Signs Of Covert Abuse

Updated January 6, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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 excellent 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, and may more easily be blamed on the individual receiving the abuse.

The two definitions of covert abuse may reveal different aspects of this form of abusive behavior. The first definition (simply “hidden”) can be a common characteristic of violence; it is often 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 (“not openly acknowledged”) can be an important one because even if the abuse is physical, this type of covert abuse may cause psychological damage. Not only may an individual be experiencing abuse, but they may also be experiencing the gaslighting effect of the abuse not being acknowledged. 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 are too dramatic to cope with normal relationship behavior. Individuals who have experienced covert abuse may not realize that they have been abused.

*If you or a loved one is experiencing domestic abuse, please know that help is available. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

What Does Covert Abuse Look Like?

Covert abuse very 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 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 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, nor does it have to be a parent-child relationship. Children can abuse parents, friends can abuse friends, supervisors can abuse colleagues—there may not be a specific relationship parameter that must be met for abusive behavior to qualify as such. 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 even 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. 

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 who grips your arm too hard, or who holds you against your will, then denies doing so may be a covert abuser. Covert abuse may not only be kept hidden or not acknowledged by the abuser; it is frequently also kept quiet or not acknowledged 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 which 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 family 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 destroys the survivor’s sense of credibility and self-worth.

  • Ongoing abuse. 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 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 in the person being abused. Because covert abuse usually aims to keep the individual on edge to retain the upper hand, individuals who have experienced covert 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 may erupt 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

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, including those who have experienced covert abuse. 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 can 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 be possible; jobs cannot always be left behind, and families cannot always separate. 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, meeting 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 Cope 

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 (as long as it has a stable internet connection). In addition, online therapy platforms often make it easy to connect with a licensed therapist who has experience helping others who have gone through similar situations.

There are several recent studies showing 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, meaning online CBT was effective in treating symptoms. Additionally, these results were sustained at a 1-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 deep guilt and low self-esteem. Meanwhile, covert abusers may isolate, gaslight, and threaten their targets. If you have experienced abuse, covert or otherwise, please know help is available. Online therapy may be one option for you to work through your experiences and emotions with a licensed mental health professional.

Below are commonly asked questions on this topic:

What does covert emotional abuse look like?
What is covert and overt abuse?
What is a covert tactic?
How do you cure covert abuse?
How do you spot a covert abuser?
How do covert narcissists abuse their partners?
What are the traits of a covert narcissist?
What does gaslighting mean?
Is gaslighting emotional abuse?
How do you intimidate a manipulator?

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