lot these days, used to describe every minor instance of self-absorption. Narcissism, as psychotherapist Dr. Ross Rosenberg points out, lies along a spectrum with healthy narcissism at one end and malignant narcissism at the other. In the context of this subject, it is someone who “over-focuses on their own needs, while ignoring or marginalizing the needs of those closest to them.” Both genders are affected by this disorder.

In the field of psychology, narcissistic behaviour can be described as overt or covert. Overt behaviours are those that can be easily observed by others and tend toward grandiosity and self-obsession. Think of those “look at me” colleagues that explode at the slightest irritation. Or those that name-drop constantly.

Covert behaviours, however, are those that are more subtle and harder to spot. This is because the covert narcissist blends into the background much of the time. For example, they may appear calm, professional, and “just plain nice” to most people. But to those they are in a relationship with they are demeaning and abusive, and they can switch between these Jekyll and Hyde characters with ease.

“In public, they see Jekyll. Behind closed doors, you come face to face with Hyde.” Laura Charanza

It is common for partners of a narcissist to struggle to describe the relationship. This is because the abuse is so subtle and plays out over many years. There are also no visible scars. Yet the impact on the psyche is profound.

If you suspect you might be dealing with a covert narcissist, there are some general traits and patterns to look for in everyday interactions.

You may have already noticed some of these signs in your partner. If so, relationship expert Dr. Ross Rosenberg suggests you “choose freedom” (that is, get out quick!). But if you decide to stay in the relationship for the sake of children or other reasons, we have selected a handful of markers to help you to recognize and better navigate unhealthy behaviour.

Know family is everything

Dr. Rosenberg tells us that the covert narcissist must have a backstory. He needs to have a partner (preferably a wife) and children. Once the relationship is established, the narcissist adopts a God-like persona, reinforced by their holier-than-thou ‘creator of life and supplier of the bacon’ storyline. You may have heard this played out in conversations with a child, the underlying message: “Without me, you are / have nothing.” This is a means of extracting adoration and validation.

In addition, keeping up appearances is of the upmost importance for the narcissist. Not only is it necessary to prop up a false front in the presence of family and friends, but over time he will (with great stealth) remove power from his ‘insignificant’ other to ensure that the family unit remains intact. As Dr. Rosenberg explains, “If you take away their backstory, they can’t function in the world and be human.”

Get used to “radio silence”

We’re talking about the silent treatment here. This form of passive-aggressive behaviour has two objectives. This first is to punish you for a misdemeanor. It is likely you will not know what has occurred, but days or weeks of silence treatment will ensue after the ‘event.’ The cycle goes something like this: everything is great (“I’m getting what I want”), everything is wrong (“you committed a crime”), withdrawl until amends are made (or enough time has passed), return to the start.

The second objective is to avoid discussion or closure of a matter (stonewalling). A pattern of chronic stonewalling can be debilitating as research shows that receiving the ‘cold shoulder’ and the silent treatment activates the same area of the brain that detects physical pain.  

Be prepared to lose everything important to you (including your identity)

You may have once been full of life, goal-driven and successful. Now you feel as if you are living a diminished life just to fulfill the needs of another person. You may have placed your goals, hobbies, friendships, and self-care needs on the back burner to accommodate your partner’s agenda. You may have even noticed that he has quietly removed contact with certain people you previously relied on for support. Isolation is the key here. And the worse thing is, you probably weren’t aware of it happening.

Think for a moment. When was the last time your partner gushed about your talents with friends or family? He doesn’t want to bring attention to you or encourage you to be a better person. In fact, he has little regard for your talents or abilities—because the narcissist has no regard for these things at all.

And how does your partner respond when you want to pursue your own interests or relationships? Do they get stone-walled? There’s not enough money, duty and obligations come first…blah, blah, blah… There’s always excuse because the narcissist has no intention of extinguishing his comfortable life. Oh –you might as well forget the career as well.  This would not only create competition, but it would put his position as Lord and Master at risk.

Note, while narcissists often isolate their partners, victims also self-isolate themselves by declining invitations to meet with friends or attend social gatherings. This is usually due to feeling small, insignificant and embarrassed…but mostly, they lack confidence in themselves.

Your brain may be ‘hacked’

Gaslighting is a way to create leverage between the narcissist and another person. Playing mind games is one way to elevate himself and maintain power in the interaction. If he can get you to question your perceptions and second-guess yourself, then this allows him the opportunity to manipulate and exploit you more.

The ‘jerking her emotional chains’ is a common game the narcissist likes to play. The objective is to end a conversation as quickly as possible or avoid it altogether. Attempts to communicate bravely may be meet with constant interruptions, derisive comments (“you’re ranting” or “lower your voice” despite a calm tone), complaints about lack of logic, or shaming; all designed to up the ante. Taunting a partner to explode first allows the narcissist to heap blame and shame (“you’re hysterical” “you have mental health issues” “you should look at yourself”) on her and end the conversation – and then go offline. People who care about you won’t let you go on feeling rubbish without attempting to sort it out.

Another game the narcissist likes to play is keeping a person on the back foot through poor communication. This includes making significant purchases and, when queried, uttering that he had indeed informed you (to which you have zero recollection), deliberately avoiding knowledge of your commitments or difficulties, advising of times he will be away with such short notice you can’t think of a reason why he shouldn’t go, offering to look after the children but not offering lead-up for you to make plans (this will return to haunt a partner over–“I did offer! It’s not my fault!”), leaving out important details when conveying information, or neglecting to inform a partner about critical news all together!

Sneaking with a conscience

Before a partner can say “Agatha Christie!” she may find herself channeling her inner Miss Marple. This is in response to secrets that the narcissist likes to keep: an affair, hidden bank account, or anything that just doesn’t add up. Conversely, she may find herself keeping secrets in order to prevent judgement from the narcissist. Being sneaky is not a quality of empathetic souls, so be prepared for plenty of healthy guilt (with a sprinkling of shame)!

Depression may be your saviour…and possibly, vodka

As sensitive and empathetic souls, ongoing demoralizing behaviour does mean partners are susceptible to turning inward and developing depression. Laura Charanza, author of Ugly Love writes: “When you have a narcissist stealing your identity, self-worth, and nay shred of self-esteem left, depression easily sets in. Keep in mind that the narcissist is also good at isolating [his] victims. Therefore, you don’t have the support system from friends and family you need, either.”

Markers of a depressive episode include persistent, sad or empty mood; feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and helplessness; loss of interest in hobbies and activities; decreased energy and fatigue; and suicidal thoughts.

Depression should not be viewed as something negative. The word itself means “deep rest.” Living with a narcissistic partner literally boils down to an emotionally hazardous environment and hibernation is a clever way your body helps keep you safe. It also may be the beginning of a spiritual awakening that will change the course of your life.

A word of warning: As you fall down the rabbit hole, you will probably look to anything that can help you cope, to keep your head above water. Addictive behaviours (drinking, using, spending, eating, compulsive sex) frequently become a ‘survival’ mechanism for partners living in toxic relationships: they numb the pain and fill the inner void. There’s no shame in that. But criticisms will flow about this behaviour because this is preferable to asking the question “what is the addiction masking?”

When health deteriorates, who does the housework?

Living in a toxic environment can result in long-lasting health issues. It’s starts in the nervous system. Psychologist, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, tells us that our bodies are designed to respond to tolerable stress. But, like going on too drastic of a diet, living with chronic (toxic) stress disrupts the body’s ability to function correctly. Our nervous system either gets stuck in hyper-arousal (where we prepare to fight or flight) or in hypo-arousal (where we freeze or submit) resulting in detrimental physiological consequences, from cardiovascular disease and osteoarthritis, to degrading the white and grey matter in your brain.

Dr. Gabor Mate writes in his book When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection that long-term repression of anger, especially, leads to constant secretion of stress hormones, such as cortisol, resulting in chronic illnesses such as fibromyalgia, chronic pain, autoimmune disease and cancer. (By the way, 80% of people with an autoimmune disease are women!)

If you have symptoms of headaches, nausea, persistent anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks, self-harm, binging or overeating, depression, and even suicidal ideation, these may indications that your nervous system may have been compromised and you should seek medical or psychological support.

Understand, its mistruths that shapes his behaviour not you…

Psychotherapist, Dr. Les Carter, says narcissists often grow up lacking the level of intimacy in the parent-child relationship needed for emotional growth. Whether it was abandonment physically or emotionally, or both, narcissists didn’t receive the attunement and unconditional love needed for secure attachment to develop.

“In order to develop emotional maturity, children need years of satisfying intimate connections with those around them.” (Note, intimate connections do not mean doing tasks in the same room or nearby. Dr. Carter is referring to healthy interactions that form part of social engagement.) “If children receive steady messages of love and concern from their primary caregivers, they begin to recognize that there is a grand world beyond them, one where their emotions and needs don’t always come first.”

Dr. Carter does mention that narcissistic characteristics are not always created through mis-attunement. They may also be absorbed or mimicked by the child. The child sees Dad or Mum treat others a certain way and the child models his behaviour accordingly: deny, lie, and blame others. This is often referred to a reenactment. The child simply believes that this is the way the world operates.

The outcome, either way, is a flawed belief system that creates a false narrative [scroll down for examples].

“Psychologically healthy people like to know what’s going on inside of their relationships: paying attention to how they engage with others and how their words and behaviour impacts others,” says Dr. Carter. “They also tend to have good insight, be introspective, understand nuances, and factor in other people’s unique life experiences. When it comes to the narcissist, they have little to no self-awareness. They do not see themselves as being problematic. This goes back to the ‘false’ self. They learn at an early age that authenticity does not get them what they want.”

Dr. Carter offers five steps to help partners heal:

  • Drop the idealism and self-awareness. A narcissistic doesn’t want to do “psychobabble” (and don’t have a clue what you are talking about when you go there).
  • Take yourself out of the adversarial position. The narcissist by invalidating, shaming and criticizing wants the relationship to be a competition, where he is the winner.
  • Spot the power play and refuse to engage.
  • Create boundaries. Call out inaccuracies and hold your position with decisions.
  • Focus on yourself, not him. You cannot make an unaware person, aware. This is a set up for heartache. Let him remain what he is and find people who are similarly self-aware.

Most importantly, Dr. Carter says: “a partner must understand that the relationship with not be tight and that to survive in the relationship, she must be separate and other.”

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The ‘false narrative’ of the narcissist

Core belief: “Because I am special, I deserve special rules”

  • “I am truly superior to you.” We are all different, but deep down there is a sense of equality across humans. The narcissist concocts the story that “if there is a problem here, it can’t be me because I am better than you, so it must be you.” In his mind, he is a ‘finished product;’ at the top of the heap.
  • “You are supposed to give your power to me.” A partner is not allowed to be decisive because the narcissist needs to be ahead. Further he will do everything in his power to clip her wings. In fact, in his mind, the end goal is “you need to think like me” because then everyone will get along. This a complete invalidation of a partner. Oh, and by the way, giving up her power means all earnings, tax refunds, inheritances, etc.
  • “You’re nothing without me.” The need to be on the high-end of the relationship means they invalidate everything about a partner. He will never acknowledge the support of a partner or her successes. This mindset also applies to his role as the breadwinner if she is a stay-at-home parent.
  • “It’s your job to keep my ego propped up.” The narcissist does not like to be ignored. He needs compliments and recognition for the relationship to work.
  • “You owe me.” If the narcissist helps his partner out, then there is always a hook—it may be suggestions of sex or something else.  Assistance is never given unconditionally.
  • “Your feelings are not my problem.” The narcissist does not take responsibility for the way he makes you feel. If something is said or done that you don’t like, he will tell you “don’t put that on me” or “that’s just how your brain works.” This is often accompanied by a shutdown or dismissal.
  • “It’s your fault.” If there is a problem in the relationship, the fault lies with the partner.
  • “I love you.” This does not mean that he is enamored with a partner at all. He is in love with admiration—that you make them feel better.
  • “I’m sorry.” When the shit hits the fan and a partner threatens to leave, the narcissist will express remorse. However, it will only be temporary because the endgame is always superiority.
  • “This is who I am.” The adult narcissist has blended with a wounded child self but it requires self-awareness to understand this. In his mind, the expectation is to accept his flaws (your perception not his) or leave. This is often impossible due to entrapment.
  • “Nothing you say is significant to me.” But it is. The narcissist covertly collects every piece of data a partner provides. He will then store it and use it against you. Or he will mimic you. (Have you ever been through a traumatic experience and had no emotional support from your partner, but when the same thing happens to a friend you hear all your learnings come out of his mouth?)

Felicia Stewart, 2019