Covert-Aggressives: Manipulative Wolves In Sheep’s Clothing

As I assert in the opening lines of my first book (which will mark an amazing 18 years in print in September, some manipulative people are like the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing:  they can appear benign on the surface because they so carefully cloak their aggression.  Inwardly, however, they can be quite ruthless.  But rather than openly assert power over you, covert-aggressors use subtle tactics that not only blind you to their real nature and self-serving agendas but also have the power to bring you to submission and control you.  And dealing with these folks is often like getting whiplash:  you only fully realize what’s happened to you after most of the damage has been done.  At the time In Sheep’s Clothing was first written, most professionals didn’t even recognize the existence of the personality type I was trying to describe.  But in recent years, many other authors and researchers have written about such folks, some even suggesting that their character pathology is significant enough to make them (as the title of one book suggests)  “almost a psychopath.”  In today’s post, we’ll begin taking a more up-to-date look at these disturbed characters, the tactics they use, and the best ways to deal more effectively with them.

The big wake-up call for me with covert-aggression came when I observed an interaction between a young woman and her husband in the presence of several mental health experts.  The husband had been court-ordered to take “anger management” classes and to receive counseling for the physically and emotionally abusive behavior he had inflicted on his spouse.   He claimed he was a new man because of his “therapy” and deserved a second chance.  But while he was away in the treatment center his wife discovered a joy in living she hadn’t known in years.  And she was hesitant to simply put the past aside and take him back.  Even though he wasn’t acting quite like he used to, something was bothering her about his behavior toward her but she simply could’t put her finger on it.  Every time she wanted to say “no” to him, she found herself giving in.  And every time she found herself thinking there was something still horribly unhealthy about him, he’d somehow have her thinking she was at fault.  What’s worse, the mental health experts brought in to observe the interaction of this couple as they aired their concerns appeared to side with the husband.  This woman ended up feeling quite crazy.   But I saw something clearly and I simply couldn’t rest until I did something about it:  this man’s behavior, and most especially, his character, hadn’t really changed at all.  Only his tactics of domination and control had changed.  Instead of overtly berating or threatening this woman, he used guilt, shame, and subtle means of intimidation to bring her to submission.  Once I understood what was happening I couldn’t let it go.  I’d seen this kind of thing many times before and now a light bulb had gone off in my brain.  And even though I’d never even dreamed of writing a book before, I knew I had to expose this personality type.

Once I began my clinical research in earnest, I realized a few general rules about manipulative relationships: covert-aggressors were relatively non-neurotic, character-deficient individuals who failed to “own” or exercise responsible control over their aggressive instincts and who exploited the excessive conscientiousness of neurotic individuals to get the better of them.  I began to see these wolves in sheep’s clothing as part of a group of undisciplined fighters, whom I label in Character Disturbance as the “aggressive personalities” (see also: Aggressive Personalities: An Upcoming Refresher Course and Aggressive Personalities: The Sub-Types), and who cloaked their aggression in behaviors many of my colleagues thought of as “defense mechanisms” but were really offensive power tactics that simultaneously concealed their aggressive intentions, effectively invited the other person to give ground or give way, and prevented the aggressor from internalizing the values and standards of conduct that would help make them a better person.  That was the real key:  at the very moment the manipulator was excuse-making, blaming, denying, minimizing, feigning innocence, or guilting the other party, they were fundamentally fighting (not “defending”) – fighting not only to get the other person to see things their way and cave-in to their demands but also fighting against the rules they knew most people wanted them to observe about healthy social behavior – all while looking relatively good and maintaining a benign social image.  And the person on the receiving end of this emotional barrage didn’t trust their gut.  They responded to the tactics by going on the defensive but still couldn’t view the tactics as offensive moves.  And I also came to realize why the ways I’d been trained to “help” people with character impairments were of little use to me when trying to make situations better.  Eventually I realized that traditional methods didn’t work because they were never meant to work!  They were designed to help folks struggling with fears and insecurities, not confident connivers who fought too much, too indiscriminately, in too cagey a manner, and with little motivation to change.  So in addition to getting a whole new perspective on things, I had to develop an entirely different approach to dealing with the problem.  And this effort would define the rest of my professional career.

In next week’s post we’ll take an in-depth look at all of the most common manipulation tactics, including some I didn’t address in that much detail in my books.  Then, in the final articles of this series on aggressive personalities, we’ll take an in-depth look at the most severely disturbed of all the aggressive characters – the conscienceless psychopathic (alt: sociopathic) predators, using some real world examples from some high-profile cases that have been in the news of late.


44 thoughts on “Covert-Aggressives: Manipulative Wolves In Sheep’s Clothing

  1. This can apply to corrupt leaders fostering a climate of intermittent reinforcement for the sake of confusion. Someone may have their views on the dynamics of the interaction but never really knows how to confront or deal with that person. One person I’ve come to understand acted akin to this. She uses the exact same dishonest you describe. Basically erecting scapegoats and harboring fear, uncertainty and doubt. Self-serving skarks in my opinion.

    I question the value of interactions like that. Interactions like that lead to bogus friendships and being a punching bag for someone else’s aggression.

    1. It’s like covert aggression and paranoia are sides of the same coin that is subtle fighting. Covert ones are really skilled at being such cunning devils. If one doesn’t know what to look for, one can really get paranoid, in the worst case being ready to read nasty meanings into the smallest of cues. A paranoid person can cause damage as well and not just to themselves.

      What paranoid people miss is that true undercover fighters aren’t shaken by their aggressively accusatory approach. Covert ones would simply think: “Cool, this guy looks/is out of control, going to help in his undoing.”

      That was a bridge to my request. I asked this some time ago and I repeat it now. Dr Simon, would you, somewhere in the near future, make a post of paranoia and its destructive effects on mind, character, relationships and wellbeing of both a person themselves and others? I think proper people can, in unfortunate circumstances, slide into paranoia without realizing and end up suffering even more, which I find important to address and bring under discussion.

      1. IMO, victims of covert aggression are already neurotic enough without being further warned that it might be “all in their head”.

        I personally already spend enough time questioning whether I’m going crazy and whether the problem is really just me.

        Since neurotics already have a hard time imagining anyone could be capable of all the things CAs do, I would think they’re far more likely to be too naïve than too paranoid.

        1. What I’m getting at is this:

          How to stay empowered despite covert aggression instead of either wondering whether one is going crazy(not trusting gut intuition that calls louder and louder through the fog of dimmed awareness) or growing so defensive in another direction one becomes paranoid.

          Neurotics mistakently attribute it all to themselves, paranoids externalize, but make the mistake of generalizing.

          1. It seems to me like it would require a monumental shift for a truly neurotic individual to go from internalizing all of their problems to externalizing them. To me, those just seem like such opposite ends of the spectrum; but I may be wrong.

            Likewise, I would think that CAs would be completely unsuccessful in manipulating anyone who externalizes everything since CA tactics seem to rely on inspiring guilt, shame, and self-doubt in their victims. So those technics would seem useless on someone who doesn’t internalize everything.

            I just think neurotics beat themselves up enough without having to worry that they will “cause damage as well and not just to themselves.”

      2. I will get back to the question of “paranoia” in another article sometime after the current series is finished. But let me say a few general things about the issue now, just to clarify some important points.

        True paranoia is not something to take lightly. It’s a significant mental illness that can definitely impact relationships and overall health in numerous ways. And I will speak to this issue and the dynamics that can foster and/or enable paranoia in an upcoming article.

        All this said, however, there are sub-clinical levels of mistrust, distorted self-image, and apprehension that can resemble paranoia which are particularly common in relationships with character-impaired individuals. But it’s important to make some distinctions: First, being chronically wary, apprehensive, mistrusting (even of yourself) as a result of continual dealings with a covertly aggressive person is not the same as paranoia – it’s realistic mistrust with sound foundation and there are reliable remedies for it as well; Second, what can appear to be paranoia on the part of covertly aggressive people is often not paranoia (constantly inviting you to think that they MUST think everyone’s out to get them or is unreasonably against them) at all but rather part of the elaborate game of impression management – it’s a lot more tolerable to think that someone behaves the way they do because they have reasons to mistrust and are, therefore, chronically “defensive” (albeit problematically) as oppose to believing that they simply always want a position of advantage over you even though they know it’s usually neither wise nor necessary.

        But again, I’ll delve into the whole topic in more depth in an article sometime soon after the conclusion of the current series.

        1. Thank you for clarification, Dr Simon.

          Learning to assess people’s character is indeed one great remedy.

        2. Even when paranoia disturbed characters show is actually genuine, doesn’t it rise primarily out of combativeness instead of self-preservation instinct? “I’ll emerge a winner and no one makes me a loser, because I make others lose.”

      3. I could never imagine that so many disorders could be present in one person. The only way to describe him or even make reference to him would be to compare him with Satan, literally, because that is exactly how it feels to be in the situation I am in. It feels and is a life of true Hell day in and day out. There is no escaping his wrath. No matter how big or small a situation is, everything is completely blown out of proportion and I am constantly made to look like the villan, the abuser, the crazy one, the nut, the idiot, etc, etc. this occurs on a daily basis, no matter where we are and no matter who is around. The more people present for him to unleash his fury, the better for him to tear me apart in front of them in his effort to reduce me to the lowest human being possible. Since he’s disabled, he uses this in his weapon of words when he rants making it seem as though he is the one being abused. Everything I say is turned on me, for example, I ask him why he is doing this to me. He deliberately screams those words right back to me so everyone in the world can hear him. He says “why are you doing this to me.” “why are you treating me like this.” “why are you yelling at me.” “leave me alone!!! Leave me alone!!!.” “I’m disabled why are you doing this to me?” He is the most vicious, nasty, self-centered, horrible person you never want to meet. He is the purest definition of a “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.” I think in terms of accuracy, it’s more like “Satan in Sheep’s Clothing.” To see the damage and destruction he has caused, is absolutely devastating. As I dreadfully look back over the past 29 years of my life, well, the lack of my life, I cannot believe how engrossed I became and how he manipulated every single situation to make me, my kids and other family members feel guilty for the things he did or didn’t do, like we are the ones at fault. No one to this day can match his vile mouth or the velocity of his temper. The focus had to be on him and him alone, all in an attempt to satisfy his sick need for complete and utter control. It felt like World War lll if he did not get his way. Imagine not being able to hold a normal conversation and not be able to voice your opinion because if you even try, he screams over you repeatedly to shut you up and shut you down. God forbid if you don’t agree with him 100% there is absolutely no room for error even if he comes up with the most bizarre paranoid story imaginable. Oh, did I forget to mention the constant attempts at brainwashing and gaslighting to make me feel like I’m the crazy one.

  2. “And even though I’d never even dreamed of writing a book before, I knew I had to expose this personality type.”
    I THANK GOD IN HEAVEN THAT YOU DID Thank you, Thank you!!!

  3. Psychological manipulation is both phenomenal and convoluted in my opinion. When we deal with equivocation within human behavior. It seems to be completely subjective in terms of evaluating the outcomes and context.

  4. I can not wait to read your next post. My father in law has his picture in a dictionary next to words “covert agressive personalitiy”. I think for each and every manipulative tactics he has the best example ossible, when I get time I ll write to you some examples it s so fascinating you will not believe it. After reading your book my husband is much better considering situation with his dad, it used to drive him completely nuts . Now he knows it is not his falut.

  5. Covert-aggressives are conscious about their conduct. When we neurotics think someone is manipulative unknowingly, we are lenient towards them. Never mind that even when people act like there are no limits out of reasons other than conscious instrumental aggression, they still cause harm. The difference as for this awareness -issue is how to approach and intervene, because obviously knowingly aggressive people call for a different approach than people, who are simply foggy in the head.

    Aside from knowing the right approach, another problem in any case is leniency. We are way too quick to find excuses and look at rationales instead of holding them accountable for respecting boundaries.

    Let’s replace leniency with perceptiveness and firmness. Obviously one person’s comment isn’t going to do it, so it’s up to you people to apply it. You make it work.

    Let’s every one of us address that part of us that wants to be lenient. Let’s also cultivate perceptiveness to see slick rationales for what they are, even if only in our minds.

      1. Definitely, we judge intentions all too often.

        I think some bad people can have so-called good intentions, only they don’t bother to go about them in a way that doesn’t harm others. “Necessary harm” has unfortunate implications of its own. I think those instances also demonstrate the mentality of “they see, just disagree”, perhaps in slightly different a way from bad people with knowingly self-serving agendas.

  6. Wish I’d found your writing a long time ago. When my now ex went off the rails he began gaslighting me and I thought he was delusional. I really thought he believed the completely opposite renditions of events he was telling me. It took a long to recognize he was very aware of the truth but didn’t like the result so simply changed the story to suit his needs. Do you think alcoholism makes this worse? Or does it simply make it less covert?

    1. Thanks for your kind words about my work. Alcoholism always complicates the picture, but the degree to which and the manner in which it affects someone’s deliberate use of manipulation tactics varies quite a bit. Suffice it to say that once you have ample evidence of someone’s character dysfunction, it should remain your primary concern about the relationship, even if alcohol abuse and/or dependence is also present. I have a lot to say about substance abuse problems and character disturbance in my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance.

  7. Hello Dr. Simon,

    Christ calls upon us to be prepared to ‘give account of the hope within us’, to be prepared (as I understand the meaning) to know why we believe and to clearly elucidate that belief. We are called, moreover, to be the ‘salt of the earth’ and (elsewhere) to ‘put on the full armour of God.’ You mean, what soldiers wear? Why? Because we’re going into battle! Yet most of the Christians I see online debating (as Paul did the cognoscenti of his day) the God-haters (aggressives?) and the wolves (CAs?) and who are doing their best to follow Christ’s command to BE the ‘salt of the earth,’ and giving account of their hope, are facing these folks garbed in little more than flannel pajamas. Many end up leaving the thread humiliated and their faith discredited before what may be thousands of readers – some of whom are surely on the fence wondering if there is anything to this thing called ‘Christianity.’ “Nope. I guess not. Boy, just look at how that Christian bloke crumbled and fled when Wolfy goaded him into looking like a stumbling fool! Christianity? Ha! No thanks! Morons, all!”

    Dr. Simon, I see this all the time on forums and social-networking sites. The threads may not even be (and usually aren’t) about religion or God at all but, inevitably – if the thread is long enough – some hater drops in for a bit of God-bashing fun or just to stir the pot and see what surfaces. Oftentimes these people will ask perfectly legitimate questions at the outset and only later cast off their benign demeanor and ruthlessly flame their Christian responders. How skillfully that person is handled by the Christians present may and probably does make a huge impression on others there who are reading the debate silently, possibly there seeking answers to their own questions about this Christian God. The Christians’ frequent inability to deal with these wolves isn’t usually due to flaws in their beliefs or a lack of Biblical knowledge, so much as it is due to their lack of *practical* skills in handling wolves – sheep’s clothing or no.

    The Roman Empire’s armies were the most highly trained in the history of the planet, so why isn’t God’s army similarly trained? Are the Christian God’s objectives so less worthy? They’re seen that way by others! Doc, we’re dealing with wolves and haters and trolls every single day equipped with little more than a bunch of good intentions, but good luck finding a course in How to Deal with Online Psychopaths listed in the Sunday School curricula. Oftentimes we’re taken by surprise. I was on a forum yesterday discussing the Higgs boson – formerly known (over the strong objections of both Christian and secular physicists alike) as the so-called ‘God Particle’. One mention of *that* and guess which direction the thread went? Yup. How’s about a practical manual in the art of discussion and debate online? We could sure use one.

    Facebook has now over a billion members. Then there’s Twitter, and Google+ is growing at lightspeed. Beyond these and the other social networks we have hundreds of thousands, if not millions of forums, discussing everything from shoe repair to quantum mechanics to religion and, inevitably, on all of these, the subject of the Christian God comes up.

    Where the ApostlecPaul debated in a single forum, face to face, we are debating in millions of ‘forums’ Facebook to Facebook. Simple statistics will tell you that our potential for good or harm is enormous, depending on skillfully we handle these people and situations as they arise. Doc, we’re wearing the armour, but where’s the practical manual in the arts of war? We’re facing haters and snakes and wolves in sheep’s clothing by the millions and without any training whatsoever in how to deal with them in a *practical* way. Biblical armour metaphors are great, but they only take one so far.

    We need a training manual, Doc. It’s Hell Out There! Literally!



    1. My first attempt at just what you speak of is The Judas Syndrome, released 9 weeks ago by Abingdon Press, and it’s already acquiring a nice following. If my health holds out, it’s possible I might write a follow-up, but in the meantime, I’d appreciate you checking it out if you already haven’t done so, recommending it to your friends, and even posting a review, if you have the time.

  8. Hi Dr, Simon. Thank you for writing about this. I’ve left my husband just a few months ago after finally cluing onto his techniques of manipulation and just what he was THINKING when he got so defensive. He told me straight out he used his anger to disciplin me, even though his words were making out he was a victim.
    My question is regarding physical violence. He has never hit me before, but in anger has thrown stuff and he regularly has made veiled threats. He is looking to move back and I’m unsure if I should be concerned about having him close. I don’t want to have him in the house, but I may not have a choice. Is this something I should be concerned about? My gut feel is yes, but I don’t have evidence for an AVO, so I’ve got no grounds to say no.
    Thanks, Christy

    1. Christy, for a variety of reasons, I simply can’t provide direct advice about anyone’s particular circumstances from such a distance and within this forum. But I’ve written many articles that address many of the issues raised by your situation, and you might find several of these articles helpful. I also suspect that many of the readers will have some helpful comments to make. I’ll let them weigh in and then perhaps I can comment on some of their comments. If you have still have questions, especially with regard to the principles I outline in my writings, you can also contact me through the back-channel, using the “contact” feature on this blog.

    2. @ Christy

      What if Dr. Simon were a nutritionist instead and sat down at my computer and wrote Dr. Simon something like this:

      Dear Dr. Simon,

      I don’t feel well and I’m pretty sure it’s probably got something to do with what I put on my breakfast cereal every morning: sugar-coated arsenic. Just a little bit at first but, as I kinda got used to it bye and bye I found myself adding a little bit more and later, a little more and finally, I felt so sick inside I figured it was prolly time to quit cold-turkey. So I did. But, you know, that cereal just doesn’t taste the same without it and so, I wondering if you thought it would be okay to sprinkle a little on my Wheaties? Mind you, it hasn’t killed me yet and so it prolly won’t *ever* hurt me doncha think Doc?

      Christy, what kind of nutitional advice would you give the person who wrote that letter?

      What if *you* were that person?


      1. Well “T”… don’t understand how these creatures work. They don’t just feed you arsenic…….the also feed you the tastiest sugary treats that you can imagine, like a treat that is tailor made just for YOUR sweet tooth. If all they did was feed you arsenic, you would get sick fast enough and leave them……………………NO! They don’t want you to leave THEM, they want you around as long as you are useful to them so they feed you sugary treats sometimes and train you to wait like a dog next to the table for the next sugary treat. In between treats they kick you under the table where no one else can see.

  9. Hello, Dr. Simon,

    My question is much the same as Christy’s but I’ll ask it a differently. Have you conducted any researched quantifying the likelihood of covert aggression becoming overt aggression particularly during the transition period of separating? I am aware the most dangerous time for physical abuse and harm is when the ‘victim’ is leaving/divorcing, even when physical abuse did not exist before. That concern is what is effectively holding me within my current relationship and trying to determine whether ‘my instincts’ are correct or I’m simply succumbing to another emotionally manipulative tactic is making me feel unsure of my next step.

    @Christy, One thing I do know for certain, if you allow your CA back into your life for any reason, you will likely never get rid of him again. My experience has shown me, most CA’s believe their power is so absolute, one will never be able to leave. That you have done so will cause the need for the CA to ‘up the ante’ so to speak and attempting to leave the second time will be far more difficult than the first time.

  10. I have been married to someone like this for 4 years and things “got worse”. Now I finally see him for what he is. Reading this brings me relief to know that I am not crazy. I really would like to read more and find out how to recover after being in a relationship like this.

  11. Where can i get help on this subject, I’m the wolf but want to save my relationship so badly, I’ve hurt the one i love most and i need help

      1. Timothy and anyone else.
        How are you. I am looking for a post by Emilia, she posted late I think early on 12/26, if you come across her post and under which topic could you let me know. I had been responding to her posts and she seemed she could use support. Im sure if you come across Emilia you will some comforting and insightful words for her.

          1. Andy D,

            Thank you so much, when there are numerous postings in a day it is easy to lose site of what topic page we are responding on. I hope Emilia keeps reading doctors site and the posts. I see you responded to Emilia too. I can feel her pain.

            Two big Hugs into the wild blue space over to you!

  12. Thank you so much for your blog. I’ve been reading some of your articles and they’ve all been on spot with my experience of multiple manipulators in my life, including both parents and my most recent romantic relationship. I’ve looked into Narcissistic and Histrionic Personality Disorders to explain their behaviors but never had the kind of freedom and clarity I felt in reading your post “They know what they’re doing.”

    If you already haven’t, I hope you consider using SEO and altering some of your page titles/subheadings/tags to include references to emotional abuse and Narcissistic/Histrionic Personality disorders. I found one of your earlier articles by searching for “recover from being manipulated.” I’ve been very slowly piecing together my own understanding of my abusers’ behaviors over many years, mislabeling their behaviors when researching and ultimately misunderstanding what they really were. It’s only through the luck of finding myself in a good friendship with someone that I was able to spot the differences between being cared for and being manipulated in the past.

    I wish I had found your blog much sooner, but I’m far more glad I found it at all. I look forward to getting a copy of your books and reading those as well. All the best and happy holidays!

  13. Dear Dr Simon,
    Your teaching changed my life. I’ve left my CA ex, got a Masters, got a job, bought a house and found such enthusiasm for life, I’m also in a helping trade and with more empathy as a result of my experience. When victims of CA come to me I am so glad I can offer them hope and real tactics. And all with the courage and conviction your work helped me find! Now 8 years later my son is realising what he faces at “dads” as he grows up. I’ve gently shown him how some people fight, now I think he’s ready for the tactics and I’ll have to interpret your work for an 11 year old. I’m sorry to hear you’re poorly, what an amazing legacy you have already created. Get well soon and a Happy new year to you! Xx

  14. “Every time she wanted to say “no” to him, she found herself giving in. And every time she found herself thinking there was something still horribly unhealthy about him, he’d somehow have her thinking she was at fault. What’s worse, the mental health experts brought in to observe the interaction of this couple as they aired their concerns appeared to side with the husband. This woman ended up feeling quite crazy.”

    I had this exact experience. Soon after a relationship with someone I believe to have been an unbridled agressive I began dating a passive agressive and eventually married him. After no longer willing to tolerate his “tricks” I reported him and he easily swayed all of the counselors in to believing I was the narcissist!

  15. I read your book. I found it very informing. When I look at politics in this country- I see covert aggressors every time I see at a Liberal Democrat. It’s all about power and image.
    They don’t care what they have to do to win. They don’t care who they have to destroy.
    It’s all about winning and maintaining an image of decency and honor when nothing could be further from the truth. They are all wolves.

    1. Sandra
      I see the same thing, but not when looking at liberal democrats but when when I look at Republicans in the Senate turning a blind eye to the damage being done by the incompetent unstable Trump, and of course, Trump himself.

  16. Lucy,

    Have you heard Ben Folds song Mister Peepers? It’s spot on. Love the Lord of the Flies reference.

    I tend to think most politicians are somewhat covertly aggressive and few are truly there for the people. It’s about power and position and doing what they have to do to stay in power – keep their position and do their best not to get caught with their pants down. They blame the other side to avoid accountability and we pay the price.

    We have sunk so low in our standards of what is acceptable in America and Mr. Trump keeps pushing the bar lower because he is not being held to account. He uses fear mongering and divide and conquer strategies. He has stated that fear is the greatest power. He stirs up fear and hate. Americans are attacking each other instead of the source of our problems…

    We deserve so much better.

  17. This is quite an interesting article, I was in a relationship with an individual who I believe had these personality traits, he often turned things around and made me believe it was me at fault, his self serving traits were that he wanted me to sell my house near London as he wanted a lifestyle in the South of France, when I told him the property was going back up for rental he promptly told me that we simply could not be together then. I then discovered he had been seeing another lady who he works with at the RAC, previously I had spotted them sharing our Rome holiday photos together, when I mentioned that it was quite a friendly interaction between the both of them, he told me that she was fat and ugly and nobody would touch her … guess who he is dating and the reason for this being, or so I have been told by a colleague of hers is that she is minted or shall we say, has the means to live a good life. I personally feel sorry for her, as I wasted 4 years of my life ignoring what my gut was telling me, this lady I believe is another vulnerable person, looking for love and finding the wrong person.

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