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Narcissistic Relationships: Covert Contracts

The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.


Covert contracts are something that can affect all relationships, but the covert contracts in narcissistic relationships maybe different than those in relationships that don't include narcissistic people.

Covert contracts are basically expectation or rules that we have about how our interactions with this person should go. They are plans or trades that we make up in our heads about how things will or should go. For example, "If I do this or I say that, the other person will do this or should say that."

"If I work overtime, my partner should agree that it's OK to put a little more aside for vacation this week."

"If I say I don't feel well, my mother should understand that I can't come over this week."

As listeners of the show already know, expectations can be a big source of pain and stress in relationships if they are not realistic and reasonable. When it comes to relationships involving narcissists, this is even more true. Covert contracts are called "covert" because they are secret. They are agreements and rules we are expecting the other person to agree to - and follow - without ever telling them about it. When they don't, we feel betrayed and hurt. We assume that they should just know and when they don't fulfill what we believe is their end of the bargain, we assume they did it on purpose, either to hurt us or because we aren't worth it.

This is why expectations need to be reasonable, clear and based in reality. Has this person demonstrated in any way that this is the kind of person they are, or that they have the capability and desire to do any of these things that you are requiring? When we create these contracts or rules in our minds, we are basing them on what we think is fair, and what we think is reasonable. We are not really considering what is going on with the other person, or whether they think the same way we do. We are simply assuming that everyone is on the same page. But as you know, that is not always the case at all - especially when you are dealing with narcissists.

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The covert contracts you enter into with pathologically narcissistic people are often extremely unreasonable. They involve things that most people would probably never agree to if they were communicated out loud. Things like unquestioning acceptance of their stories, no matter how far-fetched; unwavering support even when they are wrong or being unfair, unconditional acceptance of their behavior no matter how terrible, never ending the relationship or abandoning them no matter what happens, working constantly to fix their fractured self-worth, taking responsibility for all of their mistakes, problems and behaviors, never disappointing them and many other things that are ridiculously unfair, unreasonable and unrealistic. The problem with this, as with all covert contracts, is that people don't know that this is what is required and in this case, would not agree to it if they did know because these things are impossible to do.

Narcissists by and large are probably unable to communicate these things. They are often completely disconnected from their feelings and their needs. Like a child, they cannot articulate what they need. They can only react when they don't get it. When you attempt to interpret a narcissist's needs back to them for clarity based on their behavior, they will often deny this is what they are asking for, even though their reactions clearly prove that it is. For example, if the narcissist throws a tantrum every time you try to do something and you say, "So are you saying that you don't want me to do this," they often say that is not what they want - even though it very obviously is. Their words contradict their behavior and as a result, the other person in the relationship does not understand what they want and cannot even attempt to give it to them.

This inability to communicate what they want or how they feel creates a situation where they can never get what they want because no one knows what it is. This is destructive to relationships of any kind and especially in narcissistic relationships, because the other person gets tired of the guessing games and of the narcissist's inability to simply say what they feel or ask for what they want. They get tired of the contradictions. They get tired of being punished for not following all of these unspoken rules. They get tired of never being told how to get things right and therefore always being wrong.

The narcissist gets tired of it, too. They get tired of no one giving them what they need, of no one knowing what that is, of everyone always disappointing them and of feeling like there are unfair expectations placed on them where they are being forced to give things to others that they don't have, can't give or don't want to give. It is a disappointing, unfulfilling relationship for everyone involved. Covert contracts can destroy relationships, especially because in narcissistic relationships, what you have apparently agreed to are things you can't even do.

This is why boundaries are so important. Boundaries are the clear communication of what you expect. This is the only way to be sure that your needs and desires are known. If you never tell someone what you expect, they will always disappoint you. And if what you expect pushes them away - or what they expect pushes you away, it's good to find that out because this would not be a good fit in the end anyway. Not everyone can give you what you want out of a relationship and it really is best to understand that. If, after you've clearly communicated what you need or expect, the person still chooses not to give it to you, you have a decision to make about whether you want this person in your life. It's not easy, but it's really the only choice because there is no way to have a healthy or fair relationship with an unhealthy, unfair person. We cannot force others to do what we want. We cannot make them act the way that we want them to act. The only thing we can do is choose whether we want them in our lives. Luckily, that's all the power we need.

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