A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Thursday Thought — Overt and Covert Aggression

Two Important Types of Aggression

Two of the most fundamental types of fighting. . . are overt and covert aggression.  When you’re determined to have your way or gain advantage and you’re open, direct, and obvious in your manner of fighting, your behavior is best labeled overtly aggressive.   When you’re out to “win”, get your way, dominate, or control, but are subtle, underhanded, or deceptive enough to hide your true intentions, your behavior is most appropriately labeled covertly aggressive.  Concealing overt displays of aggression while simultaneously intimidating others into backing-off, backing-down, or giving-in is a very powerful manipulative maneuver.  That’s why covert-aggression is most often the vehicle for interpersonal manipulation.

Covert and Passive-Aggression

I often hear people say someone is being “passive-aggressive” when they’re really trying to describe covertly aggressive behavior.  Covert and passive-aggression are both indirect ways to aggress but they’re most definitely not the same thing.  Passive-aggression is, as the term implies, aggressing through passivity.  Examples of passive-aggression are playing the game of emotion “get-back” with someone by resisting cooperation with them, giving them the “silent treatment”, pouting or whining, not so accidentally “forgetting” something they wanted you to do because you’re angry and didn’t really feel like obliging them, etc.  In contrast, covert aggression is very active, albeit veiled, aggression.  When someone is being covertly aggressive, they’re using calculating, underhanded means to get what they want or manipulate the response of others while keeping their aggressive intentions under cover.

(from Dr. George Simon’s book, In Sheep’s Clothing [*Affiliate link] , pp21-22)

*Amazon affiliate link  — ACFJ gets a small percentage if you purchase via this link

Related post

Covert Aggression is not the same as Passive Aggression


  1. Patricia

    Give some examples of what you might see in covert aggression, what might that look like in a real world scenario? I am aware of what it looks like but some may not know the difference. I know a man that used to stand next to his wife at church to make sure she didn’t say something she wasn’t supposed to, and just his sheer presence was enough. He would correct her words if they were slightly off of his own beliefs in order to let her know what she should believe and think.

    • StandsWithAFist

      In my experience, covert-aggression always seemed to include some kind of “deniability”, similar to gaslighting. For instance, an abuser publicly giving you a gift (seen by others), then raging later b/c you weren’t “sufficiently grateful” enough for it & then threatening to withhold necessary funds for basic needs like food, clothing, shelter &/or education–more abuse. The so-called “gift” is actually an invoice for “services rendered” by the abuser, with a demand for payment in the form of gratitude, devotion, compliance, etc. All of this is done away from the public eye, & in fact is orchestrated & designed to make the abuser look saintly while the abused suffers silently. (Not unlike Doug Phillips….)

    • Here’s another example of covert aggession.
      True story I read somewhere.
      Man abused his wife and sexually abused his kids including penetrating them with a pencil. Wife divorced him and got custody. Father did jail sentence for sexual abuse of the children. When he had served his sentence he tried to get visitation with his kids. The authorities granted him supervised visitation. He found a church that was willing to do the supervision. The church members who were doing the supervision were not told by the parole officer or the attorneys anything about the man’s history of sexually abusing the kids. They took on the role of visitation supervisors in total naivety, thinking that they were helping a father reestablish a relationship with his kids, which of course had to be a good Christian thing because of family values yada yada.

      Visitation event: father sits at a table with the kids and the supervisor. The supervisor has put pencils and paper on the table so the kids can draw if they wish. How nice and sweet and thoughtful of the supervisor! Father picks up a pencil and starts tapping the table with it. Supervisor thinks nothing of it. Kids re-traumatized and massively triggered.

      I guess the key thing here is that the abuser can use his prior abusive acts to enact covert abuse on his target. The target knows the inner meaning of the abuser’s action because the target knows the full history — the backstory — but bystanders and witnesses have no idea, they think the abuser’s action is kind and caring, or at least innocuous. 😦

      • Brenda R

        I do not understand why this man was given even supervised visitation. Him serving his time did not make it all better for the children.

      • StandsWithAFist

        That. Is. Horrifying. And infuriating. The naïveté of so many churches never ceases to amaze me.

  2. HappyToBursting

    Thank you for that clarification. I would say that non-abusive people (meaning, people with a sin nature – everyone) could occasionally indulge in passive-aggression. Overt and covert aggression are common with abusers, but not as likely to be seen in people who are not practicing abusers.

  3. Jacklyn

    Re-reading this book now.. Thanks So Much Barb and Jeff for all your effort, discipline and commitment to this blog and fb page. I very much have been empowered immensely by your posts and encouraged to fight the good fight. Albeit, exhausting at times, but onward toward victory, becoming stronger in the Lord and in His Almighty Truth. Thank you for uncovering the lies of the enemy so clearly for us folks whom have experienced these diabolical relationship(s). Thanks for building me (us) up! Overcoming!! 🙂

  4. marriedtohyde

    I can definitely admit my guilt in using passive aggression. After the downturn in my marriage, I found myself using passive aggression to show my anger. Prior to the shift, I felt heard when I expressed anger in an open, non-blaming way. However, after the silent change I would hint at a problem and when he didn’t respond, I’d go off in a huff to another room. It was unhealthy…I hated doing it, but I now realize I did it because he’d stopped responding to my open communication.

    I can’t imagine employing the calculation of covert aggression. Being open and honest feels too good…even when it’s hard.

    So thankful for each realization…even when it’s painful. Blessed everyday. 🙂

    • and MarriedtoHyde, your story there illustrates how all acts and responses need to be understood and interpreted in FULL context.

      When someone does not respond respectfully to open and honest communication, they block the path. You sought to communicate openly and honestly. When he would not engage in open and honest communication, you chose to show your justified anger by going off in a huff to another room. You had been disrespected, and rightly felt angry for that. You chose to show your anger in a way that did not do all that much harm to anyone. If it was a sin on your part, I would not say it was a grave sin. I would say you chose to respond and express you anger in a way that minimized the possibility of you gravely sinning.

      • marriedtohyde

        Thank you, Barbara, for clarifying this even more.

        Whenever I thought about his stonewalling me, I would remember my PA reaction to it and feel like I had equal blame for our circular, cyclical, repeated conflicts. He even had me believing it was due to my monthly cycle (I’d never had pms before) . A chain of guilt feels lifted off of me because I now see that my unhealthy expression of anger was a direct result of his quiet aggression toward me. Our conflicts didn’t start with me–I was just the one trying to get it talked about and resolved!

        Thank you for giving me a clearer perspective on those memories! Another puzzle piece has been put into place. 🙂

      • 🙂
        hugs to you, MTH

  5. Valerie

    I think as MarriedtoHyde said we have all been guilt of PA behavior at times. What makes something a personality disorder is when it characterizes the person and is consistent with all the person’s relationships. There are some people who don’t take “no” well and so we may respond PA to them.

    I look at PA behavior as avoidance whereas covert aggression has an agenda- it isn’t in response to someone, its taking an offensive position as a strategic move.

    • marriedtohyde

      …its taking an offensive position as a strategic move

      Yes!!! This is exactly it! His silent actions/inactions were at the heart of every conflict that I dared to bring into the light to resolve. I’d bring up the problem (lack of affection, withholding info), he’d stonewall, and I would react with my PA huff. The huff was the effect, not the cause!

    • survivorthrivor2

      Marriedtohyde, “Our conflicts didn’t start with me-I was just the one trying to get it talked about and resolved.” Hallelujah! I could never understand why or how a seemingly simple conversation could turn into such an ugly, yelling, name – calling (him to me), roller coaster of innuendo (again him to me), false accusations (him) and lies (from him) !!! The truth will set you free, it just doesn’t get back all of the negative energy and useless, unwinnable arguments! But, it’s okay, I’m free!!!!!!!!!

      • standsfortruth

        I called these types of attempted discussions that ultimatly turned into arguments, “circular arguments,” because nothing ever got resolved.

      • survivorthrivor2

        Jeff & Barbara, is it odd after one finds out that they have been married to a Covert Narcissist and learns all about their awful, unbelievable, sickening ways, that you can legitimately begin to see it, even if in a limited way, in others, that you know fairly well around you? Thank you.

      • I don’t think that’s odd. Not only has it been my experience, it seems to be the experience of quite a number of readers of this blog.

        At the same time, speaking of domestic abusers, they do come in different varieties (see Lundy Bancroft’s chapter 4, The Types of Abusive Men, in his book Why Does He Do That? [*Affiliate link].)

        The types Lundy lists are: The Demand Man, Mr Right, The Water Torturer, The Drill Sergeant, Mr Sensitive, The Player, Rambo, The Victim, The Terrorist, The Mentally Ill or Addicted Abuser. And the types can overlap in one man, sometimes.

        So yes, our experiences of being abused and coming out of the fog of abuse can help us develop antennae to pick up on covert narcissists around us. But it is wise to remember that we may not pick up on all types, and we may be more discerning of the type ‘our’ abuser was, and less discerning of the other types. Which is one reason some of us may get entrapped in another abusive marriage. The second abuser is often a different type from the first abuser. Mine certainly was.

        And of course, there are abusers and covert narcissists around who have never married, and those who are already married to someone else.

        *Amazon affiliate link — ACFJ gets a small percentage if you purchase via this link.
      • survivorthrivor2

        Thanks Barbara, I had not read others accounts of seeing narcissistic behavior seemingly coming out of the woodwork, like I have experienced. So disconcerting, it almost felt as if I were semi-imagining it, although it was blatant and repetitive. I even conducted a few ‘tests’ with some of the people I suspected and every time they took the bait and acted according to specific narcissistic behaviors. Maybe that’s wrong, I just don’t want to be around this type of person because I know I can’t help them, and may only end up getting hurt. It was shocking, some of these people I have been around for years! I found most of them had very little to no empathy but, wanted me to have a lot of empathy for them. Why are there so many people who are broken in this way? It is overwhelming to me, at times. I definitely need to get the book you suggested, although it has been difficult to read anything on these subjects. Sometimes I feel as though I have been dropped into some alternate universe that few understand and there is no escape except from that of my immediate captor, my stbx. Which I am eternally grateful!

  6. soldiergirl

    Covert aggression is when your plans your dreams, your parenting skills, and the things you value in life get sabotaged over and over.
    Its like everything that is, or was meaningful to you somehow come to nothing through the seemingly indirect actions of another person. .

    • StandsWithAFist

      Oh, my Soldiergirl–so very true. “Sabotaged over & over”. That’s how it feels: being devalued for who you are, & then being isolated, punished & abused for simply being alive. The complete opposite of what God intended!

  7. soldiergirl

    Yes StandsWithAFist, so many years of being gas lighting made me think that It was normal. .
    It felt like- as if you were a duck trying to take off on a clear path, and building up your momentum and just when you’ve started to lift off the ground, that’s when your covert aggressor pulls his trigger, and plummets you back down to the ground…I think they get something out of seeing their targets in continual frustration.
    I got to the point where I just started to expect it. ( but not any more)

    BTW looking forward to reading “In Sheep’s Clothing and one of Lundy Bancrofts Books that I recently ordered. .

  8. Brenda R

    I have a very difficult time distinguishing over and covert unless I am reading about it at the time. It is right up there with effect and affect.

  9. soldiergirl

    It became apparent after time that anything mentioned about my plans or intentions in front of or to my abuser became open game for him to sabotage. Or an invitation to do so.
    These plans could be as innocent as an outing with my daughter in the afternoon, or planning something special in the future..
    I finally realized that any thing I said or did could and would be used against me, or my plans with my abuser.
    It felt like being a modern day Nehemiah trying to build back the Jerusalem Wall, with Sanballlet and Tobiah, doing everything they could to mess things up!
    So I keep things close to my vest anymore and that way, what he does not know about, he cant sabotage.

  10. Katy2


    You just described my husband and his family. Since wedding into his family of which I had wished now I had done my homework, I have been the target of their covert sickness. My husband has worked very hard to micromanage my life, yelling at me when I want to visit my parents / siblings, personally attacking me when I have an outing to engage in (for example, reading stories to the children at the public library), so I will feel inadequate (a bundle of nerves), try to bless me with sweetness in saying “Honey, let’s get away for a few days before the heavy work begins,” knowing full well I have committed to judging a local 4-H event, and sarcastically mocking me in front of the children on the way to church, and when he closes the door of the vehicle and enters the church, his persona has miraculously changed to that of happy sainthood; and in the meantime my insides are tied in knots and I try, try, try so hard to put on my “plastic happy face” so people don’t see.

    A few weeks after our wedding day, my mother-in-law was already doing what old, meddling busybodies (who do not know Jesus Christ as their own) do in church, criticizing and condemning me behind my back. (I will add here that my father-in-law loved me and accepted me as a daughter and we had a good relationship as he encouraged me in my marriage and life in general. He was for me, my marriage, and my children, with love, kindness, and goodness.) And the female wolf pack listened and obeyed her well, for wolves of a feather flock together.

    She has always built up my other sister-in-law to my face, sharing the wonders of her and her favorite son, she has given me things with such pride (I have a feeling she boasts and brags to her churched friend how good she is because she gives us things), but I am sure she forgets to share that she asks for them back because she claims she never kept duplicates for herself….yes, she gives and then turns around and demands them back! At one point, we received a letter in the mail from her lawyer, demanding payment for two old tables that were her father-in-laws (my husband’s paternal grandfather)….she demanded $800 each if we did not give them back. My husband said they were personally given to him by his grandfather before he died, plus the fact that his siblings would walk into our home and just take the grandfather’s things without knocking on the door….I had no privacy from their covetousness.

    My mother-in-law’s covert abuse over all of these years (and I could write a book myself featuring the unbelievable antics of her abuse….and yet, she goes to church every Sunday, participates in “ladies aide”, quilts at their gatherings, attends Bible studies, has been “confirmed and infant baptized” with [what] she believes is her free ride to heaven (not Scriptural). And yet, I have never heard the Name of Jesus come out of her mouth, nor has she ever encouraged me in my faith in Jesus Christ or supported me in anything for that matter.

    And I was ever only good enough when I listened to her dominate the conversation, speaking of the wonders of herself and offering up compliments when she shared with me the things she has done or made with her hands….and yet, not one single good word has ever come out of her mouth concerning the things I have done or made with my hands….only a facial expression consisting of a turned up lip or nose (you know, that typical look of disgust).

    After many, many years, I believe God has shown me what was really going on here and have finally learned to draw some healthy boundaries which were lacking because I simply desired to be loved and accepted by my husband’s family trying so hard to be what they wanted me to be. I lost myself in the process….and my courage to firmly stand my ground. Being the family “whipping post” was such a heavy burden to bear and at one point I desired to end my life because I just wanted all of this abuse to end. Just end it here and be in the presence of Jesus, my Savior.

    But thankfully, Praise our Living LORD, this is when I truly became born again and I began to read my Bible for the first time in my life. At this point, this is when God, the Holy Spirit began to show me His truth as I began to repent of my sins and turn to Christ instead of listening to the voices of those who surrounded me. The love of Jesus Christ is so great and so wonderful that I can live this life in Him and for Him. God truly can take what is meant for evil and turn it around and use it for His Glory. And at the end of the day, I cannot be proud, nor boast or brag in anything, for Jesus Christ has truly saved me and one day, I will be standing in His Glorious presence for all of eternity. I am truly thankful, Praise our LORD.

    I am so sorry this is so lengthy. Please delete my entry if it does not meet your standards. I hope this will give those who are in similar situations, some hope in knowing you are not alone. And please know, you are loved by the KING.

    • Jeff Crippen

      Katy2 – one of the greatest promoters of abuse hiding in churches is the presence of false professors of Christ. They honor Him with their lips, but their hearts are far from Him. The numbers of these false sheep is quite high in most churches and while we are not surprised that false sheep creep in among the flock (Scripture warns us over and over of this), the widespread denial of this issue by church leaders and members is quite amazing. The more a local church consists of truly converted people, the less comfortable an abuser is going to be there. Hiding behind a “christian” facade becomes more and more difficult for him. We have seen it happen in our own church here in the past 20 years. At one time there were many, many false professors in what outwardly looked like a “happening” church. But over the years they decided this was no place for them. We are left with a small core of genuine believers. I have no doubt that if wickedness were confronted with the Word of God faithfully in churches, attendance would drop dramatically – as well it should.

      • standsfortruth

        Just wanted to add Jeff, that one way to flush these “false sheep” out of any church that wanted to cleanse itself, would be to play an episode a week of your 21 part series on abuse each time they gathered together.

    • Katy, your comment was fine. I just added some paragraph breaks for ease of reading.

      bless you 🙂

  11. norma jean

    Think Charlie Brown and Lucy with the football.

  12. Katy2

    Thank-you for your response Jeff. I believe you have spoken the truth here. Jesus speaks of the path being a narrow one and few will find it. The convicting power of God, the Holy Spirit, gives us His power repent and turn to Him so we may endure whatever circumstance may come. I Thessalonians 5:16-18

    I appreciate my brothers and sisters in Christ, here on this blog. Blessings to all of you.

  13. StandsWithAFist

    Katy2: I thot I was the only one with the MIL/family from hell. I am so very sorry for what you have experienced, and I totally understand it. My FIL also loved me, and when he died I accurately predicted nearly everything my MIL would do to devalue, denigrate, demean, demoralize & discard me. She wasted no time, since now there was no one left to temper her covetousness and cruelty. She did plenty while FIL was living, but when it hit “critical mass”, I could count on him to intervene and “call off the dogs”. But after he died…..it was unleashed fury. I have never heard her pray, never saw genuine kindness; she has never shown any empathy but only false accusations, cruelty and judgement. I was never good enough, she slandered me incessantly to others at church, none of whom who held her accountable or came to my defense. I was the whipping post, and I, too, wanted to end my life b/c it seemed there was no way out; I was trapped in the falsehood of an evil, abusive family system and a church that dismissed her behavior and cruelty. After nearly 40 years, much soul-searching and truth-searching (including finding this blog) I finally had the support and clarity to go NC (no contact), no matter what. I realized that God never calls us to absorb abuse for the pleasure of the abuser! There is no fellowship of light with darkness. He calls us to the truth, to the light, to follow Him & reject deception & abuse. It has not been easy, but it has been liberating to know that I am free to follow Him & I am no longer deceived by the enemy who simply wants power & control and lives in the dark.

    Blessings on you, my friend. May The Lord bless you and keep you & make His face to shine upon you & give you peace!!

  14. Katy2

    Oh, StandsWithAFist, your post rendered me almost speechless. It is as if you have been wearing my Hush Puppies for your situation is EXACTLY what happened to me as well. My wonderful father in law held his wife “accountable” as well until he passed away, then, the winds of anger, bitterness, jealousy, and envy, were left unchecked within the spouse. What I have found so disgusting within this family system, is that when they intentionally hurt, a wicked smug smile is fashioned on their faces as if they truly enjoy viewing the results of their abusive behavior. THEY ENJOY THE FRUITS OF THEIR PUNISHMENT and watching their victims squirm.

    Thank-you for opening up your life with me Penny. I appreciate the realness of your heart and was feeling pretty guilty for not having any contact with my mother-in-law for the past several years. I couldn’t take it anymore as she was even stepping in and sabotaging the good relationships I had with my children. At one of my children’s graduation events, she sat down at our table for refreshments following the church service and proudly announced to those surrounding us, “I feel like I raised ________(my child’s name).” My head went down, my heart sank, and I just wanted to cry, but inside I prayed to our LORD to HELP me and give me His strength to not fall apart in public. This is yet another example of words and actions that could fill volumes of hurtful accounts.

    I came to a point where I had to sit down and be real in evaluating our relationship, seeking our LORD in prayer and asking for His Wisdom and Guidance. I felt that for my mental, spiritual, as well as physical health, that I had to break off every contact with her because our relationship was always about her and her junk….she just needed an audience and that was always me; never was she interested in me as a human being and that really hurts.

    So very sorry for the battle you have had to endure, Penny, tears fill my eyes and yet, you have given me some hope as a dear sister in Christ Jesus. And I love that Scripture you posted….May God Bless you as well…..you are loved by the King.

  15. soldiergirl

    Katy2 and StandsWithAFist, I think we have all three seen this same evil in different faces.

    a wicked smug smile is fashioned on their faces as if they truly enjoy viewing the results of their abusive behavior.

    You’re right Katy2, – My abuser use to enjoy sitting back watching me unravel too..
    But then I got wise to him, and quit showing any emotion or reaction. (no feedback or reward)
    She just needed an audience and that was always me” You’ve got it Katy, they are perpetual performers,- and desperately in need an audience to watch them.
    If you walk away (or leave) you have taken the wind out of their sails. (no Games)
    “This is my strategy against the abuser on the prowl.”

    • Hope

      a wicked smug smile is fashioned on their faces as if they truly enjoy viewing the results of their abusive behavior.

      I know that look, I see it on my non-husband’s face when he is about to do something extremely damaging against me, usually a broken promise or plan; I call it his supercilious smirk. I never understood why he always smiled (sort-of) when he was being evil, but you have clarified for me – thank you! He loves his sin, denies his sin, will not be held accountable for his sin, and believes there are no consequences for his sin.

      I can’t recall who said this, but it’s an eternal truth set by God even though non-believers think it’s just a natural law: “you can ignore reality, but you cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.”

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