Am I The Victim Of Covert Abuse? Learning The Signs

Updated July 10, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Debra Halseth, LCSW

The signs of abuse are often talked about in hindsight. “Looking back, I knew something wasn’t right.” “Now that I think about it, there were warning signs.” These are phrases commonly brought to the fore when it is revealed that someone has exercised abusive or even homicidal behavior. While it might seem strange, the reason for the disparity between real-time recognition and hindsight recognition is this: abuse is often covert.

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What Is Covert Abuse?

The word “covert” means hidden or not openly acknowledged. Covert abuse is precisely that: abuse that is kept hidden or is not acknowledged. This type of abuse may be physical, as is the case when someone abuses an individual in a way that is not readily seen (leaving bruises in spaces covered by clothes, for instance, or domestic violence committed by a spouse), or it may be verbal or emotional. Verbal and emotional abuse are forms of domestic violence that may more readily lend themselves to covert abuse, as they are easier to hide, and may more easily be blamed on the victim.

The two definitions of covert abuse reveal different aspects of this form of abusive behavior. The first definition (simply “hidden”) is a common characteristic of violence; it is hidden to avoid getting into trouble and to maintain an image of having it all together or being an upstanding citizen. This isn’t to say that all abuse is kept hidden; there have been plenty of instances in which abuse has been committed in the company of others, or in plain sight. Nevertheless, the nature of abuse is usually secretive.

The second definition is an important one because even if the abuse is physical, this type of covert abuse by default commits psychological damage. Why? Not only is an individual experiencing abuse (domestic violence, verbal abuse, or emotional abuse), but is also experiencing the gaslighting effect of the abuse not being acknowledged. Consequently, victims of covert abuse can feel as though they are losing their minds. They may feel as though they have brought the abuse upon themselves because they are unlovable, unworthy of affection or attention, or are just too dramatic to cope with normal relationship behavior. Victims of covert abuse may also not realize that they have been abused.

What Does Covert Abuse Look Like?

Covert abuse very often looks like blaming the victim. If a child is hit, for instance, they may be told, “You made me angry, so I didn’t have a choice; I had to hit you to get you to stop.” This is covert abuse because it refuses to acknowledge that abuse has occurred, and instead suggests that the child being abused is to blame for the abusive behavior. Covert abuse covers all types of cruelty, manipulation, and harm inflicted on another person, whether that harm leaves physical scars or not. Covert abuse can also cover all relationships; it does not have to be a romantic partnership, nor does it have to be a parent-child relationship. Children can abuse parents, friends can abuse friends, supervisors can abuse colleagues-there is no specific relationship parameter that has to be met for abusive behavior to qualify as such, and recognizing this may be an important part of seeking help, healing, and moving forward.

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Coming forward to find help after domestic violence can be difficult, due to the nature of covert abuse. It may even be difficult for those who have been abused in this manner to recognize that they have suffered because abusers are good at twisting scenarios and manipulating people. While it may seem as though this is largely the case with children who are abused by a parent, covert abuse can hide in many places. A manager who puts their employees down constantly, and tells them, “I hate having to be so hard on you, but I have to make sure you learn” could be a covert abuser. A family member who grips your arm too hard, or who holds you against your will, then denies doing so may be a covert abuser. Covert abuse is not only kept hidden or not acknowledged by the abuser; it is frequently also kept quiet or not acknowledged by the abused.

Common Signs Of Covert Abuse

The signs of covert abuse are varied and vast. Covert abuse and overt abuse differ primarily in the way they are carried out, rather than the driving force behind them being the greatest difference. Consequently, there are often some common threads found in covert domestic violence, which mirror the symptoms of overt abuse. These may include:

  • People who perpetrate domestic violence often isolate their victims to keep their abuse intact and under wraps. Isolation may be extreme, such as moving a family to a new town or city, with no nearby friends, relatives, or allies, or maybe less conspicuous, and involve slowly suggesting that the victim’s family members and friends don’t actually want to be around them.
  • Covert abusers often use gaslighting as a means of keeping their victims quiet, compliant, and stuck. Gaslighting involves destabilizing a victim to push them to question their sense of reality. This is a perfect strategy for covert domestic violence because it destroys the victim’s sense of credibility and self-worth.
  • Ongoing abuse. Covert abuse is rarely (if ever) a one-time occurrence, but is instead an ongoing, regular series of pain and distress for the individual being abused. Domestic violence perpetrators typically select partners, friends, or others close to them who will not stand up to abuse to keep themselves in a place of power. Covert abuse relies on the destabilization of the person who is being abused.
  • Low self-esteem and guilt in the person being abused. Because covert abuse aims to keep the victim on edge, to retain the upper hand, individuals who have experienced covert abuse, domestic violence, or domestic abuse often feel shame, guilt, confusion, and disgust toward themselves. They may think they have brought the abuse on themselves, that they are in some way broken or unlovable, or may not understand why someone who was previously kind and considerate would suddenly change their behavior.
  • The threat of violence. Not all domestic violence erupts into visible altercations. Instead, domestic abuse can just as easily inflict emotional or mental violence, which damages a person’s sense of safety, sense of self, and sense of normalcy. Covert abuse is violent in that it inflicts harm on another individual’s mental, emotional, or physical state.
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Narcissism And Its Role in Covert Abuse

One particular type of covert abuse is the domestic violence inflicted by the covert narcissist or a narcissist whose disorder manifests in a quieter, less open way than the typical person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Although NPD does not have to be present for someone to be an abuser, it may be a factor involved in covert abuse, as narcissists have learned how to keep their disordered thinking and behavior out of the view of the public, to maintain their image and status. Covert abuse may accompany covert narcissism or, indeed, overt narcissism-because a narcissist may be more concerned with the way they are viewed or thought of by others than a member of the general public.

Getting Help After You’ve Been Abused

Although covert abuse may be difficult to get out from under-in part because of its secretive, well-hidden nature-there are many resources available to people who have been abused, including those who have abused covertly. Support groups are often recommended for people who have experienced any type of abuse, as people who have been abused often feel isolated and alienated from their peers. Support groups can help individuals who have been abused feel less alone in their experience. They may also help with recognizing the patterns of abuse and the behavior that was once considered normal.

Getting help often means getting away from the abuser. This is not always possible; jobs cannot always be left behind, and families cannot always separate. Finding safety is of the utmost importance, however, so seeking financial, legal, or law enforcement assistance is frequently a part of moving forward from abuse. Meeting with local law enforcement officials, meeting with a lawyer, and seeking out local and federal financial assistance programs can all ease the difficulty associated with leaving an abusive relationship.

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One of the most important aspects of healing and moving on from covert abuse is getting help from a qualified mental health professional. This step is important because many people who have experienced abuse have also experienced a radical paradigm shift: that of recognizing that they have been abused, and the abuse is not their fault. This type of shift can be painful and jarring, and having a professional to act as a guide, sounding board, and coach can help ease the transition and speed healing. Local therapy offices may be able to help, as can the therapists working through BetterHelp, an online therapy platform. Whatever form therapy takes, it can be a powerful tool in the healing process.


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