Signs Of Covert Abuse

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Covert abuse generally refers to abuse that is hidden or goes unacknowledged. This type of abuse can occur in any kind of relationship and often involves the abuser blaming the target of the abuse for their harmful actions. Covert abusers may isolate and gaslight their target. They may also threaten violence against them. Meanwhile, survivors of covert abuse often have low self-esteem and feelings of guilt regarding the situation. They may not realize they have experienced abuse in some cases. Online therapy can be an effective way for survivors of covert abuse to work through their complex thoughts and feelings regarding their experiences.

You can overcome covert abuse

What is covert abuse?

The word covert generally means hidden or not openly acknowledged. Covert abuse can be defined as 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 it may be verbal or emotional. Verbal and emotional abuse can be forms of domestic violence that may more readily lend themselves to being covert, as they are usually easier to hide. They may also more easily be blamed on the individual receiving the abuse.

What does covert abuse look like?

The two definitions of covert abuse (hidden and not openly acknowledged) may reveal different aspects of this form of abusive behavior. The first definition (simply “hidden”) can be a common characteristic of violence. The perpetrator often hides it 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.

According to the second definition, covert abuse is often not openly acknowledged in the relationship. The perpetrator and survivor may not discuss the harm being done. If it is discussed, the perpetrator may gaslight the affected individual and make them feel guilty or confused. Consequently, survivors 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 too dramatic to cope with normal relationship behavior. Individuals who have experienced covert abuse may not realize that they have been abused.

Covert abuse often looks like blaming the individual being abused. 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 can be considered covert abuse because the perpetrator refuses to acknowledge that abuse has occurred and instead suggests that the child being abused is to blame for the abusive behavior. Covert abuse can apply to all types of cruelty, manipulation, and harm inflicted on another person, whether that harm leaves physical scars or not. 

Covert abuse can also apply to multiple types of relationships. It does not have to be a romantic partnership or a parent-child relationship. Children can abuse parents, friends can abuse friends, supervisors can abuse colleagues—there doesn’t have to be a specific type of relationship for there to be covert abusive behavior. Recognizing this may be an important part of seeking help, healing, and moving forward.


Coming forward for help after domestic violence can be difficult due to the nature of covert abuse. It may be difficult for those who have been abused in this manner to recognize that they have experienced abuse because abusers are often skilled at twisting scenarios and manipulating people. Also, covert abuse may be kept hidden not only by the abuser but also by the survivor of the abuse.

Common signs of covert abuse

The signs of covert abuse can be varied and vast. Covert and overt abuse may differ primarily in how they are carried out. Consequently, there can be common threads found in covert domestic violence that mirror the symptoms of overt abuse:

  • People who perpetrate domestic violence often isolate their partner to keep their abuse intact and under wraps. Isolation may be extreme, such as moving a person to a new town or city, with no nearby friends, relatives, or allies. It may also be less conspicuous, perhaps involving the suggestion that the individual’s family and friends don’t actually want to be around them.
  • Covert abusers often use gaslighting to keep their partners quiet, docile, and stuck. Gaslighting usually involves destabilizing the individual to push them to question their sense of reality. This can be a perfect strategy for covert domestic violence because it typically damages the survivor’s sense of credibility and self-worth.
  • Covert abuse is rarely (if ever) a one-time occurrence but is often 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, in order to keep themselves in a place of power. Covert abuse frequently relies on the destabilization of the person who is being abused.
  • Low self-esteem and guilt are common in the person being abused. Because covert abusers usually aim to keep the individual on edge to retain the upper hand, individuals who have experienced covert abuse may feel shame, guilt, and confusion toward themselves. They may think they have brought the abuse on themselves or that they are in some way broken or unlovable. They may not understand why someone who was previously kind and considerate would suddenly change their behavior.
  • Threats of violence may be common with covert abuse. Not all domestic violence erupts into visible altercations. Instead, domestic abuse can inflict emotional or mental violence, which can damage a person’s sense of safety, sense of self, and sense of normalcy. Covert abuse can be violent in that it may inflict harm on another individual’s mental, emotional, or physical state.

Getting help for covert abuse

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 survivors. Support groups are often recommended for people who have experienced any type of abuse, as survivors often feel isolated and alienated from their peers. Support groups may help these individuals 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 may not always seem possible immediately; jobs cannot always be left behind, and families cannot always separate. However, finding safety can be of the utmost importance, so seeking financial, legal, or law enforcement assistance is frequently a part of moving forward from abuse. Meeting with local law enforcement officials, consulting with a lawyer, and seeking out local and federal financial assistance programs can all ease the difficulty associated with leaving an abusive relationship.

You can overcome covert abuse

Online therapy may help you safely get therapy

If you are experiencing trauma, stress, or other complex emotions arising from abuse, online therapy may be an option for you. When living with these difficult emotions, it can be challenging to get out of the house and visit a therapist’s office. Online therapy can simplify this process by allowing you to receive the help you deserve from a location that is convenient for you. If it’s not safe to talk to a therapist from home, you can participate in therapy from anywhere with a stable internet connection via audio or video chat. Also, with BetterHelp, you can contact your therapist 24/7 via in-app messaging if you have questions or concerns, and they’ll get back to you as soon as they can. 

Several recent studies have shown that online therapy can be beneficial for those who are experiencing complicated emotions arising from abuse. In one study, researchers examined the usefulness of online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in helping individuals manage symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Most of the participants had experienced some type of abuse by their partner. Researchers found that, after treatment, 81.5% of participants no longer met the criteria for PTSD. Additionally, the results were sustained at a one-year follow-up. Participants also reported a decrease in feelings of depression and anxiety and an increase in overall quality of life.


Abuse that is unacknowledged or hidden is often called covert abuse, and it may take place in romantic relationships, parent-child relationships, friendships, work relationships, and other types of relationships. Survivors of covert abuse may not realize they have lived through abuse, and they often experience guilt and low self-esteem. Meanwhile, covert abusers may isolate, gaslight, and threaten their targets. 

If you have experienced abuse, covert or otherwise, you don’t have to face it alone. Online therapy may be one option for you to work through your experiences and emotions with a licensed mental health professional. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a licensed therapist with experience helping people who have experienced abuse. Take the first step toward healing from abuse and reach out to BetterHelp today.

Find compassionate support after abuse
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get help with abuse from one of our therapistsGet started