A Word to the Helpers: How to Spot A Covert Abuser

As I frequently say, covert abuse is an epidemic we must face. We must become informed and trained to reach out and intervene in situations involving narcissism and emotional abuse. We must stop enabling the perpetrator, standing by as a person is harmed. There must be an intervention—stepping in, seeing what is taking place, and saying or doing something to help bring about change.

It is true, unfortunately, that lasting change is rare among these men and women. Narcissistic and emotionally abusive people tend to enjoy the power they feel from the emotional abuse. Thus, a low percentage make significant changes. Those who are willing to change typically do so only after their mate has intervened and created a crisis.

Recognizing Signs of Covert Abuse in your Patients

Here are three counseling tools I use in the initial stages of working with these couples:

  • Notice Who's Talking About Whom

    I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve listened to where the victim walks away from a counseling session feeling like her abusive spouse has totally snowed the counselor and found his new best friend. She watches helplessly as he talks about their relationship—blame shifting, manipulating the details, minimizing the chaos he creates, and making himself look like the victim.

    When a narcissist arrives at your office for counseling, he is expecting you to take his side. He is used to that kind of power and he rarely sees anything wrong in his own behavior. So, what do you listen for to tell what’s really going on?

    You hear the victim say things like, “What can I change to get him to stop?”

    You hear the abuser say things like, “How can I make her stop?”

    See the difference? The victim senses that the change starts with her. She comes to the counseling sessions looking at herself—how depressed, anxious, numb, or crazy she feels. The narcissist/emotional abuser is all about fixing his partner. You hear it in the terms he uses, where he places responsibility, and how he talks about himself. He minimizes his own actions and highlights hers. His theme is still about controlling her—her actions, her thoughts and motives, her perception—and making her change.

    It may be very subtle, but if you are aware of that little dynamic, it will tell you a lot. Once you recognize this as a relationship fraught with emotional abuse, you must stop and determine if help can be offered safely. It may be best not to do couples counseling until you determine whether he will fully utilize the counseling and will not use any aspect of the counseling to harm her.  

  • Help Her Find her Lost Heart (Affirm Her Experience)

    The victim of narcissistic/emotional abuse has probably spent years being told she is stupid, her memory is faulty, she is oversensitive, over-reactive, over-emotional, etc. She now feels that nothing about her core personhood is worth listening to or caring about. She needs validation that her abuse was harmful. You must seek every opportunity to help her begin placing value on her own experience. She needs to be able to connect with her heart again and begin to trust her perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. This is where she begins rebuilding the foundation, finding healing through the therapeutic process, and release from the narcissist’s control over her.

  • Untangle the trauma bond

    There comes a point when it is less frightening for the victim to go along with what the narcissist says than it is for her to try to fight or defend herself. Believing the narcissist becomes a defense mechanism to help her hold it together amid the trauma. She no longer trusts her own judgment; she is emotionally dependent upon him to control the relationship. This bond is cemented by moments of intermittent reward the narcissist throws at her, keeping her hooked. That intermittent reward is powerful!

    It is critical to understand that an abuse victim does not come to you in the same state of mind as someone simply having trouble communicating, holding to boundaries, and dealing with stress, depression, or loss. There is an entire layer of devaluing, trauma, biochemistry, and brokenness that must be considered.  Not paying attention to the trauma of abuse will potentially add more harm to the victim.

Join Our Mission!

Let’s not ignore the cries for help that come from the victims of covert abuse! At the Marriage Recovery Center, our mission is to help those in relationships involving narcissism and emotional abuse find healing and recovery. Visit our website or contact our Client Care team for more information.