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…
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’.
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).
“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, he’s the guy with the money, 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”.
I’ll be speaking more about family betrayal and scapegoating when divorcing a covertly abusive spouse in future articles. If you are not already subscribing to the ‘Scapegoat Recovery’ blog, feel free to do so via the sign-up form on this page, or sign up for the FSA Recovery Monthly Newsletter (you’ll also receive access to a free download of the FSA Self-Test).
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