Covert-aggression is at the heart of most interpersonal manipulation. What the artful, subtle fighter knows is that if they can get you to doubt yourself, feel like you have to explain yourself, and question your perceptions and judgment, there’s a good chance they can get you to back down, back-off, or better still, cave-in. Covert fighters count on the fact that you won’t trust your gut instincts or pass simple judgment on their character or the true character of their actions. They count on you being far too conscientious for that. And they know that if they don’t come across as openly out to defy the generally accepted rules for civil behavior, exploit your good nature, and get the better of you, you’ll ignore that feeling in your gut that tells you you’re simply being played.
I once counselled a woman who’d been suspicious of her husband’s womanizing for many years. And several times she thought she had some pretty good evidence that at the very least he wasn’t too trustworthy. She would find out he was somewhere other than where he had claimed, he would fail to show up where he was expected, offering “explanations” just didn’t add up, and he would make claims that later turned out not to be true. But whenever she would confront him about these things, somehow she always ended up feeling like the crazy one. He’d always have an answer which “seemed” to make sense until she thought about it for awhile, but by then it was too late. And he’d appear so convicted when he expressed outrage over being “constantly hounded” and “falsely accused.” He’d have her believing she may indeed have “over-reacted” to the “one and only time” he admits he gave her any real cause to suspect him. And he’d emphatically point out that “nothing physical actually happened” anyway in that one instance of “harmless flirtation.” He’d also insist that she “misinterpreted” the emails and text messages she found suspicious or unnerving. He’d deftly side-step the issue of all the other “little reasons” he might have given her over the years to mistrust. And when he sensed her backing down, he’d launch into how unbearable it was for him to face such “constant accusations” and throw up his hands complaining that there was no way to satisfy her. Before long, she’d start feeling like the heartless aggressor herself and eventually relented. Then she’d start questioning herself again, each time more intensely than before about who the real problem was in their marriage.
Now in the case I referenced above, the man had actually squandered a significant amount of the family’s funds on alcohol and partying with friends, and had engaged in multiple affairs over the years, wining and dining women with great abandon, and beginning not long after he was first married. And he didn’t have any real use for any of the other women he got involved with either. They were not the “conscientious” type, and he needed someone with a conscience to maintain a household and raise the kids. The only purpose these other women served was pure entertainment. He didn’t want to lose his wife because it would cost him too much. But he didn’t want to live by “her rules,” or expectations either. He felt entitled to his lifestyle. So, he fought for it. He fought not only to keep his wife at bay but also to keep right on doing what he felt entitled to do. But the manner in which he fought made it hard for his wife to see exactly what he was doing. And that’s almost always the secret when it comes to manipulation.
In In Sheep’s Clothing, I point out that certain manipulation tactics work as well as they do because they simultaneously conceal aggression while effectively throwing the party on the receiving end of the tactics on the defensive. And when it comes to covert-aggression and the art of manipulation, it’s not so much “what” but the “how” the various tactics are employed. Sometimes just the manipulator speaking with apparent conviction can invite the overly conscientious person to doubt themselves. And often, manipulators “bundle” tactics together, giving vague, misleading, half-answers, distracting, minimizing and rationalizing, and when they see their target back-peddling and suspect they have them “on the ropes”, they might pull out a “trump card” like playing the victim, leaving the real victim feeling not only unjustified but guilty for taking a stand. The bottom line is that such tactics work because the victim has a certain level conscientiousness. The victim is usually not willing to make harsh judgments in the absence of clear, convincing, objective evidence. They don’t trust their gut, and as a result, they get taken in.
As I point out in Character Disturbance, the willingness of covert-aggressors to prey upon the conscientiousness of others says all anyone really needs to know about the depravity of (and lack of empathy in) their character. But to readily pick up on this fact, you really have to understand the various character types, the various disturbances of character, and the kinds of behaviors impaired characters use to manipulate others and resist change. Next week’s post will have some other examples of covert-aggression and the discussion will focus on the multiple roles the behaviors I call manipulative power tactics play perpetuating a person’s character disturbance.