Subtle Signs You’re Being Manipulated By a Covert Abuser

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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.

Here’s how I did it.

And if you’re in the divorce process with a manipulator, here are some tips on how to survive.

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14 thoughts on “Subtle Signs You’re Being Manipulated By a Covert Abuser

  1. Five years ago, after 28 years of marriage, my husband left on a business trip and never came back. He sent us a letter a week later telling us he was dying of prostrate cancer and had checked himself into a hospice somewhere to save us from having to watch him die. A few weeks later we found out the “hospice” was a very nice home on a golf course in Arizona that his old high school sweetheart had bought for them. This article is the first I have seen that describes his behavior to a tee. All this time I blamed myself because everyone, including myself, thought my husband was so “nice.” Now I see it was just another form of manipulation. Thank you for this article.

    1. Oh dear! I am so sorry that it took you so long to find ‘something’ that would help you make sense of the deception and abuse that you endured. This validation of your experience can be so healing. If you’re still trying to make sense of non-sense, in addition to Lisa’s book (i.e my first validation) there are several others. I would recommend Runaway Husbands and Psychopath Free to start. If you don’t have time to sit a ‘passively’ read, try the audio versions so you can multi-task (i.e. drive, walk, run, clean…. while you listen)

      1. Thanks Maria. I have read Runaway Husbands & I will try Psychopath Free next. I am a big fan of audiobooks too. I wish I could find a local support group. There is something for “Widows & Widowers” but what about for us “Divorced & Deserted”?

    2. Oh, my ex was all those things above. He had the alcoholic father and abuse histories in his family. Twenty-seven years I was married. He presented the “niceness,” called himself a “good guy.” He shows that self to others and paints me as the crazy person now. But a subtle disrespect, always ran in the background of our marriage, and I can see now how he molded to whom and what I was while it fed his needs and hid what he was doing in the background–the deception I didn’t want to believe. And when I needed emotional support, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, the black, cold eyes of the covert narcissist, along with his viciousness beyond viciousness came out, and I endured 3 years of emotional abuse–torture is a better word–that was almost physical but was able to stop with threats of calling authorities. He wouldn’t risk his professional license. He “doesn’t remember” any of it–conveniently–as is typical, and I am “lying.” And when he finally found his next victim, an obvious empath, an ex-nun, he molded to her values, becoming Catholic–the man who who would excuse himself to go to the rest room, during his kids’ Christmas pageant to listen to sports in the car. He also somehow manipulated the system to get an annulment of a 27 year marriage, writing complete lies, breaking Commandments, in the petition that blamed everyone else–me, my mother, his father, his age at the time of marriage and my church for his being coerced into the union that produced 3 children. Ironically, the document expressed his situation right now, as she would not marry him without the annulment, and he was pleasing her mother. Evil and soulless does not even describe him. I have seen the blackness in his eyes that others do not get to see. Although I am doing NO CONTACT, having children makes it hard to stay completely not knowing about him. And it’s hard knowing what I know, as if I am witnessing a crime being committed against another, but I am not able to tell her she in in the love-bombing stage and thatI fear for her because I know what comes next. The only saving grace is that it is my middle daughter who brought all of this information about narcissists to my attention because she recognized the damage done to her, growing up, and was in the process of healing, too, from a short marriage with a man who was BPD (borderline personality disorder), as history repeats. I am grateful that she is only 27years old and out, instead of 27 years in an oppressive marriage, like I was! And having that one person who truly understands and sees the truth is an absolute gift–God-send–that helps me know with utter certainty that I am not the crazy one.

  2. Yup. Been with people like this. Now when you meet someone like your husband, can’t you see them a mile away? I can.

    Some I like to add to the list: grandiose and tells wild tales (graduating with the highest GPA in their graduate school, flying planes, business man of year, etc.)

    1. OMG, my husband exactly! Graduated from high school @ 13, had his Masters by 19. Was a pilot, a golf pro who played on the tour & knew all the famous players, made millions early on (but lost it in a divorce) just to name a few things. Please can someone tell me what that condition is called? Then tell me what mental condition I have for believing him?!

      1. Diane – Sounds like your husband — as my ex — has narcissistic personality disorder (NPP). Exaggerating your accomplishments and self importance are two of the signs. Why did you believe him? Because, you, like myself, probably don’t exaggerate or make-up wild claims about yourself, so couldn’t imagine that someone else would. Also, they seem so darn sincere when they’re telling these lies. When I look back at some of the things my ex told me, I shake my head in disbelief.

  3. Wow. “Never voiced displeasure” and “always wanted to be the good guy” really hit home – turns out he was actually a very deviant sex addict who kept me in the dark for nearly 20 years. Now that I’m away from it, I see the abuse very clearly.

    Great blog! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Yup, a lot of these fit my ex too. He was also a bit different, as he was physically abusive without actually ever touching me (something I just learned was possible.)

  5. Reblogged this on The Moments Between and commented:
    This post left chills down my spine…. It has been so hard for me to explain to others what my marriage was like, because my ex-husband was so charming, and people liked him so much. But, it felt like this woman was writing about my marriage instead of her own. I think this is important information for people to have.

  6. I was the survivor of a female covert abuser. I got off light. It was only friendship. She is so much of what you described (minus the affectionate). Although she often loves doing PDA with her husband and loves making a show of it. She has pronounced them “soul mates” and said “they complete each other”. When I asked her what her favorite thing about her husband was, it took her two minutes to answer and finally she said, “I like that he is a blank page with no opinions and that he only supports me.”

    One day, on a very special day for me, she sent a nasty list of all my faults and blocked me on all her social media out of the blue. I went from “besets friend” to “toxic frenemy”.

    The worst is that she keeps a public identity and gushes to her fans how wonderful they are. They send her tons of money to support her and her husband’s frivolous lifestyle.

    I’m glad I got off light. It’s a pity to see how many can make a living off fooling others.

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