Caroline Strawson spent 14 years married to a covert narcissist. While her life looked picture perfect from the outside, in reality, she says she was experiencing manipulation and emotional abuse inside her own home.
Content warning: this article contains descriptions of coercive control and mentions of self-harm.
In the age of TikTok psychology and self-diagnosis, the term “narcissist” is one we hear thrown around a lot. The diagnosable mental condition narcissistic personality disorder – one of several types of personality disorders – refers to people that have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships and a lack of empathy for others.
However, individuals can reveal tendencies and behaviours that most people align with narcissism.
“When we think of narcissists, we usually think of someone who is self-obsessed, arrogant, harsh and loud,” Ronia Fraser, a narcissistic abuse recovery coach, tells Stylist. “These classic overt types are the easiest to spot (and to avoid). However, more often than not, narcissists are nothing like that. They can appear to be nice, kind, charitable, vulnerable and even spiritual.
“Narcissists can seem kind and caring, highly respected and very involved in the community, widely known as do-gooders. They may be open about their insecurities and struggles, which may or may not be the truth, but serve the purpose of luring the deeply caring victim in. They may even appear to show empathy, but never without serving their own agenda.”
These particular kinds of narcissists are often termed “covert” or “vulnerable”, meaning that they exhibit hypersensitivity to rejection, behave in highly manipulative ways and express a victim mentality.
However, as Fraser explains, this often makes it difficult to recognise abusive behaviour. “The tricky part with these kinds of people is because their tactics are covert, subtle changes are much harder to spot. The heat gets turned up so gradually that it’s hard to spot the danger until it’s too late. When the mask finally drops, the victim experiences cognitive dissonance because they have a hard time reconciling the monster in front of them with the kind and caring person they thought they knew so well.”
Caroline Strawson says she was married to a covert narcissist for 14 years and experienced first-hand how drastically different narcissists can act in public versus private.
“From the moment we first met, he did everything he could to make me feel special,” she tells Stylist. “Just three months into our relationship, he got my name tattooed and told me that I was so different from all of his crazy exes. So when I married him, I thought our life together would be good.
“To our friends and family, he was the doting husband and father of the year. When my friends would come round, he’d make a show of cleaning or he’d take our son out so that people would say, ‘You’ve got such a good one there.’” But in reality, Caroline says her partner was selfish, unsupportive and craved constant validation.
“He was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In public, he was so different, and it was my word against his. Even when I paid our son attention, he was jealous. He had to be getting some kind of adoration from someone at all times. Before any major event – Christmas or one of the children’s birthdays – he’d create some kind of drama that would centre it around him. If we were about to meet friends for dinner, he’d start an argument in the car so that when we turned up, I’d look sour and he’d act as if nothing had happened.”
Caroline says that if she ever went out without him, she’d be met with hostility and the silent treatment. “It was all about isolation and control. His reaction would make me think, ‘Oh, I won’t bother going out next time.’ So I’d stay in while he went MIA for hours on end.”
His behaviour in private continued to escalate while things appeared picture perfect from the outside. Six months into her pregnancy with their second child, Caroline found out her husband was having an affair.
“The way he spun the story and cried to me about how sorry he was and how bad he felt, I ended up comforting and consoling him. But it was all manipulation. He was constantly lying and exaggerating situations for sympathy. He couldn’t just call in sick to work, our son had to be on life support.”
Their marriage began to crumble after Caroline’s mother passed away. When they decided to separate, they were in over £70,000 worth of debt and her husband rarely saw their children. But according to Caroline, leaving a narcissist isn’t where the abuse ends.
“He told me he was leaving me because he couldn’t keep seeing me this unhappy, as if it was my fault. He kept saying, ‘I’m trying to help you,’ so that I’d feel somehow grateful to him. It’s what we call post-separation abuse – it escalates because they have to now smear your reputation. They have to be the victim and tell lies to recreate history. They have to be the winner.”
Caroline has since remarried and is now a trauma-informed therapist and coach who helps women navigate their lives following narcissistic abuse.
“When my own relationship with a narcissist ended, I was self-harming and suffering from anxiety and depression. I felt like I should have known better, should have seen the red flags and done more. What makes it really, really hard is when you come out of these relationships and people ask: ‘Why didn’t you leave then?’ They often don’t understand the trauma element, that the fear of being judged actually made it feel safer for me to stay and keep our family together.
“The experience of being in a narcissistic relationship is very specific: it’s where we lose that sense of self, we lose who we are, we become isolated, we judge ourselves a lot, we feel weak, we feel stupid. It’s a very different dynamic from just being in a relationship that hasn’t worked.”
You can visit womensaid.org.uk or call 0808-2000 247 for more information about coercive control, domestic abuse, and the help available for those affected.