13 subtle ways covert narcissists gain control in a relationship

Unlike overt narcissists, covert narcissists are harder to spot—especially if you’re deeply in love with them.

Aside from them being very subtle with their moves, love can make it difficult for us to see things clearly.

Wondering if you (or someone you know) are in a relationship with one? Take a closer look at how much power they have.

Here are 13 subtle ways covert narcissists gain control in a relationship.

1) They shower you with love—at least at the beginning

A covert narc knows that for them to gain control over you, you have to be head-over-heels in love with them first.

Otherwise, they won’t have much influence over you.

Their long-term goal is to make you so in love with them that they become your everything. 

And when they finally hear you say “What would I do without you?” or “You’re my everything”, they’ll be elated.

It’s not only because they naturally like being adored and needed, but it’s also because those are the magic words they need so they can perform their next moves.

2) They tell you about their grand dreams

They will become a multimillionaire—just you wait.

They will make a best-selling novel, a film that would win the Oscars, an invention that would put them in history books.

At least that’s what they always tell you.

Narcissists do this so you’ll support them in everything they do and never question their decisions. 

After all, why would you not support someone who’ll become great someday? 

They want you to fall in love and have faith in their potential. That way, they can wrap you around their fingers and call all the shots.

3) They flaunt their strengths

If they earn 3x more than you, they’d make you aware of that in their own little ways.

And if they’re fit and you’re a bit flabby, they’d “joke” about it. 

Well, they do this not only because they’re narcissists who want to be the best at everything, they do this so they have a “valid reason” to gain control over you.

They see it as their ticket to gain control in some aspects of your life. After all, they’re “good” at those things and you’re obviously “bad” at them.

4) They’re good at giving a shit sandwich

Covert narcs find it hard to give genuine praise.

They’ll praise you for your wins, of course. Not doing so would be weird.

But they won’t make you feel so good about it because they fear that you’ll start to regain your power or worse—you’ll try to gain control in your relationship!

So they’ll praise you, for sure.

But to make sure you’ll still feel a bit insecure, they’ll add some criticism in between praises.

This is the reason why their praises always come with a “but”, and you don’t feel totally good about yourself when you hear them.

5) They express their hatred towards others

If they’re truly a covert narc, they’re not just doing this to rant, they’re doing this to send a clear message to you.

They want you to know what they don’t like (basically, people who “go against them”). And more importantly, they want you to know what they’re capable of.

They might tell you about how they stopped talking to their sister who always questioned their authority.

Or how they embarrassed their colleague in front of everyone for not following their advice.

Of course, they’re doing this to make sure you won’t do the same thing!

They want you to be scared of them, but they’ll do it in indirect ways so you won’t suspect a thing.

6) They play the damsel/ dude in distress

Covert narcissists love gaining sympathy. It’s a card they often use to get what they want from others.

They’ll tell you how “miserable” they were before they met you.

They’ll tell you that they had an awful childhood, that all their friends have betrayed them, that no one loved them…

They do this so you’d want to take care of them…to act like their savior.

After all, you wouldn’t want to break their heart again, would you? They already had a tough life!

7) “I’m doing everything for you”

It’s not even the truth, but they’ll make it seem like it is anyway.

And they won’t just say it once or twice. They’ll hammer it into your head until you see them as the most loving, most selfless partner to walk on earth.


So YOU will do everything for them!

When they ask you favors, they’ll first remind you of the good things they’ve done and all the sacrifices they’ve made.

Or when you question their actions, they’d tell you “What? How dare you. I’m doing everything for you!”

Someone who genuinely loves you won’t enumerate the things they do for you, but a covert narc definitely would because it’s a way to gain control.

8) They’re “only trying to help”

They will tell you to do things—even the ones that are totally against your will.

They’ll tell you how to dress, how to eat, how to act in public. And they’ll give you “advice” on what decisions to make.

And when you call them out, they’ll say “What?! I’m only trying to help!” 

They’ll make you feel like they have your best interests at heart.

What makes this manipulative is that when you inspect closer, the person they’re actually trying to help is none other than themself.

9) They make you feel like an assh*le for setting boundaries

Narcs are the most entitled people you’ll ever meet.

They want a “yes” every single time!

And if you set boundaries and say “No” to their requests, they’ll accuse you of being unloving and unkind.

If you tell them you don’t want their friends coming over to your apartment, they’ll withdraw affection.

They’ll raise both hands and say, “Sorry. I thought we’re a couple and we share everything. I misunderstood.”

Or if you tell them to please stop playing drums at midnight, they’ll accuse you of not supporting their dreams.

10) They (subtly) flirt with others in front of you

No, you’re not just imagining things. They’re actually flirting with someone right in front of you!

And here’s the thing: they’re doing it on purpose.

Narcs like to do it not only because they have an innate need for admiration, they do it to have power over you.

By constantly reminding you that they’re actually a catch—after all, people find them irresistible!—they’re telling you that you must keep up if you really want them.

In other words, they want you to feel a little insecure about their love for you so you’ll constantly try to make them happy.

11) They flaunt how “well-loved” they are by their friends and family

If everyone loves them, they must be lovable, right?

Well, that’s what narcs want you to believe.

They tell you how their family adores them, and how they’re everyone’s favorite friend.

If they’re truly a narc, they’re doing this on purpose. And that’s to remind you that they’re an awesome person and you should feel lucky they chose you.

And if you’re someone who has very few friends and family, this will make you latch on them.

This will make you think, “They must be a wonderful person because everyone loves them. Unlike me who only has a few friends.” 

At one point, you might even think “There must be something wrong with me.”

And these kinds of thoughts can influence your power dynamics in the relationship if you let it.

12) They make you feel guilty for having a life outside the relationship

Covert narcs want your life to revolve around them. That’s how they can have more control over you.

They worry that by going out more, you’ll slowly realize that you can be happy without them.

And that you can actually be more independent, and that you’ll realize it’s totally okay to lose them.

Narcs don’t want this!

So they can maintain their control over you, they’ll keep you locked in their love. But of course, they’d be very subtle about it.

If you want to go to your parents for the weekend, they’d say something like “Oh but I thought we’ll have a picnic at the park?”—even though it’s so easy to go to the park and you rarely visit your parents.

And if you want to have a road trip with your friends, they’ll say “okay” but they’ll make sure you feel like a bad person when you leave the door.

13) They withdraw affection

Narcs do this to give you “punishment” for not making them happy.

But they’d do it so subtly that you’d think you’re just being paranoid.

For instance, if you declined their request, they might still talk to you but they won’t look you in the eye.

Or if you tell them you can’t go with them to a night out, they’d act cool but they won’t kiss you goodbye when they normally would.

They’re doing this to send the message that if you do things that would disappoint them, they won’t love you the same way…and that you might even lose them.

Final thoughts

Being with a narc always makes you feel a little insecure, a little scared, and a little worried that they’ll leave you.

They might shower you with love and kisses, but something just doesn’t feel right.

It’s like you’re a follower and they’re your master.

It’s like you’re doing things only for THEIR happiness.

In fact, it’s like they’ve become the center of your relationship.

If you see most of these signs in your partner, then they’re definitely a narcissist.

Now, it doesn’t mean they’re evil. They’re just a bit self-centered. 

But if you love yourself, you have to learn how to deal with a narcissist or else you’ll just become a puppet who’d serve your partner for life.

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Tina Fey

I'm Tina Fey, the founder of the blog Love Connection. I've extremely passionate about sharing relationship advice. I've studied psychology and have my Masters in marital, family, and relationship counseling. I hope with all my heart to help you improve your relationships, and I hope that even if one thing I write helps you, it means more to me than just about anything else in the world. Check out my blog Love Connection, and if you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter

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