Could You Be In An Abusive Relationship and Not Know It?

Nov 17 2017

Could You Be In An Abusive Relationship and Not Know It?

Could You Be In An Abusive Relationship And Not Know It?

When most women think about “intimate partner violence” typically bruises or broken bones come to mind, but abuse is not always that black and white.  In fact, the gray area of abuse can go undetected for months, sometimes even years or decades because it’s hard to pinpoint or describe.  It’s called “covert emotional abuse.”  These are the hard to name, hidden, manipulative tactics sometimes rooted in motive to harm, sometimes rooted in defensiveness in order to avoid responsibility. Prolonged abuse of this nature causes emotional and psychological harm, trauma and physical illness.  In fact it is considered one of the most destructive forms of abuse.  It impacts one’s perceptions, memories, thinking, and ultimately, sanity. It may be mistaken as relational communication problems, but when victims can’t define what they are experiencing, it is much more serious than that.  Clarity is essential to overcoming abuse. Let’s look at why.

Unkindness can be swept under the rug for a time. You might overlook it because your partner has a stressful job or is dealing with some other life problem, but you still feel the stress of it.  Or maybe you’ve been tricked into thinking it’s your problem and everything that goes wrong is somehow your fault. Your partner may make jokes at your expense or minimize experiences or feelings that are meaningful to you. In the back of your mind, you know something is not right, but you are not quite sure how to describe what’s happening.  You’re confused. Your stress continues to increase and you cannot conceive that your loved one may be manipulating you.

If this sounds familiar, you may be in an abusive relationship.  The first step to healing is clarity, learning to identify and name the abusive behavior.  If you can name what is happening in your relationship, you become empowered. Then, you can then take the necessary steps to get the help and support you need.

Below is a list of the most typical forms of covert emotional abuse. We all can act poorly from time to time, but when it’s brought to our attention we are eager to change.  Those who have a serious problem, will likely become more defensive.  When confronted, they may get worse.

1) Blaming & Reverse Blaming: Defensiveness, denial or phrases like “This is your fault” are  common. Issues are mostly one-sided. If there is a persistent pattern of blaming, domestic violence is likely present.  In reverse blaming, the perpetrator may convert the concerns or corrections of the victim into being her problem: “If you’d stop doing… then I wouldn’t ….” or claims that you are too critical or sensitive.


2) Broken Promises: Making promises to do certain things or to change, then denying ever making them.  Justifying not keeping promises or forgetting promises that have been made.

3) Cover-ups: Doing a molehill of good to cover up a mountain of bad.  The abuser may volunteer at the local church or charity to make up for the abusive behavior at home.

4) Crazy Making Behaviors: Intentionally distorting reality for the purpose of making the victim feel confused or “crazy.”  Typically, a mix of passive aggressive behaviors that are meant to deflect and avoid responsibility.

5) Creating a Cloud of Confusion: Telling false and grandiose stories to third parties in order to undermine objectively and manipulate the end result or outcome.

6) Deflection: Your partner refuses to authentically communicate.  Instead, he/she establishes what can be discussed, withholds information, changes the topic, or invents a false argument.  All of these deflection tactics scapegoat the victim and stonewall resolution.

7) Denial:  Your partner refuses to accept responsibility by living in a false reality. While denial can be a dissociative defense, when covert abuse is involved, he/she uses manipulation to dismiss that the abuse is happening.

8) Disavowal:  Your partner belittles and devalues the importance of his/her abusive behavior, as well as of what you think or feel, both for the purpose of avoiding responsibility.

9) Entitlement:  Your partner places unrealistic demands on you based on the belief that he/she deserves privileges, special treatment, or double standards at your expense. He/she does not value you while his/her own value is inflated.

10) Faux Confusion/Abusive Forgetting: A form of manipulation that allows your partner to not remember any solutions to problems or promises made.

11) False Accusations: A negative lie told to or about you.  These are usually unexpected attacks based on fictional conversations, problems, or arguments. The accusations may have a thread of truth, but are completely distorted. They seem to come out of the blue for the purpose of shifting responsibility from your partner’s behavior to you to make your partner appear innocent.

12) Gaslighting: Your partner alters or denies a shared reality to confuse you or make you feel crazy or doubt yourself.  He/she may tell you that your reality is imaginary or inaccurate, and that no one will believe you or give any credence to your story.


13) Withholding: One of the most toxic and habitual forms of abuse.  Your partner refuses to listen to you, denies you your experience, and refuses to share himself or his good fortune with you, putting himself first in all circumstances.  He is stingy with affection, respect, and energy, disregarding your feelings, views, individuality, and personhood.

Any one of the below behaviors repeated in a pattern is enough to be destructive to a relationship. Multiple patterns are exponentially more confusing and harmful.

Steps To Take If You Are Experiencing Covert Abuse

1) Continue to Get Clarity:  You are one step closer by just reading the descriptions of covert abuse above.  Continue your research so you fully understand what is happening to you.  Go to and read about the different scenarios of covert abuse.

2) Journal Abusive Behavior:  Start noticing. Keep a diary or journal (that is safe from prying eyes) and begin documenting all the interactions that feel abusive to you.  Notice the patterns. There may be many. While you may need this data for future legal reasons, the main purpose is to see clearly what is happening, as moment-by-moment as possible. This document will also help you get out of the maze of stressful confusion and give you important feedback. Check these behaviors using The MEND Project website glossary of terms.


3) Choose Wisely With Whom To Confide.  Be mindful of the potential for Double Abuse. This occurs when your support system does not offer you compassion. You may feel condemned, not believed or even ostracized.  Confide in a truly trustworthy family member, friend or domestic violence organization who will listen without judgment or easy solutions.

4) Find Your Voice.  As you become more and more aware of what is happening, you will become stronger.

5) Identify Appropriate Intervention.   Work with an experienced therapist or social worker who is seasoned at conducting interventions that deal with abuse.  DO NOT attempt an intervention on your own, with your children (even adult children), with your partner’s friends or family, or small group in which he is a participant. If your confidant is unable to listen, validate, and support you, thank them for their time, and do not turn to them again. This is the time when your voice and your words need to help you hold onto the truth you have learned.  

6) Couples Therapy Or Not? Conjoint therapy is contraindicated (not recommended) in abusive relationships.  Most therapists are not professionally trained to identify covert emotionally abusive behaviors. Abuse is not a shared responsibility, yet many therapists treat it as though it is. Abuse is always a choice.  It is never a mistake, and it is never the victim’s fault.  However, collaborative therapy can help support and empower the victim, as well as confront the perpetrator, provide accountability and support efforts to change.

7) Be Prepared To Enter Into A ‘Controlled Separation’ During Time Of Healing. Separating serves two purposes.  It establishes a firm boundary to show that the victim will not compromise or accept further maltreatment, and it allows the victim to step away to gain clarity. It is harder to identify patterns when the perpetrator consistently adds new chaos into the relationship. Be prepared to experience retaliation.  A controlled separation may help thwart over-reactions while providing healthy mutual boundaries. You can learn more about controlled separations at

8) Extricate.  If you are in a critical situation, consider extricating yourself as soon as possible. Follow these four steps for immediate help:

  •      Call the national hotline (1-800-799-SAFE) or find a local shelter
  •      Create an exit plan
  •      Have a separate, private cell phone
  •      Have cash and a bag packed

9) Batterer’s Prevention Training.  If the perpetrator is willing to change, prolonged participation in a domestic violence batterers prevention program can be very helpful. It teaches self responsibility, correcting abusive attitudes and faulty belief systems, and it confronts patterns of harmful behavior. Batterers prevention programs do not only serve physical batterers.  Emotional abuse is battery of the mind.

10) Couples Therapy After Intervention:  If your partner completes a domestic violence training program, or is many months into a program and you can see significant changes, and you are not experiencing severe trauma symptoms, this may may be a time to enter conjoint therapy while remaining separated. Couple’s therapy with an experienced therapist can be invaluable at this stage. Whether or not a victim can consider reentering therapy should be determined partially on the severity of their trauma symptoms.  The risk of exacerbated trauma is important to not underestimate.  Often the marriage union is incorrectly placed as the highest priority when the emotional and physical health of the individuals within the marriage are marginalized.  Only 3% of all domestic abuse perpetrators are able to change their behavior.

The MEND Project is a nonprofit organization focused on creating awareness and ending “Double Abuse.” The MEND Project was created to effect a movement to help victims of abuse, as well as those who are marginalized, so they can move from merely surviving to thriving.


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