Covert abuse is a psychological or emotional type of abuse. A covert abuser uses manipulation hidden behind fake empathy and charm. They profess to be your biggest supporter, all the while belittling and shaming you. Their tactics are hidden, so you aren’t clear about what’s going on while they’ll act as if they’re the victim. They are a narcissist, using mind games to make you doubt yourself so that you end up believing what your abuser says about themselves and you.

Covert abuse occurs in many relationships, not just in a romantic partnership or a parent-child relationship. Friends abuse friends, children abuse parents, and supervisors use their employees. If all this sounds familiar to you, you could be in a covert abuse relationship. Recognizing the abusive behavior is vital for getting the help you need and finding healing.

Other names for covert abuse

  • Ambient abuse
  • Stealth abuse
  • Hidden abuse
  • Passive aggressive abuse

14 Signs of Covert Abuse Never to Ignore

covert abuse

1 – Belittling is a common sign of covert abuse

Covert abusers are skilled at making negative comments to make you feel insecure. They find out where you’re vulnerable, then use tactics to destroy you with belittling, shaming, and mocking. They twist the truth so that you feel confused emotionally by their kindness at one moment and hatefulness the next.

2 – Betraying

When you first meet your abuser, you’ll find them immensely charming. As your relationship progresses, they’ll act like the perfect partner. Because the abuser wants you to trust them, they will present themselves as vulnerable, mirroring your values and ideas so much that you’ll be surprised at how perfect they are for you. Psychologists call this “grooming” because your abuser focuses on you as a target, luring you into their trap with specific tactics. It’s a total betrayal of who they are.

3 – Covert abuse causes isolation

Your abuser will attempt to isolate you from those closest to you. They’ll express their distrust of your loved ones or friends to pull you away from anyone but themselves. You may feel afraid as they criticize your neighbors, family, and friends. The covert abuser may ask you to keep things private because they say they’d be embarrassed if you tell your family. It’s a subtle way to isolate you. To go against their wishes is the “choose” others over them. They’ll sulk if you express a desire to be with your friends or family to coerce you to stay with them.

4 – Controlling

Covert abuse is hard to identify because the abuser is careful of how they appear. They’re narcissists who want to control you by making any scheduling too hard or by making you feel guilty if you’re going to be with your family or friends. If you go out as a couple, they’ll be miserable, playing the victim the entire time. Examples of controlling include:

  • Interrupts you when you’re talking
  • Speaks for you
  • Doesn’t allow you choices
  • Insisting you wear what they like
  • Doing things their way
  • Controlling the spending

5 – Maintains a favorable reputation

Covert abuse hides in plain sight. The abuser works hard to maintain their reputation as a nice person. They flatter, praise, and encourage others, so they’re well-loved by people. Similar to a chameleon, the abuser tries to please everyone. They volunteer, give support and help people. They need to win support and praise because they will carry out smear tactics against you if you tell anyone about the abuse. No one will believe you because your abuser is a nice person.

6 – Public slander

If you try to leave a covert abuser, you’ll experience slander. They’ll revile your character with negative comments to friends and family. Of course, they’ll express their “concern” for you and imply that you’re unstable. They may tell others you’re abusive and can’t be trusted. Because they’ve been able to maintain their reputation, people will rally around them, believing their lies. A covert abuser will also engage in these slurs:

  • Deflecting your accusations of abuse
  • Smearing your good name, even to friends and family
  • Making  you feel lonely because people will pull away from you to support them
  • Causing you to doubt yourself
  • Make you feel helpless because everyone believes their lies

7 – Covert abuse deflects responsibility

Covert abusers blame their victims instead of taking responsibility for their actions. For instance, if your abuser hits you, they’ll say something like, You made me angry; I didn’t have a choice, but I had to hit you to make you stop. Your abuser won’t acknowledge that any abuse happened. Instead, they’ll blame you for their actions, making themselves out as the victim.

8 – Plays the victim

Abusers love to act like the victim. This is because they like to use your sympathy to excuse their behavior. The covert abuser will give you the silent treatment, refusing to communicate with to punish you. They’ll act like it’s a sacrifice to be around you as they emotionally withdraw. If you try to bring up their behavior, they’ll

  • Try to get your sympathy
  • Twist it around as your fault
  • Pretend to have self-hatred
  • Acts hurt
  • Tell you that you’re hard to please
  • Tell you that you don’t appreciate all they do for you
  • Blames others-old relationships, their parents or family or work

covert abuse

9 – Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a form of manipulative lying. Your abuser will confuse the truth to mislead you. They’ll twist what they said, questioning you to where you believe their lies. You lack self-confidence and do not trust your judgment. Or you may feel like there’s something wrong with you. Gaslighting messes with reality and makes you feel frustrated. If you point out what they’re doing, they act hurt and tell you you’re being irrational.

10 – Covert abuse twists your words

When talking to a narcissist, the conversation will be a confusing twist of topics unrelated to the original discussion. They’ll bring up their concern for you, all the while twisting your words and misrepresenting your feelings. You may get so overwhelmed you eventually give up trying to challenge anything they say because it’s just too complicated. They may create drama to get a reaction out of you. If you try to reason with them, they’ll say things like

  • Oh, so you’re perfect?
  • Okay, so you’ve never made a mistake?
  • Am I that bad of a person?

They misconstrue what you shared as feelings into accusations. Telling you you’re being self-righteous.

11 – Blameshift commonly happens during covert abuse

A covert abuser can act sweet and sensitive sometimes. If you share your concerns about things they’ve said or done, they’ll feign listening and act as if they understand. They may even say they’re eager to work on your relationship. As the conversation continues, they’ll twist things so that what you brought up gets painted as your fault. Ultimately, you’ll try to break this cycle in the relationship. They’ll throwback in your face what you shared, accusing you of rejecting them. If you get defensive and try to push back, they’ll belittle you saying you’re an angry, selfish person who cares only for yourself.

12 – Putdowns

Their putdowns are with words and body language. A covert abuser uses subtleties to put you down. They’ll mix a compliment with a negative comment, saying something like I like your new hairstyle, even though it makes you look haggard. But I still love you. It’s a roller coaster experience of feeling loved and hated all at once. They use a condescending tone, inflict jabs, and patronize comments at you. Of course, they’ll say they’re just joking, but their face won’t convince you it was a joke. When you act upset by their comments, they’ll work surprised and tell you you have an anger problem. There is rarely any praise or support, which makes you feel neglected and unloved.

13 – Pretender

Covert abusers are masterful actors. They pretend that their behavior was an accident or that it never happened. When you try to bring up something, they’ll feign confusion or say they don’t know what you’re talking about. They “forget” meaningful conversations or events. You struggle with feeling alone and unloved while making yourself out as innocent.

14 – History revisions

Your abuser may use denial or rewrite history, telling you that you don’t remember the situation correctly. Or they may say to you that you misunderstood what they said. It’s a twisted historical narrative. You may give up trying to point out their inconsistencies. It’s too complicated to convince them otherwise.

The Body Language Displayed in Covert Abuse

Often you can spot a covert abuser in their body language. These are subtle, but they get their message across to you. If you notice these signs in someone, don’t ignore them or think it’s just their “way” of expressing themselves. Good chance you’re detecting abusive activity displayed.

  • Condescending voice or tone
  • Voice tones that don’t match words. For example, the person is saying nice things, but their voice sounds angry.
  • Superior attitude
  • Smiling with only half their mouth
  • Smirk
  • Sighs
  • Shrugs when asked a question
  • Eye rolling
  • Sideways look
  • A disgusted look on their face
  • Raise one eyebrow
  • Patronizing

covert abuse

Final Thoughts on Recognizing Covert Abuse

The dangers of covert abuse are real. It’s more common than you think and plays out in many relationships. Living with a narcissist eats away at your sense of self. It makes you feel as if you’re losing your mind. If these signs are all too familiar in your relationship, seek help right away. Find a trusted friend, pastor, or counselor to help you understand what’s going on and help you get healing. No one needs to live with covert abuse.