“Covert” means “hidden” or “secret”. Covert abuse involves tactics of coercive control that are hard to spot, difficult to define, and nearly impossible to confront. This subtle form of emotional abuse usually continues unabated for years or decades before the victim recognizes their own trauma.
Covert abuse happens in all types of relationships: friendships, families, romantic, or business. In this article, we will share what covert emotional abuse is, help you to identify covert abuse by learning its signs and tactics, learn what it does to various types of relationships, and know how you can get help.
Let’s dive in.
How is Covert Abuse the Silent Killer?
The covert abuser takes pieces of reality or known vulnerabilities of the victim and twists them in ways that are designed to weaken the abused’s position in the relationship, make them question their own reality, and deceive them into believing false narratives about what really occurred. These mind games confuse the person being harmed and create significant emotional and physical stress.
The victim often feels as if they are dying inside. The inability to clearly identify the harmful behaviors makes covert abuse nearly impossible to discern or address. While they desperately search for answers, the covert abuse continues. Victims suffer in silence without understanding why. This is why covert abuse is known as the silent killer.
Now, let’s go deeper.
Overt vs. Covert Psychological Abuse and Their Connection
It’s easier to recognize overt abuse. The victim can name the overt act which is harming the relationship. This decreases the confusion they feel. It enables them to more easily explain to their partner and others what is wrong and facilitates their ability to get help.
When both overt and covert abuse takes place, the abuser vacillates between the two types of abusive behavior. Once the overt behavior is challenged, the covert abusers switch to another overt or covert tactic and more to exhaust the victim and gain the power advantage over them.
This is why it’s essential we become adept at recognizing abusive behaviors and developing language to name the abuse tactics being used.
The Signs of Covert Abuse
What a Victim of Covert Abuse Might be Feel
Like you are always walking on eggshells: Over time, the victim believes they can control the abusive outbursts if they are very careful to do everything perfectly. So they start to “walk on eggshells” to avoid the wrath of the covert abuser. Unsure what will set them off, a victim is careful not to do anything wrong. They lay low, keep quiet, and become hyper-vigilant.
Like you can’t get enough sleep: Chances are, you are emotionally and physically exhausted! The stress creates a heightened internal vigilance, over-taxing of your nervous system, adrenal fatigue, and other issues making it difficult to relax or find deep rest. Neverending conflict exhausts your body. No matter how many hours you lie in bed, deep sleep is hard to find.
Like you are constantly running into walls: Covert narcissists make most conversations, especially opportunities to resolve conflict, exceedingly frustrating for the victim. It increases levels of frustration and stress. Any attempt to bring calm into stressful encounters goes nowhere, making the victim feel as if they are always running into a wall. What begins as frustration often evolves into bitterness or depression.
Like you are the “crazy” one: The destructive nature of this form of hidden abuse gives you the sense that you are going insane. Covert abuse tactics, by definition, are crazy-making. The trauma they cause affects one so significantly that over time they are unable to regulate their thoughts or emotions. It seems impossible to understand what is happening to them.
Like you’re always anxious or fearful: Many victims experience intense fear and anxiety daily. Victims of prolonged abuse can remember when they didn’t always feel this way. If you always feel anxious around your partner, consider emotionally or physically detaching from them.
Like you’re depressed and all alone: Many victims become depressed from experiencing covert abuse. The abuser blames the depression for the problems in their relationship. This successfully shifts everyone’s attention onto the victim to cure the relationship. In reality, the hidden abuse is the problem and also is what’s causing the depression, not the other way around.
Covert Abuse Tactics
Minimization is the belittling of the victim’s perspective with the intention to make what they value unimportant, consequently killing their confidence, creativity, and individuality. Minimization is abusive when used repeatedly within a relationship to break down boundaries and to attack the victim’s self-worth and values.
Blame-shifting occurs when the abuser refuses to take responsibility for a situation and instead assigns the liability to others, usually the victim. “Well, I wouldn’t have gotten angry if you’d just done the dishes when I asked you to.” Or after directing a sarcastic joke at the victim, blaming them for being too sensitive when they disapprove. The victim experiences pain first in the originating harm and then when they are blamed. Blame-shifting stifles conflict resolution and helps the abuser shirk personal responsibility.
Avoiding Responsibility at All Costs
Victims rarely receive a sincere apology for the abuse, an act that could bring them significant healing. Even a partial apology is likely to be administered in a condescending tone, making it impossible for the victim to experience emotional safety. The victim is more likely to be blamed for the pain they are feeling.
The abuser is chronically defensive. The self-reflection required for someone to take responsibility for their actions is not built into the abuser’s belief system. They are more interested in powering over the victim and winning arguments than in connecting emotionally or listening authentically.
Instead, a covert abuser will shift from one tactic to another swiftly. As soon as the victim identifies blame-shifting and sets a boundary, they will move to another tactic, such as lying, or withholding. When abusive behaviors are constantly changing it becomes nearly impossible for the victim to identify the patterns. A lack of clarity, and being continually blamed for all the wrongs in the relationship, significantly wears the victim down both emotionally and physically.
The Effects of Covert Abuse on Relationships
Covert Abuse in Marriage and Romantic Relationships
All it takes is one emotionally abusive behavior repeated in a pattern to be destructive to a relationship. Continual lying, playing the victim, or belittling the other person’s concerns – if done repeatedly – will ruin the safety and trust that should exist between closely linked individuals. The solution for the partner whose trust has been betrayed may seem simple to those on the outside. “Just leave”.
But it’s not simple.
The Honeymoon Phase
Where there is a marriage or a romantic relationship with an abuser, the victim knows and remembers the love bombing during the honeymoon phase. They miss the great guy or great gal their lover was when they met.
At first sight, the hurtful behavior may be dismissed as a short-term diversion from the person they thought they married. “They’ve been under a lot of pressure.” “He’s just stressed.” “She’s been depressed.” They belive the positive side of their partner will return. Sometimes it does for brief moments. Many abusive relationships have a continuous cycle moving from periods of abuse to love bombing.
“Love bombing” is when someone uses extraordinary measures within a short time of meeting someone to flatter them: gifts, excessive compliments, dates to all the places you love, and extra attention making you feel like you are the sole object of their affection. It happens in a flash, then ends abruptly when the abuse resumes. When we experience love bombing, we may confuse it for true love and dive in!
Once the honeymoon phase transitions into abusive behavior, the victim is blindsided and confused causing them to doubt themselves and second-guess their observations, and their experiences.
People’s view on marriage or romantic partnership are molded by many unconscious or overt messages in our culture. In many cultures, but particularly religious ones, marriage is prized above all other institutions. They teach and believe a lover who is committed long-term to their partner will weather any storm with them regardless of its destructive path.
When trust and safety are violated, the victim doesn’t see a solution right away. Perhaps the couple’s problems are the victim’s fault. Maybe they haven’t been a good enough partner, husband, or wife. So they try harder. This is exactly how their abuser wants them to feel.
The deep level of spiritual beliefs regarding the sanctity of the marriage makes it difficult to confront the abuse or leave the relationship.
Covert Abuse Signs in Marriage and Romantic Relationships
There are many signs of destructive power and control within a relationship to help you determine whether it’s abusive. Here are some that are common in marriage and romantic relationships:
You feel you need to ask permission to do anything: It might start simply, “Sweetie, it doesn’t feel like you love me when you don’t tell me where you’re going.” Or, “It makes me uncomfortable when you hang out with your friends because they don’t like me.” It escalates into an angry outburst when you return from a workout with friends for a couple of hours.
To maintain the relationship, you begin to ask before doing anything. Often, the answer will be “no” or, if it’s a “yes”, it will still come with consequences as if they never gave permission.
You are isolated from family members and friends: Similarly, your partner may ask you not to spend so much time with your friends because “they hate me.” Perhaps they give you the silent treatment for several days because you went to dinner with your dad. Or they get really angry when you talk with anyone else about your relationship. Eventually, it seems easier to maintain the peace if you isolate from friends and family.
You are privately or publicly shamed for vulnerabilities you’ve shared: Exposing another’s vulnerabilities is an effective tactic of betrayal and control. Covert abusers may demand access to journals, email and social media accounts to identify confidence they can expose later to shut the victim down. In a healthy relationship, one should be able to let their guard down, but that’s not the case where there is abuse.
If you’ve ever shared weaknesses, fears, or sensitivities with your partner who later shamed you or exposed them publicly to mock or embarrass you, you’re likely in an abusive relationship.
You have little to no control over finances: Financial abuse is a common form of covert abuse. Through it, the victim becomes completely dependent on their partner. When the couple’s finances are shared or joint, you should have access to all accounts, a say in financial decisions, and knowledge about how finances are being used. A lack of access to money makes the victim feel trapped and controlled, often causing them to remain within the destructive partnership.
Your activities are being monitored: A common tactic in domestic abuse cases is to monitor a victim’s every move. Many domestic violence shelters today require scans of all electronics for spyware possibly uploaded by their abuser. Often, trackers are placed on automobiles as well.
You might not realize you are are being tracked. Does your partner somehow know where you’ve been without you telling them? Maybe they repeat things you said during private conversations with someone else and you can’t figure out how they learned that.
Your healthy boundaries are not respected: A common example of this is when you hold things of a private nature in a space that is your own and your partner invades your privacy ignoring the boundary you have placed. It’s entirely appropriate to expect privacy within intimate relationships where your journals or some communications remain for your ears and eyes only. Covert abusers refuse to respect these boundaries, read the journal, and will not apologize when confronted. In their mind, they feel entitled.
After repeated offenses, the victim may become angry and lash out defensively. When this happens, the covert abuser has not only obtained access to private information they may use to exert control but has also found an easy way to shift the responsibility for their problems onto the victim’s reactive anger.
Covert Abuse With Kids
Too many kids are emotionally abused by either their parents or peers (such as in bullying).
Psychological abuse of children rarely gets reported as it’s difficult for outsiders, such as mandated reporters, to recognize the emotional abuse of a child. Emotional abuse in the parent child relationship takes place behind closed doors. Consequently, many abused children do not get help and suffer the consequences of the psychological damage emotional abuse causes.
Many parents use harmful tactics in their parenting without being abusers. The stress and exhaustion of work or life might cause a parent to minimize their son’s or daughter’s accomplishments, hurts, or fears. Or, perhaps they scream at them causing them to become fearful. The minimization or raging is harmful even though the child is not being abused. Healthy parents can recognize their actions have been hurtful, feel guilty, and acknowledge their mistakes. They are willing to apologize and try to stop repeating the behavior.
Abusive parents respond differently. Covert narcissistic parents regularly employ harmful tactics as a means of powering over everyone in the family and drawing all positive attention to themselves. Parents with narcissistic personality disorder require their kids’ complete dependence so that pleasing the parent becomes the sole focus. In time, the child’s identity and sense of self-worth are replaced by self doubt, anxiety, fear, and depression.
The adverse effects of trauma hinder brain development and may be a detriment for the abused child into adulthood.
Covert Abuse In the Workplace
An abusive coworker, for instance, may start leaving a particular colleague out of email threads on purpose so that he or she is unprepared, out of the loop, and seemingly clueless. The covert abuser continues to use various tactics of manipulation, such as scapegoating or undermining, in order to give the appearance that their coworker is incompetent and the abuser is not.
Ideally, it’s best if the victim recognized the abuse and was supported in confronting the behavior which is in plain sight. Many factors make it challenging for a victim of workplace abuse to confront their abuser. Fear of retaliation, job loss, or demotion may hinder someone to speak up against workplace abuse. It’s important that workplace leaders make every effort to create a safe place for victims to disclose workplace harassment and abuse. Victims need to be certain they will be protected.
How to Get Help When You Have Experienced Covert Abuse
Here are some of our thoughts:
You likely have been so isolated within your relationship that you don’t feel like you have anyone you can turn to who can help you. Your closest friends likely have been concerned about you for some time but didn’t know what to say or do. They may be relieved to see you opening up. Whomever you approach, make sure you feel secure sharing with that person. If they are too close to your abuser, they might not be ready or willing to hear about what’s been going on.
The most important thing anyone can do for you at this point is to listen. They should listen without speaking allowing you the space to process. If they respond with strong advice, ultimatums, judgment, or doubt then step away. That person is not ready to hold your heart well and their responses might escalate your trauma.
Find an individual therapist who is specifically trained and experienced in addressing covert abuse, narcissism, and trauma. Make sure you interview potential therapists before retaining them. You will get a strong sense of whether they have the skill set to help you by how they respond. If they don’t have a deep understanding of emotional abuse or how to counsel victims, find a different therapist. If you discover later that they lack understanding of covert abusive dynamics, don’t be afraid to terminate therapy and move on.
You need someone equipped to deal with the deep emotional pain abuse has left you with, codependency issues, and your potentially faulty beliefs about yourself or relationships in general. Post-traumatic stress disorder and complex PTSD require specialized care, so make sure you are with a clinician able to assess and treat these issues.
Resist the temptation to go to couples counseling with your abuser if the counselor is not an expert in abuse. If you have found an expert counselor it’s okay to attend a session as a couple to get an assessment. However, until the abuser has spent significant time doing deep therapeutic work with an expert therapist who has fully confronted, unpacked, and resolved their destructive belief systems which can take a couple of years, they are unable to engage in couples therapy in a meaningful way without harming you further.
In couples therapy, the unhealed abuser will use the same tactics they used against you behind closed doors but will be additionally emboldened by whatever vulnerabilities you share during couples therapy. This makes the risk of harm too great to bear. Even good therapists can become confused by the “he/she/they said” contributions to therapy which will cause you to feel mischaracterized and abandoned by the therapist.
Reach out to a Domestic Violence Shelter
Reach out to a domestic violence shelter, even if you do not need a physical place to stay. Most shelters have services at no cost for those who qualify whether or not you live there. You can join one of their support groups where you may share your feelings without needing to explain. If you’re not ready to share, you’ll receive validation by hearing other people’s stories. Or consider taking one of their personal empowerment courses which will help you build confidence and relieve trauma.
There’s so much to say. Right now my husband a a protective order against me. I haven’t spoken to my daughters in a month. He provoked me for the last time and I snapped and he videoed me attacking him. He has the system thinking I’m the abuser. Even my case worker whom he reported me while I was in jail is aiding with him. No one cares. I didn’t know what or how this is happening until I came upon this website.
Angela – I am so glad you found our site. I’m sorry for all that you are going through – unfortunately, it’s far more common than you’d think. There is little understanding about covert abuse, let alone reactive abuse, which we call “reactive defense”. You may consider reading the blog on reactive defend or taking a look at some of our free training intensives on The MEND Project YouTube channel – there’s one on reactive abuse there as well. I hope that you are connected to strong support groups of people who will understand and be able to help you in your healing. Here’s the link to the other blog: Reactive Abuse Blog
Angela, I’m so sorry you are dealing with this. It is (sadly) very common for an abuser to be cruel and scary behind closed doors, and then to appear calm, cool, collected, friendly and generous in public (to people who don’t know them well). Meanwhile, the partner they have abused behind closed doors often appears to outsiders like an unstable, volatile person. What you are navigating is so painful and unfair. Some of the best things you can do are: 1. to find support and advice from domestic violence shelter staff and/or a therapist who understands narcissistic abuse and Jekyll-Hyde personalities, 2. to do whatever helps to regulate you and calm you (regular vigorous exercise really helps to both calm people and make them feel more resilient, and it helps to shake off the “freeze response” and dissociation that are often part of trauma), 3. there’s a book by Bill Eddy called Splitting: How to handle divorcing a narcissist, sociopath, or borderline that has concrete suggestions. It also has suggestions for coping with ex-partners that make up poisonous stories about you and separate you from your children. I escaped an abusive scary ex, and it took 8 more years to get my daughter protected, though I had primary custody. I do not know the particulars of your situation, but know that often people like this can’t keep their mask from slipping over time. If you can find a pragmatic lawyer who understands domestic violence and narcissism, that can also help. But the first order of business is to get yourself as calm and sturdy as you can, knowing that your ex wants to provoke you and make you look crazy. I know it sounds impossible at first, but once you realize and accept that your ex can’t be reached emotionally or morally, and that he will mostly behave as your adversary, then you can work on giving him as little reaction as possible (and hopefully you can see him as little as possible!). If you have any friends or family who ever saw glimpses of your ex’s bad behaviors, if they can write brief, factual statements about it to corroborate your side of it, that can really help you. If your friends and family can write statements with examples of your strengths as a parent, that can help. If you can find proof that he lied in court to the judge, that can eventually help you. Lundy Bancroft’s book Why Does He Do That? can help.you to understand the tactics that abusive men use to confuse, intimidate, and discredit their partners or ex-partners. Right now, as much as you can, vent only to safe people who are on your side. Take the best care 9f yourself that you can: exercise, enough sleep, eating well, treating yourself as kindly as you can.