Dealing with Your Ex's Covert Aggressive Abuse
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December 17, 2013 - Updated December 01, 2014

Fotolia_38725967_XS.jpgAggressive behavior seems straightforward enough on the surface.  Men who push and shove, explode in fits of rage, bully their children, and beat the dog are clearly acting aggressively.  Even if they keep their behavior under wraps when outsiders are around, most folks can nevertheless recognize the behavior when it is explained to them and understand the kind of emotional damage it may cause.  

My own situation was not quite so simple.  My ex rarely got angry or raised his voice.  In our household, I was the one who yelled.  As our marriage deteriorated, I found myself yelling more and more often; one of our mutual friends even told me that my toxic level of anger was the reason the marriage failed. This also appeared to be the view of our couples' therapist, who told me I was "getting aggressive" when I tearfully confronted her over her unethical decision to continue seeing my husband as a private client without telling me the couples' therapy was over. 

My ex was not a classic bully or abuser.  Instead, he is what Dr. George Simon defines as a "covert-aggressive personality.  Rather than behaving in ways to gain control and assert dominance openly, Simon explains, the covert-aggressive personality "exploits. . . normal sensitivities, conscientiousness and other vulnerabilities to manipulate you into succumbing."

Covert-aggressive personalities are skilled at a little-known defense mechanism called projective identification, which means that they not only project their hostility on to the other person; they get that person to act out their aggressive tendencies for them.  While you go crazy, they maintain an amicable facade. 

What Are the Characteristics of Covert Aggression? 

All aggressive individuals seek one primary objective -- control over the situation.  They view human relationships as a battle for dominance and human beings as either winners or losers.  The difference between someone who is overtly aggressive and someone who has a covert-aggressive personality lies in the preferred strategy for gaining power over others, not in the underlying motivation.

Covert-aggressive personalities use manipulation and deflection to achieve control.  For whatever reason, they do not want to be perceived as dominant; they are the proverbial "nice guy" who behaves in a charming and deferential manner.  As Simon cautions, however, they should not be confused with a "passive aggressive" personality.  They are not neurotic or confused, nor are they postponing confrontation out of fear.  The covert-aggressive personality actively seeks to obtain his objective even if he does so in a stealthy fashion.

Who is Likely to Be a Covert-Aggressive Personality?

Individuals who have traits of sociopathy and narcissism, even if they fall short of a diagnostic disorder, are prime candidates for covert-aggressive behavior. Several of the following should raise a red flag, especially if they recur as a pattern of behavior: 

  • a lack of empathy or remorse (failure to apologize)
  • a strong sense of entitlement
  • a need to deny obvious problems with the relationship, insisting that it is "perfect" or "special"
  • an unwillingness to tolerate criticism
  • a tendency to lie in order to avoid taking responsibility

Due to early childhood trauma, narcissists and sociopaths fail to achieve a stable sense of self; instead, they develop a "false self" that is like a shield behind which they conceal their stunted and fragmented lack of true identity.

For some men, the false self will be based on a model of masculine dominance and authority.  But others shun this model, preferring to appear modest and unassuming.  Such men may espouse feminist views, engage their partners sensitively, appear altruistic and self-sacrificing.  

This guise is no less an act than the macho facade of other narcissistic individuals.  But to preserve a "nice guy" facade, it is necessary for a such a man to maintain his guileless demeanor at all costs. When conflict arises in a relationship, therefore, he will try his best to make sure that his partner is perceived as the aggressor.     

How Should One Deal with a Covert-Aggressive Ex?

The single most important thing women can do to protect themselves from negative fallout when dealing with covert-aggressive personalities is to avoid reactive behavior.  Therapists, judges, mediators, attorneys on both sides, parent coordinators, school officials -- these authority figures take the behavior of both parties going through a divorce at face value; it is a rare individual who has the discernment to grasp underlying patterns of behavior.  You can assume that if you are acting angry, that is how you will be judged.  And sometimes, particularly in custody hearings, that judgment can really work against women.  

Reactivity is a strong emotional response to something our ex says or does.  For instance, in the last months of my marriage, my ex developed a gratuitous protective stance toward our daughter whenever I undertook the hard jobs of parenting.  I remember one occasion in particular, when I administered a prescription eye drop: My ex snatched her up and cuddled her as though rescuing her from a catastrophic event.  Naturally, I became furious at having my act of caretaking interpreted as an abusive gesture from which she needed protection.  So I lectured and yelled at my ex, which only served to reinforce the image of me as an abuser.

What I should have done was to ignore him entirely.  When you ignore the bait of a covert-aggressive personality, you deny him the cathartic release that comes from seeing you act out the inner hostilities he cannot express lest he betray his own "nice guy" facade.   This shifts the balance of power in your favor. If you keep ignoring him long enough, there is a good chance he will eventually stop baiting you altogether.

Other strategies for avoiding reactive behavior:

  • Never speak to your ex on the phone.  Use email and wait at least six hours before responding.
  • If your reaction will convey either of these sentiments -- "You hurt me" or "You are wrong for doing that" -- don't bother.  He doesn't care, he doesn't agree, and that is the reason you are divorcing.
  • Recognize that even though your ex is a child emotionally, he does not require parenting.
  • Join a good support group and use it to vent all your frustration and receive validation from women who have been there and know.

Aggression is a stable character trait; it is hard for individuals to change this behavior even if they really want to change.  The best thing you can do is stop engaging.  True, in some cases of overt aggression, the need to control and dominate may persist regardless of what you do.  But covert-aggressive personalities, who want to cling to their "nice guy" personas, will generally move on to a new target once you stop taking the bait and acting out their anger for them.  

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