Covert Narcissist Relationship Cycle
Covert Narcissist Relationship Cycle

Covert narcissistic relationships can be enigmatic and emotionally tumultuous experiences. It’s crucial to recognize the signs and understand the intricate cycle of manipulation and abuse that often characterizes these relationships. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll delve into the depths of covert narcissism, exploring what sets it apart from its overt counterpart and identifying warning signs.

We’ll also uncover the covert narcissist relationship cycle, its devastating impact on victims, and offer compassionate guidance on how to cope with and ultimately break free from this toxic pattern. Let’s begin our journey of understanding and healing.

Understanding Covert Narcissism

Defining Covert Narcissism

Covert narcissism is a personality disorder characterized by an individual’s intense self-absorption, grandiosity, and an overwhelming need for admiration and validation. Unlike overt narcissists who openly display their egotism, covert narcissists are adept at hiding their true nature beneath a facade of humility and shyness.

How Covert Narcissism Differs from Overt Narcissism

While both covert and overt narcissists share core narcissistic traits, they exhibit significant differences in their behavior and presentation:

Overt Narcissism

  • Obvious Self-Centeredness: Overt narcissists openly display their self-absorption, often seeking constant admiration and attention.
  • Grandiose Behavior: They frequently exaggerate their achievements and believe they are unique or exceptional.
  • Lack of Empathy: Empathy is typically lacking in overt narcissists, and they may struggle to understand or care about others’ feelings.
  • Easily Recognizable: Their behavior is often more conspicuous, making it relatively easier to identify them.

Covert Narcissism

  • Hidden Self-Absorption: Covert narcissists are masters of concealment, presenting themselves as modest and sensitive.
  • Hypersensitivity: They tend to be highly sensitive to criticism and often engage in self-pity when challenged.
  • Intermittent Empathy: Covert narcissists may display moments of empathy, making them harder to identify as narcissists.
  • Challenging to Detect: Their covert nature makes them less obvious, and their manipulation is often more subtle.

Understanding these distinctions is essential for recognizing covert narcissistic tactics and navigating the complex dynamics of relationships with them.

Next, we’ll delve into the warning signs that can help you identify if you are in a relationship with a covert narcissist.

Warning Signs: Are You in a Relationship with a Covert Narcissist?

Covert narcissists possess the uncanny ability to hide their true selves behind a veil of charm and apparent sensitivity. Despite their adeptness at concealing their narcissistic tendencies, there are several warning signs that, when examined closely, can help you discern if you are entangled in a relationship with a covert narcissist. So, let’s dive into the mind of a covert narcissist and take a more in-depth look at these signs:

#1. Excessive Charm and Flattery

One of the initial red flags in identifying a covert narcissist is their knack for showering you with excessive charm and flattery. They excel in making you feel like the most significant person in their world. However, it’s essential to recognize that this charm often serves as a smokescreen to manipulate and exert control over you. They use these tactics to build a sense of dependency, making it harder for you to see through their facade.

Here’s a more in-depth look at how covert narcissist manipulate. You might find it interesting.

#2. Overly Sensitive or Defensive

Covert narcissists exhibit an extraordinary level of sensitivity to criticism. Even the mildest form of feedback or constructive advice can trigger intense defensiveness in them. They tend to interpret any form of critique as a personal attack, leading to frequent conflicts and emotional turmoil in the relationship. It becomes challenging to express your feelings or concerns without fear of triggering their defensive reactions.

#3. Self-Pity

A common tactic employed by covert narcissists is the use of self-pity and victimization. They often present themselves as perpetual victims, seeking sympathy and emotional support from those around them. This strategy allows them to deflect blame and responsibility for their actions while gaining unwarranted attention and empathy. As a result, you might find yourself continually consoling them, even when you are the one who needs support.

#4. Lack of Empathy

While covert narcissists may occasionally exhibit empathy, it is often inconsistent and selective. They might struggle to genuinely understand or validate your feelings and needs, leaving you feeling emotionally unfulfilled. This sporadic display of empathy can be confusing and may keep you hoping for more substantial emotional connections that rarely materialize.

#5. Boundary Issues

Covert narcissists frequently exhibit poor boundaries in their relationships. They may invade your personal space, disregard your established boundaries, and expect you to prioritize their needs over your own. This intrusion into your personal autonomy can lead to feelings of suffocation and a gradual erosion of your sense of self. Recognizing these boundary violations is crucial in understanding the dynamics of your relationship with a covert narcissist.

#6. Inconsistent Behavior

Covert narcissists often exhibit inconsistent behavior that can leave you feeling bewildered. They may alternate between being charming and distant, caring and neglectful, making it challenging to predict their actions or moods. This inconsistency keeps you perpetually on edge, uncertain about how to approach the relationship.

#7. Seeking Validation

While everyone seeks validation to some extent, covert narcissists have an insatiable need for it. They require constant affirmation and reassurance of their worth and importance. They may fish for compliments, praise, or validation of their achievements, making it emotionally exhausting for you to meet their relentless demands for attention.

#8. Controlling Behavior

Covert narcissists often display controlling tendencies in their relationships. They may subtly manipulate situations to ensure they get their way or use passive-aggressive tactics to exert control. Their control extends to decision-making, finances, and even your social interactions, gradually isolating you from friends and family.

#9. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a prevalent manipulation technique employed by covert narcissists. They engage in psychological manipulation to make you doubt your perception of reality, memory, or sanity. Gaslighting tactics can leave you feeling confused, questioning your own judgment, and dependent on the covert narcissist for a sense of reality.

#10. Lack of Accountability

Covert narcissists rarely take responsibility for their actions or admit fault. Instead, they are quick to deflect blame onto others, including you. This evasion of accountability can be frustrating and emotionally draining, as it prevents the resolution of conflicts and perpetuates a cycle of manipulation and denial.

#11. Negative Self-Talk

Covert narcissists often engage in negative self-talk and self-deprecating statements, drawing attention to their perceived flaws or shortcomings. While this may appear as a sign of humility, it is, in fact, a manipulation tactic aimed at garnering sympathy and reassurance from you. Their constant need for validation can be emotionally draining as you find yourself constantly reassuring them.

#12. Isolation

Covert narcissists tend to isolate their partners from friends and family over time. They may subtly undermine your relationships with others, causing you to withdraw from your support network. This isolation leaves you feeling increasingly dependent on them for emotional support, further entrenching their control.

#13. Conditional Love

Covert narcissists often offer love and affection conditionally. They may withhold affection or approval as a means of control, making you feel like you need to meet certain expectations to receive their love. This creates an environment of uncertainty and insecurity in the relationship.

#14. Manipulative Silence

Silence can be a powerful weapon in the covert narcissist’s arsenal. They may use prolonged periods of silence or withdrawal as a way to control and punish you for perceived wrongs. This manipulation tactic leaves you anxious and constantly trying to decipher their intentions.

#15. Projection

Covert narcissists frequently engage in projection, attributing their own negative qualities, behaviors, or thoughts onto you. This tactic serves to deflect attention away from their flaws and make you question your own sanity or character. The constant projection can lead to self-doubt and confusion about your own identity and values.

The Covert Narcissist Relationship Cycle


The covert narcissist relationship cycle typically begins with the phase of idealization. During this initial stage, the narcissist showers their partner with affection, admiration, and seemingly unconditional love. They make you feel like you are the most special and cherished person in their life. This intense idealization can be overwhelming and intoxicating, creating a deep emotional bond between you and the narcissist.

The covert narcissist may go to great lengths to win your trust and devotion. They may constantly praise you, make grandiose promises, and idealize the relationship itself. This phase often leads you to believe that you’ve found your soulmate and that your relationship is exceptional. However, it’s crucial to understand that this idealization is a manipulation tactic employed by the narcissist to gain your trust and loyalty. In reality, it sets the stage for the more damaging phases of the covert narcissist relationship cycle.


After the idealization phase, the covert narcissist relationship cycle takes a sharp turn into the devaluation phase. In this stage, the narcissist’s behavior undergoes a dramatic shift. They begin to criticize, devalue, and undermine their partner, eroding the self-esteem and self-worth of their victim.

During the devaluation phase, the covert narcissist may engage in various destructive behaviors, including:

  • Criticizing: They start to find fault in everything you do, constantly pointing out your flaws and mistakes.
  • Withholding Affection: The affection and admiration that were once freely given become scarce, leaving you starved for emotional connection.
  • Blaming: Covert narcissists often shift blame onto their partners for any issues or problems in the relationship, refusing to take responsibility for their actions.
  • Gaslighting: Gaslighting intensifies during this phase, with the narcissist manipulating your perception of reality and making you doubt your own experiences.

Such devalue tactics can be emotionally devastating, leading to feelings of confusion, self-doubt, and a sense of unworthiness. It’s a critical stage in the covert narcissist relationship cycle and often marks the beginning of significant emotional turmoil for the victim.

Discard or Reconciliation

The covert narcissist relationship cycle reaches a pivotal juncture with the phase of discard or reconciliation. During this stage, the narcissist makes a choice between two possible paths:


In the discard scenario, the covert narcissist abruptly ends the relationship or withdraws emotionally. This can be a traumatic experience for the victim, as it often occurs without warning or explanation. The narcissist may move on to a new partner or pursue other interests, leaving their previous partner feeling abandoned and emotionally devastated.


Alternatively, the narcissist may choose to reconcile after the devaluation phase. They may display remorse, apologize, and promise to change their behavior. This reconciliation can be genuine or a manipulation tactic to regain control over the victim. Victims often grapple with the decision of whether to give the relationship another chance or move on. It isn’t always easy to know whether the narcissist is really coming back or it’s just a trick.

The choice between discard and reconciliation sets the stage for the next phases in the covert narcissist relationship cycle, known as hoovering and its subsequent iterations.


The hoovering phase is a manipulative tactic frequently employed by covert narcissists. It occurs after the discard or reconciliation stage and is named after the Hoover vacuum cleaner, symbolizing the narcissist’s attempt to suck their victim back into the relationship.

During hoovering, the narcissist may use various strategies to reestablish contact and control:

  • Love-Bombing: They shower the victim with affection, promises of change, and declarations of love, making it hard to resist their advances.
  • Pity-Seeking: The narcissist may play the victim, claiming to be suffering or in need of help, triggering the victim’s empathy and guilt.
  • Apologies and Promises: They may apologize profusely, promising to address their abusive behavior and become a better partner.

The hoovering phase can be confusing for the victim, as it often creates a glimmer of hope for positive change. However, it is crucial to recognize that hoovering is typically a manipulation tactic aimed at regaining control, and the cycle of abuse often repeats itself if the victim falls into this trap.

How The Covert Narcissist Relationship Cycle Affects the Victim

The covert narcissist relationship cycle exerts a profound and damaging impact on the victim’s emotional and psychological well-being. Understanding these effects is crucial for those who have experienced or are currently in a relationship with a covert narcissist. Let’s delve deeper into how the covert narcissist relationship cycle affects the victim:

#1. Emotional Manipulation and Confusion

In the initial idealization phase, victims are swept off their feet by the narcissist’s affection and charm. They are led to believe that they have found their perfect partner, and the relationship seems idyllic. However, the sudden and jarring shift into the devaluation phase leaves victims emotionally manipulated and utterly bewildered. The constant fluctuation in the narcissist’s behavior and emotions creates a perpetual state of confusion. Victims may find themselves questioning their own actions, desperately trying to understand what they did wrong to provoke the narcissist’s change in attitude.

#2. Erosion of Self-Esteem and Self-Worth

The devaluation phase is particularly damaging to the victim’s self-esteem and self-worth. Constant criticism, belittling, and demeaning remarks from the narcissist make victims doubt their value and abilities. Over time, this persistent devaluation chips away at their self-esteem, leaving them feeling worthless and inadequate. Victims may internalize the negative messages they receive from the narcissist, leading to a diminished sense of self-worth.

#3. Anxiety and Depression

Living in a perpetual cycle of manipulation and abuse takes a toll on the victim’s emotional well-being. Victims often experience high levels of anxiety and depression as they grapple with the constant fear of the narcissist’s reactions and the emotional turmoil within the relationship. The unpredictability of the narcissist’s behavior and the emotional roller coaster they create contribute to these mental health issues. Victims may feel trapped in a never-ending cycle of anxiety and sadness, with no clear path to escape.

#4. Isolation from Supportive Relationships

Covert narcissists tend to isolate their victims from friends and family. They employ various tactics to undermine the victim’s other relationships, such as spreading distrust, creating conflicts, or portraying themselves as the victim of external influences. This isolation leaves victims without a support system and feeling isolated and alone. The absence of a supportive network can exacerbate the victim’s feelings of helplessness and dependency on the narcissist, making it even more challenging to break free from the toxic relationship.

#5. Cognitive Dissonance and Self-Doubt

Victims often experience cognitive dissonance—a state of inner conflict—when they grapple with the stark contrast between the idealized image of the narcissist during the idealization phase and the abusive reality of the devaluation phase. This internal conflict leads to profound self-doubt and confusion about the true nature of the relationship. Victims may find themselves questioning their judgment, wondering if they are overreacting, or hoping for a return to the initial idealization phase. This internal turmoil further entangles them in the cycle of abuse, making it challenging to break free.

#6. Increased Stress Levels

Living in a covert narcissist relationship can be incredibly stressful. The constant emotional turmoil, walking on eggshells to avoid conflict, and dealing with the narcissist’s unpredictable behavior all contribute to elevated stress levels. This chronic stress can have detrimental effects on both the victim’s physical and mental health.

The stress experienced in this type of relationship is not the ordinary stress of daily life. It’s an insidious and unrelenting pressure that leaves the victim in a constant state of alertness, ready to respond to the narcissist’s ever-changing demands and moods. Over time, this stress can lead to a range of health issues, including headaches, digestive problems, sleep disturbances, and even more severe conditions like high blood pressure or heart problems.

#7. Physical Health Implications

The prolonged exposure to stress and emotional abuse in a covert narcissist relationship can manifest in various physical health issues. These may include headaches, digestive problems, sleep disturbances, and even more severe conditions like high blood pressure or heart problems. The toll on the victim’s body is an often overlooked aspect of the harm caused by the covert narcissist relationship cycle.

The body and mind are interconnected, and the ongoing stress from the relationship can weaken the immune system, making the victim more susceptible to illnesses. Additionally, the constant emotional turmoil can lead to chronic conditions like depression, which can further impact physical health.

#8. Fear of Abandonment

Covert narcissists often use the fear of abandonment as a tool for manipulation. They may threaten to leave the relationship or suggest that the victim is replaceable. This constant fear of being abandoned can lead to extreme anxiety and desperation to keep the narcissist in the relationship, even at the cost of the victim’s well-being.

The fear of abandonment is a powerful emotional weapon used by the narcissist to maintain control. Victims may go to great lengths to avoid triggering this fear, even if it means sacrificing their own needs and desires. Over time, this fear can erode the victim’s self-worth, making them feel utterly dependent on the narcissist’s presence and approval.

#9. Diminished Independence

As the covert narcissist exerts more control over the victim, their independence gradually diminishes. Victims may find themselves making decisions to appease the narcissist rather than based on their own desires and needs. This erosion of independence can be suffocating and further weaken the victim’s self-esteem.

The narcissist’s need for control extends to every aspect of the relationship, including decision-making. Victims often feel as though they have lost their autonomy, as the narcissist’s preferences and demands take precedence. This loss of independence can lead to feelings of frustration, helplessness, and a diminished sense of self.

#10. Difficulty in Trusting Future Relationships

After experiencing the intense manipulation and emotional abuse in a covert narcissist relationship, victims often struggle with trust issues in future relationships. They may have difficulty opening up, fear being hurt again, or find it challenging to distinguish between genuine affection and manipulation.

The scars left by a covert narcissistic relationship can persist long after the victim has escaped the cycle of abuse. Trust, which is essential for healthy relationships, becomes a fragile commodity. Victims may be hesitant to trust others, constantly on guard for signs of manipulation or abuse, and may even isolate themselves to avoid potential harm.

These effects collectively paint a harrowing picture of the emotional and psychological toll inflicted on victims trapped in the covert narcissist relationship cycle. In the following sections, we will explore coping strategies to help victims navigate this challenging terrain and eventually break free from the cycle of abuse.

How to Cope with the Covert Narcissist Relationship Cycle

Coping with the covert narcissist relationship cycle can be an arduous journey, but it is essential for the victim’s well-being and eventual liberation from the toxic dynamic. Let’s delve into coping strategies that can help individuals navigate each phase of the cycle:

Coping with the Idealization Phase

The idealization phase may seem enchanting, but it’s crucial to approach it with caution:

#1. Maintain Perspective

During the idealization phase, it’s crucial to maintain a sense of perspective. Recognize that the narcissist’s excessive charm and flattery are manipulation tactics designed to draw you in. Keep a journal to document your feelings and observations, which can help you stay grounded in reality. By maintaining perspective, you can resist becoming overly infatuated and maintain a balanced view of the relationship.

#2. Set Boundaries Early

Establish clear boundaries from the outset of the relationship. Communicate your needs and expectations to the narcissist. Setting boundaries can help protect your emotional well-being and create a framework for a healthier relationship. It’s essential to assert your boundaries consistently and not compromise them to appease the narcissist’s demands. This early boundary-setting lays the foundation for a more equitable dynamic.

Coping with the Devaluation Phase

The devaluation phase can be emotionally taxing, but there are ways to cope effectively:

#1. Self-Validation

In the face of constant criticism and devaluation, practice self-validation. Remind yourself of your worth and capabilities. Seek support from friends or a therapist to reinforce your self-esteem. Self-validation is essential for counteracting the negative messages and doubts sown by the narcissist. It helps you maintain a healthy sense of self-worth and resist internalizing the hurtful words and actions.

#2. Limit Engagement

Minimize engagement with the narcissist during the devaluation phase. Avoid reacting to their provocations or seeking validation from them. Instead, focus on self-care and emotional healing. Limiting engagement means not getting drawn into the narcissist’s emotional turmoil and manipulations. By disengaging, you protect yourself from further emotional harm and regain control over your emotional well-being.

#3. Seek Support

Lean on friends, family, or a therapist for support during this challenging phase. Talking to a trusted confidant can provide validation and perspective, helping you cope with the emotional turmoil. Support systems play a crucial role in helping you maintain your mental and emotional stability. They offer a safe space to express your feelings, gain insight, and receive the emotional support you need.

Coping with the Discard Phase

The discard phase can be painful, but there are strategies to navigate it:

#1. Self-Care

Prioritize self-care to heal from the emotional wounds of the discard phase. Engage in activities that bring you joy, practice relaxation techniques, and prioritize your physical and mental well-being. Self-care is a vital aspect of recovery, helping you regain your emotional strength and resilience. It involves nurturing yourself and taking deliberate steps to promote healing and well-being.

#2. Seek Closure

Seeking closure can be essential for moving forward. This closure may come from therapy, journaling, or directly confronting the narcissist to gain clarity and resolution. Closure is a critical step in the healing process, allowing you to make sense of the relationship’s end and find a sense of closure. It helps you find a sense of resolution and allows you to move forward with greater clarity and peace of mind.

#3. Reflect on Patterns

Reflect on the patterns and dynamics of the relationship. Understanding how you became entangled in the cycle can help you avoid similar situations in the future. Self-reflection is a valuable tool for personal growth and preventing future toxic relationships. By identifying the red flags and patterns, you can develop a heightened awareness of potential pitfalls and make healthier choices in your future relationships.

Coping with the Reconciliation Phase

Approach the reconciliation phase with caution and self-reflection:

#1. Caution and Self-Reflection

Approach reconciliation with caution and self-reflection. Assess whether the narcissist’s remorse is genuine or a manipulation tactic. Trust your instincts and prioritize your well-being. Caution is crucial during this phase to avoid falling back into a toxic relationship. Self-reflection helps you evaluate whether reconciliation is in your best interest and whether the narcissist has genuinely changed.

#2. Communication

If you choose to reconcile, open honest communication is essential. Express your needs and boundaries clearly. Seek couples therapy if necessary to work through underlying issues. Effective communication is the cornerstone of any healthy relationship. It allows you to express your feelings, set boundaries, and work together to address the issues that contributed to the toxic dynamic.

#3. Independent Growth

Focus on your personal growth and independence during the reconciliation phase. Rebuild your self-esteem, pursue your goals, and nurture your individuality. Independent growth is vital for maintaining a healthy sense of self and preventing a return to codependency. It allows you to prioritize your own well-being and interests while being part of a relationship.

Coping with the Hoovering Phase

Stay grounded and minimize contact during the hoovering phase:

#1. Stay Grounded

During hoovering, stay grounded in your decision-making. Remember the pain and manipulation you experienced in the past. Consult your support network for guidance. Staying grounded means keeping a firm grasp on the reality of the relationship and the narcissist’s manipulative tactics. It helps you resist being drawn back into the cycle of abuse and maintain your resolve to protect your well-being.

#2. Minimize Contact

Limit contact with the narcissist as much as possible during hoovering. Maintain boundaries and avoid falling back into old patterns. Minimizing contact is a key strategy for breaking free from the cycle of abuse. It prevents the narcissist from exerting control and allows you to focus on your healing and personal growth.

#3. Consult a Therapist

Consider seeking therapy to navigate the complexities of the hoovering phase. A therapist can provide valuable insight and support as you make decisions about the future of the relationship. Therapy is an invaluable resource for gaining clarity and making informed decisions during the hoovering phase. It offers a safe and impartial space to explore your feelings and options.

Closing Thoughts

Understanding the covert narcissist relationship cycle is the first step toward healing and breaking free from its grip. If you find yourself in such a relationship, know that you are not alone, and help is available. Compassion for yourself is paramount; the journey to recovery can be challenging, but it is worth it.

Reclaim your self-esteem, rebuild your life, and nurture healthier relationships. Seek support from trusted friends, family, or therapists who can provide guidance and validation. Remember that you deserve love, respect, and a life free from manipulation and abuse. The path to healing is yours to walk, and brighter days await you.