Opinion: Breaking Free From The Agony Of Covert Psychological Abuse

Libby Shively McAvoy
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The effects of covert psychological abuse from an intimate partner are profound and long-lasting. The first thing on the internet that pops up when researching covert psychological abuse is the Domestic Violence Help Hotline which proves how serious this is. Covert abuse is quiet, stealthy, and often hard to pinpoint, whereas overt abuse is loud and obvious.

The abuser will use your insecurities and vulnerabilities to distort your reality, confuse you, and make you feel crazy.

If you start questioning yourself and researching these questions, you are likely in a covert abusive relationship.

  • Is he really abusing me, or am I overreacting?
  • Am I the toxic one?
  • Should I apologize and fix the relationship?
  • Should I stay in the relationship each time he promises how sorry he is?

Do you feel like you have lost yourself? Trust your intuition or gut feeling if you are researching to determine why you are so strung out, sad, and even depressed. You are very likely being covertly abused.

Signs of Covert Psychological Abuse

  1. sleep deprivation
  2. feeling like you cannot say or do anything right
  3. feeling like you are walking on eggshells
  4. raised stress and anxiety levels
  5. feeling isolated and depressed

Does your partner tell you you are overreacting or too sensitive? Do they act as if they are the victim? They may even accuse you of being a narcissist.

Tactics Covert Psychological Abusers Use

  • lying
  • minimizing your thoughts and feelings
  • sarcasm while making fun of you
  • gaslighting
  • passive aggressive behavior
  • projection
  • blame-shifting
  • shrugs shoulders when you question them
  • rehashes old arguments and talks in circles
  • storms out of disagreements

The abuser will love-bomb you initially, and watching the relationship deteriorate slowly is devastating. You see the decline, but you can’t understand why.

How the Relationship Plays Out
Looking back, it is as if you lived in a real-life horror story. The abuser will play the victim and blame you, but you can now see the manipulation tactics. When you try to leave, they will look for sympathy from you and bait you back in. Block them and never look back, and you will temporarily block and play mind games occasionally until the patterns of abuse and manipulation become crystal clear.

They will look to friends and family for sympathy and validation when they cannot get to you and regain your attention.

This off-and-on cycle of your relationship may go on for months or even years before you see the pattern clearly and are strong enough to leave forever. You may block and then unblock because you feel bad for them or may even be convinced it was your fault.

Breaking Free

As I have explained, covert abuse includes gaslighting, stonewalling, projection, and other manipulative tactics to brainwash you into a state of utter confusion. Part of you believes you are being mistreated or abused, but the other part is in disbelief. Breaking free can be a long, tumultuous, and agonizing process.

Your abuser may ramp up in anger when they see signs of you disengaging. They may punch holes in the wall or even do property damage. Mine did both. He actually cut the Christmas tree lights so that I couldn't light the tree after we spent hours decorating outside.

They may keep you up all night talking or having sex. This is simply another manipulative tactic to cause you to have brain fog and be irritable.

The truth is no matter how badly you want to save this relationship, it is not possible. It is not only toxic but dangerous.

Healing to Move Forward and Onward
Healing and recovering from covert psychological abuse requires you to spend time alone. Solitude might feel peaceful to you. You have likely lost some of your identity through abusive brainwashing. Take your time and rebuild your self-esteem. The abuser probably made you question your intuition, so now is the time to strengthen that self-trust.

  1. Sit with your emotions as they surface — journal to better understand. Identify what triggers you and how to calm yourself down. Learn how your body physically responds to those emotions that trigger you. They are sending you a message. For example, if your heart starts pounding and your palms are sweating, your body signals danger. With awareness, you are better suited to cope with those stressors.
  2. Set boundaries. Setting boundaries and enforcing them protect your emotions. If someone does not respect those boundaries, they do not respect you. Run away fast.
  3. Come out of isolation and surround yourself with people who believe in and support you. 
  4. Once you are confident and ready to leave your abusive partner, be prepared because they will launch a smear campaign. They will reveal and expose all of your insecurities. Although it is painful that any monster could do this, it will confirm you made the right decision to end the relationship.

Your abusive partner had very low self-esteem. They need this outside validation to survive. Although your self-esteem is likely at an all-time low when you leave the relationship, please know your abuser chose you because of your beauty, talents, and character.

Final Thoughts

Covert psychological abuse cannot be seen externally like overt and physical abuse, but it dims the light in our souls. I consider it the death of a million paper cuts. This invisible abuse creates deep emotional wounds that are as serious and damaging as physical abuse.

If you are in danger, please call the Domestic Help Hotline at 800–799–7233 or text START to 88788. Psychological abuse can quickly escalate into physical abuse.





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Libby is a Personal Development and Relationship coach specializing in emotional intelligence. By blending motivational speaking, leading yoga and wellness retreats, and writing, she has mastered the art of living her best life while helping others.

Cincinnati, OH

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