Narcissists are masters of disguise, and this is especially true of covert narcissists who can go a long time before the fullness of their pathology is revealed. True to the nature of narcissism, covert narcissists need you as a prop, someone to feed their ego and enhance their image. So, when they determine that you are useful in that regard, they can keep their narcissism somewhat under wraps as they groom you for your “position.”

Covert narcissists who play the long game often have various factors already built into the relationship that keep them glued to you. For instance, you may share children, or perhaps you are members of the same extended family. It could be that you have social ties that the narcissist deems advantageous, and the same could be true in work settings. Or it could be that one or both of you feels bound by morality or duty. Whatever the case, coverts can be coy in revealing their entitlement and their need for control.

The pattern of a covert narcissist’s long game is set up by two factors:

  1. Intermittent reinforcement. The narcissist consistently gives the inconsistent message, “I’m with you, not really.” This is accompanied by mood swings and mixed signals. The goal is to keep you confused, not confident in your contributions to the relationship. Yet, throughout, the narcissist will also give you just enough positive reinforcement to keep a glimmer of hope alive.
  2. A slow pull into a trauma bond. In the relationship with the covert, you will naturally want freedom to be yourself, yet a quiet voice in your mind reminds you it would probably not be a good idea. Instead, you will find yourself seeking the narcissist’s approval. Over time, you will feel as if you are never quite adequate enough. This will keep you searching for ways to appease the narcissist…leading to your own psychological demise.

As you become aware of a covert narcissist’s commitment to the long game, you will spot common themes. For instance:

  • The narcissist writes the script for the relationship, and your input is not needed.
  • You can experience moments of optimism, thinking: “Maybe we’ll be okay after all.”
  • That positive feeling, though, cannot be sustained as those mixed messages arise. And the resulting tensions will be your fault. Covert narcissists blame easily.
  • The directive from the narcissist will then be: “Well, if you could just try harder, maybe we will be okay.”

And the cycle continues over and over.

In the meantime, the covert narcissist will minimize your strengths and successes. You will be reminded that it is the narcissist, not you, who gets to shine. The narcissists may occasionally offer gifts and compliments, yet over time, it will be conveyed: “You’re too much trouble.” And if you ever have conversations when the narcissist admits flaws, it tends to be superficial, and eventually the admission will be recanted.

The covert narcissist will make it clear that your job in the relationship is to be the fixer. And, oh by the way, you are the one who needs fixing. When you are in the presence of outsiders, the narcissist can turn on the charm, using humor and being engaging. And you may even consider that as a sign of good things to come. But once you are back in private with the narcissist, the old signs of consistent inconsistency will return.

Intermittent reinforcement

That’s how intermittent reinforcement works and that’s how you become slowly trauma bonded to the narcissist. The net result will be perplexed feelings, dismay, chronic tension, and eventual resentment. The narcissist’s intent will become increasingly clear: “I need to increase, which means you have to decrease.”

But once you fully recognize the covert narcissist’s long game, a fundamental shift in your thinking can occur. You can conclude: “I simply cannot afford for my psychological well-being to hinge on the whims of a schemer.” It is at that point that you can find the resolve to reclaim your privilege to be true to yourself, meaning you will establish and keep healthy relationship boundaries. It is unlikely that the narcissist will appreciate your shift in thought, but that merely confirms the pervasiveness of that person’s selfishness and entitlement.

At some point, it is reasonable for you to ask: “What does it say about a person who deliberately creates traumatic bonds through intermittent reinforcement? And furthermore, what does it say about me if I allow myself to be manipulated like that?”

~Les Carter, Ph.D.

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