I knew I was in trouble when my freshly minted fiancee began to scream, “WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT? WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?” after I politely asked her to stop spending so much money. We’d gone on a vacation with a set budget of $2,500. Her spending took us to $11,000. My subsequent feeble request: “Please just tell me what you’re buying.” Her response? A steely “No.”
I thought my fiancee and I were fighting and needed to work through our differences. I didn’t realize yet that I’d been captured, manipulated, and abused by someone with a mental illness called “covert narcissism.” I thought Donald Trump was a narcissist, a big, bombastic liar. I didn’t know yet that there is a version of the illness that, to every onlooker, looks like a person who is the height of helpfulness. The best friend. The most doting auntie.
Those poor, unassuming friends and participants think, “If only I could land a partner like that, my life would be perfect.” I know. Some of them used to tell me how jealous they were that I had landed my partner. I felt so fortunate; my ship finally having come in, my Disney story complete! Only those unlucky enough to become the “primary” source for a narcissist fully see their actual nature. And I’ve learned through painful experience that people on the outside who have only seen the charming side will simply refuse to believe you could possibly be telling the truth. “No? That person? Abusive? But they’re so kind! Surely you’re mistaken/don’t understand/etc…”
I ended that call apologizing.
“You always do this—panic and then try to control me with money,” she told me in a gently exasperated tone. She wasn’t mad, just disappointed. I could be a good partner if only I could get my toxic behaviors under control. She loved me, she would walk through hot coals for me, she would always be there for me… but I needed to make some changes.
How did I end up apologizing in that situation? Here is how it works. Covert narcissism is a cluster B personality disorder. That cluster also includes antisocial personality disorder (sometimes known as psychopathy), histrionic personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder. People with narcissism all want the same things: attention and control. They all get it the same way: using a pattern beginning with “love bombing” to create a “trauma bond.” The trauma bond makes people behave in ways completely anathema to reason and logic. Trauma bonding makes the victim physically addicted to the abuser, willing to defend their every egregious behavior and overlook every violated boundary, hoping to get one more hit.
Here is how an abuser creates a trauma bond with their victim.
Step 1 – Idealization & Mirroring: In this phase, the love bomber presents themselves as the perfect partner, saying and doing all the right things to win over their target. They may use flattery, gifts, and constant communication to create a sense of closeness and intimacy. They will mirror your hopes and desires, telling you they are exactly what you’ve been looking for. The abuser will often specifically meet an unfulfilled need in the victim, sometimes even one the victim didn’t know they had. This is one way that the idealization is so effective.
Within days of meeting, my partner said, “I’ve never met anybody like you. You’re extraordinary. After my husband divorced me, I never thought I’d ever want to be with someone again in a live-in relationship, but I think I want you.” We would text for hours every single day, and we’d talk on the phone every night. It was a hurricane of romance. We said “I love you” within weeks of meeting, and she asked me to give her a “fake” wedding ring on our third date. She sent flowers and cupcakes to my office. She asked me to marry her four months after we met. I said yes.
Step 2 – Devaluation: Once the narcissist gains the trust and attachment of their partner, they will start to withdraw their attention and affection. This makes their partner feel confused, hurt, and desperate to regain their initial connection with the love bomber. The love bomber may criticize or belittle their partner, making them feel unworthy and insecure. They often do this wrapped in loving words. “I love you so much, and you’re so handsome, but you’ve developed a little belly. Is it okay if I help you with your diet to lose a little weight?” (Note that the communication here is accompanied by a method of control.)
My partner would tell me they’d be home in 30 minutes and show up 2 hours later without explanation. My partner forgot our anniversary, and then when I reminded her about it, she said she’d do something and forgot again. She’d tell me she wanted to buy something for $100, we’d agree, and then the credit card charge would be $300. If I asked about it, she’d get defensive. “Why are you always spying on me?” She told me with her actions that I was unimportant to her, increasingly, that I annoyed her. She could say the phrase, “I see” in a way that melted steel.
Step 3 – Discard: In the final phase, the narcissist may abruptly end the relationship or withdraw completely, leaving the partner feeling abandoned and confused. This can lead the partner to question what went wrong and blame themselves for the breakup. The love bomber will move on to a new target and repeat the cycle again. Alternatively, if the victim allows it to happen, the narcissist may discard and then pick back up with the same victim, who is often willing to take them back, addicted as they are to the cycle of abuse the narcissist’s presence provides.
The abuser creates the trauma bond when they mix step 1 and step 2. The conditioning works like this – if you give a rat a button that makes food come out, it will learn to press the button. If you start to reduce how often food comes out, the rat will push the button more often, and faster, desperately trying to get a treat. When you stop dispensing treats at all… the rat will keep pushing the button until it starves to death. A sensible pattern was never established, so there is no way to figure a pattern out. The rat never learns there is no more food coming out.
This is the best quote I’ve heard about how a trauma bond feels.
“We cannot walk away, though, because without us realizing it, our abuser has become our human needle; our Drug Lord of Love. The person who owns our self-value and self-worth and who, in the name of love, can reject us into deep lows with a single glare, or send us to euphoric highs with one simple smile.”
Sometimes I would say “I love you” and my partner would respond with “goodnight.” Other times, she’d respond by telling me that I was her beginning and end, her alpha and her omega, her reason for being. Sometimes I would tell her I need to go away for a work trip and she’d say, “I see” with downcast eyes. Other times, she would effusively tell me how incredibly proud she was of my accomplishments. Over time, the rate of each type of response changed. And I kept pressing the button hoping for more love to come out. The trauma bond was so strong that after we broke up, I wanted to ask her, “Did I do breaking up with you right?” I craved her approval even in ending our relationship. My entire sense of self-worth became wrapped in her opinion of me. Her smile meant the world was good. Her frown meant I needed to scramble to find a way to please her.
So let’s take a minute to talk about the targets and victims of covert narcissists. Who gets sucked into these situations?
Targets are typically optimistic, loyal, big-hearted people. They’re trusting, nurturing, and forgiving. They’re introspective individuals who will look inward and reflect when criticized. They’re the helpers of the world. They’re also often insecure people looking to others to validate their worth.
They’re people like me! Oops. And my abuser came along at precisely the right moment. I was out on the farthest branch of the tallest tree emotionally. I’d just decided to stop trying to be someone else and instead be myself. I broke up with my partner of 7 years, and I came out as non-binary, non-monogamous, and, well… weird. I like to paint my nails and wear pink when I damn well please. I had no idea if I would ever find a partner to accept me.
“You’re the most spectacularly beautiful human I’ve ever seen in my life,” she told me while taking a hundred more pictures. “I’ve never seen a creature as gorgeous as you are.”
The thing about narcissists is that they don’t mentally differentiate between truth and lies. They believe everything they say. So while you or I might have a tell, a little red cheek, a tiny bit of embarrassment… they don’t. They’ll say things with such total conviction that if they tell you it’s sunny when it’s raining, you’ll stop to think about it for a minute to see if they’re right. And since the lies they’re telling when the relationship starts are *exactly* what the victim wants to hear, why would a victim interrogate them closely? I don’t *want* to know that it’s not true that I’m the most beautiful and perfect person they’ve ever seen.
So how can you tell if you’re dealing with one? The simple but scary truth is this: most people won’t recognize a covert narcissist the first time they meet one. It takes time and active observation to make the dissonance between their words and actions apparent. If you’re only a “casual friend” of one, if you only watch their carefully crafted online image, you may never discern it at all.
If you stop to think about it at all, you’re more likely to chalk any aberrations in their behavior up to them being a “flaky friend who has a lot of health problems.” You’ll need to be their primary target to see who they are. And then they will try to trap you with a trauma bond before you become aware of who they are.
If you are their primary target, here are 5 of the brightest red flags you’ll notice. My warning, though: when you’re wearing rose-colored glasses, red flags just look like flags. It’s very hard to see these while you’re in the love-bombing phase.
- They replace intimacy with intensity. Intimacy is a slow game where people reveal themselves piece by piece, steadily growing closer as trust develops. Covert narcissists can’t play this game, they replace it with intensity. It’s *a lot all at once.* The intensity feels *so good* that they rely on us not noticing that actual intimacy isn’t occurring, just tons of revealing.
- They are constantly pushing and probing boundaries. It’s hard to notice because they often do it by pushing fun boundaries! “One more drink!” after you’ve said you need to work tomorrow. Or “Let’s have sex again!” after you’ve rolled over to sleep.
- They have no long-term relationships. They don’t have friends from high school they still talk to, and they’re not on good terms with any of their exes. A note: This is not, by itself a red flag. Many people have relationships throughout their lives that don’t end well for various reasons. What you need to watch out for is people who have one important commonality in all those relationships they’ve ended: they behaved perfectly, and the end of the relationship was always the other party’s fault. Often, the narcissist will claim that all those people they cut off were dramatic, irrational, or sometimes even narcissistic. The decision to cut them off is to prevent drama or protect themselves.
- They care deeply about presenting a pristine image. Their pictures might be fantastic, and their online profiles may glow. They are often movers and shakers in their communities. Covert and overt narcissists require effusion and praise due to their deep underlying insecurity. They will craft whatever image is necessary to get the praise they believe they deserve. As a result, if you look closely, you may notice some lies, exaggerations, and grandiose behavior in a narcissist’s portrayal of themselves; but of course, unless you really know them, these are nearly impossible to identify.
- Their words don’t match their actions over the medium and long term. They tell you all about their big ideas… but never seem to do anything to achieve them. They promise to attend events but regularly get sick at the last minute and can’t make it. They tell you you’re their reason for being, but then you need to send them 3 text messages before they reply. I’m careful here to specify “medium and long term” because narcissists can fake it short term. For a few days or weeks, they can pull off the reliability trick. But it can’t stick, and it can’t last.
I have pages and pages of notes from the early part of my relationship with my partner. I played interrogator, and she played lab rat. I was amazed at all the information she gave me. A complete history of every romantic partner she’d ever had. Her entire complex medical drama/saga, her most private inner thoughts and concerns. She never expressed the slightest concern about me having all of this private information. I took it to mean she trusted me, but in retrospect, I had done nothing at that point to earn trust. I just asked a bunch of questions, and she kept answering them.
I’m a particular sucker for this one. I want my partners to have what they want, and so I assume good intent and try to give them whatever they ask for. With an ethical partner, this is fine. With a manipulative one… by the time the relationship ended, I had no boundaries left. My partner could, and did, do effectively anything they wanted, anytime they wanted, with my money, without me lodging more than the mildest protest.
My ex told me she had no old relationships because she’d changed her life so much that they were no longer relevant. She’d been on a journey of discovery and only wanted to surround herself with new people. Every relationship that ended, ended despite her best efforts to love and care for those people. She just could never be enough for any of them. Somehow that wasn’t a red flag for me, even though I’ve changed my career multiple times, my gender, my sexuality, and my relationship styles… and I still have besties from elementary school, high school, and college.
I will never again trust online reputations. In my community, my ex is known as an avatar of all that is good and right, and just in the world. She is beloved and fawned over. She regularly gets unsolicited fan mail and proposals. Her pictures are marvelous; her prose is on point. Her image is funny, erudite, and knowledgeable. I thought this visible reputation meant I was safe to dive in. I had no idea it could be a Venus fly trap.
When I first met my ex, I was paying an interior designer to redo my house, and I had various other contractors on hand to clean and maintain my properties. When we talked about her moving in and if she should get a job, she proposed that she would save me more money by taking over for the interior designer, that she could be the Airbnb cleaner, and she could do my property maintenance. She sold herself as the ultimate “Johnny-fix-it.” Then, after moving in… almost zero of those things happened. After a full year of living together, she’d cleaned the Airbnb 2 or 3 times, only after her friends had stayed there. She did near zero property maintenance work. I still paid a professional cleaner to clean our house every 2 weeks and a private chef to make our meals. She kept talking about her desire to do things, and every once in a while, she would do a thing or two to keep the flame burning, but the longer we were together, the further her words got from her actions.
They get away with this by… never mentioning it, relying on the good nature of the victim to want to keep the peace. My ex just didn’t do the things she said she would. I kept paying the cleaner to clean, and over time she stopped saying she would do the cleaning. I kept paying my maintenance tech, and over time she just stopped mentioning doing maintenance.
She also got away with it by using DARVO, which now gets a sidebar.
DARVO – Defend. Attack. Reverse Victim and Offender. Once you know DARVO, you will recognize it quickly and often. Here is how it works. Let’s say you’ve agreed to clean the cat litter box every day. Regularly, I notice the litter box is not getting cleaned. So one day I say to you, “Hey, I thought we agreed you’d clean the litter box every day, but it doesn’t look like that’s happening. What’s up with that?”
The DARVO response will be to first DEFEND yourself – “I clean the litter box all the time!” Then go on the ATTACK – “You know, you’re supposed to check the mail every day, and you don’t always do that.” And finally, Reverse Victim with Offender. “Why are you always nitpicking me for stuff like this that doesn’t matter? I feel so attacked. The cat is fine! Why are you making a big deal out of this?”
My ex used DARVO on me constantly. I once asked her about a purchase she made that cost way more than she’d told me it would cost. Her response? “It wasn’t that much more, and besides, you bought that expensive shirt without telling me. You always do this. You’re always trying to control me with money.”
One time we agreed to have fewer drinks while out at restaurants. She ordered an extra drink, beyond our agreed limit. I said, “Hey, I thought we agreed we’d only order one drink each.” She responded, “I forgot, and I’m really stressed right now. Besides, you know I don’t want you telling me how much to drink! That’s a hard limit for me.”
DARVO can also be done in a very loving, non-confrontational way. I once told my partner, “I want to schedule a meeting with you to discuss how we spend our money.” She responded, “I understand that’s important to you, and something you want to discuss, and we will. Right now, I don’t think that’s the biggest problem in our relationship. Instead, can we focus on the behaviors that I asked you to talk to your therapist about? I felt unsafe when you yelled last week. I love you, and we’ll get through this, but let’s focus on what matters right now.”
Narcissists use DARVO to deflect attention away from them and back onto you, and because they cannot self-reflect or admit fault, they will do so every time there’s a conflict. They’ll never revisit the original topic, they’ll never apologize later for having done so, and they just boomerang your concerns back onto you constantly.
The final tool in a narcissist’s toolbox is warping reality to suit their needs. Once the narcissist has control over their target, and once that target is reliant on the narcissist for all of their validation and support, the narcissist can now change reality as they see fit. They do this in a simple and subtle way: They say false things, then punish you for trying to correct the record and reward you for agreeing with their newly proposed reality. And now that we’re at a point where punishment feels so bad and reward feels so good, the target, addicted to that attention, will do anything to get the reward, including agreeing with things that simply aren’t true. One of the things all narcissists do is project: accuse you of the exact behaviors that they are doing to you. They’ll accuse you of manipulating them, of trying to control them, or of being out of control in your spending, your drug use, or whatever else it is that is true of them.
My partner said to me, “Look, your behavior is a crisis for our relationship. You’re mistreating me when I’m sick, you’re trying to control me with money, and every time you freak out and question our relationship, you make me feel unsafe. You have 100% of the power and control, you could take away everything with a snap of your fingers, I have nothing. You need to start seeing your therapist every week, and we need couples counseling to work on these things right away. I love you forever, I will always love you, and everything will be okay, but we have to fix this.”
Of course, it turns out those were all the things she was holding over me. She had all the power and control, she could do whatever she wanted, and she had taught me to stop protesting. She constantly made me feel unsafe with her behavior, and she controlled me with money… my own money! She made sure I knew how powerful she was by lying about her spending with impunity and accusing me of trying to control her anytime I wanted to talk about it.
My partner also constantly warped the reality of our past (gaslighting). Promises I was sure she’d made? She said they never happened. Activities I was sure occurred? She remembered them totally differently, and after all, she was constantly telling me I had a bad memory, so she must be right. And all of that is intertwined with the trauma bond. Agreeing with her false memory might mean I’d get a moment of love. Disagreeing meant she’d give me DARVO and no love. It soon becomes much easier just to agree. To try to push the button, and get a little more love out of it, even when I was sure she was wrong.
It turns out that her final manipulation attempt also begot the relationship’s downfall. She demanded I go see my therapist, Susan. So I did. My therapist became one of several people in this story who saved my life. I’ve had the same wonderful therapist for about 5 years. I went into the session ready to repeat what my ex said. “Susan, I’ve been manipulating and abusing my partner. She loves me and says we can fix it, but we need to start meeting weekly…” I went on for 10 more minutes about all the ways I now felt convinced I’d been mistreating my ex.
Susan held up a hand. “Zac, stop.” I paused.
“Zac. That is not you. I’ve known you for five years, I know the kind of person you are, I’ve heard your stories and seen how you behave and act in relationships. What you’re describing is not you; it’s not things you do. I’ve been watching your relationship with increasing concern over the last year, and here is what I see…”
And that began a tornado of activity that slowly pulled my brain out of the deception and into the reality of my situation. Many things had to go extremely right for me to get out. First, my ex wasn’t around to control me. She’d stayed in another country for an extra week after I left. Second, my best friend decided enough was enough and forced me to see what was happening. She is the one who saw, and told me, that my ex was a covert narcissist. She made me read a book about it. About halfway through the book, I sent her a text saying, “Oh, thank god! My partner isn’t one of these, so we can just do some couples therapy…”
Within seconds, my phone rang. My best friend made me read the book with her, page by page, and she actively pointed out all the stories I told her that matched the characteristics listed in the book. My trauma bond was so complete, I was so addicted to my ex, that my natural reaction was to try to explain away every concern even when the truth was staring me in the face.
From there, an ever-increasing flood of friends and mental health professionals answered my calls and helped me. I give help often and freely; I ask for help rarely. When I ask for help, my wide network of beloved friends, colleagues, and clients responds in force. I ultimately consulted with 9 different mental health experts and had countless conversations with friends who’d suffered through narcissistic abuse before me. Their stories kept sounding exactly like mine, and with the help and support of my community, I pulled myself away from my abuser.
There is a final irony to this story. The way that one must break up with an abuser feeds into their exact narrative about themselves as the victim of others. The universal advice is this: do it unilaterally, completely, and with a no-contact order. If you try to discuss it with them, they will manipulate you further and abuse you more. They will *never* simply accept that you’re breaking up with them. So I followed that advice. I packed up all of my ex’s things and moved them to storage, I sent her an email with 3 plane tickets to get wherever she wanted to go next, and I told her not to contact me again. I established an intermediary she could use for any messages that needed to come through.
The thing is… that feeds her next narrative. My ex will tell her next partner, “My ex was so cruel! They kicked me out of my house; I didn’t even get to say goodbye to my cat! They left me with nothing, no notice, no goodbye…”
So this is where the story ends for now. I’m safe and I’m out of the abusive relationship. How much of this story you believe will depend on which side of the line you’re on.
Now that I’ve been ostracized by many of our formerly mutual friends, I know how difficult it is to believe. That the person who, to everybody else, appears to be the most loving, giving, supportive person, always unfairly buffeted by forces outside their control but making it through regardless… is really a manipulative narcissist. It just doesn’t make any sense. Surely I misunderstand the situation. Surely, like all relationships, the blame was 50/50, and I’m not taking responsibility for my part. Maybe I’m the narcissist cruelly casting aspersions on an innocent victim (see red flag 3).
Essentially, there are 2 groups. Fellow victims of a narcissist will resonate with me instantly. We have the same stories; we felt the same way. For those of us who survived, there is instant acceptance and recognition, and with that comes the knowledge that people on the outside will never understand.
For those of you who have been lucky enough, and skilled enough, to avoid becoming the primary target of a narcissist, the story may simply not sound plausible. I sound more like I’m talking about a robot movie villain than a real person. I’ve been told, by people in this group, how wrong I am. The one that stung the most was our mutual friend who told me, “She would never do that!” after I told her about the things I had, with my own eyes, seen her do.
So if you’re in group 1, here is more evidence—another story to add to the pile. I’m one of you now. If you’re in group 2, I hope what you’ve read here helps you avoid it in the future. If you get ensnared, maybe you’ll notice a little sooner, and know more about how to get out.
EIther way, thank you for reading. I love you.