What is a Covert Narcissist Husband? We have a mistaken notion that narcissism is always characterized by a larger than life expansive grandiosity. But there is another form of narcissism which is essentially covert. These men are often prickly pears, hyper-sensitive, and keenly aware of their need to dominate by manipulating others to feel off-balance or inadequate.
All narcissists are readily identifiable by their confidence and superior bearing. The extroverted narcissist can often be somewhat blatantly in your face, while the covert narcissist husband is more subtle and indirect in establishing his superiority.
We work with highly successful couples and many men we see have reasons to be proud and confident in their achievements. But when does feeling good about yourself spill over to covert narcissism?
Passive-Aggression. Clinical Covert Narcissist Husbands engage their spouses with a heavy passive-aggression. Like the blatant narcissist, they will feign interest in what their wives want, but at the end of the day, these Covert Narcissist Husbands will either conveniently forget what their spouse asked for or supply some half-hearted, self-serving explanation why they didn’t follow through.
Back Down to Earth. These husbands need to recognize how intolerable this behavior would be to them if other people acted that way. They expect others to keep their word, deliver on promises, and hold up their end of the bargain. Our work involves helping these men get in touch with these internal standards and then apply these standards to themselves. They begin to set longer-term goals and start planning in their personal lives, just as they have so successfully done in their working lives. Our one-on-one marital retreats (one couple at a time) provides a large block of time to work on their individual and relationship issues. Our extensive pre-retreat assessment helps us know who they are and what they want to see changed, and allows us the time to accomplish a large part of this work.
Supreme Self-Possession Smugness/Superiority. Blatant in-your-face narcissist husbands are obvious. You can see them coming. They crave attention and approval. Covert Narcissist Husbands may be sly and much harder to spot. They are keen observers. They observe, evaluate, and render abrupt and sometimes merciless judgment. They have an air of bored disdain.
These clinical Covert Narcissist Husbands are often emotionally disengaged from others. They make eye contact sparingly. Their fate is to endure the folly of others. They exhibit contemptuous behavior such as smirking, stifled mocking laughter, or eye-rolling.
The wives of covert narcissist husbands may feel a withering contempt wrapped up in a superficial long-suffering demeanor.
Back Down to Earth. Emotional disengagement is painful, and it’s lonely at the top. Especially because Covert Narcissistic Husbands often feel criticized and so lash out and try to “get even.” We teach the difference between “complaining” and “criticizing” and point out how important it is for these men to learn to “toughen up” and recognize their shell is keeping them distant and lonely. “Perfection” has it’s cost. And it’s not so perfect, either.
Impeccable Hyper-Sensitivity. Covert Narcissist Husbands have an impeccable hyper-sensitivity. They will take offense by any criticism real or imagined. They bristle at any suggestion that they have failed in any way. At the extreme end, these husbands can be extremely emotionally abusive.
Their defenses are to be witheringly dismissive or to skulk off into a sullen silence and withdraw. They tend not to comment on how upset they are, preferring to be perfectly self-contained and aloof.
Back Down to Earth. Recognizing where this hyper-sensitivity comes from is an essential step. And science-based couples therapy helps to re-direct these men and assist their wives to make softened start-ups and effective complaints. Heck, we prescribe it and have them practice it as an important skill! And withdrawal when flooded can be effective only when it’s part of an attempt to self-regulate, not manipulate.
Utter and Complete Self-Absorption. It ‘s sometimes easy to confuse the Covert Narcissist Husband with a garden variety introvert. Here is the essential difference.
Introverts may be quiet, but they are fully capable of bestowing attention. Covert Narcissist Husbands are also quiet but are reliably poor listeners.
The reason they are such poor listeners is that they are paying far more attention to a relentlessly evaluative inner dialogue. They will make a quick real-time assessment of a person or situation, deem it dull, stupid, or beneath their attention, and then they will disengage (not that they were particularly engaged in the first place).
Back Down to Earth. On the surface, it looks like these men have little use for others. But the reality is quite the opposite. “Reject before you’re rejected” is often behind this bored outward appearance. Helping wives to re-engage with a husband that has repeatedly rejected her is one part. The other is to slow down the husband’s reactivity and expand his dialogue beyond sound-bites.
Vitamin E Deficit
All clinical narcissists have little or no empathy for others. Even when their wives complain about the negative impact of their behaviors, their Covert Narcissist Husbands somehow manage to shift the discussion back to where it more appropriately belongs…on themselves.
Back Down to Earth. Empathy can be defined as the capacity to identify and share someone else’s emotions and experiences. When you can effectively mirror your wife’s feelings in a way that lets her know that her feelings are understood and shared, you’re on the road to practicing empathetic engagement. It’s a set of practical skills like learning to attune, recognize another’s emotions, and directly acknowledge them (and your own as different from their’s). But if you’ve never had practice doing this as a child, you’re going to be rusty at it (or blind to why it’s necessary!) Dr. John Gottman has broken these skills down into manageable parts, and we provide these men with the rationale, and doable skills to develop and enhance empathy.
Here’s an interesting fact about what is called “normal” or sub-clinical narcissism.
It can be a good thing.
First, let’s define our terms. A “normal Covert Narcissist Husband” is only slightly more narcissistic than the average husband. They are much far down on the lower end of the narcissism spectrum than the Clinical Covert Narcissist Husband.
A recent study of 340 Italian adolescents found that, although young narcissists were self-centered, they did better on their exams than their IQ levels might have predicted.
Here’s the thing. Covert Narcissists are not more intelligent.
But they believe that they are, and that belief bestows an assertive self-confidence. Covert Narcissist Husbands probably became husbands in the first place because their calm sense of poise and confidence was a deeply attractive trait to their future spouse.
Dr. Kostas Papageorgiou was the lead researcher who reminds us again of the “Dark Triad” that we discussed in an earlier post.
“Narcissism is considered as a socially malevolent trait and it is part of the Dark Triad of personality traits — narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. Previous studies indicate that narcissism is a growing trend in our society but this does not necessarily mean that an individual who displays high narcissistic qualities has a personality disorder.
In our research, we focused on subclinical or “normal” narcissism. Subclinical Narcissism includes some of the same features of clinical syndrome — grandiosity, entitlement, dominance, and superiority. If you are a narcissist you believe strongly that you are better than anyone else and that you deserve reward.” Dr. Kostas Papageorgiou
Dr. Papageorgiou believes that mental toughness is the key:
What we are talking about here in an important trait…mental toughness. Resiliency. An abiding sense of self-confidence. If a person is mentally tough, they are likely to embrace challenges and see these as an opportunity for personal growth.
People who score high on subclinical narcissism may be at an advantage because their heightened sense of self-worth may mean they are more motivated, assertive, and successful in certain contexts. Previous research is our lab has shown that subclinical narcissism may increase mental toughness.
If an individual scores high on mental toughness this means they can perform at their very best in pressured and diverse situations. Dr. Kostas Papageorgiou
Dr. Papageorgiou suggests that we should try to think about narcissism in a more complex way.
On the low end of the spectrum, “normal” Covert Narcissist Husbands can be highly attractive. They have an unshakable self-confidence and mental toughness.
They convey a self-possession, a poise, and self-confidence that bestows a quality of resiliency and inner calm. They can be very attractive.
Dr. Papageorgiou believes that wholesale classifications such as the “Dark Triad” are reflections of rather limited conventional notions of morality. Other research also suggests that low levels of narcissism can be socially useful.
He believes that we have an unfortunate tendency to classify emotions or personality traits as being either “bad” or “good.” However, these traits exist for a reason. They are the ongoings products of evolution, and as such, are neither truly “bad” nor “good.”
At the end of the day, these traits are either adaptive or maladaptive…they either work for you or they work against you.
And Covert Narcissist Husbands in the normal range can be attractive mates. They are not devoid of empathy, and they have a greater ability to bestow attention on others. They possess a mental toughness and inner strength that often exceeds the actual parameters of their abilities. They are bold. We know that confidence and resilience are highly adaptive and valuable traits.
The idea that a smidgeon of narcissism is good for you is coming up pretty regularly in recent research in a number of places, but will probably remain a controversial idea for some time to come.
In the meanwhile, if you find yourself in love with a Covert Narcissistic Husband, don’t give up hope, give up a weekend! Intensive Marital Retreats help couples learn the necessary tools to relate well and heal affairs, marital conflicts, and other issues related to covert narcissism.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.