Tag Archives: covert-aggression

Dr. George Simon, internationally recognized authority on manipulators and other disturbed characters.

Some Different Views on Gaslighting and Gaslighters

I was recently interviewed by Carrie Borzillo for an article appearing in the current edition of Dame magazine about “Gaslighting.”  It’s a really good article, written by someone who’s “been there” so to speak, so I thought I’d share the link to: My Husband Convinced Me I Was Insane!       

Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in a scene from “Gaslight.”

In the article, some differing views are offered by different experts about just what “gaslighting” is, who does it, what makes a person want to engage in this kind of covert-aggression/manipulation, etc (The term comes from the stage play “Gaslight” and movie by the same name in which a husband who wants to get rid of his wife tries to make her think she’s going insane).  As you might expect, there’s one expert who offers the fairly conventional notion that gaslighters are “generally people who were narcissistically wounded early in life—through emotional abuse, psychological abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, inconsistent parenting and the like” whereas I assert that most gaslighters are not necessarily wounded souls but simply aggressive narcissistic personalities – disturbed and disordered characters “who are out to dominate, manipulate, and control; and will use any means necessary, including gaslighting (trying to make you feel crazy when they think you’re onto them and their schemes and lies) to further their ends.”  It’s a particularly popular tactic among serial cheaters. And I make the point I do because so often victims end up unnecessarily prolonging their abuse because they buy into the notion that their abuser must be coming from a wounded place and that only patient love and tolerance (and lots of misguided therapy) will help them heal.

I hope you enjoy reading the Dame article.  And I hope you share both the magazine article and this post with friends and acquaintances you think might benefit from them.  You can find more on the manipulation tactic of gaslighting in my articles: Another Look at Manipulation Tactics, Manipulation Tactics: A Closer Look – Part 2, Gaslighting as a Manipulation Tactic: What It Is, Who Does It, and Why, and Gaslighting Revisited: A Closer Look at This Manipulation Tactic).  You can also find an expanded discussion on the topic in the latest reprint of my book In Sheep’s ClothingAnd, as the article in Dame mentions, you can find a different perspective on what really makes certain characters do the hurtful things they do in Character Disturbance.

I’d also like to announce a planned “webinar” on understanding and dealing with (and seeking appropriate therapy for) manipulative and other character-disturbed people tentatively set for September 24, 2015 with discounts available to subscribers to this blog.  It’s important to get a fair idea of the likely size of the internet audience, so anyone reading this who thinks they might want to go online for the seminar should contact me through the “Contact Dr. Simon” feature and indicate their interest.  Further details will be posted about the program, teaching objectives, and registration in the coming weeks.

Character Matters will again be a live broadcast this Sunday, so calls can be taken.


Commonly Misused Psychology Terms – Part 2

Last week’s post dealt with “acting-out,” arguably one of the most (if not the most) misunderstood and misused (even by professionals) psychological terms (see: Acting Out and Other Commonly Misused Psychology Terms).  It’s important to understand and speak about certain concepts correctly because holding erroneous perspectives on behavior, especially the behavior of disturbed characters, is one of the main reasons people get bamboozled and otherwise victimized by bad actors. And it’s certainly no help that traditional psychology paradigms, much of the “pop psychology” literature, and ill-informed mental health professionals have all inadvertently contributed to and even promoted many of these erroneous perspectives.  This week’s article discusses other commonly misconstrued concepts and terms.  I’ve written about some of them before, sometimes in depth, and links to the relevant articles are provided. 

Here are some other of the more commonly misused and misunderstood psychology terms:

  • Codependency
  • Passive-Aggression
  • Denial
  • Rationalization
  • Addiction
  • Defensive
  • Needs
  • Self-esteem
  • Splitting
  • Symptoms
  • Projection
  • Paranoia

For starters, let’s clear the air a bit on codependency. I get lots of emails from folks who reference this term.  And I’ve been asked by many clients as well as the folks who’ve written to me whether I think they might be codependent.  To help determine this I always ask: “With whom, and upon what, do you think you might be dependent?”  Usually, this question is met with some surprise and a fair amount of curiosity.  But depending upon how the question is answered, I’m usually able to glean whether codependency is indeed an issue.

Most of the time, when folks (especially professionals) use the term “codependent,” they don’t mean codependent at all. Sometimes what they describe sounds much more like mutual dependency.  Other times they seem to be referencing interdependence.  But by far, the vast majority of the time I hear someone use the term codependency what they’re really describing is just plain dependency, or more specifically, emotional dependency.

The term codependence came out of the self-help “recovery” literature (based on the 12-step model of addiction treatment) of the 70s and 80s and was originally meant to describe the phenomenon whereby the life of the non-using spouse, partner, or other family member became just as governed by the substance(s) involved as the life of the active substance user.  So, in effect, both the user and the non-user were in some way dependent (i.e. co-dependent) upon the same substance(s), even though one was not technically addicted.  The concept of “enabling” also came out of this formulation.  The active user was often viewed as being “dependent upon” the non-using spouse or partner for the management of all household responsibilities (e.g., paying the bills, seeing to the welfare of children, dealing with all the consequences of the user’s irresponsible behavior, etc.) and the non-using spouse was viewed as being dependent upon the substance user for a sense of worth and purpose.  But while the active user might truly be in the throes of a genuine addiction and, therefore, chemically dependent, their abdication of responsibility for matters that by default were assumed by the more responsible partner cannot be rightfully construed as an issue of dependency.  Rather, that type of situation is clearly one of abuse.  And sometimes, the main reason the other party tolerates or even unwittingly perpetuates or “enables” the abuse is because of their emotional dependency (Now, there are certainly other reasons why a person endures this kind of abuse, none of which involves any true dependency at all, but I’m referencing here a particular kind of common circumstance).  If this kind of dependency is present and not addressed, the cycle of abuse is not only “enabled,” but most likely intensifies, and the dependent party’s emotional growth remains severely stunted. That’s how ancillary groups using the same treatment model became popular for the non-using partner.  And, as you might expect, given the dynamics at work in that partner, such groups and programs proved to be of great value, often proving more successful for the non-using partner than for the addict (or more often more accurately, the substance abuser). 

I’ve long had the feeling that the main reason some folks seem to find the notion of codependency appealing (I’ve had hundreds of folks readily and almost happily report their so-called codependency), even when it’s not genuinely present, is because to think of oneself as just one-half of a co-dependent “system” is a lot more acceptable to one’s self-image than acknowledging and “owning” one’s stunted emotional health or facing the harsh realities of being the duped party in an abusive, exploitative relationship.

Passive-Aggression is another term that’s rampantly misused both in general parlance and also by professionals.  But the word “passive” has meaning, which becomes clearer when viewed in relationship to it’s opposite:  “active.”  Perhaps an example will help clarify here:  There are such things as passive water filters.  These filters don’t actively do anything nor do they require power or circuitry.  They’re comprised of a series of meshes and fine particles that simply allow water to pass freely while passively affording resistance to the passage of metals and other contaminants.  They are different from active filters that apply electric charges to the water or heat it to boiling then refrigerate to distill a pure product. Active filters do something to the water to purify it.  Passive and active aggression work the same way.  In one case, conflict arises from what a person fails to do or resists doing.  In the other case, it’s accomplished by what the person very actively and deliberately does.  Many times, when people (professionals and lay persons alike) use the term passive-aggression, they really mean covert-aggression.  Both forms of aggression can involve indirect (as opposed to direct) expressions of anger.  But the two types of aggression are very different from one another on many other dimensions.  I’ve written several articles on this (see, for example: Passive-Aggression: Top 5 Misused Psychology Terms – Part 3 and When Passive-Aggression Isn’t Very Passive) and also discuss it in my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance. More importantly, the impact of these two types of behaviors couldn’t be more disparate.  For one thing, passive-aggressive behavior (e.g., not so “accidentally” forgetting to do something for someone you’re unhappy with, giving someone you’re mad at the silent treatment, not cooperating with someone because they hurt your feelings) is almost always far more self-defeating in the long run than it is truly injurious to the target of that behavior.  It may cause the person on the receiving end a fair amount of frustration, but it certainly doesn’t seriously wound them.  Covert-aggression is very different.  Slickly trying to get at someone, trying to get the better of them or trying to dominate or control them while keeping your aggressive intentions concealed or intentionally misrepresented is almost always self-advancing and generally at the other person’s expense.  Make no mistake, as I insist in all my writings, covert-aggression is very active (as opposed to passive) albeit concealed or disguised aggression, which is just one reason why erroneously labeling it passive-aggression distorts the reality of things.  And the person on the receiving end of covert-aggression has usually been directly targeted as well.

Some of you might still be wondering if it’s worth being so apparently nit-picky about terms.  But remember, it’s largely all the misperceptions that exist about covert-aggression that allow it to be such an effective vehicle of manipulation.  Because how we see things matters.  Once you know what someone is really doing and why, everything changes.  It’s always important  to see things in the most accurate light.  We’re instantly empowered when we see things correctly and have the information we need to take the most appropriate action.  This is true in therapy, too.  And when terms are bandied about inaccurately and events are misconstrued as to their true nature, well, it’s akin to the blind leading the blind.

You might notice there’s a new tab on the homepage menu that links to the page that provides information on consultations.  And soon I’ll have information on 3 more foreign language publications of my books as well as a forthcoming Spanish language edition.

If you haven’t already done so, let me encourage you to tune in to Character Matters on Sunday evenings at 7 pm Eastern time.  It’s a great opportunity for real-time discussion of issues and information-sharing.

Dr. George Simon, internationally recognized authority on manipulators and other disturbed characters.

Manipulation Tactics: A Deeper Look

Most folks who’ve been manipulated find themselves asking afterward:  “How did I let this happen?, How do they manage to do this to me time and time again?, What is it that I’m not seeing?”  I did my best to address these very questions in the earliest edition of In Sheep’s Clothing.  At the time, the perspective I was offering to explain the whole phenomenon was considered fairly radical and even erroneous by my peers, but it almost instantly resonated with those stuck in manipulative and abusive relationships. Basically what I was asserting was that we get manipulated because:  1) we don’t trust our gut instincts, and 2) commonly accepted but erroneous notions about why people do the things they do cause us to misperceive and misjudge the actions and the character of the person taking advantage of us.  I also suggested that while it’s tempting to fault ourselves for being duped, the tactics covertly aggressive and other character-impaired people use are inherently powerful manipulation tools because they throw us on the defensive while simultaneously concealing obvious aggressive intent.  And universally, folks familiar with my work reported that merely adopting the different perspective I offered about how to view their manipulator’s behavior was key to them putting an end to future victimization and empowering their lives.

Classical psychology had most us believing that many of the behaviors I label as “offensive power tactics” (the tactics that facilitate manipulation) were actually “defense mechanisms” the person unconsciously employed to deal with guilt, shame, feelings of inferiority and insecurity, etc.  So when the character disordered person in someone’s life pointed the finger elsewhere (externalized the blame) when they were confronted, it was too quickly assumed that they were defending themselves against pain or perhaps even actually felt victimized in some way as opposed to merely employing a fighting tactic to make the accuser feel bad and back off.  But how we perceive the character of an interaction makes all the difference in the world in how we’re likely to respond to a situation.  And if we think that someone is “defending” in any way as opposed to “fighting” not only us but also the reasonable standards of conduct we want them to adopt, or we see them as unconsciously protecting themselves against feelings of shame or low self-esteem as opposed to behaving in an entitled and defiant manner, we’re going to end up successfully manipulated.

I don’t think it’s possible to stress enough how important it is to correctly perceive the nature of covert fighting if you’re going to avoid being victimized by a manipulator.  And I think this best illustrated through example.  Let’s just say you’ve confronted someone about not being truthful with you and therefore damaging yet again any sense of trust you’d like to have in your relationship with them. When they respond with something like:  “What am I supposed to do when you’re always exploding whenever I level with you (using the tactic of externalizing and shifting the blame)?,” and “It was just one little thing and I misspoke, okay, it’s no big deal (using the tactic of minimization)!,” and “You always make me out some kind of monster (exaggerating) when you’re no one to talk (subtly adding some ‘guilting’ and ‘shaming’),” and you perceive this behavior as defending themselves as opposed to merely fighting for position, you’re bound to lose.  When the character-impaired person engages in these behaviors, they’re primarily doing 3 things simultaneously:

  1. Fighting you (trying to back you into a corner and get you to back-off or back-down) for a position of advantage in your relationship.
  2. Fighting to maintain an undeserved positive image.
  3. Fighting against internalizing the principle they know you’d like them to accept (i.e. that trust in relationships is based on the willingness to be honest with your partner).  And it’s this last reality that tells you unequivocally that the behavior you find troubling will definitely occur again. A person simply can’t fight against a principle and internalize it at the same time.  It’s just not possible.  Accepting the principle and making a commitment to improve would sound something like:  “You’re right, I shouldn’t have lied to you. I need to do better on that score.  And I’ll prove myself worthy of your trust by doing things differently in the future.”

These behaviors are “tactical” maneuvers, designed to play on the other person’s good nature.  And of course, when someone is engaged in these behaviors, they’re largely doing so consciously (although they might be doing them reflexively, out of habit).

Knowing all the common tactics is not the most reliable key to avoiding victimization.  Because, as I point out in Character Disturbance, folks who either place themselves above (narcissists) or are at war with (the aggressive personalities) the principles that build integrity into a person’s character, can use just about any behavior or tactic you can think of for manipulative purposes. So your greatest protection against victimization is correctly assessing the character of the person with whom you might have a relationship.  It’s admittedly no easy task to find someone with a level of character development sufficient to give a relationship a fair chance these days.  As I point out in both Character Disturbance and, more especially, The Judas Syndrome, there are too many socio-cultural factors enabling, encouraging, and even rewarding the things that impair character development, so character disturbance has become fairly widespread.  But you at least have to be able to be able to distinguish those folks who lie at the mildly to moderately impaired part of the character-impaired spectrum as opposed to those at the more extreme end if you’re to have a good shot at things. In some upcoming posts, we’ll be taking a closer look at the neurotic vs. character disturbed spectrum and discussing how to better judge where someone lies on this continuum.

Dr. George Simon, internationally recognized authority on manipulators and other disturbed characters.

Throwing You On The Defensive: The Art of Covert-Aggression

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.


Dr. George Simon, internationally recognized authority on manipulators and other disturbed characters.

Aggression and Covert-Aggression

Today’s post begins a new series on a subject historically afforded little attention in classical psychology paradigms:  human aggression. For the most part, traditional psychology overly focused upon, and perhaps was even obsessed with, people’s fears and anxieties. Classical psychology paradigms even sought to define people’s personalities by the ways they “ran” from things they unconsciously feared or the ways they “defended” themselves against perceived “threats” from the outside world and from the experience of anxiety. In short, classical psychology viewed people mainly as runners and largely unwitting runners at that. And the classical paradigms viewed all the psychological problems we can have as stemming from the unhealthy or inadequate ways we avoid or defend ourselves from the things we fear.  As a result, classical psychology failed us all in explaining a large segment of human behavior.

I’ve long made the point that most of us do an infinitely greater amount of “fighting” than we do running in our daily lives (see also pp. 96-105 in Character Disturbance).  And by fighting I do not mean being physically violent.  Physical violence is just one of many forms of human aggression.  And it’s by no means the predominant form. While human beings do an awful lot of fighting, most of it is done in various nonviolent ways.  And not all of the fighting we do is bad either.  Sometimes it’s both appropriate and necessary that we fight.   And when we fight with principle for the things we truly need and with the constraint and discipline necessary to respect the rights, needs, and boundaries of others, it can be a really good thing – perhaps even the healthiest thing we can do.  That’s largely what assertive behavior is all about.  But some kinds of fighting are particularly problematic, as is the case with the subtle, underhanded, unprincipled fighting I call covert-aggression. Those familiar with my books and other writings are already aware that covert-aggression is almost always involved in interpersonal manipulation.

There’s been a lot of misunderstanding about the nature of human aggression.  And much of this misunderstanding is unfortunately due to the rampant misuse of important psychological terms, even by mental health professionals.  That’s one reason many folks have problems accurately understanding such concepts as psychopathy, sociopathy, antisociality, denial, acting-out, etc. (for more on this see the series on commonly misunderstood and misused terms, such as:  Passive Aggression:  Top 5 Misused Terms – Part 3).  So, I think it worth reviewing some of the many forms of human aggression:

  • Direct aggression – when the aggressor directly attacks a target
  • Indirect aggression – when the aggressor employs some type of intermediary entity or action to attack a target
  • Active aggression – when the aggressor does something actively to injure/exploit/gain advantage over a target
  • Passive aggression – when the aggressor fails to do, resists doing, or refuses to do something as a way of frustrating a target
  • Reactive aggression – when a person aggresses (usually, defensively)  in response to a threat to his/her safety or security
  • Predatory aggression – when a person aggresses for the pure purpose of victimization
  • Overt aggression – when the aggressor openly and unabashedly lashes out against a target
  • Covert aggression – when the aggressor attempts to conceal aggressive behavior and nefarious intent to increase the odds of gaining advantage over a target

Now covert-aggression is a particularly insidious type of fighting.  That’s because victims of it can have a lot of understandable difficulty recognizing it in the first place and then defending themselves against it once they sense it.  As I say in In Sheep’s Clothing, being the victim of covert-aggression can make you feel crazy.  In your gut, you think someone’s trying to get the better of you or abuse you in some way, but you can’t point to anything clear and obvious to back up your hunch.  And it’s also like getting whiplash:  You don’t really realize what’s happened to you until after damage has already been done.  Even once you get an idea of what’s going on, it’s hard to respond well.  The covert-aggressor has usually succeeded at throwing you on the defensive, and when you’re in such a state it’s hard to think clearly about how you might better handle yourself.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be giving some new examples of covert-aggression and I look forward to a robust discussion on the topic. We’ll also be exploring some of the other kinds of aggressive behaviors and the toll they take in human relations.  Though many of the readers are quite savvy on these subjects, there are many newcomers to the site that have either just become familiar with my work or are just beginning to suspect that they’ve been the victim of any of these types of aggression.  The more anecdotes and examples they can access, the more validated they’re likely to feel in their feelings and suspicions.  Hopefully, they’ll also find in the examples and discussions the insights and tools they need to better empower themselves.

Arrogance and Brutality Under the Guise of Caring

In last week’s post (see: Malignant Narcissism), I promised I’d be presenting some case examples that illustrate the damage that can be done to relationships when narcissism becomes “malignant” and other disturbances in a person’s character reach “toxic” levels.  The example I’ve chosen for expanded discussion today comes from my book The Judas Syndrome (see: Chapter 1, pp. 29-41). It’s the story of “Teri and Ted,” a couple whose family was crumbling under the strain of one person’s pathological quest for stature and power.

Here’s an (edited) excerpt from the chapter:

Ted was one of the most active persons in his congregation and was regarded by many as a staunch defender of the faith. He was admired both as a leader and an organizer, and he had spurred several of his friends and acquaintances into more active involvement in the church’s activities over the years. He seemed a tireless worker for the Lord. He attended services every week, was active in Bible study, and could cite Bible chapter and verse with the best of them. Ted appeared every bit a decent, Christian man.

His reputation in the church and community was just one of the things that made Teri so self-doubting the first time she tried to confront Ted about his domineering and controlling ways. Over the years, she had increasingly come to see Ted not so much as God-fearing and God-serving, but rather ruthlessly self-serving and unyielding. And although they always toed the line, even Ted’s and Teri’s kids were becoming increasingly unnerved by him and had begun to distance themselves from him. Ted’s tirades when someone didn’t do as he thought he or she should were becoming more frequent and intense. Teri was quite worried about what things would come to if this continued, so she worked up the courage to address the issues with him.

Teri tried to approach Ted with her concerns in as nonthreatening a manner as possible. She suggested the possibility of counseling, which he seemed open to at first. He even admitted that on occasion he might have gone too far in expressing his displeasure or in meting out punishments to the children. And for a while, it would appear he was making an effort to do better. Then he would begin balking at the notion of seeking help, and when an episode occurred, would only lament that if he could only get those in his family to “do right,” and to “honor the Lord’s will,” he’d never have reason to get upset. After all, he bore the responsibility for “spiritual leadership” in his family, and he took that responsibility very seriously.

For most of their marriage, Ted appeared deeply devoted, though undoubtedly strict. But his sternness never took the form of violence. He just seemed to be fiercely dedicated to doing right and upholding noble standards for his family, wanting the best out of and for his wife and children. So even when family members bristled under the weight of his condemning demeanor and harsh dictates, they believed he was only trying to be a good man and doing his best to instill the highest respect for God’s will. It was only in recent years that his behavior was appearing more abusive than convicted. And the more Teri brought his behavior to his attention, the more verbally and emotionally abusive Ted became, going on ever more frequent tirades, and always berating her and the children for causing his distress in the first place and triggering his anger.

Eventually, Ted’s outbursts got so frequent and so intense that both Teri and the kids became truly afraid. And when he was confronted about it, all he could do was point a finger at them, claiming it was they who had actually gotten worse in their disregard for the Lord’s will. Even his initial apparent willingness to get some help had faded. Teri finally decided she’d had enough and threw down the gauntlet. And it would be the first time in her marriage that she dared to set forth her own demands. Nonetheless, she made her wishes clear to Ted: either he would receive counseling and get to the root of what she saw as his anger issues or she would leave him. In the meantime, she would make arrangements so that she and the children could live temporarily with her sister, until it was clear that Ted was making some progress in therapy and the family had some reason to hope that things were going to be different.

Once Teri took her stand, she would soon come to learn not only who Ted really was, but what can happen when someone like Ted is held to account for their issues. He became more openly intimidating than ever once Teri actually began making plans to live with her sister for a while. He would frequently question her in a style resembling a police interrogation and grill her over whether she wasn’t planning to simply end their marriage anyway. And he warned her that if she actually did separate from him, he’d be sure to leave her in dire financial straits and see to it she would never get custody of the children. When Teri called him on these intimidation tactics, he immediately fired back, blaming her outright for everything, and insisting that the wound she had inflicted on him by even suggesting the renunciation of her marriage vows was the root cause of all his pain and righteous anger. When she wouldn’t accept that notion (which she knew to be not only factually inaccurate but probably also bogus), he invited her to strike him. After all, he taunted, she had already thrust an emotional knife deep into his heart. A physical strike would pale in comparison to the damage she’d already done. At least that’s what he wanted her to believe. And when Teri, in understandable fear of the escalating rhetoric and passion Ted was displaying, walked away, he shoved her. In that moment, almost everything became clear to Teri. Ted was capable of almost anything when his will was thwarted. This shook her to her foundations, and later that day she and the children left.

Although this story is based on a single case, I can think of literally hundreds of examples of similar character.  As I say in The Judas Syndrome: “There are people in this world whose main concern is being on top and in control. As long as they have their way, they’re content. But try to stand on equal ground with them, or resist acceding to their demands, and there’s bound to be trouble. I’m not talking here about people who conscientiously, and with respect for boundaries and limits, know how to take care of and assert themselves. Rather, I’m talking about those among us who pursue what they want without sufficient regard for the impact on others. Some of these folks are openly and unashamedly aggressive in their manner: they brazenly weave through traffic, always alert for the patrol car that might impede them; look forward to wrestling with demons at work; enjoy decimating their competitors in business as well as at play; and are forever determined to have the upper hand in any interpersonal encounter. But others, though just as aggressive, do their best to conceal their true nature and principal agendas. They might portray themselves as caring, dutiful, and upright or even charming and likable while using a variety of tactics to subtly run roughshod over others by playing on their conscientiousness, accepting natures, fears, or insecurities. They are the archetypal wolves in sheep’s clothing (In Sheep’s Clothing, 46) and who they really are usually comes to light only when their tactics of manipulating and controlling others begin to fail.”

Ted’s narcissism was of a highly malignant character.  He was not only pathologically haughty but also pathologically disdainful of those he viewed as inferior and in need of his tutelage.  He was not totally devoid of empathy, but he was highly lacking in concern for how his determination to advance his agendas impacted others.  And in his empathy-deficient heart, there was also no room for any kind of “higher power.”  His chief “sin” was invoking the name of the power he proclaimed to hold higher and sacred as pretext for his determination to lord himself over others.  Arrogant in the extreme, and heartlessly brutal, he was never the spiritual shepherd he claimed to be, only the tyrant he did his best to obfuscate.

Malignantly narcissistic individuals can never be wrong.  It’s always someone else’s fault when things aren’t working.  Traditional theorists used to ascribe these qualities to a “fragile” self-concept that can’t bear the anxiety associated with being challenged, and prompting an unconscious implementation of the primitive “defense mechanisms” of denial and projection.  But as I point out in Character Disturbance, most of the time, such folks are actually convinced of their greatness.  This leaves no room for a humble respect for anyone or anything else.  Sometimes there’s some realistic justification for the high opinion they hold of themselves.  But almost always, despite whatever achievements they’ve made, their self-concept is haughtily out of bounds. And when, on top of all that, they have a distinctly aggressive streak in their character (no matter how craftily they try to conceal it), their obstinacy and pride usually won’t allow them to give ground or concede a point even when they know full well they’re in error.  They’re also well aware of things, as the above story illustrates.  So sometimes, when under great pressure, they’ll acknowledge their issues or maybe even the need for help.  But such acknowledgments are generally short-lived and can be abandoned in an instant if they feel they’ve managed to manipulate themselves back into a position of control. There’s nothing unconsciously “defensive” about such folks.  But there’s much about them that’s deliberately and unrelentingly entitled and aggressive.

Next week’s example will highlight some if the other problems a malignantly narcissistic individual can invite into a relationship.



Dr. George Simon, internationally recognized authority on manipulators and other disturbed characters.

Manipulation Tactics: A Closer Look

Covertly aggressive people are among the most manipulative personalities.  They use certain tactics to accomplish two things simultaneously:  1) conceal their aggressive intentions, and 2) invite you to fear, be doubtful, or optimally, to concede or give in.  And there are a handful of tactics covert aggressors tend to use more frequently – tactics that are generally the most effective in manipulating others – especially neurotics.  Recognizing these manipulation tactics and knowing how to respond to them are the keys to personal empowerment.

I can’t stress enough how capable the more skilled manipulators are of using just about any behavior imaginable to accomplish their aims.  This is especially true when the manipulator has a “good read” on the character of their target of manipulation.  When a covert aggressor (CA) knows his or her “opponent” inside out (i.e. knows their sensitivities, fears, insecurities, core beliefs, level of conscientiousness, etc.), a vast opportunity opens up for using that person’s traits (often, their most socially desirable traits) against them in a covert war for dominance.  Because it’s so unrealistic to list all the possible ways a covertly aggressive individual can get the better of another person, I find it helpful to focus attention on the more common tactics CAs employ and to explain in depth why the tactics are so effective.  Understanding the basics of how manipulation works gives the potential victim of covert-aggression a better intuitive grasp of the nature of troublesome encounters with all disturbed characters and heightens their sensitivity to the many possible tactics a manipulator might employ.

Let’s talk first about the tactic of rationalization.  Actually, a better term for this tactic would be “excuse-making” or “justifying.”  The term rationalization derives from the Freudian notion that people sometimes unconsciously defend themselves against the anxiety they might experience by engaging in actions that violate their conscience.  By finding reasons that seem to make their actions more benign, appropriate, acceptable, or understandable, any qualms of conscience are assuaged.   But this scenario, of course, assumes that the person actually has a well-developed conscience.  And this type of rationalization is a strictly internal and largely unconscious process.

When disturbed characters make excuses for their behavior, they know what they’re doing.  They have a clear purpose in mind when they’re seeking to justify themselves.  They use this tactic only when they know full well they’ve done something or plan to do something most everyone would regard as wrong.  But even knowing it’s wrong, and knowing how negatively the action reflects on them, they remain determined to do it.  They might feel “entitled” to do it (as in the case of more narcissistic individuals) or they may simply pit themselves against the generally accepted rules (as in the case of the aggressive personalities.  What’s most important to recognize is that at the very moment they’re making the excuse, they’re not “defending” at all or unconsciously fending off any anxiety.  Rather, they’re actively fighting against a principle they know society wants them to adopt.  And more importantly, they’re also trying to get you to go along with it.  Covertly aggressive folks prefer this kind of tactic as opposed to open defiance because it not only helps conceal their aggressive intentions (as well as some telltale aspects of their character) but also simultaneously helps them maintain a more favorable social image (by getting someone else to see things their way or buy into the purported reasonableness of their actions).   And once they get the other person to become more accepting of their premise, they’re well on their way to winning the contests of image and interpersonal control.

Think just a little bit more about this tactic.  It’s a testament to what I’ve said all along about disturbed characters and their level of awareness (for more on this you might want to read the post:  They Know What They’re Doing).  Why are the elaborate “explanations” and justifications necessary if the person doesn’t realize how most people would judge their actions?  It’s not that they don’t know most folks would regard their behavior as wrong.  And it’s also not that they truly believe in their hearts that what they’ve done is okay.  Rather, they simply don’t want you to negatively appraise their character and possibly be done with them.  And, more importantly, they don’t want to accept and internalize the notion that such behavior should not be done again.  The very fact that at the moment they engage in the tactic they’re resisting accepting a principle and obstructing the internalization of that principle into their own social conscience is the best indication they’re likely to do the very same thing again in any similar circumstance.  Think about it.  How many times have you relented after half-heartedly accepting someone’s lame excuse only to find yourself dealing with the exact same behavior time and time again?!

Let’s look at another tactic: denial.  Now this is also a term that had its roots in classical Freudian psychology.  Freud conceived it as a primitive and unconscious defense against unbearable emotional pain.  And there actually is a type of denial that fits this classic definition.  I give an example of it in my book Character Disturbance:

A woman has been married to the same man for 40 years.  She has just rushed him to the hospital because, while they were out in the yard working, he began having trouble speaking and looked in some distress.  The doctors later tell her that he has suffered a stroke, is virtually brain-dead, and will not recover.  Yet, every day she is by his bedside, holding his hand and talking to him.  The nurses tell her that he cannot hear, but she talks to him anyway.  The doctors tell her he will not recover, but she only replies, “I know he’ll pull through, he’s such a strong man.”  This woman is in a unique psychological state – the state of denial.  She can hardly believe what has happened.  Not long ago she was in the yard with her darling, enjoying one of their favorite activities.  The day before, they were at a friend’s home for a get-together.  He seemed the picture of happiness and health.  He didn’t even seem that sick when she brought him to the hospital.  Now – in a blink of an eye – they’re telling her he’s gone.  This is far more emotional pain than she can bear just yet.  She’s not ready to accept that her partner of 40 years won’t be coming home with her.  She’s not quite ready to face a life without him.  So, her unconscious mind has provided her with an effective (albeit most likely temporary) defense against the pain.  Eventually, as she becomes better able to accept the distressing reality, her denial will break down. When it does, the pain it served to contain will gush forth and she will grieve.

This is classic denial.  And to this day it’s simply amazing to me how many people, especially mental health professionals, will simply assume that this is what’s always at work when character disturbed people deny their wrongdoings.  Character disturbed patients will resist admitting things everyone knows they have done and the therapist might say: “Give him (or her) time, they’re still in denial.”  And they make equally unwarranted assumptions, like mounds of shame and guilt must certainly underlie the denial.  Why else would they deny, especially the obvious?  They must have more shame and guilt about what they’ve done than they can bear, right?  Wrong!  Refusing to acknowledge the truth is not the same thing as neurotic denial.  It’s simply lying and very different in character from the phenomenon I described in the first example.  At first glance, someone’s denial might look like classic, neurotic denial.  But when CAs and other disturbed characters engage in denial, it’s a very different thing.  I give an example of denial the manipulation tactic at work in my book also:

Joe, the class bully, strolls up to one of his unsuspecting classmates and engages in one of his favorite mischievous pastimes – pushing the books out of her arms and spilling them on the floor.  It just so happens that the hall monitor catches the event and sternly hollers:  “Joe!” to which Joe, spreading his arms wide open and with a look of great shock, surprise, and innocence on his face retorts:  “Whaaaat?”  Does Joe really not understand the reality of what has happened?  Does he actually think he didn’t do what the hall monitor saw him do?  Is he in some kind of altered psychological state?  Is his possible altered state brought about by more emotional pain than he could possibly stand to bear?  Is he so consumed with shame and/or guilt for what he’s done that he simply can’t allow himself to believe he actually did such a horrible thing?  More than likely, none of the aforementioned possibilities is correct.  Joe is probably more concerned that he has another detention hall coming, which means another note to his parents, and possibly even a suspension.  So, he’s got one long-shot tactic to try.  He’ll do his best to make the hall monitor believe she didn’t really see what she thought she saw.  The hallway was crowded.  Maybe it was someone else.  Maybe it was just an “accident.”  If he acts surprised, innocent, and righteously indignant enough, maybe, just maybe, she’ll begin to doubt herself.  He hopes that, unlike him, she might be just neurotic enough (i.e. has an overactive conscience and excessive sense of guilt or shame) to think she might have misjudged the situation.  Maybe she’ll even berate herself for jumping to conclusions or for causing a possibly innocent person unwarranted emotional pain.  This tactic might have worked before.  Maybe it will work again.

Manipulators will often couple denial with other tactics such as feigning innocence.  This is when the person you’ve confronted acts like they have no idea what you’re talking about or pretends in a self-righteous manner that they’ve done absolutely nothing to be ashamed of or guilty for.  Sometimes they can use denial and feigning innocence with such intensity and seeming conviction that you begin questioning your perceptions and your sanity.  You start out knowing that you’ve nailed them on a behavior and somehow they get you to wondering if you haven’t gotten it all wrong.  A very effective one-two manipulation punch indeed.

By far, however, the biggest weapons in any CA’s arsenal are the tactics of shaming and guilt-tripping.  And the reason for this is quite simple:  neurotics, by definition, have a high degree of conscientiousness and hate to think they’ve said or done anything wrong or shameful.  So, the perfect way to control them is to make them think they’ve done something about which they should feel guilty or be ashamed.  Sometimes conscientious people try to lay guilt or shame on disturbed characters, thinking it will somehow prompt them to modify their behavior.  But they quickly learn that these tactics don’t work on disturbed characters.   You have to have a big sense of right and wrong and an equally big desire to be a good person for these tactics to have any effect.  In short, you have to have a pretty well-developed conscience, something disturbed characters lack.

In next week’s post we’ll discuss some of the other more popular manipulation tactics.   Then, in the following week’s post, we’ll be concluding the series on the aggressive personalities by taking a close look at predatory aggressors (i.e. psychopaths, sociopaths).  Following that there will be some posts on topics that readers have been asking for information about.  So, stay tuned!


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.


Aggressive Personalities: An Upcoming Refresher Course

It’s been a few years since I first posted a series of articles on the group of disturbed characters I like to call the “aggressive personalities.”  I’m also in the process of compiling new material on the topic for possible inclusion in another book or in future revisions of my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance.  That’s in part because so many of the disturbed characters making news headlines of late appear at least on the surface to be individuals who have the characteristics of these personality types.  So, for these and a variety of other reasons, it seems timely to revisit the topic.  And because I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from folks about the examples I’ve included in recent articles about disturbed characters in therapy, I’ll be including several examples of aggressive characters behaving in the manner they are wont to behave in the upcoming series.

The idea of applying the label “aggressive” to a certain group of personality types dates from my graduate training in psychology.   It was well known even back then that clinicians found serious fault with the official psychiatric diagnostic manual’s classification of personality disorders, especially when it came to describing a type of personality prone to violate boundaries and limits, cause interpersonal pain, and create problems for society.  At the time, the only classification for such individuals was “Antisocial Personality Disorder” and the criteria for applying the label were not only stringent but also fashioned in such a manner that only career criminals seemed to fit the bill.  But it had long been observed that there were many individuals just as prone to behaving in irresponsible and even seriously malicious ways who never led lives of crime or had ever been legally sanctioned for major social norm violations.  One of my mentors particularly lamented this and noted that all of these problematic personalities, whether or not they were criminal in their behavior, exhibited an interpersonal style that was distinctly “aggressive.”  And this mentor made it clear that in realm of human interpersonal relations, aggression is not simply synonymous with violence.  Rather, human aggression is most often manifested in the unscrupulous and undisciplined will to power.  That notion made a deep impression on me and helped me understand many personalities I wasn’t able to yet accurately label.

While I was still in graduate school I also had the opportunity to work part time for a company whose CEO seemed to be unique aggressive personality type.  He was an absolute tyrant and his employees often quivered in their boots.  He seemed to have no compunction about berating these employees even for the smallest of matters, heaping verbal and emotional abuse on them and instilling terror as a means of controlling them.  He paid his key employees very well, however, and they were therefore quite dependent on him for their livelihoods.  But despite the success of his company, it was clear his style of relating to others (i.e. his personality) though on some level effective, was grossly dysfunctional.  He’d had several failed marriages and was at odds with several of his children as well as his current girlfriend.  Still, there was simply no appropriate label to apply to his personality type, at least according to the official categorization schemes.  One was tempted to label him antisocial, but he was a polished, astute businessman, not a criminal (though I knew him to engage in some business practices that I would characterize as somewhat shady), and was a pillar of the community, sitting on my corporate and civic boards.  But he appeared to have virtually no empathy for others, and was not only merciless in his treatment of some but also disdainful of those he perceived as weak.  I think Martha Stout might have labeled him a “sociopath next door,” but even she had formulated her thinking on the subject at that time.  Not too long after meeting this businessman, I encountered a client in one of our school’s training clinic who frequently boasted of his tenaciousness and “winner take all” approach to life.  But his history of relationships was a virtual train wreck, as he used and abused just about everyone he hooked up with.  Before long, I found myself formulating my own thoughts on aggressive personalities, and for several years I gathered clinical data on the various sub-types of this problematic character and worked to refine my conceptual scheme.   Not so incidentally, during my first years of practice, I encountered several examples of folks who were in relationships with people who presented a veneer of charm and civility but could be notoriously underhanded, back-stabbing, controlling, and manipulative.  I studied these folks closely, with particular attention to the tactics they used to aggress against others covertly.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

The news of late has been dominated by high-profile personalities who seem to fit somewhere within the conceptual scheme I eventually developed.  There’s the Olympic runner who without a second’s hesitation fired rounds at someone whose identity he wasn’t even sure of only to assert and lament later that he “accidentally” killed the woman he loved.  Interestingly, his father blamed the tragedy on “sportsman’s instinct” – a notion that itself is worth exploring in more detail in the coming weeks.  There is also the pro football player who, with his “posse”, was in a shoot-out with some rivals that left two people dead, yet he not only claimed total innocence for himself (despite many indications of his culpability) but then tried to advance then notion that it’s not possible for God to commission a person to carry His message who has blood on their hands, so as a minister after all, he simply must be a good guy.  Then there’s the police officer who prided himself as a man of justice and integrity who viciously stalked and executed several innocent people, all the while justifying it by claiming that his victims were all in some way responsible for a greater injustice done to him.   And of course there’s the famous cyclist who had many of us thinking he’d overcome impossible odds with uncommon integrity, who now admits he not only lived a big lie but knowingly and aggressively destroyed the lives of those who tried to tell us the kind of person he really is.  Make now mistake, there are a lot of aggressive characters out there and only a few of them are convicted criminals doing time in prison.  And in the coming weeks, I’m going to be talking a lot about all of them, and in greater depth than I ever have before.  I only hope that others will join in the discussion and contribute their own experiences sufficiently to make the important issues clear and helpful to all the readers.

Next week’s post will focus on the characteristics all of the aggressive personalities share as well as the factors the latest research is telling us about how such personalities develop.  Then, in subsequent weeks, we’ll be taking a more in-depth look at each aggressive personality sub-type.   More than anything else, it’s my hope that the readers will – as a result of the series – discover a framework by which they are better able to judge the character of individuals they meet or know and to protect themselves against possible victimization in some way.



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.