Warning Signs of the Abuser You Never See Coming
When it comes to romantic relationships, resilient people have this one thing in common. Quite often, they don’t discover that they’ve been enduring actual abuse until their psychological resources are nearly depleted, which takes a great deal longer than others without their strength. It’s not that they don’t see signs or fail to identify toxic behavior. They simply have a knack for working around problems, rising above them, and pushing through them for the sake of achieving their relationship goals. In the meantime, these abusive relationships do take their mental, emotional, and physical toll. By the time a remarkably resilient person stumbles across an article or book, hears a podcast episode, or consults with a therapist who is able to accurately describe the dynamics of their abusive relationship and give it a label, they are mind-blown. After all, the ability to recover from difficulties or bounce back from problems more quickly than others is usually a helpful tool in life. However, it may make some of us even more vulnerable to certain unhealthy dynamics, patterns, and forms of abuse. One such form is narcissistic abuse. It’s important to explore the link between resilient and narcissistic partners because they are likely to pair up with each other, setting the stage for an abusive relationship. The true danger lies in the fact that the narcissist has ulterior motives from the start while their unsuspecting partner is unaware that manipulation will play a primary role throughout their relationship.
What is Narcissism?
You may have heard the word “narcissist” before or even used it to describe someone in your life. Due to the term’s mainstream popularity in recent years, many people understand narcissists to be grandiose individuals that think very highly of themselves, thrive on admiration from others, believe that they are superior to most, and use manipulation to get what they want. While these characteristics are common among narcissists, they only paint a small part of the picture. Narcissistic traits and behaviors are situated on a wide spectrum. Some individuals can be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which falls on one extreme end of the spectrum. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a rare mental condition that occurs in both males and females and currently has no cure. Individuals with NPD wear a mask of extreme confidence, but underneath it lays a fragile ego and sense of self-esteem that cannot withstand any degree of criticism. They have an inflated sense of self-importance and are preoccupied with self-preservation, which influences their decision-making and interactions with others. Individuals with NPD crave attention, validation, and admiration, yet they struggle to build or maintain connections with others due to their use of manipulation to get their needs met. Armed with a sense of entitlement, people with NPD become disappointed, angry, jealous, or feel left out when they are not given the attention, admiration, or special favors they believe they deserve. Their relationships may be troubled, lack genuine connection due to their inability to feel empathy for others, and feel unfulfilling to them. Those with NPD lack awareness and concern about the impact of their attitudes and behaviors on those around them. They are not inclined to believe that they have a problem, which makes seeking treatment low on their priority list. Talk therapy is the standard form of treatment for NPD. However, if relationship problems are the catalyst for seeking therapy, a diagnosed narcissist may only agree to attend because they believe their partner is the problem. Others may exhibit strong narcissistic traits, which means that they might not fit all the criteria to be clinically diagnosed with NPD but still possess many of the characteristics and behaviors of a narc (narcissist).
Narcissistic traits develop early in childhood when a person experiences trauma, is raised by a narcissistic caregiver, or learns that they cannot depend on their caregivers to meet their needs. To cope with any of these deficits, they develop an unwavering attachment to themselves. This self-reliance is rooted in distrust, and constitutes their anxious attachment style in adult relationships. The term covert narcissist is used to describe a narcissist whose behaviors are less recognizable and introverted, despite having the same deficits as an overt narcissist. This does not necessarily indicate that they are purposefully being sneakier or more manipulative than an overt narcissist. It simply refers to the alternate means by which they get their needs met.
The crux of a relationship with narcissistic abuse present is that often, partners struggle to accurately identify or articulate the feelings of confusion, frustration, and depletion associated with managing their narc partner. To truly identify if you’ve been in a harmful relationship with a narc, you must know what narcissistic behaviors look like in daily interactions. Otherwise, it may never occur to you to apply the label “narcissist” to your partner; especially if they are covert. In my clinical experience, covert narcissists exhibit some less widely known characteristics and behaviors toward highly resilient partners. This makes it even more difficult to spot that you’ve been a victim of narcissistic abuse.
Your Resilience Might be a Magnet for Covert Narcissists
Narcissists are attracted to empathetic individuals that have a positive outlook on life and see the best in others. Because narcs lack the ability to truly empathize with other people’s experiences, they see this quality as a commodity. While it’s been a widely held belief that narcissists pursue individuals that are weak or easy, the more strong-minded and resilient you are, the more appealing you may be to a narcissist. You may have survived some traumatic experiences and cultivated the strength to support others. Being educated, successful at work, and healthy at the outset of a dating relationship or marriage are qualities that many narcissistic abuse survivors possess. Other common qualities include being kind, loyal, generous, and willing to give unconditionally once they feel securely connected to their partner. Since narcissists need a constant supply of attention, admiration, and validation, these attractive qualities signal to a narcissist that their specific needs will be met.
High emotional intelligence is another common quality that narcs are attracted to. You may be wondering how individuals with high emotional intelligence are unable to spot the red flags and patterns of a narcissistic abuse relationship more quickly. While there is a pattern to many abusive relationships and narcissistic abuse relationships are no exception, all narcissists are not created equal. The approach of a covert narcissist can easily go undetected if you are unaware of what behaviors to look for. Let’s look at the 3 general stages of narcissistic abuse as well as several specific ways that a covert narc might deviate from more traditional behaviors in a romantic relationship with an extremely resilient person:
Stage 1: Idealization or “Love-bombing” Stage
The 1st stage is widely referred to as the idealization or “love bombing” stage. During this stage, the narc’s goal is to foster feelings of safety, wellbeing, and comfort by mirroring your interests, values, and beliefs. They will dedicate as much time and attention as it takes to make you believe they hold you in high regard. Like a whirlwind romance, you may feel swept off your feet. The narc may exhibit small deviant behaviors that you will later recognize as red flags, but initially they may register as less significant when measured against the narc’s intense efforts to earn your trust and loyalty. “Future faking” is another common tactic that narcissists use in the 1st stage of a relationship. It includes painting a picture for their partner of a shared life. Making plans, suggesting they combine their lives and resources with their partner, and bringing them around family members and friends are examples of future faking. You may feel pressured to commit to them quickly as they assure you that both of you share the same goals about the future.
What if my relationship didn’t start with idealization and love-bombing?
Perhaps you don’t believe you were “love bombed” at the start of your relationship. Your connection didn’t begin as an intense, idyllic whirlwind romance. Instead, you may have experienced a close consistent connection with your partner. You may have known your partner on a platonic level for years before you transitioned into a romantic relationship. Instead of having your alarms set off by your partner coming on very strongly in the beginning then making a drastic shift in behavior, you came to rely on their initial consistency and steady display of feelings for you. In fact, you may have felt like your relationship with your narc partner was the most “normal” and stable relationship you had ever experienced.
A slow-building relationship coupled with initial consistent behavior can be a major smokescreen for narcissistic abuse. Long-distance dating relationships can also be misleading at the start. Narcissists are able to maintain platonic or stable relationships with others until they are ready to activate a deeper, albeit fake connection. Since narcs need a constant supply of attention and validation, they may line up future partners while still in a relationship with someone else. It is not uncommon for a relationship with a narc to feel stable until you’ve let your guard down and committed fully. Once this happens, the narcissist’s behavior will shift, subjecting you to a rollercoaster ride as you attempt to meet their need for attention and validation.
What if my partner warned me that there might be a defect in his/her personality?
Instead of giving you hope of a perfect future with them, covert narcissists may initially take ownership of some of their flaws by telling you they are emotionally closed off, scarred from childhood experiences or a previous relationship, or have difficulty showing affection and expressing emotions. They deliver this news in a vulnerable manner, which may foster compassion versus fear among empathic, nurturing, or codependent partners. If you continue to pursue a connection with them after their disclosure, you might be pleasantly surprised that the struggles they warned you about don’t initially seem to be a problem between the two of you. Your partner may appear to share and express emotions well and show you attention, affection, and what feels like love on a regular basis. If you cite the difference between the defective personality they initially described and the person they are with you, they may indicate that you are responsible for their positive changes and praise the relationship for being unique, special, and unlike anything they have ever experienced before. Because you want to believe that a steady, loving connection with the right person can heal their old wounds, you may accept this temporary state of being as your partner’s new state of normalcy.
While you might not have been showered with grand romantic gestures or presented with a perfect picture, this temporary behavior modification is a form of love bombing. Covert narcissists do struggle with showing consistent affection, vulnerability, and attentiveness. In the initial phase of the relationship, they devote what feels like an inordinate amount of energy to mirroring your volume of expression and affection. While they may have been initially curious about you, their focus is primarily on determining if you have something they want or need. Narcissists are concerned with appearance and status and are masters at assuming a particular role to acquire what they want. Whether you complete their picture of the ideal partner or family, or you supply them with stability, optimism, care, concern, empathy, validation, praise, money, security, or give them access to other people of means or influence, the focus is on maintaining a supply of what they crave and not a genuine connection with you. Therefore, from a narc’s perspective, it may feel like a marathon of over-sharing, overindulging you, and overcompensating for their deficits. You may not feel like they are bombarding you with an abnormal amount of positivity or expression because in a healthy relationship partners share on a regular basis without becoming exhausted. Their mutual physical and emotional output serves to refill each other’s tank.
Stage 2: The Devaluing Stage
Eventually, the narc will become unable to maintain their façade. Whether they lose interest in you or simply tire of pretending to be someone that they are not, they will purposefully or inadvertently slip into a pattern of behaviors you have never seen from them before. The character flaws, personality defects, or lack of genuine connection will begin to change the shape of your relationship. Having studied you closely, they know what buttons and boundaries to push. From small jabs and backhanded compliments to mood swings and inconsistencies in their behavior that weren’t there in the initial dating stage, a narc will exhibit a new set of manipulation tactics in this stage. Where they once behaved like they held you on a pedestal, they may point out flaws, isolate you from loved ones, and subtly discourage you from doing the things you enjoy and need to do to remain successful. When you ask them about the changes in their behavior, they will remind you that they initially warned you that they were flawed. “You knew this was who I was from the very beginning” is a classic line of defense.
This response may become part of an unhealthy cycle of mental and emotional abuse, along with lashing out, using the silent treatment, withholding sex, or telling you that your expectations are too high when you attempt to understand the sharp change in the narc’s behavior. In general, any attempt you make to restore the level of intimacy, vulnerability, and reciprocity they faked in the beginning will be met with stark resistance because they believe that they have already modified themselves so much to fit into the relationship that further changing would result in a loss of their true selves.
What if my partner does not verbally abuse me in traditional ways?
The public praise you may have received from your narc during the initial stage may run counter to the subtle jabs and critiques they provide behind closed doors in the 2nd stage. Narcs purposefully use any weaknesses or shortcomings they discovered about you during the trust-building stage to chip away at your resilience and positivity. Pleasing them in the areas of cooking, cleaning, parenting, sex, personal grooming, money management, or socializing in public can feel like a constantly moving target, though they might not state their dislike directly. Instead, you may receive small doses of negative feedback over time as well as silence versus acknowledgment for your behavior and appearance. Covert narcs control their partners with mood shifts so that they are frequently confused about how to act, and feel a need to walk on eggshells around them.
Counter complaints are a powerful weapon in the covert narcissist’s arsenal against a highly resilient person. Resilient partners often withstand the jabs and critiques, and are capable of seeing through the narcissist’s attempts to bruise their self-esteem. However, accurately calling out a narc’s problematic behavior can activate severe retaliation. If you attempt to highlight the lack of depth of conversation, emotional or physical disconnection, or surface-level coexistence that is indicative of longer-term relationships with a narcissist, they may use phrases like “you’re never satisfied”, “your expectations are too high”, “you want or need too much”, “you’re being controlling”, or “you’re an unhappy/depressed/angry person” to deflect responsibility, shift the blame and label themselves as a victim. Unable to accept responsibility for wrongdoing, narcissists convince themselves that their partner’s actions are the genesis of any existing problems in the relationship. The harder it is for them to tear you down, the more destructive they will become.
These counter complaints are also a form of gaslighting. Gaslighting is a covert way of distorting a person’s perception of reality, causing them to question their memory of certain situations and ultimately their sanity. Narcissists use this tactic to confuse, frustrate, and break their partner down mentally. Circular conversations are the cornerstone of communication with a covert narcissist. Any attempts you make to discuss your concerns or complaints with a narc may be met with gaslighting, because if you can never agree about the most basic details or the sequence of events that you wish to address, then you will be unable to discuss your feelings, get an apology, modify future behavior, or resolve any issues that matter to you. Gaslighting is purposefully used to dismiss your feelings, minimize your needs, evade responsibility, renege on promises or agreements that were previously made, get the narc out of trouble, and retain power and control in the relationship. Even the most resilient person may feel like they are losing their mind after being the victim of gaslighting over time. Experiencing self-doubt, feeling lonely and misunderstood, feeling a sense of false guilt, and keeping silent are other ways you may be affected by gaslighting.
What if my partner supports me publicly?
To the outside world, your narcissistic partner might sound and appear supportive of your success. However, you may feel differently. Covert narcissists are unable to feel genuinely happy for their partners when they make strides or get acknowledged by others for their accomplishments. They may make public gestures like praising you to others or buying you a gift when you reach a milestone. However, it’s not uncommon for them to feel envious, competitive, or angry about any success you achieve outside of your relationship. You may also experience different forms of resistance during the process of achieving certain goals. A covert narc may use passive-aggressive tactics to thwart your efforts. Trying to make you feel guilty about spending time on things outside of the relationship, suggesting activities that will prevent you from finishing tasks, and refusing to help you or take interest in your personal hobbies or goals are examples of the types of sabotage you may encounter behind closed doors. Resilient partners who press forward despite the narc’s best efforts to redirect their attention and downplay their successes may experience forms of punishment such as withholding sex, the silent treatment, increased moodiness and complaints, and different forms of competitive behavior.
Stage 3: The Discarding Stage
Many partners are bewildered after witnessing such a dramatic shift in their relationship with a narcissist. The charming and attentive person they initially met and bonded with is now hard to locate, however, a resilient and empathic individual will not easily give up on rekindling the initial flame. It’s not uncommon to question if you’ve done something wrong to cause the distance or volatile behaviors now present in the relationship. The truth is that the narc has taken his partner off the pedestal. When a partner begins to expect him to meet their mutual need for reciprocity, consistency, and compromise, the narc loses interest or becomes resentful, creating further distance or sparking narcissistic rage. Some narcissists verbalize that their partner is no longer useful or fulfilling, or fails to meet their ever-changing expectations. These excuses may also be used to justify behaviors such as lying, cheating, withholding affection and sex, and violating other relationship boundaries. In some cases, a narcissist may simply decide to leave their partner without warning, causing emotional, mental, physical, or financial distress.
What if my partner wants to stay?
Other narcissists use the threat of leaving as a manipulation tool in their cycle of abuse. In some marriages, a covert narc might complain or lash out about the same issues repeatedly, but make no threat or attempt to leave. Many partners who have endured this form of abuse questioned, “If my spouse was so unhappy, why didn’t she just let me go?” Having provided opportunity after opportunity for the narc to leave on her own, it never happened. Since maintaining public appearance and perception is a common concern and manipulation tactic, a covert narcissist won’t position herself to be “the bad guy”. Narcissists are unable to genuinely take responsibility for their shortcomings and wrongdoings. Publicly owning that they initiated a divorce would force them to be responsible for failing, which requires more ego strength than most of them possess.
Instead of physically and legally ending a marriage, a covert narcissist may withdraw emotionally in front of their partner’s eyes. One subtle but toxic way that narcs do this is by refusing to make important decisions, leaving the responsibility and the outcome to fall on their partner’s shoulders. Covert narcissists may refuse to make decisions that will affect the relationship under the guise of wanting to please you or honor your needs. However, they will make you aware of their disapproval when you’ve made a decision that they don’t like. If something goes wrong they will quickly point the finger at you as the responsible party for using bad judgment or making a mistake. Labeling you as bossy or controlling is another tactic often used by narcs to avoid making decisions and taking the lead. This refusal to lead is sparked by their lack of awareness of what they need to feel satisfied. Insecurities make it even more difficult to risk making a decision that won’t turn out favorably. Having been unsuccessful at filling their emotional voids in the past, they become masters at shifting the focus to their partner’s needs. Unfortunately, they may keep a tally sheet of how many times their partner got their preference, using their false acts of deference to make unrealistic requests for their own personal gain in the future. Their backseat approach helps to fuel their sense of entitlement. Despite your best efforts to include them in decision-making, a narc may grow resentful after deferring to your opinions and desires over time, alleging that they’ve been taken for granted and treated unfairly. This faulty narrative may serve to justify their lack of participation in the relationship.
What should I do if I realize I’m in this type of abusive relationship?
Covert narcissists are emotional vampires that drain their partner’s empathy, concern, validation, praise, and daily energy without making healthy deposits. Resilient partners may discover that they can sustain these withdrawals for a relatively long period of time, relying on their inner strength, faith, and their community of support. However, eventually partners feel confused, frustrated, miserable, and depleted by the cyclical behaviors that their narcissistic partner exhibits. Over time, more serious mental and physical health conditions can develop without partners being aware that their relationship may be the primary contributing factor. Exiting this type of relationship is one of the most challenging things to do because it is designed to keep partners confused, exhausted, and under constant control. Once you become aware that you’ve fallen into a toxic or abusive relationship, the key is to regain your strength and clarity, and ultimately move to a place of physical and emotional safety. Read more information on the subject and empower yourself with the facts. Seek safe support by confiding in loved ones and friends that you can trust not to share information with your partner. It’s unwise to label a narcissist to his face because it can be used against you or spark further abuse. If you have endured physical, mental or emotional abuse I encourage you to reach out to a licensed therapist, contact your local domestic violence shelter to discuss your options, seek legal advice, or consider alternative housing. It may be tempting to focus on how you landed in your situation, however self-blame only reinforces the unhealthy pattern that you’ve been experiencing, in that most of the problems were blamed on you. Falling for a narcissist doesn’t make you broken or weak. In fact, your resilience may have made your narcissist seek you out, while shielding you from their ulterior motives. Working toward healing places the power back in your capable hands where it rightfully belongs.
Weena Cullins is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Relationship Expert. Follow Weena Cullins on Instagram and Twitter @weenacullinslcmft for more articles on similar relationship topics, you can also subscribe to her blog at weenacullins.com/blog.