How to Spot A Covert Abuser

The church was a large part of my childhood. Raised by hardworking parents, I lived in “small town America,” in a neighborhood with other families like mine. My church was a part of this loving community, a second family to me, an extension of our home life.

However, as much as I have always loved the Church and being a Christian, there are aspects of our communities that trouble me. Far too many families in the Church keep hurtful secrets. Various forms of relational violence occur in and out of the church and are just ignored.

Susan’s Story

Susan, a forty-five-year-old woman, is facing a series of life challenges alone. She is an active part of her church’s worship team, works part-time as a realtor, and plays tennis twice a week. And she is not without friends.

Her husband is equally accomplished. He is an attorney and serves on the elder board of their church. He guided their church’s building project and participates in mission projects. Charismatic and likable, Stan is a natural leader.

“No one would believe me if I told them about Stan’s temper,” Susan told me. “He scares me when he gets mad. He becomes irate when I criticize him in any way, yet he criticizes the smallest things I do.”

“How is that impacting you, Susan?” I asked.

“I have no confidence,” she said anxiously. “I forget things. My doctor tells me I’m under too much stress. I worry about my job but it’s not my work causing the stress–I love my work. It’s my marriage.”

“How are you doing at confronting your husband?” I asked.

“Nobody confronts Stan,” she said, “he’s an attorney, at work and at home. He’s a bully…” Her voice trailed off. “Besides,” she said, “he has more friends than I do. He charms the socks off of everyone. No one would believe me. I have no one to talk to about this.”

With an anxious laugh, she switches gears, “I’m probably being too hard on him. I just need to listen to him. He says it’s all in my head. He tells me I need help. That’s why I’m here.”

“It’s not all in your head, Susan,” I said. “You wouldn’t be here, doubting yourself, if it was all you. Something is happening in your marriage, and we can talk about it.”

Susan is confused. She listens to her husband, taking guidance from him. Yet, she is hurting. She has become exhausted and depressed from keeping her silence.

Changing Signs

Imagine walking on a darkened trail, completely dependent upon signs to guide you. Now imagine your mate changes the signs because he didn’t like them and made up his own. So you follow his new signs. Gradually, over time, you begin doubting the signs. You begin to question yourself and your helpmate. This is where Susan finds herself, having left one path to follow another, only to find the second path was false. The first path was her real truth.

One must walk in Susan’s shoes to understand the debilitating impact of daily stress, confusion, and cognitive dissonance; how can someone say they love you while constantly criticizing you? It takes fierce effort for Susan to find even a small amount of encouragement from a man who twists her words, shames her and uses sarcasm to control her.

Can you sense her inner chaos? Can you picture her stumbling on the path, groping for signs telling her she is heading in the right direction, but only finding signs that make no sense? Can you imagine her looking to her husband for help, only to be hurt again and again?

Like many victims of emotional abuse, Susan feels alone. Narcissistic and emotional abuse is an epidemic rarely talked about. Not in public, not in private, and especially not in church circles. Few pastors or even professional therapists know how to label what is happening to people like Susan.

Traits of a Covert Abuser

Narcissistic and emotional abuse is often called covert abuse because it is hard to see the signs and symptoms of this form of violence. Consider some of these common traits of the covert abuser:

  1. Constant criticism and humiliation: Nothing you do is good enough for him.
  2. Overt and covert control: Everything must be done the way he wants.
  3. Taking himself too seriously: Even the slightest affront becomes trouble for you.
  4. Calling names/rage reactions: When challenged or frustrated, his six-year-old comes out in a tantrum.
  5. Emotional Distance: When hurt, he will punish you by withdrawing/stonewalling.
  6. Playing the victim: Whatever problem you have, his is bigger and worse.
  7. Viewing you as an extension of himself: He can not/will not see you as an individual. You are to be an extension of his wants and desires.
  8. Subtle or overt threats: Failure to conform leads to threats to your emotional, spiritual and sometimes physical safety.

We’re here to help!

Do any of these traits sound like you or your partner? Can you relate to Susan in her constant chaos and confusion? If you’d like more information on covert abuse or would like help for your situation, contact our Client Care Team here.