Confronting Domestic Violence: Be on alert for the covert abuser


Following is the final part in a series on coercive control. To read the other installments, see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

She learns that a covert abuser is not like a regular perpetrator of domestic violence. Fists and blows are beneath him. There may have been a moment or two when he put his hands on her – but for the most part, he hasn’t had to resort to such crude methods of control. And it only ever had to happen once for it ever to be hanging in the air again as a possibility. He is 60 pounds heavier, barrel-chested.

And then there is his wall of swords. Sometimes when he is displeased with her, he takes one down and begins to polish it in front of her. From time to time, he looks up at her and smiles – a smile that doesn’t quite reach the eyes.

And behind his eyes where his soul should be … it isn’t.

This is a perpetrator who has elevated abuse to a fine art – no blood, no evidence. All the damage is internal. He doesn’t have to call her names, swear at her or even raise his voice. From his tone, when he begins to recite her latest failings and inadequacies, he could just as easily be explaining why he had to fire the gardener or take the car in for repairs.

She learns there are at least two kinds of abuser: the explosive pit bull who rants red-faced, spewing rage. And then the cobra: cold-blooded, coiling with grace, striking with thoughtful cunning and precision; subtle, quiet, lethal. She has seen him be both.

Here’s the secret: Once she starts to recognize who he is, the tactics he deploys, the games he plays, it’s her first step to taking her power back. She realizes she doesn’t have to take it personally. Not anymore. It isn’t her, it isn’t what she looks like or what she does that is the problem.

And it’s not what he does.

It’s who he is:

Prince Charming.



Poker player.

Chess champion.


Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde.

King of the World.

Energy vampire. Spiritual vampire. Power vampire.

A personality type called the “Dark Tetrad.”

Someone who views Life as a zero-sum game.

The truth dawns

These descriptors begin to put language on who and what she is dealing with. The fog begins to lift. Her vision begins to clear. Once she begins to see him, see through him, she can’t unsee the truth. It’s abuse, and it’s not her fault. She didn’t cause it, can’t fix it, can’t control it. It’s who he is, and no amount of therapy or couples counseling is going to change that.

It’s the status quo he values, not the relationship. It’s his own needs that must always come first, never hers, never theirs.
This is someone who confuses love with possession, intimacy with sex, respect with fear.

This is someone who lacks the basic building blocks that make therapy fruitful or change possible. Self-reflection, accountability, remorse, empathy, moral compass, honesty, compassion: missing pieces, all of them.

This is no ordinary flawed husband or father.

This is no raccoon.

This is someone who lies easily and often, always blames others, excels at playing the victim, must always be the center of attention, must always win or there’s hell to pay, equates net worth with human worth, exploits and attacks vulnerabilities, manipulates others, uses them and uses them up like resources, and almost appears to derive satisfaction from causing pain, fear and suffering to the very people he should be protecting the most.

As she recognizes it’s his character, not his behavior, that’s the problem, and there is nothing she can do to heal the relationship or him, there is grief in this epiphany. It’s the death of a dream, the dream of a relationship she had hoped would last a lifetime.

But recognizing who and what he is, she can let go of thinking there is one more thing she can do to make things better. Determined to leave no stone unturned – she is a fixer, healer and mother after all – what she realizes now is they were never her stones to turn. They were his.

All she can do now is turn her attention back to herself and her children and begin to figure out how best to protect them going forward.

So while there is grief, there is also hope and perhaps a way out.

The first step is recognizing what his tactics are and recording them someplace safe, out of his reach – the less he knows, the safer she will be.
The next step is learning how to counter these tactics.

And then, step by step, every bit of knowledge, every new strategy will take her one step closer to freedom. Document, document, document: This becomes her new mantra.

And with this new mantra, this new plan, comes new hope.

In upcoming weeks, I will explore the masks, tactics, roles and games that fill the toolbox of the covert abuser.

Ruthven Darlene, M.A., is founder and director of the nonprofit WomenSV, which provides a range of services for women – and some men – experiencing domestic violence. For more information, call 996-2200, email [email protected] or visit

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