What is Covert Psychological and Emotional Abuse?

I slip into forgetting who I am and don’t know what’s true about me or him or the air I breathe or the very surface beneath my feet.
— A. F.
Everything he did and said, he would try to make me believe that he was doing it for me. That he just loved me that much. He made me and everyone else believe he was an amazing husband, so when I would doubt it, I would feel crazy, like I was seeing things that weren’t there. How could I be right when everyone else was wrong?
— Anon
A full description of emotional and psychological covert abuse so you can identify it. You aren’t crazy.

Covert abuse makes you wonder What’s going on

You know something is wrong in your marriage and you can’t explain it. You’ve read examples and definitions of emotional abuse and they haven’t described your experience. That’s caused you to be thrown into the craziness of thinking "Something is wrong in my marriage but it can’t be emotional abuse, so it must be me.”

You are in the right place.  Something IS wrong in your marriage, and it’s NOT you.

Covert abuse defined

Covert abuse is emotional and psychological abuse that doesn’t involve outwardly controlling behaviors such as raging, belittling, threatening, and blaming. It is also called ambient abuse, stealth abuse, hidden abuse, and passive/aggressive behavior.

The covert abuser systematically manipulates your mind and your emotional responses using ongoing, secret mind games such as gaslighting, evasion, feigning ignorance, blame-shifting, word twisting and covert aggression because they are very hard to detect, describe or confront.

crazy-making, gaslighting abusers fool everyone

The abuser uses the pretense of love and caring to make sure that his subtle, covert tactics are off-the-radar and hidden. He knows all the right things to say and exactly what you need to hear. He is skilled at appearing empathetic and trustworthy.


You can be unaware that abuse is happening for years, and even decades. Not only has the abuser convinced people in your life that he is a great guy, but he has also convinced you.

It’s hard to identify

Covert abuse is very tricky to identify because the behavior can be interpreted as either normal or abusive depending on your perspective. 

Targets of covert abuse are usually trusting, kind women who give others the benefit of the doubt and try to not be critical. Because of this, you attribute the same motive for your abuser’s behavior that yours would be. For example, if he’s silent and withdrawn, you probably think he’s trying to not argue.

In addition to this, your abuser has been brainwashing you into doubting your perceptions and believing his narrative – that his behavior is fine, that your response is wrong and that you are the cause of the problem.

As a result, the voice of your heart and instinct has gradually been overruled by his voice in your head.

Because his outward behavior doesn’t give away his abusive personality, you’ve spent years mislabeling and normalizing his behavior while you were becoming smaller and more confused inside.

It destroys you inside

psychological abuser brings doubt and torment to you

The abuser knows your insecurities, joys and desires and he’s been destroying the foundation of what makes you who you are. He’s been undermining what gives you joy, bringing doubt to your areas of weakness, and destroying your sense of self.


It’s a roller coaster ride

Often there’s no obvious abuse cycle, just a roller coaster of ups and downs, of trusting your husband and then not trusting him, but not knowing why.

You try to discuss marital problems and leave the discussion deeply confused and vowing to work harder on yourself, mad at yourself for feeling defensive, and wondering if you are crazy. For every issue you brought up, he had a perfectly good response and reason for why he does what he does, why the relationship problems are either your fault or your imagination and over-sensitivity.


He is calm, self-assured, and even kind, yet you feel intimidated and can’t pinpoint why. He rationally explains why the problem is your perception, yet you know that isn’t right. Or is it?

You feel so defensive against what appears to be nothing that clearly the problem lies with you and you must be unstable.

the roller coaster of covert manipulation. What’s going on? Dr Jekyll/Mr. Hyde

You are in torment, wondering why you can’t trust this “loving, kind husband who has your best interests at heart.” Your weaknesses and insecurities seem to grow larger over the course of the marriage. And he is so “caring” that he wants to help you overcome them.

The roller coaster also consists of times of closeness and times of distance. The times of closeness draw you in. He is once again acting like the kind man you fell in love with. But then things change, and you don’t know why. He seems distant and negative and you wonder if you did something.

You feel like you are living with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and that adds to your confusion.

During the entire relationship there’s been an insidious wearing away of your identity, value, and personhood. His tactics are a never-ending moving target and when you think you’ve identified a pattern, he changes tactics.

Covert tactics

Many emotional abusers use covert tactics as well as overt tactics. But some abusers ONLY use covert tactics. The covert tactics are the most difficult to identify yet they are the ones that brainwash you, make you feel crazy, and destroy you.

As Don Hennessey, author of “Steps to Freedom: Escaping Intimate Control” writes, abusers “take control of the thoughts and emotional reactions, and subsequently behavior, of the target person. This process… goes on during targeting, setting up and grooming of the target person. The abuser who uses these tactics will not admit to them, as they are only of value if they remain hidden. The target is unaware of them, and so is unable to describe them.”

covert domestic abuse, covert narcissist husband

This website is for survivors of
covert emotional and psychological abuse

so that
you never have to be alone
with it again.

• If you’re wondering if you’re being covertly abused
• If you’re trying to get free from it, or
• If you’re healing from it, you’re in the right place.


Does this describe your experience?

~if your husband doesn’t treat you in obviously hurtful ways, yet you’re confused and feel like you’re on a merry-go-round of emotional pain, frustration and self-doubt,

~if you feel like you’re diminishing and dying inside, but you can’t point to something specific that your husband has done or said,

~if you know that if you told another person what he said or did, they’d say you are being oversensitive,

~if you feel like you’re living in the twilight zone,

… you’re probably being entirely covertly abused.

Covert abusers use mind games, gaslighting, blame-shifting and many other hidden tactics to keep you on the merry -go-round of confusion.

Want to know for sure?

This detailed guide, “Is This Abuse?” will take you through a six step process to help you tell if you’re being covertly abused. It covers signs and symptoms, covert abuser’s characteristics, behaviors, and tactics.

It will help you if you are trying to figure out if you’re being overtly abused, if you are wondering if you’re emotional abuser is also using covert tactics on you, or if you know you’re being covertly abused and want to understand the nuances of covert abuse and how it’s affecting you.

When you download the guide, you’ll also be on the mailing list for updates about coming resources.


Here are some other helpful resources:

this site provides support for abused Women of Faith

If you are a Women of Faith, this page is for you.


Do you have any examples of covert abuse that you can share? Comment below or in our private Facebook community for women of faith.