Since covert abuse is covert, it’s presence will not be obvious, at least not immediately. When covert abuse is the main abuse, no broken bones, bruised skin or black eyes will herald its arrival or stay.
Covert abuse relies on its target’s unawareness or disbelief to enable it to continue. When covert abuse comes at you through more than one source like it does in relational aggression, it’s even harder to get a handle on it.
So how can you ascertain the presence of something so slippery that even you, as a target, question whether it’s happening or not?
Covert abuse leaves tracks, a trail of its presence wherever it goes. We need to learn to read them, to find them among the paths of misdirection and snapped twigs of denial.
First, we need to realize that such a thing as covert abuse exists, and that it can come from one source or several simultaneously. If you can’t even comprehend this type of assault, it makes it all that more difficult to spot even as it’s slapping you in the face.
I will never forget the first time I heard the term, “relational aggression” coined by researcher Dr. Nicki Crick, and popularized by author, Rachel Simmons. Hearing someone describe my experience and name it was liberating.
It strengthened and empowered me, making all the disconnected pieces of comprehension I had been gathering, throughout my relational aggression experience, fall into a cohesive picture. Notice, I did not say having individual people labeled or diagnosed, but having the experience named and described, even generally, greatly empowered me.
Knowing what I was dealing with gave me a sense of validation and the feeling that I was not alone. There were others who understood! If covert abuse, in this case, in the form of relational aggression, hurts people by confusing and alienating them, then understanding and connecting with others even in your mind can be a powerful antidote.
And these dynamics of disorienting the target and alienating them from their social network doesn’t just occur among girls, though Dr. Crick’s and Ms. Simmons’ work focuses on them. All covert abusers, of all ages and both sexes, have relational aggression among their arsenal. It might look a little different depending on who is utilizing it and the context in which it is unfolding, but it’s the same creature.
Second, you need to understand that covert abuse, especially in the form of relational aggression is more than a just a bunch of individual acts of meanness, requiring perhaps, specific responses from you. It’s more than the sum of its specific parts of gossip, censure and other hurtful behaviors.
Covert abuse, in whatever form, is a systematic tearing down of your defenses, of the very skills you need to survive. Relational aggression, with its group dynamics and mob mentality, can increase damage exponentially and take on a life of its own. It’s vital to understand this; otherwise, you will get caught up fighting raindrops in the midst of a storm.
Not understanding relational aggression and the devastating synergy of all its components put me at a great disadvantage. All I could see were pieces of behavior and glimpses of hurtful dynamics, random acts of meanness that just didn’t make sense; nothing consistent or coherent or part of anything larger. I did not recognize the phenomenon that is relational aggression.
I not only handled the situation in ways that were ineffective, but sometimes in ways that made it worse.
Additionally, the danger of falling into relational aggressive behavior yourself is too great if you are unaware of what you are dealing with or what it looks like. If you can’t recognize the signs among others, you will be less likely to recognize it within yourself.
Knowledge of what constitutes covert abuse and relational aggression is vital, but no knowledge is complete without self-knowledge. No one is going to make it easy for you. No one is going to walk up to you and tell you that what they are doing is covert abuse.
It’s up to you to tell yourself the truth.
Remember I stated earlier in this post that covert abuse leaves tracks? Well, they’re all over you. You need to look at the impact of your relationship on you. For real. Not just long enough to know they’ve broken your heart or hurt your feelings, again. You need to connect the dots.
There are signs, red flags of covert abuse, to alert you to the possibility that you are in the midst of something very unhealthy. Symptoms that are trying to tell you something — you trying to tell you something. They are among the following:
- Disbelief — a sense of shock or feeling stunned
- Loss of discernment
- Pervasive anxiety
- Persistent fatigue — physical, mental or emotional — culminating in depression
- Trivializing your experience or reaching for excuses
- Blaming yourself
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms or states of being, these are red flags you should not ignore. The culmination of these symptoms result in a synergy within your life and in your body that could be deadly — literally.
Yes, definitely look to the dynamics of your relationship. Learn as much as you can, educate yourself, compare notes, get perspective BUT in the beginning if you’re not even aware of what you should be looking for, the best place to start is where you are with what you have. Look within.
You can ask how the abuser in your life stacks up against other people or the norm or whatever later. How are you because of them now? Because if you know that, really know that and let it sink in, you can start moving your feet in whatever direction you need to go. The rest will fall into place.
I’d like to explore the above red flags in more detail the duration of this week. I hope you will join me in this discussion and let me know what you think.
Until then, please take care of yourself.