Recognizing Covert-Aggression

In recent weeks I’ve posted several articles on the special considerations that must be made when engaging therapeutically with a disturbed or disordered character.  And I’ve spoken to the pitfalls inherent in traditional approaches and perspectives when it comes to fostering real change in impaired characters  (see, for example:  Therapy and the Face of Real Change Part 2 and Contrition, Behavior, and Therapy).  As readers of my work know, I believe covert-aggression is the principal way irresponsible characters manipulate and control others.  But by nature aggression that is covertly expressed is hard to detect, especially when you don’t know what to look for.  And it’s even harder to detect and deal with appropriately if your conceptual framework is such that it impairs your ability to recognize covert-aggression when it’s at play.  This can be especially problematic in a therapy situation.

I might have shared this tidbit before, but it’s worth mentioning again.  I was first inspired to bring together all the information I’d compiled over the years and fashion a book about covert-aggression after watching a popular daytime talk show.  The program featured a couple whose relationship had been marked by years of verbal and emotional abuse and sometimes physical violence.  The husband was eventually incarcerated and ordered to complete a course of anger management and domestic violence group therapy as a precondition for early release.  During the program, the couple discussed with the host how things had been going since the husband’s release, while the studio audience (as well as home viewers) and a panel of mental health experts looked on.  I was simply horrified when I observed the husband, who had supposedly turned over a new leaf after therapy, subtly and craftily “beat up” his wife on an emotional level, eventually bringing her to submission.  And his aggression appeared completely undetected by the host of the program, the panel of “experts,” and the studio audience.  To make matters worse, some of the experts even appeared to side with the abuser, thus “enabling” the continued victimization of his wife.

The following case excerpt (again with names and details altered)  is strikingly similar to the scenario I described above with one major exception:  this covert-aggressor was exposed and confronted on his tactics, which led to some very different results for the victim (T=Therapist, R=”Randy”, F=Francine):

F:  “Dr. Simon, I wanted us to come today because Randy really wants to come back to the house.  But I’m not sure I’m ready for that just yet.  You know he’s been living with his parents since he got released a couple of weeks ago.  And he says things will be different now – and I’m not saying they won’t – but still….

R:  What’s it going to take, Francine?!  Haven’t I suffered enough?!  It’s bad enough I got locked up because of you always calling the cops every time we had a disagreement.  And I admit that I might have lost my temper a few times and maybe I pushed you that one time.  But that’s over now and I’ve taken responsibility.  And I learned in those classes they made me take how not to let all those irritating things you do bother me so much.  Besides, I’ve paid for everything – in spades!  Now, I have to live with a criminal record for the rest of my life!  All I want is my life, my kids, and my wife back.  Just a chance!  Is that too much to ask?  Do you want me to suffer?

F:  No, I don’t want you to suffer, it’s just that….

R:  It’s just that what, Francine?  That you just can’t let go of the past and give me a chance?!  I’ll bet I know what the real deal is!  You’ve had your freedom for awhile and probably got together with somebody!  I’m betting you just don’t want me around while you fool around and get my kids all turned against me and carry on with someone else!

F:  No, that’s not it at all, I swear!  I just, I…, I….

T:  I’m going to interject here.  Randy, what’s different about you now since completing the therapy the court ordered you to have?

R:  I don’t get so upset anymore.  I just don’t let things irritate me like they used to.  And when I don’t get mad, I don’t lash out.

T:  But you just spent the last few minutes beating up your wife pretty relentlessly and right in front of me to boot!

R:  What are you talking about, beating up my wife?!

T:  I think that just like any person would, you would know when you’re fighting, what you’re fighting for, and whether you’re fighting justly.

R:  Okay!  So I want my family back.  That’s not a crime!  Is it wrong to want to be with the woman who promised to love you for the rest of your life?

T:  It’s wrong to beat up anyone, especially the woman you claim to love, just because they won’t give you what you want when you want it.  Some things have to be earned, like trust.  You know that.

F:  He’s been pressuring me like this for days.  That’s why I’ve been a little nervous about things.  It reminds me of before.

T:  But when he was pummeling you with all of his tactics, casting himself as a victim, blaming you and casting you as the real victimizer, minimizing the seriousness of the behaviors that rightly earned him prison time, and trying to shame and guilt you into relenting, not only didn’t he stop himself – even with me sitting here observing – but also you didn’t call him on his behavior.

F:  In my heart I feel like there’s something wrong when he does those things, but then I end up saying to myself: “maybe he’s got a point,” or “maybe he’s right.”

T:  If you’re ever going to really be safe, you have to trust your instincts more, Francine.  Nature gifted you with fear for a reason.  You also have to see more clearly how certain aggressive types operate, otherwise you could easily find yourself in similar circumstances, even in a different relationship.  And Randy, there’s no way at this point that I’m recommending to the court that you derived sufficient benefit from your treatment to come home.  I know you got a graduation certificate from your program and were released, but treatment like the kind you had can only be regarded as successful when a person demonstrates real behavioral change like control over their aggression, and empathy for the other person.  You displayed just the opposite today.”

There is a lot more to this case, but the excerpt above should be sufficient to make the point about the nature of covert-aggression.  And it also illustrates the problem with so many types of intervention that don’t focus on the here-and-now behaviors that really demonstrate whether someone is making meaningful changes.  There are some additional vignettes in Character Disturbance that illustrate this point and some vignettes in In Sheep’s Clothing that illustrate what can go wrong in relationships when one party doesn’t trust their gut about when they’re under assault.

14 thoughts on “Recognizing Covert-Aggression

  1. I just wanted to say, Dr Simon, thank you for all these examples and keep them coming, very illuminating and helpful.

  2. As a layperson, I’d be interested in seeing how one should “call out” aggressive types. I have been in the situation where I have been aware that this was happening, but have not been able to get the upper hand or defend myself appropriately while in this position. Are there any case studies or tactics about how to successfully do this?

    1. If you can, try communicating in writing, set your limits and stick to them. Then when they try to exhibit the behaviors you can read it a few times before responding. Its amazing what you can pick up, especially after several messages. It also allows you remove a lot of the emotion, stay focused and keep to the point. It has been my experience that they don’t like it and the focus will quickly become about not writing it down, however if you can keep the communication in writing, it can be shocking just how many tactics and how often the tactics are used in each message.
      I am not an expert, I have a manipulative mother, and this approach has been a real eye opener for me. There is no way I could have confronted her in person. Even after learning her tactics and being able to identify them in writing, it would be so easy to get manipulated in person.
      Id love to hear the advise of an expert. The more information we have, the better we can deal with these people.

      1. M, so true……they are so good at undermining and dodging responsibility and manipulating you…….When you can get things in writing at least you can go back and say….”He/ she DID say that because here it is!”.

      2. I’m not an expert either, but I can attest to M’s suggestion on communicating in writing. That buys you time to digest what the other has said. They don’t speak in a normal way, so we need extra time.

        If we’re face to face with the person, and you feel pressured to answer or respond, don’t. Just say, “Let me think about this.” If asked when you’ll be able to respond, “Say I’ll let you know.” If pressed on, say, “Later.” Just stick to that till the person backs off.

        My hearts to you.

  3. In this situation described above, had the therapist not been there to interject, what should hav been the wife’s reaction in order to overcome the manipulation by her husband? What decision should the wife take?

    1. To D,

      Maybe too late, anyways here is my take:

      Wife obviously should not allow him back unless he shows some change. As long as she believes her instinct and keep the focus on seeing visible change and do not give up an inch on it, eventually focus will turn back on the right place. That is, husband is still using all the tactics and there is no much difference.

      Ability to identify the tactic in use helps tremendously. Written communication allows the time to think, analyze & categorize things. Book Who is Pulling Your Strings by Braiker also contains simple 7 step that slows down the manipulation attack. But, eventual goal for the target, especially if target (wife in this case) whats to implement corrective measures too, is to become expert in identifying the tactic on the fly, basically having a 20-25 alert indicator board that lights up the tactic alert button immediately. Something like…

      …What’s it going to take, Francine?! (BLIP BLIP DANGER AHEAD) Haven’t I suffered enough?! (BLIP BLIP PLAYING VICTIM) It’s bad enough I got locked up because of you always calling the cops every time we had a disagreement. (BLIP BLIP MINIMIZATION & PLAYING VICTIM & BLAME & GUILT TRIPPING) And I admit that I might have lost my temper a few times and maybe I pushed you that one time. (BLIP BLIP MINIMIZATION) But that’s over now and I’ve taken responsibility. (BLIP BLIP WARNING POTENTIAL CHEAP TALK) And I learned in those classes they made me take how not to let all those irritating things you do bother me so much. (BLIP BLIP MINIMIZATION & BLAME) Besides, I’ve paid for everything in spades! (BLIP BLIP PLAYING VICTIM) Now, I have to live with a criminal record for the rest of my life! (BLIP BLIP PLAYING VICTIM) All I want is my life, my kids, and my wife back. Just a chance! Is that too much to ask? Do you want me to suffer? (BLIP BLIP PLAYING VICTIM & SHAMING)…
      …It’s just that what, Francine? That you just can’t let go of the past and give me a chance?! I’ll bet I know what the real deal is! You’ve had your freedom for awhile and probably got together with somebody! I’m betting you just don’t want me around while you fool around and get my kids all turned against me and carry on with someone else! (BLIP BLIP OUTRAGEOUS BLAME)…

      Now, only minor problem is to deal with master crafty vampire in real life. So, tools used should be simpler:
      – setting limits and making them count.
      – slow down the process (written communication, playing for time, or whatever else)
      – assertive behavior. Know your rights and simply do not give them up.
      – and so on
      Different things will work for different people. One needs to finds out something that works for himself/herself.

  4. Wow! That sound like my boyfriend. To a Tee! He has lived in my house for 8 years. It has been so long that I am sunk up to my neck. I would suggest to any person in this type of relationship to get out before you sink deeper. Because it only goes down.

    1. A covert-aggressor isn’t likely to stop. One possible (but unlikely) situation though is that he seeks therapy with someone (like Dr Simon) who understands this behavior. The only way he would do that is that he is under threat of losing something he wants from the person who asks him to, such as love.

    2. How does one become a covert-aggressor?

      From a Schema Theory point of view, I believe he had developed one or more of 3 schemas under the Disconnection and Rejection category—Abandonment/Instability, Mistrust/Abuse, Emotional Deprivation—and copes by Avoidance, specifically avoiding close relationships, and Overcompensation, specifically treating others badly. (I’m trying to keep things short here.)

      [Note: They may get married, but are incapable of being close and warm. They do try to fake it though, and those who are crave for love will want it anyway.]

      As for the covert part, I believe they also developed the schema of Unrelenting Standards/Hypercriticalness that has a Status Orientation. The person’s extreme concern for maintaining high standard of self-image has led him to amass a great repertoire of skills to maintain a ‘perfect’ image of himself. Thus, his anger towards others is expressed in covert aggressive ways.

  5. One thing therapists should learn is that cover aggressors are among those who don’t seek therapy. More often, they are the ones who drive others to seek therapy. Therapists should be trained to recognize them.

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