Covert Abuse is hard to identify because it is silent

Are you overwhelmed by feelings of confusion and self-doubt in your relationship? Could it be covert abuse? Often disguised as care or concern, this abuse erodes trust and your reality.

This article cuts through the fog, offering clear signs to help you determine if you’re experiencing covert abuse, how it impacts your mental health, and what tools you can use to empower yourself.

Key Takeaways

  • Covert abuse is a hidden form of psychological or emotional abuse that can have severe impact on the victim’s mental health, leading to self-doubt, confusion and a loss of self.

  • Identification of covert abusers is difficult due to their manipulative tactics such as grooming, emotional seduction, and the use of subtle body language to exert control and avoid accountability.

  • Overcoming covert abuse involves recognizing abusive patterns and tactics, establishing healthy boundaries, seeking professional support and creating a safety plan to exit harmful relationships.

Unmasking Covert Abuse: What It Looks Like and How It Affects Victims

Illustration of a person with a puzzled expression, representing confusion and self-doubt in relationships

Covert abuse, a covert psychological or emotional form of abuse, is like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It often masquerades as concern, love, charm and even empathy.

It’s this very invisibility that makes it a significant threat, often leading to drama, confusion and self-doubt among those who experience it.

Covert abuse is not restricted to romantic relationships. it can occur with parents, children, friends and within the workplace.

The damage inflicted by covert abuse is far from superficial. The victims often experience a profound impact on their mental health, feeling a loss of self and doubting their own perceptions and thoughts.

This leads them to adopt the abuser’s narrative and perspective. It’s like being trapped in a labyrinth of confusion, where every turn seems to lead to a dead end.

The journey to liberation begins with the recognition of covert abuse.

We’ll further explore the how to identify covert abusers, the effects of covert abuse on self-esteem and mental health, as well as the manipulative tactics they use.

The Invisible Enemy: Identifying Covert Abusers

Identifying covert abusers can be challenging, mostly because they are masters of disguise. They often use a tactic known as grooming, which entails:..

  • Emotional seduction through mirroring interests and values

  • Abundant attention and affection

  • Frequently being charming and kind

  • Playing the servant role

  • Seducing their target into a state of trust

They are like chameleons, blending into their environment and manipulating it to their advantage.

Although covert abusers may be aware of their abusive actions, they often deny and refuse accountability by shifting blame onto their victims.

They will do this with…

  • a condescending tone

  • mismatching vocal tones and expressions

  • a displayed an air of superiority

  • asymmetric expressions

  • closed postures

  • eye rolls

  • avoiding eye contact

Their covert tactics, are employed to disorient and gather information that can be used against the victim at a later stage.

The Impact of Covert Abuse on Self-Esteem and Mental Health

Covert abuse profoundly devastates a victim’s self-esteem and mental health.

By exploiting the victims’ insecurities and vulnerabilities it deteriorates self-esteem. The situation can feel akin to quicksand, where struggling only leads to sinking deeper.

Victims of covert abuse may suffer enduring mental health consequences like stress, anxiety and depression.

The recognition and admission of being a victim of covert abuse is hindered by its secretive nature, making it challenging for victims to seek help.

Covert abuse can significantly affect a person’s overall well-being and sense of self-worth, leading to feelings of shame, guilt and confusion.

The Role of Manipulation in Covert Abuse

Manipulation is a significant weapon in the covert abuser’s arsenal. It’s like a puppeteer’s string, subtly controlling the victim’s actions. emotions and thoughts.

In a moment we will look at the the tactics abusers use, for now it is important to note that covert abuse comes in many subtle forms.

Covert abusers manipulate victims by tapping into their emotional needs and vulnerabilities.

The regular manipulative behaviors in covert abuse makes the victim’ dependent and powerlessness within the relationship.

Covert abusers employ manipulation techniques including playing the victim, using circular conversations, and unpredictable behavior to maintain confusion and dominance.

Warning Signs: Covert Abuse Red Flags to Watch Out for in Relationships

Illustration of a person surrounded by question marks, symbolizing confusion and unpredictability in relationships

Identifying the warning signs is a major stride towards escaping covert abuse. Covert abusers employ mixed messages and a ‘bait and switch’ approach, behaving lovingly at times and unpredictably at others. This leads victims to walk on eggshells and suffer a roller coaster of emotions.

Warning signs of covert abuse in relationships can include…

  • Being isolated from family and friends

  • Needing to ask permission excessively

  • Feeling shamed for vulnerabilities

  • Having little control over personal finances

It’s important to note that recognizing covert abuse requires observing recurring patterns of manipulative behavior by the abuser, rather than focusing only on individual occasions of abuse. We can all behave in negative ways as a one off.

Narcissists often use these tactics. Narcissistic abuse is a type of abuse involving emotional and psychological abuse through manipulation, coercion and control tactics.

Lets look at some common ways covert abuse happens…

  1. inconsistent behavior and mixed signals,

  2. isolation from friends and family, and

  3. constant criticism and belittling.

  4. Emotional blackmail and blame shifting

  5. Gaslighting and reality distortion

  6. Playing the victim and false accusations

1. Inconsistent Behavior and Mixed Signals

This is a classic mark of covert abusers. They often display inconsistent behavior, which confuses the victim and makes the relationship unpredictable.

Mixed signals from a covert abuser can include…

  • making promises that are not kept,

  • switching between affection and withdrawal, and

  • inconsistent communication.

Survivors may feel that something isn’t right in the relationship but struggle to comprehend that their partner, who claims to love them, would deliberately hurt them. This leads to self-doubt and questioning their own judgment.

2. Isolation from Friends and Family is Covert Abuse

One of the covert abusers’ strategies is to isolate their victims. They often do this by expressing distrust or criticism towards your friends and family, leading to a weakened support network.

By distancing victims from their close relationships, abusers aim to take control and prevent them from seeking external help or validation, cementing their dependency on the abuser.

Abusers may insist on spending excessive amounts of one-on-one time with their victims to further isolate them from their established social ties. To enforce isolation, abusers refuse to engage with the victim’s friends and family or use rude behavior to discourage them for contacting you.

Additionally, abusers create fabricated situations or events to interfere with any opportunities for the victim to engage with their loved ones.

Constant Criticism and Belittling

Illustration of a person feeling emotionally manipulated and distressed, representing emotional blackmail and blame shifting

Constant criticism and belittling are tools used by covert abusers to undermine the victim’s confidence, self-worth and ability to trust their own judgment.

Covert abusers target the victim’s appearance, intelligence or abilities with negative comments to erode their self-esteem.

Demeaning humor and sarcasm are also used by covert abusers to degrade the victim.

Victims are subjected to constant fault-finding and shifting expectations, especially in household tasks, which chips away at their confidence.

Covert abusers may belittle the victim’s accomplishments, making them feel undervalued and questioning their competence.

Double standards are frequently employed by covert abusers who excuse their own actions while holding the victim to different standards.

These covert abusive behaviors can leave victims feeling neglected and unloved.

Emotional Blackmail and Blame Shifting

Emotional blackmail is a manipulation technique where abusers exploit the victim’s feelings to assert power and control, which is a form of emotional abuse.

It often involves tactics such as…

  • The silent treatment

  • Guilt trips

  • Exaggeration

  • Threats

It’s like holding the victim’s emotions hostage, using them as leverage to control their actions, making them feel like they have no other choice.

Covert abusers will engage in the following tactics…

  • Blame shifting: projecting their faults or actions onto the victim to evade accountability. They try to manipulate the victim into feeling responsible for the abuser’s behavior.

  • Electronic control and isolation: implementing digital voyeurism and demanding access to all of the victim’s passwords.

  • Intermittent reinforcement: keeping the victim off-balance and dependent.

The psychological abuse wheel shows emotional unkindness and mind games as tactics that contribute to declining self-esteem and trust in personal memory.

Gaslighting and Reality Distortion

Gaslighting is a common covert abuse tactic. The abuser manipulates the victim’s perception of reality by denying or distorting events.

This involves the abuser denying that certain events have occurred or that certain things were said.

The effect of gaslighting causes victims to question their sanity, feel paranoid and second-guess themselves. Survivors of covert abuse may not recognize that they have been abused due to the abusers’ skill at creating scenarios and causing doubts about the survivors’ own experiences.

Abusers often use the following tactics to gaslight their victims…

  • Chronic lying and denial of accountability

  • Leading victims to question their own recollection of events

  • Accusing the victim of having a distorted reality perception

  • Accusing the victim of being abusive or narcissistic, when it is the abuser’s behavior that is harmful

These tactics are designed to confuse and undermine the victim, making it easier for the abuser to maintain control.

Playing the Victim and False Accusations

Covert abusers often play the victim to manipulate the situation. They create a false narrative portraying themselves as victims and the actual victims as the perpetrators.

By playing the victim and making false threats of self-harm, covert abusers manipulate the situation to maintain control and keep the victim from leaving.

Breaking Free: Strategies for Overcoming Covert Abuse

Illustration of a person breaking free from chains, symbolizing overcoming covert abuse and establishing healthy boundaries

While the prospect of overcoming covert abuse may appear daunting, it is possible.

Armed with suitable strategies and support, victims can liberate themselves from the chains of covert abuse and begin to reconstruct their lives.

This section will focus on strategies for overcoming covert abuse, including establishing healthy boundaries, seeking professional help and support, and creating a safety plan to exit the relationship.

Establishing Healthy Boundaries

Establishing healthy boundaries is crucial in protecting oneself from emotional blackmail and maintaining one’s well-being. These boundaries serve as a protective barrier, shielding the victim from the harmful effects of covert abuse.

Setting healthy boundaries is like building a fortress around oneself. It involves identifying personal limits, asserting oneself, and being consistent. These boundaries can protect victims from emotional blackmail and reinforce their self-respect.

Establishing healthy boundaries involves:

  • Clearly defining what is acceptable behavior and what is not

  • Setting limits on physical space, emotional distance and communication

  • Communicating boundaries assertively, ensuring that the covert abuser understands the expectations and consequences for violating them

  • Seeking support from friends, family or professionals to hold firm to boundaries, as covert abusers often attempt to test and undermine them.

Seeking Professional Help and Support

Seeking professional help and support from trusted individuals can also play a significant role in overcoming covert abuse.

Support groups, counselors, and therapists can provide the necessary guidance and emotional support for victims to navigate their healing journey.

Seeking professional help and support can be a lifeline for victims of covert abuse. Support groups for narcissistic abuse provide emotional support, empathy and valuable information to understand abuse experiences that often lead to isolation.

Survivors can find abuse support groups by…

  • Contacting mental health providers for referrals

  • Reaching out to domestic violence centers

  • Using directories from organizations like the National Domestic Violence Hotline

Professional help through licensed psychotherapists and mental health professionals is instrumental in breaking trauma bonds and reconfiguring emotional trauma responses.

Building a Safety Plan and Exiting the Relationship

Building a safety plan involves identifying secure friends, safe locations for refuge, and critical items needed when leaving.

Exiting the relationship might appear as an insurmountable hurdle, but with a well-structured safety plan, it becomes manageable. Here are some steps to consider…

  1. Distance yourself from the situation.

  2. Seek professional assistance to establish a comprehensive safety plan.

  3. Connect with supportive networks.

Prevention and Education: Stopping Covert Abuse Before It Starts

Illustration of people engaged in open communication and trust, representing prevention of covert abuse through healthy relationships

As the saying goes, ‘Prevention is better than a cure.’ Therefore, taking measures to prevent covert abuse before it even begins is key to protecting individuals from its damaging consequences.

This section will focus on understanding power dynamics, promoting open communication, and encouraging self-care. These strategies can help establish healthy relationships and prevent the onset of covert abuse.

Understanding the Dynamics of Power and Control

Understanding the dynamics of power and control is like learning the rules of the game. It equips individuals with the knowledge to recognize and prevent covert abuse.

Understanding the dynamics of power and control in relationships can provide individuals with a strong foundation for a healthy relationship. Learn the language of relationships, and navigate interactions effectively.

A healthy relationship is based on give and take. You both want the best for each other and are there when things go wrong. You both work at the relationship but respect each others boundaries.

Relationships require effort and understanding, but they should not be hard.

Each person has their main role because it’s benefits both people.

If the power dynamic shifts from the above consistently, it is a warning sign.

To Avoid Covert Abuse Have Open Communication and Trust

When you get into a relationship or are thinking about it, be open with your communication.

A well intentioned, healthy person will welcome it.

If the person avoids answering questions or makes you feel awkward then you should be careful.

Don’t over look it and believe it will change later, it rarely does.

Open communication and trust are the bedrock of healthy relationships, and their importance cannot be overstated.

Self-Care and Emotional Well-Being

Encouraging self-care and emotional well-being can help individuals build resilience against covert abuse. Self-care routines can reinforce boundaries and maintain well-being, acting as a protective shield against the harmful effects of covert abuse.

When you practice selfcare in your daily life it will come across when you meet new people.

When a potential abuser see’s that you care about yourself, they will think twice. Because abusers are looking for people with low self esteem, who do not care for themselves.

Once you are in a relationship your self care routine should not change much. There might be things that you now do with your partner that you did alone, or you might change the time of of day you did things. However, essentially, your selfcare must remain the same.

The other person, if they care about you, will be happy that you value yourself. If they give any indication that you should put your basic needs over yours, watch out.

Remember, in a healthy relationship you will both naturally accommodate each other without having to skew the power dynamic in favour of one over the other.


Covert abuse is a complex and insidious form of manipulation that severely impacts the victims’ mental health and self-esteem.

It employs a variety of tactics, including inconsistent behavior, isolation, constant criticism, emotional blackmail, gaslighting and playing the victim.

Recognizing these signs is the first step towards liberation. By establishing healthy boundaries, seeking professional help and creating a safety plan, victims can break free from the shackles of abuse.

Prevention and education play a crucial role in stopping abuse before it starts. Understanding power dynamics, open communication, and self-care are key strategies in this process.

The journey may be challenging, but with the right support and resources, it is entirely possible to overcome covert abuse and rebuild one’s life.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an example of covert abuse of power?

An example of covert abuse of power is when an individual uses deceitful and manipulative behavior, such as lovebombing and gaslighting, to gain power and control over others. These tactics can include twisting someone’s words or causing confusion for personal gain.

What is a covert coercion?

Covert coercion refers to hidden or secret tactics of coercive control that are difficult to spot and nearly impossible to confront. It involves tactics that are hard to define and recognize.

Is emotional abuse subconscious?

Emotional abuse can be both intentional and subconscious, causing the victim to question themselves and suffer psychological distress. It is a course of conduct, not a single event.

What happens to a person after years of emotional abuse?

After years of emotional abuse, a person may suffer from low self-esteem, negative relationships, and other physical and mental health effects. It’s important to seek support and resources to address the impact of emotional abuse.

See also 12 Traits of a Narcissist and 7 Love Languages and emotional intelligence in relationships