The insidious damage caused by covert emotional abuse

Abuse means treating someone with violence, disrespect, cruelty, harm or force and can be physical, sexual or emotional.


Emotional abuse has many forms which may include someone being hyper-critical or judgmental, crossing boundaries, possessiveness, manipulation and being dismissive of your feelings. Whether the intent is deliberate or not, the result has a deep impact on the person on the receiving end. Emotional abuse is complicated, disorienting, confusing and destructive.

Covert abuse is sometimes called ambient, stealth or hidden abuse and passive/aggressive behaviour. The covert abuser uses a series of tactics to manipulate their power and control over another's mental, emotional and physical responses. As such, it is very painful and more difficult to identify or describe. It is much more than hurt feelings. It is an insidious and damaging abuse that has the effect of causing extreme confusion and may lead to stress, anxiety, depression, questioning one’s own judgement and experiences and lowering self-esteem.

People being abused in this way often know that something isn’t right in the relationship but often make excuses for the behaviour as it is incomprehensible that the person that they love, and claims to love them, would hurt them deliberately in this way. They may question whether their partner is on a spectrum or narcissistic. They also question themselves about whether it is their fault. The sheer mind mess that results can be debilitating.

Covert abuse tactics

The list of tactics employed is long but includes:

  • love bombing at the beginning of a relationship to draw you in
  • gaslighting/distorting reality
  • silent treatment
  • confusion and word twisting
  • both playing the victim and accusing the victim of being the abuser
  • blame-shifting and guilt tripping
  • subtle non-verbal put-downs like eye rolling and sighs
  • diverting and evading issues
  • denying/minimalising/rationalising their actions
  • dismissing your feelings
  • lying by omission
  • feigning ignorance/poor memory
  • fake or total lack of empathy
  • devaluation
  • intermittent reinforcement
  • secretiveness
  • image management and development of ‘flying monkeys’ who will believe them rather than you

Do you recognise any of these tactics? Being told that they hadn’t said/done that, that you misunderstood/you were remembering incorrectly/it’s all in your mind? Walking out and prolonged silent treatment rather than discussing an issue? Regular eye rolls? Telling you that you were too sensitive when you explained that you felt hurt? Only doing the things that they wanted to do and not supporting you in important things? Taking frustrations with others out on you? Using the word ‘you’ in a dismissive and devaluing way?

Covert abuse is tricky to pinpoint as the behaviour, including the examples given, can all be interpreted as either normal or abusive depending on your perspective.  Targets of covert abuse, whilst possibly having experienced childhood neglect or trauma and thus having ‘normalised’ unacceptable behaviour, are often kind, nurturing, people who try not to judge others.

They can often be strong-willed, independent people. This means that the abuse can take place for years before it is acknowledged for what it is because they don’t want to believe it of their partner who also displays a loving and caring nature nor of themselves to have been subjected and fooled by it. Often, there is no obvious cycle, just a series of ups and downs of connection, devaluation, and reconnection that feel like an unpleasant roller coaster. 

What keeps people in such relationships? 

The development of a trauma bond. This is the connection a person forms with a person who causes them harm. The person receiving the abuse often idealises their abuser which perpetuates the power imbalance. It is an unconscious way of coping with the emotional trauma they experience. The bond creates a deep and complicated connection that is often difficult to break, even after a relationship is over.

Attachment styles, developed in early experiences, can also play a role. Those with insecure attachment styles will need the reassurance of not being rejected or abandoned and those with dismissive/avoidant attachment styles are least likely to ask for or to give it.

When we are faced with a challenge, which abuse or neglect is, our brains are wired for survival. Adrenalin and cortisol kick in and we will respond in one of four ways – fight, flight, freeze or fawn. Often people who feel trapped, powerless and confused react with a freeze response. Even if your natural response to a crisis is a fight reaction, your disbelief may cause you to freeze.

Over a period of time, frustration and confusion may build up and you may react with a fight response. If you then challenge the abuser’s behaviour, your ‘outburst/vent’ will ultimately be used to blame your behaviour for the problems in the relationship. An abuser will always blame you for your reaction to their disrespect and use it as an excuse for criticism, playing the victim, another prolonged silent treatment or any other of the covert tactics employed.

In a trauma bond, the brain wants the positive experience of relief from the danger. It is the abuser that can create and provide that relief when they eventually speak to you again and either fakely apologise or act as though nothing has happened, denying and dismissing both your experience and feelings.

The positive feelings created by the release of dopamine and oxytocin in those moments of connection again override the negative impact of the abuse and stressful situation. We believe this feeling is love and remember all the good aspects of the relationship rather than the pain just experienced. This is known as intermittent reinforcement. This allows the cycle to continue and the bonds to grow. We may believe that if we discuss it and gain understanding, then it will be different next time. But it won’t because the abuser won’t discuss it, won’t take any responsibility and won’t change their behaviour or tactics.

Trauma bonds can take a long time to heal. Depending on the duration and severity, it may be that C-PTSD (Complex PTSD) could develop, especially if earlier abuse has been experienced also. C-PTSD is a form of emotional PTSD which includes experiencing emotional flashbacks of the trauma and other complex psychological and physical symptoms.

Healing from covert abuse and trauma bonds

The first step to healing is to acknowledge that the behaviour wasn’t ‘normal’, it was abusive. If necessary, talk to friends and family to ascertain whether they would see it as acceptable behaviour. Don’t blame yourself. You didn’t ask to be subjected to that type of behaviour nor did you ‘allow’ it to happen by staying in the relationship. People don’t choose or can’t help the development of a trauma bond.

Keep a journal and write down all the things that you experienced. Expressing them will make them real and help you to see them from another perspective. 

When you are able to identify the cycle, if you haven’t already, end the relationship if you can. Rather than relying on snippets of love the abuser hands out to you, it’s time to learn, or re-learn, to love yourself. You do deserve to be treated better.

Be prepared for the possibility of it taking a long time to break the bond. It has been wired into your brain and needs to be reconfigured. It’s powerful because of the emotional impact.

Professional help is available to help you on this difficult journey.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Warton LA5 & Lancaster LA1
Written by Angela Holt, (Mindwell Matters) PGDip, MBACP - Individuals and Couples
Warton LA5 & Lancaster LA1

A grounding in person-centred approach, holding a PG Diploma and Registered Member of the BACP, I work pluralistically, including Person-Centred, CBT, Transactional Analysis and Solution Focused, with individuals and couples via face to face or Zoom sessions from therapy rooms based in Warton, Lancs and Zoom sessions nationwide.

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