Covert Narcissistic Traits vs. Toxic Traits in a Relationship

Sherile Turner-Myles
10 min readAug 14

If you’ve ever asked, “Is my partner toxic, or are they exhibiting covert narcissistic traits?” this one’s for you.

This subject comes up time and time again, whether in client meetings or reading the comments here on Medium.

Photo by Afif Ramdhasuma on Unsplash

While this subject is as complex as it is crucial to grasp, I’ll do my best to highlight the key points that make it straightforward for you to understand your partner’s behaviour so that you can distinguish between covert and toxic.

Why It’s Vital to Know the Difference

Navigating a relationship can sometimes feel like venturing into a labyrinth, especially when something feels ‘off.’ Are you dealing with a partner who’s just a bit toxic in their behaviour, or is it something more profound, like covert narcissism? Understanding this difference isn’t just about putting labels on a problem; it could genuinely save your relationship and, more importantly, your mental and emotional health.

You see, narcissism is a word we toss about all too easily these days. Didn’t like a friend’s comment about your outfit? They’re a narcissist. Did your partner forget to do the dishes? Classic narcissism, you might joke. But real narcissism — specifically covert narcissism — is a far more nuanced and serious concern.

Covert narcissism involves complex behaviours often hidden behind a façade of insecurity and masked arrogance. On the other hand, toxic traits likely do not come from such a deep psychological place. They could be learned behaviours, perhaps from past relationships or work environments. Knowing what you’re dealing with helps you figure out if these behaviours are something you can both work on or if exiting the relationship is the only realistic option.

Here’s a great example, the story of a client we’ll call ‘Rose’.who was at her wit’s end with her husband. She felt undervalued, constantly belittled, and, dare I say, manipulated. Rose’s friends were quick to label her husband a narcissist, throwing around terms they’d learned online but didn’t fully understand, and of course, in her desperate need for an answer, Rose agreed with them.

Thankfully, rather than giving up on her relationship, Rose began sessions with me. While…

Sherile Turner-Myles

I write about Covert Narcissism and other Personality Disorders, and how they impact relationships.