Covert abuse is sneaky.
It doesn’t leave a bruise on your cheek.
Or cut you down with scathing words.
Or even obviously isolate you from others.
Instead, it wisps in slowly through tiny cracks. Velvet-trimmed lies whispered into trusting ears. The smoke builds until you no longer remember what it is like to see clearly and your head is filled more with the thoughts of your abuser than with your own.
It’s often only possible to identify covert abuse once you have escaped its clutches (and even then, it usually takes a period of months or years to fully grasp what happened). It’s like a domestic form of Stockholm Syndrome, the persecutor masquerading as a protector.
The following are the subtle signs that were present in my ex husband. Small dots of data that when connected, paint a crimson flag of warning. If you see a preponderance of similar signs in your relationship, it warrants further investigation. If you recognize these traits in your former relationship, it can give you some information that can aid in the healing process.
These signs are subtle and can have many causes and manifestations. Just because someone fits these descriptors, it does not mean they are covert abusers or narcissists. But it does mean that you should look twice. Especially before you leap into marriage with them.
He came from a troubled family. Both parents were alcoholics and neither established a warm and secure relationship with him. He learned how to lie and play pretend from the beginning.
He got a thrill when he got away with something. He claimed to know a particular software program to secure a job and then worked around the clock to teach it to himself before he started working for them. He learned that he was clever and that he could fool others.
He never voiced displeasure. I rarely ever heard him raise his voice or disagree. I thought we just happened to get along really well and have similar views on everything. He learned how to not rock the boat so that he could sail smooth waters.
He always wanted to be the good guy. He wasn’t flashy and he didn’t want to be the center of attention. But he wanted to be liked. And he bought favors with paying the check at dinner or building something for somebody else. He learned that if he did something for other people, they wouldn’t look at him too closely.
He had serial relationships. With the exception of our marriage, he would have friends for a period of years before he moved on to new ones. He even removed his parents from his life for a time. He learned that when people see too much, it’s safer and easier to cut them off.
He was very affectionate. And the more upset I was, the more affectionate he became. I thought I was lucky (especially because I did not like touch until he taught me to soften to it). He learned that if he held me, my anxiety would lessen and that I would associate him with loving and trusting attentions.
He was a storyteller. In high school, his favorite class was creative writing. In adulthood, he traded in the pen for the voice and enjoyed telling about the day’s events in story form. He learned how to blend plausible fiction in with reality.
He used undeniable excuses. The reasons offered up for anything were airtight, frequently backed by physical evidence. He learned that by crafting an impossible-to-disprove lie, he was safe from unwanted questioning and examination.
He corralled others. He never demonstrated overt control, never told me what I could or couldn’t do or who I could see. Instead, he would influence me to take certain actions, like when he booked a cabin for my mom and I when he wanted me out of my hair or encouraged me to see my dad on the trip where he sent the “I’m gone” text. He learned that manipulation could be subtle and still effective, especially when used on a trusting wife.
In the final years of the marriage, I had an uneasy energy running through me. I passed it off on a very difficult period at work and my concern for my husband’s career and health. It’s only upon years of distance and hours of reflection that I’ve been able to partially assemble the pieces aided by the additional information that came out once he left.
Recovering from covert abuse is not easy. Especially because the signs are so subtle and are often not recognized or validated.
It’s not easy. And it’s also not impossible.
And if you’re in the divorce process with a manipulator, here are some tips on how to survive.