Covert Abuse

covert abuse

I’ve never thought of my ex as abusive.

Then readers tell me they recognize their (very much abusive) spouses in my descriptions of my ex.

And I wonder.

I read a story in the paper about a domestic murder in the county where my ex and I lived and I always half expect to see his name.

And I wonder.

Then I discover that security procedures were altered at my old school during my divorce.

And I wonder.

Was he abusive?

He certainly was never overtly abusive. There were no strikes or shoves and never any threat of physical harm. He never belittled or yelled or uttered lines designed to wound. I was not discouraged from seeing friends or enjoying excursions without him. He didn’t exhibit excess jealousy and always demonstrated respect. He was the same man in public with me as he was behind closed doors – attentive, affectionate, loving. I never feared him while we were together.

So then why was I afraid for my life when he left?

I inquired about a restraining order, but since there was no history of abuse and no threats of physical harm, I was denied. However, the police were concerned enough that they performed drive-bys at the house where I was living as well as the house where he was staying. The chief of police told me I was lucky; he related that many cases of marital fraud he encountered resulted in a murder/suicide.

I couldn’t imagine the man that had always touched me so lovingly intending to harm me. But then again, I couldn’t have imagined the rest of it either.

I didn’t know the man I was married to.

Was he abusive?

Domestic abuse, also known as spousal abuse, occurs when one person in an intimate relationship or marriage tries to dominate and control the other person. From HelpGuide

When I read descriptions like that, it seems clear. He certainly was controlling me through his deceptions.

But then I see this:

Domestic violence and abuse are used for one purpose and one purpose only: to gain and maintain total control over you. An abuser doesn’t “play fair.” Abusers use fear, guilt, shame, and intimidation to wear you down and keep you under his or her thumb. Your abuser may also threaten you, hurt you, or hurt those around you. From HelpGuide

Control? Check.

Doesn’t “play fair”? Check.

Fear, guilt, shame and intimidation? No.

At least not until he left.

And that’s when I realized I was terrified of him.

I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that he was abusive. Not overtly, but undercover. His was a clandestine abuse, hidden even to me until the covers were ripped back when he left, revealing the buried machinations.

His abuse was financial, embezzling from the marital funds while covering his tracks with ever-shifting balances, hidden credit cards and fabricated stories.

His abuse took the form of gaslighting, altering my reality to match his goals. He took it a step further by assassinating my character through lies told behind my back to those around us.

His abuse didn’t use whips; it used a gentle leader of manipulation. Velvet trimmed lies whispered into trusting ears. No need to threaten when I easily followed along.

His abuse gained in cruelty when he abruptly abandoned me with no money and no explanation, refusing all contact. Protector turned persecutor.

During the divorce, he upped the ante, painting me as the controlling one. Falling right in line with the favored “You made me do it” excuse of the textbook abuser.

He never hit. He never yelled. He never isolated.

But behind the scenes, he was pulling the strings I didn’t even know existed.

Thank you for sharing!

50 thoughts on “Covert Abuse

  1. I’m going through a very expensive and no friendly at all Divorce, all because of the typical: money. He already is trying to manipulate our kids to be on “his side”. Thank God our kids are not young and after 23 years of marriage and countless affairs on his part I too come to realize that he or his mother could be capable of anything. As long as I played nice during our marriage, he was pulling those strings that I too couldn’t see. Since trying to manipulate me by cutting me off from money didn’t work for him, now he’s trying to hurt me through the kids. I’ve been a stay home mom for most of my marriage, and I say mine because he never did commit to it. I had the brains to save some money since he moved out a year and eight months ago, enough to go by while waiting for the Mediation next month. I did married a Narcisistic and probably a sociopath too. Please keep me in your prayers.

    1. Your story mirrors my own in so many ways. There were times before my ex left the state that I worried about being the victim of a murder/suicide simply because I knew he was desperate and had nothing to lose.

      Keep writing. You’re changing lives here.

  2. This is exactly what I’m coming to terms with right now. The narcissist. Things I didn’t recognize while married. It’s so hard, I’m having nightmares but I know I’ll get through it. After all, I survived being married.

  3. Thanks for a good article. I felt the same way throughout my marriage but would agree I was just fearful of his temper and anger. Ebell, your life sounds exactly like mine and what I went through. It’s hard to believe someone who is your partner in life can be such a deceitful, lying and mean person. This behavior is taught by their own parents and I saw it in his dad. They will deny any wrong doing and blame the ” bad marriage”. It’s time we as a society acknowledge this is bullying and abuse and that spouses are responsible, knowledgeable and should be accountable for their actions. What are they teaching our children?

  4. You wee gaslighted, so didn’t see the abuse. Your ex misrepresented himself. I believe I read in one post he told his coworkers all sorts of lies about. Sometimes it takes time and distance to see the truth about someone.

  5. I’m so sorry that happened to you, Your words ‘protector turned persecutor’ really got to me. It’s shocking.. and a trait of a damaged, weak person who needs to be pitied – hating them only poisons yourself..
    This type of abuse is actually the worst. Overt abuse, you know you are being abused.. Psychological abuse is very different.. and called ‘crazy making’ due to the mental confusion and emotional pain it creates. You end up looking like the unstable one (causes depression/ confusion) etc..

      1. You’re right, It is all bad .. but according to survivors of both physical and psychological abuse, long term psychological abuse is considered by far worse due to the subtle confusion’s long term effect on your mental health – some never recover mentally from the trauma.

  6. “His abuse didn’t use whips; it used a gentle leader of manipulation…But behind the scenes, he was pulling the strings I didn’t even know existed.” Exactly…and I’m still married so this is very scary for me. The covert abuse is heinous…almost worse cause you can’t really call a spade a spade…there are no facts to point out…it’s just snaky behavior… :/ Very good post…good to get these things out there…because there are so many women that do not recognize these things as abuse.

    1. Snaky, yes. It’s got to be difficult to get the perspective needed to see it when you’re still in it. Find reality anchors to remind you what’s real and what’s fabrication. Hugs, lady.

  7. BecHanson – I am a woman who likes to discuss relationships, pop culture and life. I find the interplay between the sexes a fascinating puzzle.
    bechanson says:

    I wasn’t familiar with the term ‘gaslighting’ until I read your post(s). I was a victim of this and the other types of abuse you have outlined for many years. By the time my marriage (of 20+ years) ended I had no idea what was true and what wasn’t as my ex-husband had altered the truth for so long. A perpetual liar his favourite saying was ‘perception is reality’ which he misinterpreted to mean if he believes it, then it is true. I was very confused about reality for a long time and assumed I was losing my mind, but now that I am not with him (over 5 years) I never have those feelings anymore, now there is only one reality and one truth (as, of course, it should be). I am not confused my children and I are very calm and happy, we have no conflict at all in our house and I know that I am not mad, not even a little bit. Thank you for your post and good luck!

  8. I relate to this in the biggest way. My ex husband was/is the exact same way. I never really saw the full picture up until i fled our home almost a year ago. I would notice little things and my personal counselor would mention that he was a “quiet” abuser, but i never took it seriously; until now. Great post. You’ve inspired me to share my experience. It may not be right away, but some day i hope to have the courage to speak out.

    1. There’s power in our words. I’m glad you will share/ And I’m even more glad that you now see the bigger picture. It definitely requires perspective to see it, doesn’t it?

  9. livebysurprise – Liv is the pseudonym reformed divorcee and single mom - now married, coparenting and working mother of three. She's been featured on ScaryMommy, HuffPost Divorce, The Mid and More at
    Liv says:

    Yikes. Coming to terms with the fact you were abused is a good step. It’s one of the first steps to get over it. You’ve come a long way. Keep going and don’t look back.

    1. It’s a weird step. Still difficult to accept. I keep thinking, “But he was so good to me.” But being nice to my face while intentionally destroying my character to others and stealing my money isn’t exactly good. Oh vey!

  10. OMG just the other day my new husband asked me, “Why does HE still have a hold on you? You’re not with HIM anymore!” Sadly, a text from the ex can make me cry and doubt myself all over again. Thanks for sharing this. Just because I’m in a new marriage, I still need to be aware and not allow my ex to control my feelings anymore. It’s DONE. It’s OVER. I’m SAFE now. I’m in CHARGE now!

  11. Carrie Reimer – I think everyone at one time or another thinks, "If I only knew then what I know now." I share my life experiences in hopes a few less people have to look back and want a "do over". Through my Lady Witha Truck blog I have spent over 10 years sharing my experiences while being in an abusive relationship with a man I consider to be a narcissist/psychopath and through my other blog, Reimer Reason I share lessons learned throughout the 60+ years of my life. No experience is a waste as long as you learn from it and if I can save someone else from making the same mistakes I made, then it makes it all worth while. I am an expert on my life, not yours, my opinions are my own, not yours, and I enjoy open respectful communication on most topics. If I don't have an answer I will research it until I do. I have a sweetheart of a dog named Stella, an 8 year old Pitbull, Mastiff cross. I am artistic, enjoy bringing new life to antiques, gardening, refurbishing and repurposing other people's "garbage", reading, writing and being outside in nature. I have a 38 year old son who I am extremely proud of and a 10 yr old granddaughter I don't see near enough. I live on welfare disability after a lifetime of working full time because I have heart failure. I have gone from being a homeowner and landlord to being homeless and living in my car and now live in a 34' 5th wheel RV trailer that I am fixing up, bought by my brother and mother. I believe life would be far less stressful, and drama filled if we all just lived honest to our core self and listened to our gut. I have found inner peace, something I didn't think truly existed. It isn't what most people think it is.
    Carrie Reimer says:

    So typical of an abusive relationship, often times the victim doesn’t realize they ARE being abused. Had you not been as compliant or caught on to what he was doing before he was able to reap the rewards of his elaborate ruse I have no doubt you would have seen some form of violence.
    Narcissists control in order to get what they want, if they are getting what they are after without having to control they are fine in most cases but it is when they meet opposition that the mask drops. Your ex was a very controlled narcissist, They are expert actors, they are born without a conscience (a short in how their brains are wired, it is impossible for them to feel regular human emotions like guilt, empathy or true love) and from a very early age learn to fake the emotions from watching others. Often times they can go years and years without being detected.
    A narcissist views everyone from a “what have they got I need?” reference; it might not be money, it could be standing in the community, it could be money, a trophy on his arm or if he has been found out in a lie he will want someone who gives him respectability and credibility.
    Once he has gotten what he wants from the victim he has no further use for them and tosses them aside like yesterday’s garbage without a backwards glance. On top of that he slanders them and tries to destroy their credibility. The victim is so oblivious to what the narcissist has been doing behind their back when the truth comes out they are reeling with disbelief. Long before the N makes his exit he has been complaining bitterly to anyone who will listen about how horrible life with the victim is. So by the time the N dumps the victim everyone is thinking the victim is the abusive one and anything the victim says is taken as sour grapes and her being a bitch just like the N says she is.

    And there is the victim, financially ruined, lost friendships because the N has turned them all against her or people just don’t believe her and the victim is trying to comprehend that the whole relationship was an elaborate ruse, and her life is destroyed on every single level.
    Often times once the gig is up the victim discovers deception at all levels, like you they start looking for answers and are shocked at what they find. Often times there is infidelity throughout the relationship even hidden wives.
    After we split I found out he was living with 3 different women, he was a trucker and had women along his regular route in two provinces. For a year I kept finding out more lies he had told.
    Often times they will make a curtain call, sometimes years down the road, they will show up crying real tears and admitting to everything they ever did wrong and beg for another chance. My ex told me he had been given 6 months to live and he wanted to spend his dying days with the only woman he ever truly loved. That was 6 years ago and he is very much alive, bleeding his next victim dry.
    They can pass lie detector tests because they don’t feel guilt so have no reaction when they lie, nothing for the lie detector to pick up on.
    They are the most dangerous people on earth. No guilt, nothing to stop them from doing whatever it takes to get what they want.
    I believe you dodged a bullet.

    1. That’s a scary thought that the reason he was not violent was that he had no “need” to be. I bet that was what I was picking up on once he left and I started going on the offensive (investigating, contacting police, etc.) instead of just staying a tearful, huddled mess on the floor.

      Yes, bullet dodged. I just hope his other wife was as lucky.

  12. Narcissist’s verbal abuse and emotional abuse are certainly as bad if not worse than physical abuse. Scars will heal, but the depth of emotional abuse is far deeper.

  13. StrongerMe – Divorced, single, working mom of two teenage boys, happily blogging about handling it all on my own - the kids, the house, the animals, the bills, the stress, the insanity, and anything else that might come my way. Like my ex...will that man ever go away?
    StrongerMe says:

    It gives you an understanding of how women can stay in physically abusive marriages. It happens gradually. You can’t imagine that the abuse is the truth. And there are so many other types of abuse going on that you really have no sense of reality. Just survival.
    I think this process of discovery is normal. It took me years in therapy and gobs of research to understand that my ex was an alcoholic. And years more to understand the abuse.
    Knowledge is power.

  14. I am so glad I took the time to explore what I had been feeling, yet could not describe and articulate into words. This all seems familiar and similar to what I felt had happened to me at the end of a marriage where I was put up on a pedestal, from the day we met, and adored to later get crushed and disposed of like garbage. The Bible does not address this kind of defrauding in marriage where there is this sudden or eventual extremely twisted behavior creep up out of nowhere suddenly, or gradually during the marriage with no hope for reconciliation. This kind of cruelty seems common, in households where there is religion, or spiritual belief also where there is no belief in God at all. It’s very sad. I don’t want to make this into a religious consideration, I am a beliver in Jesus and the Holy Bible, me and my spouse at the time were active in a local church., the behavior was never questioned, nor was it questioned when infidelity occured on his part. The next women became wife #3 for him, almost immediately after immediate divorce from me. It seems like demonic activity is to blame. Diminishing faith toward saving the marriage, (in my case there was no option or chance at saving) when the Bible is clear about ill people in need of healing, also demoniacs having a foul spirit needing to come out of a posessed person,see(The book of Matthew, King James Bible) we despair, we become desperate seek help for understanding of all of this, all while praying to God.. A commitment to prayer for self healing as well as praying for that person who was once adored in the marriage in spite of common problems, and still cared for presently although apart,, divorced.. that person who has these kinds of deep issues, having carried out causing chaos, havoc, confusion, one can only be sad and sorry for this person. There is nothing that can be done. It’s like that person killed you, so you are dead to him. Others might have even sided against you with the madness he caused,, yes -bad seeds were planted in the minds of many in my case, yet I say-You cannot stop living your God given life. The effects are painful yes, but you must live and go on living. Forgive and learn from what happened. Protect your heart going forward and do not let any of the lies, distorted images from what used to be beautiful turn you sour. People are always watching. They know the bitter from the sweet, the truth from the lie, also they know who is not to blame for the death of the marriages. I am glad I found this post. I pray that people who were once in love, yet lost in love start new and soon begin to feel like a winner from within. It starts deep from within a persons own self, and heart, and in their own mind. This kind of personal inner wellness, and victory is very possible. I believe it’s from a bright, active, living Jehovah -Elohim God source. Even after the worst of mans ungodly disappointing, even betraying behavior. Life, happiness, and hope is reatored. Every day for the rest of your life just might be meant to enjoyed by you alone. I am in no way suggesting that a real relationship full of truth, beauty, faithful love cannot be yours again -Just live, and be happy.

  15. My parents were both abusive. My dad’s physical abuse stopped as I grew older, but my mother has not. After years of therapy I was finally able to push past the guilt and see my mom as she was. A narcissist to the nth degree. I married young. To escape from them and because I was in love. I am currently divorced and the divorce is an ugly one. I always used to tell him he reminded me of my mother. It wasn’t until I was working through stuff with my mom that I recognized the same stuff in my ex. I can relate to this post times a million! Glad you got out of a bad relationship!

  16. Reblogged this on Picking Up the Pieces and commented:
    For those of you who may not have visibly noticeable signs of abuse manifesting in your relationship but you feel something is wrong, don’t be so dismissive of that intuition. It’s trying to alert you that something may be amiss. Abuse DOES NOT have to be physical and sexual to count as abuse. It comes in many forms: verbal and emotional (includes gas lighting), physical, sexual, financial, spiritual, and digital abuse / stalking. Do not allow blanket definitions of what constitutes domestic violence to influence you into convincing yourself that you’re “just seeing things.” Before dismissing that gut feeling, look into it. Find a location you can safely research this if needed. Connect to and interact with others who are open about the abuse they experienced. Many of us may not be degreed professionals but we are perhaps, more qualified to spot abusive behaviors – particularly the most subtle of them – because we ourselves have lived through it. We are here as a resource for you to establish and maintain open dialogue about abuse in a non-judgmental, supportive environment. In the end even if something isn’t indicative of abuse, you may have picked up on something that is wrong. And your right to be treated with respect, love, and kindness deserves more than being brushed aside dismissively.

  17. This resonated so much for me. Took me a long time to find peace with knowing what I knew: that my marriage had not been loving, that my spouse had (to borrow your words) been pulling all sorts of strings I didn’t know existed. Not until long after it was, technically and legally, long over. I wish you courage and support along your journey, as you come to terms with these harsh truths you hid from yourself for so long — because he needed you to.

    Passing along the best question I’ve yet come across for answering the “is this abuse?” question: Who’s life is getting smaller?

    It was definitely mine. No more.

    best wishes, alice

  18. Olivia Rose – I am a woman trying to find a way to lasting peace, joy and love and wholeness in this world. It has been quite the journey. I share my story so that others may know they are never, ever alone.
    Olivia Rose says:

    Yes. Mine did scream and curse at me all the time. I was terrified of him. One time I asked him why he didn’t do that to other people who pissed him off? Probably because I was half his size and he literally and physically could get away with it. His answer? “Because I love you sooooooooooooo much that you have the ability to push my buttons like no one else on earth can do.” Hmmmmmmm. So I guess I should have been honored to be the recipient of his abuse since he loved me “sooooooooo much”. (That’s total sarcasm). What a joke. And the repercussions are still there for me, several years after the relationship ended.

  19. Caroline Abbott – I am a Christian woman who was abused in her marriage. I now write to encourage and empower other domestic violence survivors. I am the author of A Journey through Emotional Abuse: from Bondage to Freedom and A Journey to Healing After Emotional Abuse.
    caroline abbott says:

    Wow, so chilling. You’re right, on the surface this doesn’t sound like abuse…till the end. This was truly financial abuse, but you didn’t even know it was happening. So sorry for what you’ve experienced.

  20. childbirth101 – A Labor & Delivery nurse for 10 years and the mother of 4 children. Stunned by the negativity of The Business of Being Born and wiould like to post something positive and real to empower women to enjoy their childbirth experience!
    childbirth101 says:

    I’m sure I knew I was being abused on some level, because I was scared to tell other people what he did to me. The yelling, the furniture throwing, the broken doors and walls that would be fixed calmly the next day.
    Luckily my sister-in-law has a career in women’s rights and worked closely with domestic violence. When I finally told my family, she knew the right words to say to help me grasp the situation. And even when she told me I was being abused, I said, “But, he’s never hit me.”
    She explained that I was modifying my behavior and knew him well enough to keep his anger at bay, and that’s probably why it hadn’t escalated… yet.
    It was two years ago this past week that I took my four children and moved out. Because of the control he had over me (I was given a debit card and he deposited money when I gave him my receipts), it was the most terrifying experience of my life.
    It was so hard finding the courage and will to break free and when people scoff at abused women who stay, I totally understand. I am so thankful to be able to move on with the rest of my life and look for my happy ending!

  21. I want to record how my covert abuser talks to me on the phone. ‘I’m new with cellphones and he could take it from me at any time. I need a record and have dealt with this for years, not knowing what was wrong. I do now, but have been isolated. No support, no money, 30 years. I want a life. How can I record him so others can hear the real him? Thank you.

  22. I am recently 30 with a 5, 3 and 2 year old. I left my husband 7 momths ago after he got arressted for DV ( I stupidly helped him out of because of promises) I knew it was time to go and moved 1400 miles away. Thankfully my parents helped but I knew if I stayed close he would dominate over me like always. Its crazy how he can still play with and control me over the phone. The worst part is hes drawing out our divorce asking for all these things when he never truly even cared. He was never part of our kids or myself. He was always too busy with everyone else. Then we just got the horrible drunk controlling person. He wouldnt even do ffamily outings with us with out being drunk or high and it always ended in a fight with me backing down. Hes fighting for partial custody of our kids because he believes his child support will go down. Thankfully I have parents who are willing to help me no matter what. I just want it to be over. I love your articles helps a lot sometimes.

    1. Thank goodness for your parents! Sounds like you’re in a scary and frustrating place dealing with him. Can you communicate via email so that you have a little more distance.

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