From Overt to Covert Abuse

by S.K. and Dr. Irene

“When you see a snake, never mind where he came from.” -W. G. Benham

This is another collaborative back and forth email with a reader who talks about her experience with her partner. He shifted from overt to covert, or hidden, abuse. When the victim puts their foot down and sets boundaries, it is not uncommon for abuse to shift to covert. Below, I speak in blue.

Dear Dr. Irene,

I have written down some of my experiences with my abusive partner. He went from overt to covert abuse and I found it very difficult to see the covert abuse. Yes! It’s crazy-making! I haven’t found a lot written about this and it is very hard to identify the covert abuse. I thought this might help other partners in an abusive situation to see how subtle the abuse can be. A few titles you might find helpful that include covert abuse stuff that are In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People, Nasty People, and Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation and Guilt to Manipulate You. The first one really helps identify the malicious personality.

Overt abuse is pretty easy to spot: you get yelled at, called names, etc. Covert abuse is more difficult because it is usually about sins of omission. You are reacting to stimuli that isn’t there – like reassurance, respect, explanations, etc. It is crazy-making behavior that may co-exist with overt abuse, or may intensify as you learn to put a stop to your partner’s more obvious mis-behaviors. Falling into the covert abuse game is an excellent way to sap yourself of self-confidence. Yuk!

Because it’s unlikely that your abusive partner will stop it alone, it’s up to you to spot it and recognize it for what it is. You don’t have to play the game. ~Dr. Irene

Overt Abuse

  •  Leave and return with promises of change.
  • Not sharing work, thoughts, or feelings. Withholding love and affection from me and my son.
  • Disrespectful – continued to sleep at old girlfriends house, and even took my car to do so, took t-shirts and ruined them, borrowed large amounts of money and slow to pay back; missed payments, brought nephews to stay my house after I asked him not to.
  • Name calling
  • Unwillingness to accept impact of behavior on mental and physical health – gave me a hard time about always being and looking tired.
  • Mind games – guilt, I’m not good enough – “You don’t make me feel special.”
  • Looking at my call history,  then denies it.
  • Lies and half truths.
  • Double standards and inconsistent w/me and my son.
  • Very overly concerned w/appearances.
  •  “If you have *some sexual experience*  with me it will show me you really care about me, and I will come back”*. We shared this. He left the next day.
  • He could not locate me so he broke into my apartment in the middle of the night to ‘propose.’
  • He came to my job, his former job, and started doing personal work on company computer. He would not speak to me or leave when asked. He was furious because I called security.
  • Frequent put-downs about things that are important to me – appearance/fitness (butt), clothes, cooking, cleaning, child raising, support group/personal growth.
  • Hit my butt so hard and enough times it bruised me. Then he came on my butt while I lay on the floor crying.
  • Pinned me down and told me how bad I looked in my bikini.
  • Went to stay at old girl friend’s house again and said he’d start treating me w/respect when he got back.
  • Held me down and was in my face, hit my bare butt. When I said “Don’t do that again you hurt me”, he said “I don’t care” and hit me again.
  • Called me a bitch and a whore because he was “mad.”

 Covert Abuse

For the first 3 years my abusive partner displayed all the overt abuse that is described on your site and above. Although his denial of the abuse made it difficult, I was able to get past my denial and see the abuse.

Then as I changed my behavior and expectations, his abuse changed to covert abuse and manipulation. I’m (unfortunately) not surprised. It no longer fit the more obvious cycles of abuse I had read about and experienced. He found new and subtle ways to batter my spirit and already diminished self-esteem. Taken out of context of our relationship, none of these things are horribly abusive, but it was the history and climate between us that gave them a different meaning. After being in such a volatile relationship with him, I had also become numb to abuse and disregarded the more subtle abuse.

  • Intentionally set up situations that made me insecure. We would usually spend Friday evening together, but he would call and say he had other plans with no other explanation. He knew that would cause my mind to be full of questions and insecurity. He said things like “I can have any woman I want, but you’re the one I want to be with”.
  • Subtly question my abilities. “I think you’re a good parent, but I wouldn’t want my child raised the way you raised yours.”
  • Questioning my ability to be a good partner for him. When I would repeat something that he had said earlier, his response would be “You just don’t get it”, or “You don’t understand me at all” and deny what he had said.
  • He read my book “Codependent No More” and said, “I don’t think this sounds like you at all”. (This book was a direct recipe of my behaviors at the time.)
  • Totally closed me out of his work. Wouldn’t introduce me to his business partners, but would talk about the women frequently.
  • Said all his work was to establish a foundation for his family, but would never make long term plans with me. Said I just didn’t understand what he was trying to do for us and he felt unappreciated and misunderstood.

A Few More Examples from Doc

  • Treats other people, especially other women, with more respect and/or attention than he treats you with. If you fall into the trap, you feel jealous – and are accused of being “insecure.”
  • Won’t tell you who just called on the phone, cell, or beeper after that short, “uh huh”, “yeah,” etc. nondescript conversation. You want to ask, but may feel silly.
  • You are all dressed up; you look great – and you know it. But, no compliment tonight… Feeling insecure yet?
  • Finds the time to do what he or she wants to do, but cannot make time for you.
  • Needs “space.”
  • Talks more with his or her friends or family than with you. You feel like an outsider.
  • Is late; forgets anniversary’s, birthday’s, etc.
  • Manages to not get you what you asked for, described, hinted for, etc. But, it’s a gift. How can you possibly complain? (You ungrateful person, you!)
  • Makes you feel like an afterthought. Everything and everyone else takes priority.
  • His or her ex’s feelings or kid’s feelings or family’s feelings are more important than your feelings. Yuk, yuk, yuk!
  • You feel taken for granted.

Bottom Line: You don’t feel good, but, you feel to dumb, insecure, jealous, etc., to open your mouth.

Look at it this way: Flip the situation around. How would you treat your partner if the tables were turned? Would you go out of your way to reassure? To comfort? To explain? To respect? If you are willing to engage in ordinary courtesies, ask why your partner is not. In other words, it’s probably about them, not about you!

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