Covert Emotional Abuse: What It Is and How to Identify It
COVERT – not openly acknowledged or displayed.
Synonyms: secret, furtive, clandestine, surreptitious, stealthy, cloak-and-dagger, hole-and-corner, backstairs, backroom, hidden, under-the-table, concealed, private, undercover, underground, hush-hush.
EMOTIONAL – relating to a person’s emotions.
Synonyms: spiritual, inner, psychological, of the heart
DOMESTIC – relating to the running of a home or to family relations.
ABUSE – to use (something) to bad effect or for a bad purpose; misuse. The improper use of something. Cruel and violent treatment of a person or animal, especially regularly or repeatedly.
In this article you’ll learn what covert emotional domestic abuse is, how it dehumanizes women and children, who participates in its propagation, how to identify covert abuse, why it is rampant in certain religious circles, what the cultural consequences are, and what we can and must do to expose and stop it.
What is covert emotional domestic abuse?
Using the definitions above, covert emotional domestic abuse is the SECRET, regular and repeated, cruel mistreatment of the inner emotions and heart of another person living within the same home.
Most of us know about domestic violence, but what about covert psychological abuse? Whereas overt abuse is easy to identify, covert abuse relies on covert psychological tactics so that even the victim may not realize they are being abused. It is used to gain power and control over victims.
Not sure if what you’re experiencing is actually emotional abuse? Here is an article on how to tell if your marriage crosses the line to abusive.
Covert Emotional Abuse is Secret
When something is a secret, it isn’t known. It can’t be seen. It can’t be observed from an outside glance. It is covered up. Hidden. Concealed. Not easy to identify. You may feel like your marriage is confusing and painful without knowing why.
Does this mean it isn’t happening? Is reality only what can be observed and noted and believed by the majority? Or is reality something a little more common sense than that?
Because it isn’t an observable thing from the outside, it has the opportunity to flourish, much like mold thrives in dark, closed, damp, and hidden places. When mold is exposed to the sun and air, it dies. When we find mold, we get rid of it. But if we don’t know it’s there, it grows and does unseen, systemic damage to the foundations of homes and the immune systems of humans who inhale it.
So covert abuse cannot be observed from the outside, it usually doesn’t happen in plain sight, and when we are in denial about its existence, it also gets worse and does systemic emotional and physical damage to everyone living in that environment.
Covert Abuse is Regular and Repeated
Abuse is regular and repeated. It is never resolved. An abuser isn’t empathic or sad over the damage he does. Instead, he blame shifts, denies, minimizes, and emotionally manipulates you. Regularly. Repeatedly. It cycles over and over and over again, a never ending merry-go-round of craziness with no end in sight.
Emotional Abuse is Cruel Mistreatment
Emotional abuse isn’t your run-of-the-mill marriage problem. It’s cruel mistreatment. It is meant to hurt and do damage. In an abusive marriage, the purpose of that marriage is to hurt and destroy the other person. It’s the improper use of the marriage relationship which is meant to be a safe haven of love and commitment. When outsiders encourage an abuse target to stay in her cruel and unusual marriage, they are re-abusing her by enabling her abuser to continue his behaviors unchecked, and also by emotionally pressuring and controlling her to remain a victim with no way out. Often, these outsiders will use the Bible as a weapon of control, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Abuse of the Inner Emotions and Heart
Physical abuse is better understood because the damage is often done to the skin tissue found on the outside of the body. Bruises, broken bones, black eyes – these are things others can see and acknowledge. But emotional abuse is damage done to the emotions and heart of a person. If you could peel back the layers and see inside, you’d see a shredded, bleeding human being who is unable to truly live a fulfilling life due to the fact that all their energy is put into surviving emotionally, spiritually, and yes, even physically as they deal with the breakdown of body systems. It’s a hidden double whammy. The verbal abuse is only done when nobody is looking, and the abuse is only done to the insides of another person, where nobody can see even if that person did go forward to “tell.”
Covert Abuse Destroys Another Person
We aren’t talking about kicking a chair, ruining a car, or tearing down a house. We are talking about a human life. A person made in the image of God. A person with a heart and feelings and a history and a mind. A person who had hopes and dreams of loving and being loved. Knowing and being known. A person created with potential and purpose and meaning. That is what abuse destroys. A living soul.
Living in the Same Home
It’s not just any human life. It’s the person that someone promised to love and care for. Promised to cherish and honor. Promised to live in peace with. Promised to be safe to. It’s a vulnerable human being who trusted the other person. It’s taking advantage of that trust and vulnerability and betraying it.
How does covert emotional domestic abuse dehumanize women and children?
God created all humans, regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic status EQUAL and EQUALLY VALUABLE. Jesus set the pace when he rattled the cages of the religious elite by talking to Samaritan women, hanging out with lepers, and forgiving prostitutes. He didn’t take into consideration anything other than their value to Him as human beings. He humanized the dehumanized by his actions and his words.
But when people hurt other people behind closed doors by belittling them, devaluing them, treating them like slaves and sex objects, controlling them, lying to them, tricking them, pushing their buttons on purpose to make them scream and weep, criticizing them, ignoring them, dismissing them, and then act all loving and kind when they are in front of other people on the outside – this robs the victim of their humanity. Their God-given right to be treated with honor as human beings.
People who do this pick on the vulnerable. The children. The wives who long to please and win the approval of their husband and their God. The ones who have deep empathy and don’t want to embarrass their spouse by “tattling” on them.
Why is it so hard to find help for emotional abuse?
These vulnerable ones instinctively know that if they did try to explain to anyone on the outside, they would not be heard or understood. And, indeed, this is the experience of thousands of wives and children of covert abusers. When they have dared to pull a card out from their house of cards, the house falls, and everyone points in shock and disapproval at the one who pulled the card. Not the one who built the card house in the first place.
The “card-puller” is shamed, blamed, scapegoated, attacked, told she is a liar, told she is disordered, told she is a hysterical female tearing her own house down, told she is a Jezebel, and on and on. Basically, her covert abuser gets his buddies (often pastors and other “holy” men) together, and they collectively heap upon her the shame her husband had piled on her the entire marriage. It’s a double dose of abuse. In the name of God.
So many women and children stay silent. And covert abuse, like that mold, spreads throughout culture.
Who participates in the propagation of covert emotional domestic abuse?
The abusive spouse, obviously. But even more so, the collective, quiet agreement of the masses who refuse to stand against it. I frequently post articles on my private Facebook page about abuse issues. I was recently berated by a family member for choosing a “ridiculous cause” to support when there are far greater causes to freak out about. And so our culture continues to collude with covert abusers, giving them free reign to dehumanize women and children without cultural consequences.
Worse, there are many churches who actually encourage and endorse covert emotional domestic abuse. Let’s talk about this a minute.
Why is covert emotional domestic abuse rampant in certain religious circles?
Did you know that back in the days of slavery, Christians used the Bible to defend their right to own slaves? Likewise, today there are specific theologies that use the Bible to teach that women are subservient to men merely because it is their nature to be so. Slaves are black. They should be slaves because of their color. Makes perfect sense, right? So women do not have male body parts. They should stay home, keep their mouths shut, and stay out of the public square because of this missing piece of anatomy. Makes perfect sense, right?
These Christians would say, “Well, we take GOOD CARE of our slaves!” And “We take GOOD CARE of our women.” Therefore, it’s right and good and godly. And yet, in both scenarios, you’ve got dehumanization happening at the root. Where you’ve got dehumanization, you’ve got abuse.
I’ve connected with hundreds of women over the last few years. Most of them are coming out of the “reformed” faith tradition. They gave up careers to have a dozen kids, home school, and bake whole wheat bread. What did they get in return? Criticism, shame, blame, little support, little grace, pressure to perform, and random Bible verses slammed into their heads to remind them what failures they are as Christians, wives, and mothers.
If they go to their religious leaders for help, they get more of the same. “What? Well your godly husband tells us differently, and since he has man parts, like me, I know he can be trusted. You, on the other hand, are as a dripping faucet on a roof top corner. I feel bad for your poor husband. When was the last time you gave him the sex he needs? Oh, and how’s that submission coming? Are you being obedient to God in that area?”
It’s like getting run over by a car – and along comes an ambulance, but instead of picking you up and putting you inside to see if your heart is still beating, they back up a bit, and then drive over you again. Just to make sure you’re good and down.
Yes. They probably shouldn’t be driving the ambulance.
What are the cultural consequences of covert emotional domestic abuse?
Catastrophic. In the church alone, you’ve got the secondary abuse of children. Many of these children grow up seeing first hand the hypocrisy of the church and take their leave of it as soon as possible. These young adults are ill equipped to deal with their own relationships in emotionally healthy ways, having been marinating in abusive behavior during their formative years.
Lies lead to weakness and dysfunction. Truth leads to emotional health, strength, and stability. Lies in the home and church and culture lead to weak, dysfunctional homes, churches, and cultures. Covering up abuse encourages apathy, neglect, selfishness, and broken lives. And that’s exactly what we’ve got.
Dehumanizing people promotes chaos, hatred, abuse, and war, whether it is national war, cultural war, or personal war. It’s the enemy’s lie – and the enemy’s agenda. And he is crazy happy that his greatest supporters of this particular lie are religious people, because then God gets a bad reputation among humans.Why, it’s like double prizes for him! Go Religious People!
What can we do to expose and stop covert emotional domestic abuse?
While we cannot control what other people do or don’t do to put a stop to this tsunami of pain, we CAN do our part in our corner of the world.
Are you a woman stuck in an abusive relationship? Start telling the truth to yourself, your spouse, and your family. Tell your church, and let them burn you at the stake. (Hey, it hurts at first, but then it really empowers you like nothing else. Ask me how I know.)
Are you an adult child of emotional or verbal abuse? Tell your story. Be honest. Get therapy. Find healing. Live your life to the fullest, create healthy relationships, and poke the Enemy in the eyeball.
Are you a therapist? Get training in how to help emotional abuse targets. Believe them and help them with their Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). Write articles in journals and magazines that illustrate how this kind of abusive behavior destroys people. Raise awareness on your Facebook page.
Are you a friend of an abuse victim? Listen and learn. Read books on the subject. Don’t stick your head in the sand and pretend this isn’t a horrible problem. I promise, it will touch your life personally sooner or later. Narcissists are everywhere, and their power to ruin lives is great.
Are you a religious leader of some type? Read books. Get training. Listen to victims and believe them. Start doing some research on how the Bible has been mistranslated by biased, misogynistic men, and start reading a Bible that is truer to the original languages. Learn how to learn from people who don’t have a penis. Value them in the same way your God values them. As equals.
Are you just a reader who stumbled on this blog, but you have no idea why? Maybe this is your first introduction to the problem. Now that you’ve seen it, be aware of it. Start to observe it in other places, because it’s there. The more we learn about the problem, the more we gain power over the problem.
And maybe one day the small things we’ve done to make a difference will change the course of history.