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Divorcing a Covert Abuser: When Your Family Sides With Your Ex


By Rebecca C. Mandeville, MFT

Few things are more heart-wrenching to me as a Mental Health practitioner than when I see a client being scapegoated, betrayed, and abandoned by their family-of-origin – and even some friends – when divorcing a spouse that engages in covert abuse… (Note: This phenomenon is featured in my YouTube video on the bizarre realities scapegoated adults live with – you might want to check it out after reading this article).

Divorce is invariably a painful life event that can affect a person’s self-esteem and even their sense of identity. People who divorce understandably hope for (and perhaps even count on) aid and backing from family and friends as they navigate through all of the changes and adjustments required, including legal, financial and social. Other urgent issues may also need to be addressed, such as securing new housing, who will live where, and child custody and support issues.

For those who are divorcing a spouse that has been overtly or covertly abusive, help and encouragement from loved ones is even more crucial. However, if you are like the victims of covert abuse that I treat in my Psychotherapy and FSA Trauma-Recovery Coaching practices, you may not have received much in the way of support from those you counted on to be there for you, including (and perhaps especially) your family.

In fact, you may have even been ‘shamed and blamed‘ for ending your marriage and told that you are selfish for wanting to start a new life. In short, you may find yourself feeling betrayed and scapegoated by your family-of-origin when you finally find the courage to divorce your covertly abusive spouse.

What Is Covert Abuse?

Covert abuse is psycho-emotional in nature. Because the abuse is mental and emotional, it is ‘invisible’, meaning, it doesn’t leave physical evidence (bruises, marks, or scars). This makes it difficult for the victim themselves to recognize that they are in actuality an abuse victim, and the true cause of the victim’s marital distress is unlikely to be noticed or acknowledged by others.

Covert abuse is also not an obvious means of controlling, manipulating, or intimidating another, i.e., victims are not raged at or threatened in a manner that can be outwardly observed. This is why covert abuse is also referred to as ‘hidden abuse’; ‘stealth abuse’; ‘secret abuse’; or ‘ambient abuse’. I myself use the term ‘invisible abuse’ to describe covert psycho-emotional abuse.

Specific types of covert abuse include abuse that is mental, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, social (by way of isolation or subtle manipulation), or financial. Many of my clients are surprised to learn that emotional neglect and emotional abandonment are forms of covert abuse, as is passive-aggressive behavior.

Because covert abuse is hidden, it can be difficult to identify and define. Be that as it may, covert abuse is very damaging to the target, who often does not recognize themselves as an abuse victim who needs help.

Narcissism and Its Role in Covert Abuse

Narcissistic abuse can take the form of covert abuse; however, the two terms are not interchangeable. Specifically: A narcissist (someone who meets the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder) may engage in covert abuse, but not all who covertly abuse are narcissists.

Covert abuse may coincide with covert narcissism or even overt narcissism due to the fact that a true narcissist is usually concerned with the way others see them and are therefore unlikely to openly abuse someone out of concern for their own reputation and how they are perceived.

If you were married to a spouse who was a covert abuser or covert narcissist, they may have presented themselves as being extremely humble – even shy and ingratiating – when others were present, and downplayed their achievements. They may have withdrawn into the background and behaved in a reserved manner, or, alternatively, they may have doted and fussed over you and your family or friends, leading them to believe you were the luckiest person alive for having such a wonderful life-mate and partner.

But behind closed doors, it was no doubt a different story. You may have been a victim of gaslighting, manipulation, or quiet intimidation tactics. Your spouse may have distorted reality so that it fit the narrative that they created and needed you (and others) to believe in order to maintain their image and their sense of control (over you, especially). You may have been lied to for years, for example, and not been aware of it; or, if you suspected it, your spouse may have told you were “crazy” for thinking such a thing, which constitutes gaslighting.

“Why Am I So Unhappy?” (Julia’s Story)

A former client I’ll call “Julia” initially contacted me several years ago because she was confused as to why she was so unhappy in her marriage. “My husband says he loves me – He says he doesn’t ever want to be with any other woman but me and that he’s very happy with me. But he doesn’t speak to me at all unless I speak to him first. He seems uninterested in me and my life, and spends all of his free time reading or watching TV. He also avoids having sex with me, and never, ever initiates. He says it’s all because he’s tired from work, but when we go on vacation, he doesn’t say a word unless I start the conversation, and he always has a reason why it’s not a good time to have sex.”

After taking a deep breath, Julia continued her story: “My friends and family all love my husband and think he’s the greatest guy. You should see how he waits on them hand and foot when they visit us, and of course he always picks up the tab when we take people out to eat. Everyone thinks I’m so lucky to be with him, but I feel like I’m dying of loneliness. I also think he’s having some kind of emotional affair because he seems to be on his phone texting all the time and he stops every time I walk into the room.

I just don’t know what’s real anymore, I’m so miserable and confused. I’ve asked my husband to go see a couple’s counselor I found but he refuses – he tells me everything’s just fine and our marriage is great. Even my closest friends don’t seem to get it, it’s like I’m the only one seeing that something just isn’t right. And my family already made it clear that I’d be crazy to divorce him, maybe because he’s the guy with the money, and is always willing to help people out. Sometimes I feel like maybe I really am going crazy – Nobody seems to want to hear what I’m going through and some friends even suggested it’s because I’m perimenopausal. I’m so unhappy, I don’t know what to do!”

My Warning to Julia

Once Julia finished pouring out her frustrations and fears, I reassured her that she certainly didn’t present as being “crazy”; rather, she might be experiencing various types of covert abuse within her marriage, including reality distortion, emotional abandonment, sexual abandonment, and emotional neglect.

I went on to explain that covert abuse is a type of abuse that is subtle and not easy to pin down. I also advised her that it might take some time for her to unwind herself from the distorted reality she found herself entrapped within – a reality that seemed to be dictated by her husband, i.e., “I love you”; “I’m happy with you,” even while he repeatedly and chronically avoided and ignored her in private.

Next, I gently informed Julia that if she ultimately chose to end her marriage, she might find that her family – and even her friends – would not be very supportive due to the public role of ‘nice, generous guy’ and ‘devoted, doting partner’ that her husband had carefully constructed during the decade-plus that they’d been married. Her parents in particular (who had financially benefited from her husband’s ‘generosity’ in the form of free vacations and regular gifts of money) were likely going to resist her realistic assessment that her marriage was likely not salvageable; also, that they may even reject or deny her long-standing emotional distress. They might also wonder why she would ever leave such a “perfect, loving, and generous” spouse.

Months later, after her husband refused (yet again) to enter couples therapy following her discovering that he was indeed having an emotional affair with a woman at work, Julia decided to end her marriage. Sadly, my prediction was correct: Not only was Julia not supported by her family-of-origin when she finally felt strong enough to tell them she was going to get a divorce; she was covertly (and later overtly) scapegoated, betrayed, and emotionally abandoned by her parents and siblings, and even by some of her friends, for being “selfish and self-centered” and “leaving such a wonderful man who truly loves you”.

If you related to something in this article, feel free to share in the comments – What you say could help others!

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Learn about my book on Family Scapegoating Abuse:

Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed

Available internationally at most major online book retailers

Copyright 2021 | All Rights Reserved | Rebecca C. Mandeville

18 thoughts on “Divorcing a Covert Abuser: When Your Family Sides With Your Ex”

  1. Levels

    When I went through my divorce, my sister was the only family member that sided with my exhuband. My relationship with her has not been the same ever since. I felt judged, and even though she has never had any biological children she felt it appropriate to issue the indictment on my mother hood skills by siding with my EX, who was a covert abuser. Even now as I am looking to reconnect with my daughter almost 10 years later it is tough. I know I should have never married that man, and I am still hurt that my sister sided with him. I am still hurt so much so that I am very protective of my son. I do not allow him to go alone with his aunties or uncle. I won’t put another relationship at risk. I have prayed and asked God to help me forgive her and move on. She has apologized, but the rift between my daughter and I and the pain from it all still feels fresh.

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA

      It is understandable why you would still be feeling the pain – and want to be cautious. Sadly, in my practice and via my FSA research I have witnessed both children and adult children be turned against their own parent by scapegoating family members. It is nothing short of tragic and is, in my opinion, an egregious form of parental alienation.

  2. Lynn

    Far out yes I’m just discovering the extent of this after a random comment made by mum last year that got my attention. My guy wasn’t covert he raged and he was known to do this, I didn’t realize it at the time but rage was the norm in my family growing up, it was my mums way although we never acknowledge it. It became my way in the aftermath of not understanding how I could end up with nothing after selling up and doing due diligence and moving towns.

    Well I guess I felt safe enough now, son was 16 always the threat of him being taken from me. Yes my ex lied and they chose to believe him and not tell me. He apologized for getting me hooked on drugs and I wasn’t, it was not true they didn’t ask me, they didn’t talk to me about their concerns, they surreptitiously told everyone else, got on my title and lied about the house I put the offer in, said I had missed out and not to worry, go to the new town and rent, they would be down to guarantor for a flat later in year.

    They never came and I was unable to secure mortgage on my own whereas the house I put offer in would have been all part of the sale of existing. Very difficult to explain to anyone let alone understand why, and even more heartbreaking to find out they had given my single brother a loan for his house and I never will understand this and never will they admit the meddling. I’ve got 1 year left to address it legally as a trust was meant to be set up for my son and the solicitor who was very much working for them not me; my son created a “memorandum of a trust” so if I can get traction very difficult as she is not responding to my requests to see the “trust accounts” and seems to only respond when I make a complaint through law society.

    How alienated I feel and my dad says “your mother is your best friend “ I think I never had a problem finding or making friends and I thought I was so lucky to have a mum who was fun and let me do what I wanted until I realized she had not been who I thought she was and this betrayal is huge and I hope I can get through it ok – thank you for the work that you do and all who gather here.

  3. Moira

    Thank you for your post.
    My siblings sided with my husband when he had a sexual relationship with an employee of ours and married her and disinherited our sons.

    I have no contact with my siblings but my sons have lost contact with their aunts and uncles and cousins, and they still hurt.

    I have bought your book and been very helped by it and the on-line articles. Thank you!!

    I was sceptical at first. “I’m not any kind of empath!!!” But your work provoked deep reflection and the clear conclusion, I am the family empath with empathy, awareness, and ability to change!!!!

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT, CCTP

      Hi Moira, we are still gathering data on the empath in families that scapegoat, but thus far my research indeed suggests they are the most likely child / adult child to be the target of family scapegoating abuse, as covered in my book, ‘Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed’.

  4. Jennifer

    I went through exactly the same harrowing experience. My ex is very financially comfortable and an absolute charmer. When I divorced my cousin organised a holiday with him and our kids. Said that it was for the sake of the children.

    My uncle also went on holiday with him several months later. He’s an “A1 guy” I would hear. An educated family filled With doctors and psychotherapists. I was destroyed by the event. I can barely speak about it.

    My aunt turned on me when I exposed, with great difficulty and enormous shame and embarrassment, one particular experience in my marriage. I was met with “Why are you telling me now?” Why did I never tell
    what happened at the hands of other uncles? Because I didn’t know what to do. Because of people like my aunt.

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT, CCTP

      Hi Jennifer, your story is succinct yet powerful. To be met with such a cold and non-empathetic response after having allowed yourself to be vulnerable and share your truth with your aunt is heart-breaking. This falls under the auspices of “I don’t want to hear it” – A phrase I featured in a recent article here on this blog. This is what all FSA adult survivors hear at one time or another when they finally take the risk to reach out for help or share their truth with someone inside or connected to the family. I’ve been there myself, and for many of us, it is yet another traumatizing experience we must heal from. Keep moving forward. It does get better!

      1. Ann

        Well, I have experienced a slightly different, but no less painful, situation. I discovered about 4 years ago that my husband of 30 years was a narcissist (undiagnosed), and chose to stay and cope with it for financial reasons. I just had a situation in my family of origin arise a few months ago whereby my mother, sister, and her fiance falsely accused my adult son of lying, tried to divide us by claiming I abused him and our other kids twenty years ago, and guilt tripped him in some emails. He stood up to them and was further verbally attacked. At that point I entered the conflict after he showed me the email trash talking me, so I called them out and stood up for myself and my son, and we all (husband and other adult kids) went no contact with all three of them. I suspect my mother and sister (golden child), and possibly the fiance are covert narcissists. My husband agreed with going no contact….at first. But recently he has started to side with them in order to make me doubt my perceptions and claim that they were only trying to “help” the (now adult) kids because I’m “mentally ill.” He justifies their abusive behavior and parrots their lies. I’m wondering if he’s doing this because he is afraid I will figure him out. I am stuck with narcissists all around! But I have educated the kids and myself, and have gained some peace through knowledge, and a tremendous amount of reliance on my faith in God. As soon as I can get myself to a financially sound place, I’m leaving, but it’s going to take awhile. I have a plan at least.

  5. Heather A

    As I read “Julia’s” story it was the same exact thing I told my therapist. I didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t. I married someone who doesn’t exist. I searched for the love that wasn’t there. There was no evidence to support he had anything but contempt for me. I was always alone, always in the wrong, lied to, cheated on, humiliated. The phone bill showed thousands of texts all day all night every single day every 90 seconds for weeks on end to one number. Reverse look up showed it was his ex. Like how could they even work or shower in constant communication? Consequently he and the ex and their adult children began to treat me like a homewrecker. They were divorced for ten years when I met him… anyway,I was diagnosed with grief, and then Covid, and unemployment, zoom high school and quarantine partners with my youngest son. He has just graduated high school and I have got to get out of the marital home where Occupy the guest bedroom. I refused to be bullied or evicted from the marital home where I had lived for 14 years by him telling me he was changing the locks while I was out at the grocery store. I told him I was coming home to my home with or without officers to keep the peace and would give his mom a courtesy call because they live next door. I asked him if all this was really necessary to which he hung up. When I arrived home, I had been evicted from the bedroom we shared, and every single thing I owned in that o suite was in a giant heap on the guest bedroom floor. Clothes,shoes, toothbrush, art work, makeup, photos, jewelry, yoga mats,plants, projects,. It was awful. He installed a solid core door and deadbolts creating a panic room out of the master and demolished the shower so we would have one fully functional bathroom that would flood the room my possessions occupied. Financial abuse, triangulation, borrowing money from my kid, spending all the money on god knows what, emptying the accounts, canceling our health insurance,car insurance, quitting his job…. It has been 3 abysmal years preceded by 2 years of distance that he refused to discuss. Yes everyone sides with him because he is just too loving and giving and that is why he is victimized by life is his mothers explanation.

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT

      Hi Heather, per my FSA research, your experiences are sadly common to many FSA adult survivors who divorce. Some say they were not scapegoated at all until they divorced, so it was a nasty surprise to find that their family inexplicably aligned with their ex. Others were already in the family scapegoat role, but were still stunned and hurt by their family’s open support of their ex – even when the ex was abusive during (and after) the marriage. I am sorry that this also happened to you, and I hope you are finding the support you need during such a difficult time.

    2. Sheryl

      Oh my! My narcissist husband has been full of contempt for me, more so since I have gotten stronger and setting boundaries. I have been his scapegoat throughout rhe marriage, blamed for circumstances beyond my control, and he’s rewritten the past to convince me that I am to blame for our money problems (he quit working little by little while I was forced to take up the slack). Recently I was physically abused at bedtime and I fled to the couch for the night. He then told me that I am not allowed back into the room when he’s in there. I have learned that narcs will often kick someone out of their rightful home. They can’t accept that they are co-owners, they’re so entitled they think it’s all theirs. My mom and sister are siding with him! I recently found out that I was mom’s scapegoat. Everything fell into place so I don’t feel so crazy, but still it’s terrifying and horrendous. What a waste.

  6. Karen

    I can relate to Julia’s family “loving” her husband, in that following my divorce, though my family did not malign me, they continued their “lovefest” with my ex-husband despite his abuse of me. How I can really relate to Julia now, is that my son, who was always close to me, began behaving toward me in a verbally and emotionally abusive way after he became engaged to his wife. He refused to talk to me about the abuse or go to counseling with me to repair our relationship. My family fully supports him in his unwillingness to talk to me about the problem, denies he is doing anything wrong, and tells me that I must have done something to cause him to be so cruel to me. My son and his wife now have a daughter who I’ve never been allowed to meet, but who my family knows and spends time with. My son and I have been estranged now for 8 years. My family denies my son and daughter-in-law’s abuse of me, though every single therapist or mental health professional I’ve consulted with tells me that I am being abused. When I told my sister how hurtful it was to me that my family never stands up for me and continues to have a relationship with my son, dil, and granddaughter, while I am being excluded, my sister accused me of being selfish and says the most shocking, hateful things to me while telling me she loves and supports me. I don’t feel loved or supported and have now, through therapy, learned that my family has been scapegoating me for my entire life. It has been, without doubt, a difficult recovery. For my own self-preservation, I ultimately chose to go no contact with the rest of my family, and since that decision and I am finally making my way to a more loving life.

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, MFT

      I am so sorry to hear you went through this. Indeed, scapegoating can occur from the adult child’s end toward a parent as well. I’m relieved to know you found therapists who ‘get it’ and understand how to help you. I do hope you had a chance to read my introductory guide on what I named ‘Family Scapegoating Abuse’ – It will give you further paths to explore in therapy, no doubt. Best of luck to you in your journey of healing and recovery. Link to my book here (it is also available at most major online book retailers in digital or paperback form):

  7. Omar

    Dear Dr. Mandeville — I just ordered my copy from Amazon! Thank you very much for recommending your book. I will read it. And THANK YOU for understanding — your validation matters a lot.

  8. Rebecca C. Mandeville, MFT

    It is mind-boggling that this could happen, Omar, but sadly, I see this in my practice often, as mentioned in the article – Being judged, shamed, blamed, and betrayed by one’s own family, as well as disbelieved, with one’s reality dismissed, invalidated, and discounted during a time of great need. If you haven’t read my book, ‘Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed’, you might want to, this will give you additional encouragement and support, as well as greater understanding of what I named FSA (family scapegoating abuse).

  9. Omar

    Wow…..this is incredible……After my divorce in 2016, my siblings sided with my ex wife, helped her to get divorced from me, and to this day, five years later, they remain friends and have not talked to me. It was HELL. and it is a pain I truly would not wish on anyone. Further, my brother played a major role in the parental alienation my ex played on me with our son. Frankly, I do not know how I made it through! But today I am out of it and your writings, dear Dr. Mandeville, helped me to heal.

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