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Covert Abuse: Manipulation Tactics to Watch For

Abusers are skilled at understanding your insecurities and vulnerabilities and will tailor their tactics to destroy the foundation of who you are and your self-worth.

Body Language

Many of these tactics are accompanied by body language which the abuser uses to get his message across in the most subtle way.

Watch for: ~ condescending or patronizing tone of voice ~ vocal tones that don’t match the words being used ~ air of superiority ~ anxiety or other reactions in you that you can’t explain ~ a gut feeling of unease ~ asymmetric expressions such as a smile with only half his mouth ~ smirks, frowns, shrugs, sighs ~ closed body stances and/or turning away ~ sideways glances of disapproving looks or squinted eyes ~ eye rolls, scoffing, smug smiles, raising one eyebrow ~ avoiding eye contact or extending eye contact while saying nothing ~ tilting up his chin ~ flashes of anger, contempt or disgust on his face


Grooming/ Re-grooming

“They fool you because they appear supportive, nice, non-threatening and easy going.”

In the beginning of a relationship, the abuser will groom you (his target) with specific tactics. He will use these same tactics during the relationship when things get rocky, when he feels you are pulling away from him, when he thinks he’s losing his covert control over you, and when you are becoming suspicious that he’s not who he appears to be.

Especially at the beginning of the relationship, he appears to be perfect for you, that you are meant to be together, that you are soul-mates.

  • He draws you in trust him by acting vulnerable and emotionally open.

  • He mirrors your interests, values, and ideas of acceptable behavior to appear perfect for you.

  • He listens very carefully to you and appears to care deeply.

  • He showers you with attention and affection, making you feel loved and wanted.

  • He goes out of his way to make you think that the relationship is special and unique (“I’ve never felt this way about anyone else before!”). This is called love-bombing. He wants to make you dependent on his attention or affection.

  • He is very charming and kind so that you feel rude being assertive toward such a nice man.

  • He plays the servant role towards you, performing acts of service or kindness.

When you set a boundary around unwanted behavior, he acts like he’s changed, begins to be kind and loving again, plays nice. He’s trying to break the boundary by seducing you into trusting him again.



Gaslighting / Distorting Reality

Gaslighting causes confusion, questioning reality, and feeling crazy.

·       You doubt yourself, your perception, your judgement and your abilities.

·       You end up feeling like there’s something wrong with you but you don’t know what it is.

·       You second guess yourself, and feel paranoid and oversensitive.

·       You’re afraid you’re over reacting because you’re defending yourself against something you can’t identify.

Gaslighting messes with your sense of reality and creates a reaction in you: anger, frustration, sadness, confusion.

·       When you react, he implies your reactions aren’t rational or normal.

“You’re not going out of your mind; you’re slowly and systematically being driven out of your mind.”

— Brian Cameron, in the movie Gaslight (1944)

Here are some examples:

  • He tells you that what you say happened didn’t really happen or that he remembers things differently than you.

  • He denies saying things you remember him saying, or saying “I didn’t mean it that way -you misheard me.”

  • He looks at you as if you are wrong, deluded and can’t trust your perceptions.

  • He feigns ignorance or confusion.

  • He asks you to watch your tone of voice.

  • Although he is calm, rational, and rarely raises his voice, the look on his face and his tone of voice makes you feel helplessness and out of control.

  • He gives seemingly sincere advice and help, but you feel controlled and demeaned.

  • If you get offended, he says he was just trying to be nice.

  • He says things that sound totally right but in your gut seem to be wrong.

  • He defines words and frames questions in such a way that your healthy response seems selfish, mean, or unreasonable.

  •  After patronizing you and minimizing your feelings, he acts surprised at your response and expresses loving concern at your “instability."

  •  If you get upset at him he turns it around on you and says “Don’t make this about me” or “I don’t want to argue with you.”

  • If you say he’s making you feel crazy, he says or “No one can make anyone feel anything — that’s your choice to feel that way.”

  • He gives different reasons for the same behavior — sometimes he admits it and says he’s sorry, sometimes he blames you, sometimes he denies anything at all.


Confusion / Muddying the waters / Word twisting

“They twist your words, and accuse—all while smiling and pretending to be your biggest supporters.”

  • Conversations with him are confusing – you lose track but he never does.

  • He slyly changes the topic to something unrelated to the original conversation, often mentioning something wrong about you.

  • You find yourself in defensive mode because he brings up something that has a kernel of truth.

  • He twists your words and misrepresents your motives, thoughts, and feelings.

  • He defines your reality for you.

  • He accuses you of twisted thinking and not making sense.

  • He brings up red-herrings to take the topic off course.

  • He tricks you into going on the defensive by implying, accusing or blaming you for creating problems and drama in the relationship.

  • He puts words in your mouth, saying, ‘Oh, so now you’re perfect?’ or ‘So I am a bad person, huh?’ when you’ve done nothing but express your feelings.

An example:

When C.R. separated from her ex she told him she wasn’t going to put up with his mind games and manipulations anymore. She told him he needed therapy and she wanted their children to know that this is not the kind of marriage that God desires.

His reply:“I agree with you. I realize you need a break. I understand that you can’t change right now to show the kids what a real marriage is like and you need time.”


Playing the Victim

“Every time I had a complaint or wanted to discuss something that hurt my feelings or that he could do better, he would get his feelings hurt so badly. To the point that he would claim that he could never please me and that I didn’t appreciate the good things he did.”

If you’ve read “Why Does He Abuse Me?” you know that abusers love to play the victim because it works so well to gain sympathy and excuse their behavior. They use our compassion and sympathy against us. This ploy is how they make us feel that their feelings are our responsibility and fault.


When you discuss his behavior or your hurt feelings, he

·       ~ tries to get your sympathy

·       ~ pretends to fall into self-hatred and despair

·       ~ makes you feel that his feelings are your fault

·       ~ acts insulted

·       ~ acts as if his feelings are hurt

·       ~ says/implies that that he can never please you and that you don’t appreciate the good things he does.

He blames problems with work, others or past relationships on other people.


Accusing the Victim

  • He reverses the roles of victim and abuser, making you out to be the abuser and himself out to be your victim. He accuses you of hurting him when he’s actually hurting you (this is projection) to make it appear he is only responding (i.e. defending himself against) aggression on your part.

  • He does this to put you in the defensive.

  • When you attempt to defend yourself, he claims that your defense is accusation or abuse. Here’s an example:

Cynthia confronts Mark about lying. As soon as Cynthia tells Mark she feels that he may be repeatedly lying to her, Mark says, “I’m so sorry that you would think that of me. You know I can’t stand lying.” Mark reverses their roles, “I just can’t believe you don’t trust me! What have I done that you would accuse me like this?”


Hidden Blame Shifting / Guilt Tripping

He acts like a sensitive husband who wants to work on the marriage and will engage in conversations about your relationship. He’ll nod and smile if you gently offer constructive feedback, tell his that he’s hurt you, or ask something of him emotionally.

Through word twisting and circular conversations, the issue you brought up becomes your fault by the end of the conversation.

Later he’ll give you the silent treatment or another form of subtle retaliation.

  • He brings up your faults so you feel that your inadequacy is why you’re unhappy or unable to have a good relationship.

  • If you withdraw to protect yourself, he says that you’re causing the problems because you’re being distant and rejecting him.

  • He says your feelings and “issues” are because of your childhood or past abuse.

  • He explains that he did “X” because you did “Y.”

  • When you get defensive because he’s shifted the blame onto you, he belittles your defensiveness: “Why are you so angry?”

  • He implies that that you don’t care enough, are too selfish, have it too easy, are entitled.


Subtle Putdowns/ Shaming

“I experienced the shrugs or eye rolls when something great happened. Like the day I graduated with my master’s degree. He should have been outwardly proud that day. Instead, he was almost sulking and appeared annoyed.”

  • Putdowns and shaming are often done through body language.

  • He instills vague doubts about your insecurities so your own self-criticism fills in the gaps.

  • He makes you believe you are controlling when you set clear, healthy boundaries.

  • He sandwiches a negative comment with a compliment, or says the negative and then says he still loves you, like “I like your dress, but it really doesn’t flatter your figure.”

  • He says something that has a slight put down element to it and then claims that he was only joking.

  • He doesn’t say things that would be encouraging to hear.

  • He uses a condescending tone, implies disdain, uses subtle jabs, patronizes you, minimizes your feelings. Then when you react, he feigns surprise and points out how aggressive, angry, unstable, and volatile you are.

  • He’s indifferent to anything positive you have to say. For example, you come home with news of a promotion. Instead of congratulating you, he redirects the conversation to be about him.

  • He withholds all praise, support and love, making you feel neglected and dejected.


Circular Conversations

“He was messing with my head and spinning the truth into a lie to keep me off balance.”

  • He repeats something only minutes after you thought it had been resolved, and no matter what you say in response, he brings the conversation back to the original point.

  • He derails the conversation or confrontation (regarding their actions) by bringing up your past failures.

  • Conversations feel more like competitions that than conversations.

  • He twists thing around so he ends up looking like your victim.


Diverting / Evading

  • He uses diversion (steering the conversation to another topic) or evasion (giving an irrelevant, vague and often rambling response).

  • He takes your focus off what he’s done by getting you to focus on some mistake you made and defending yourself.

  • He draws your attention away from what’s really happening to drain your resources, energy, and time so that you’ll eventually just agree with him.

  • He uses exaggeration or under-exaggeration, dwells on details, or switches the conversation to another sub-topic.


Denying /Minimizing / Rationalizing  

When you confront him with something he’s done, he

·       ~ makes it seem like you're overreacting,

·       ~ implies you took it the wrong way or misunderstood, or

·       ~ implies you’re too demanding.

·       ~ says you’re making a big deal out of nothing

·       ~ says you’re “exaggerating”

·       ~ says you’re too sensitive

·       ~ blames you for reacting

·       ~ says “I was only kidding”

He says “I’m sorry you feel that way,” “I can’t make a single mistake without you getting upset” or, with a friendly smile, “You’re a really sensitive thing, aren’t you?”

He convincingly explains that he reacted that way because you….

He refers to how others feel or think, or quotes experts to make his point.


Feigning ignorance, Innocence, or Confusion

  • He attempts to convince you that his behavior was accidental, or that it didn’t happen in the first place.

  • He acts like he doesn’t know what you’re talking about or is confused about an important issue being brought up.

  • He pretends to not understand something to get more information from you to use against you later.

  • He “forgets” important dates, conversations, or events. He does this to make you feel crazy and unloved, and to make himself seem innocent.


Induced Helplessness

When you express an interest in learning or doing something new, he “helps” you out and you end up feeling less competent and capable.

He causes you to doubt your abilities in certain areas of your life so you feel less capable than you used to.


Rewriting History

“They will drive you insane with their version of history.”

  • He denies the facts of a situation, and rewrites history, telling you that your memory is unreliable.

  • He rewrites your understanding of things, telling you that you misunderstood something.

  • He rewrites the narrative- the reality, meaning, intention or cause of something.


Lying by Omission

  • He subtly lies by leaving things out or distorting how they happened.

  • He makes the details of a situation hazy and vague to throw you off.


False Remorse and False Apologies

  • He expresses deceptive remorse for behavior when hes not sorry at all. His intention is to manipulate you into forgiveness and naive trust.


Punishing / Silent Treatment

  • He gives you the silent treatment or another form of subtle retaliation.

  • He makes it very clear that he’s making a sacrifice to help you.

  • He withholds intimacy to punish you.

  • He verbally or non-verbally resists communication with you.

  • He emotionally withdraws when he doesn’t get what he wants to punish and manipulate you.

  • He sulks when his demands aren’t met to make you feel guilty and coerce you into meeting those demands.


Covert Control

Covert control can be hard to identify since the abuser doesn’t use obvious tactics such as controlling the finances, friendships or where you go.

He undermines your attempts to have your own life in subtle ways:

·       by not encouraging you,

·       by making scheduling difficult,

·       by criticizing someone else who does what the survivor is doing,

·       by making family visits miserable by being grumpy, and other ways.

There is always plausible deniability with his behavior; it can always be excused or interpreted differently.

Here are a few examples:

  • Giving the Illusion of Choice: he asks you what you want and then finds a plausible reason why you can’t have/do it.He speaks for you and interrupts your input in conversations so you’ll give up speaking and become more passive.

  • He expresses jealousy if you give your attention to anyone else, including children, pets, family, friends and jobs.

  • He acts in ways that cause you a great deal of stress and anxiety, and then abruptly relieves that stress.



  • He subtly puts down close family members and friends.

  • He expresses of distrust of everyone but himself.

  • He criticizes others and the world to isolate you and make you afraid.

  • He asks you to “keep this private,” and offers a seemingly legitimate reason (“I’m embarrassed,” “What if your mom gets upset with us?”) to isolate you from confidants.

  • He makes you pay if you try to have a social life with retaliation such as the silent treatment, complaining, sabotaging attempts to be with others, etc.


Covert Intimidation through Fear Mongering

  • He intimidates you by making veiled threats.

  • He induces paranoia in you by weaving a story of a dreadful outcome. Often he’ll spins this around using your induced paranoia as proof that you’re unstable.

  • Paranoia planting can be as subtle and simple as the perpetrator saying, “I can’t believe what so and so said about you.”



He sabotages important events, family gatherings, holidays etc. using methods like put-downs, arguments that lead to sleep deprivation, pressuring you to do things a particular way, insulting you, covertly casting doubt onto your abilities and talents, being moody, surly or angry, or causing drama.


Intermittent Reinforcement

“It’s like living on a roller coaster. It’s like going on a train journey and never knowing which stop you are going to get off – is it going to be a nice stop? or a bad stop? And it’s like that every day basically. You don’t know how the day is going to start. And you don’t know how the day is going to end.”

  • He switches between hot/cold, cheerful/ sulking, loving/ withdrawn.

  • The good times are full of adoration, attention, affection, praise, affection, gifts, superficial sympathy (crocodile tears), charm, intense sex, and declarations of love. But then they stop for no apparent reason.

  • He stops a punishing behavior when you behave the way he wants.

  • He keeps you always hoping and waiting for the good times.


Covert Physical Aggression

Covert abusers hide their aggression but it’s there.

Some examples:

After you planted a beautiful garden he “accidentally” walks over it and crushes the plants because he needed to fix the fence. Then he brags to friends in front of you about how beautiful your garden is and what a talented gardener you are.

You’re the one who cleans the bathroom and he pees all over the floor around the toilet as though he’s unable to aim properly.



  • He projects what he’s doing onto you. What he accuses you of is almost always what he’s doing.

  • You’re honest and he accuses you of lying.

  • You’re generous and he accuses you of having a hidden agenda or being selfish.

  • You’re faithful and he accuses you of being unfaithful.


Fake Empathy

He seems very kind, as if he’s listening intently, understands you, has sympathy for your struggles and feelings.


Image Management

  • “He not only fooled me but also mutual friends in our small, close knit community to the point that many of them thought I was a nut case/liar and drama queen.”

  • He has a great public image.

  • He uses “in” language or jargon to impress others and gain a good reputation.

  • He’s charming, praising, flattering and supportive of others so they’ll lower their defenses and surrender their trust and loyalty to him.

  • He tells different stores to different people so he’ll be perceived positively by them.

  • He behaves in certain ways to get desired responses from friends, much like a chameleon.

  • He performs acts of service for others (volunteering, etc.) to gain attention and praise, and to establish a positive reputation.

His long term plan is to turn people into “flying monkeys.” Flying monkeys are people who believe and support the abuser over you and turn against you if you expose the abuse. This enables him to carry out a potential smear campaign against you more easily. This also ensures that if you talk to anyone about the abuse, nobody will believe you.


Smear Campaign

Most women who expose and/or leave a covert abuser will experience being smeared, especially if the abuser is a narcissist.

He’ll smear your character to people he knows he can convince, including your own family, friends or co-workers. He does this subtly, often under the guise of “concern” for you, implying that you are unstable, untrustworthy, deluded, and even abusive.

Because of his ongoing image management and his skill in saying exactly what others will believe, he gets others to heap more abuse onto you.

He displays absolute confidence and certainty in everything he says and does. The appearance of confidence will lay to rest any outsiders’ suspicions, and it will cause you, the upset survivor, to appear even more unstable and lacking in confidence.

This smear campaign is used to accomplish many things:

·       ~ It makes you look like an abuser or unstable person

·       ~ It deflects your accusations of abuse

·       ~ It provokes you into responding, thus “proving” your instability to others when trying to argue against his depiction of you and lies about you.

·       ~ It makes you feel alone in your time of need

·       ~ It makes you doubt yourself, and feel crazy and helpless that people would believe the lies about you.

“Covert abuse reminds me of a time bomb doing a day job as an alarm clock.”


Here is an example of a conversation so you can see how a covert abuser might uses all these tactics together to confuse you:

·       You are discussing your relationship and he looks sincere and attentive while you talk (positive reinforcement).

·       For every issue you bring up, he says he doesn’t know what you are talking about (denial), or he retells his version of the story (gaslighting) and slips in a flaw about you (diverting).

·       You try to re-explain yourself so he can understand better. He calmly and rationally explains why the problem is your perception (changing the narrative) and your difficulty in trusting others (distorting reality).

·       He has a perfectly good response and reason for why he does what he does (rationalizing).  Then he sincerely explains that he feels he is being controlled by you and has a hard time trusting you (playing the victim), that you don’t care enough about his feelings (guilt-tripping) and that he wants to take responsibility for his part (lies).

·       Then he takes the conversation off into another direction (diverting) and nothing gets resolved. You feel blamed but you think you must be too sensitive and reading into things.

·       You are confused for feeling intimidated and defensive against what appears to be nothing. You wonder if you are the toxic person in the relationship.

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