How Do I Talk to Others About My Husband’s Covert, Passive-Aggressive Narcissism?

Hello dear friends of LV&Co! I am grateful for all of you who continue to read, ask questions, and comment. I pray this July finds you well. As the summer weather and the political climate continues to heat up, join me in prayer for all to be safe and God’s will to prevail in our hearts. This month, I challenge you to live out your God-given freedoms and to lean into the purposes He has for you.

Today’s Question: Since I've learned it is unwise to tell people that my husband of 40 years is a covert passive-aggressive narcissist, what is best to say when family and friends want to know the reason for our long-term separation (and possible divorce)? His verbal and emotional abuse against me has always been behind closed doors. Family and friends see him as the most caring, charming life of the party. Our adult children are devastated by my revelation that I can no longer continue to be married to their father. They see me as the destroyer of our supposed healthy and happy Christian family.

Susan’s Response: I am glad you are learning more about how to best handle your very difficult situation. The term covert passive-aggressive narcissist is one that has become common on social media and in societal conversations. Even still, it is not highly understood by the average population. Perhaps your husband has gotten a formal diagnosis of narcissism. Or maybe you are noticing the traits of covert narcissism and the patterns of passive aggressiveness. It certainly isn’t wise to use that terminology around your abuser. Generally speaking, it is also not wise to put a label on another person especially when talking to others who may not understand or may not have experienced what you have experienced.

When abuse is only behind closed doors, the patterns go unnoticed and destructiveness can be missed by others. Unfortunately, many women have been taught and encouraged to cover up the effects of destructive behaviors, and therefore, others don’t realize the harm that has been done. For example, I was speaking to a woman this week who told me that her husband often drinks when they go to his family functions and the car ride home is very unpleasant and full of anxiety for her. No one else has noticed this occurrence. She stated she could drive separately, but she doesn’t want her husband to be embarrassed and fears he would get inquisitive and concerned texts from his mother if they arrived in separate vehicles. Therefore, she continues to put herself in unpleasant and anxiety-producing situations and his behavior continues, the effects unknown to others.

Even though the abuse may be behind closed doors, boundaries of protection for yourself might be seen by others and raise awareness of a problem. I am going to guess that separation is a boundary of protection for you. This lets others know that the marriage is not going well. Perhaps there were earlier signs of distress that resulted in less drastic boundaries of protection even prior to the separation. 

Having discernment is important when you consider what, when, and how to share with others in your life. If you already know that someone can not be trusted with vulnerable information, don’t feel pressured to share more than you are comfortable revealing. Before disclosing sensitive information, ask yourself the purpose or the goal you are trying to accomplish by having the conversation. This will guide you in the direction you take as well as help you recognize when to let go of your desired outcome.

I recommend that you start with basic statements like, “I chose to separate to protect my safety and sanity; I am allowing this time for our individual growth. Perhaps trust can be rebuilt and the relationship can be repaired if we both do our work during this time apart.” When someone is not receptive, blames you, minimizes your experience, or dismisses what you are saying, give yourself permission to discontinue the conversation. Resist the desire to try harder to get them to understand.

Here are some additional tips when considering what to reveal. Stick to talking about facts rather than using labels, subjective interpretations, or dramatic language. Let the facts speak for themselves. For example, instead of subjectively noting, “He is a passive-aggressive narcissist and won't let me be with friends.” Be more specific in saying, “He told me to go be with someone who cared; but when I tried to leave, he blocked the door and accused me of abandoning him. He wouldn’t allow me to leave the house to see my friends.”

Use concrete examples of what you have experienced but also frame it as a pattern of behavior. It may take you some time to recognize the pattern yourself and put words to it. For example, instead of just sharing, “Yesterday he stonewalled me for the entire day because I said I wasn’t ready to help him in the garage.” Share, “I have noticed a pattern that started the first week we were married. When I don’t agree or comply with what he wants, he regularly stops talking to me for the day.”

Describe how the abuse affects you. For example, instead of saying, “He just thinks he gets to control me and he treats me like his slave.” Use an I statement like, “I feel anxious when I hear his car in the garage and my stomach starts to hurt because I often feel manipulated by name calling and controlled by demands to get dinner on the table.”

When talking to others about what is going on, be open to answering curious and clarifying questions rather than allowing your defenses to surface or intense emotions to take over. As an example, if you get accused of going against God’s word when defining boundaries, ask for clarification. You might ask, “What have you found in the scriptures to guide your beliefs about boundaries?” Or if someone says, “He always seems like a great guy to me! I can’t believe what you are telling me.” Stay calm and engage with a question like, “Is it possible that he could show himself differently around you than he does around home with me?”

It is true, that getting others to understand what is happening to you is a real challenge for many reasons. Putting words to covertly destructive relationship patterns is difficult. Manipulative tactics can often appear loving on the surface. Many people have biases about marriage, abuse, and gender roles. Be sure to educate yourself about what scripture says about these topics. For biblical references and more information, click here. Although the consequences of psychological abuse often become physical in nature over time, the aftermath is often not seen as the result of abuse. Despite other people’s responses, the thing that is most important is that you understand what is happening and you continue to take your own well-being seriously. 

Be well!

Beloved reader, How have you successfully handled communication with family and friends about destructive patterns that are harming you?

28 Comments

  1. Megan on July 4, 2024 at 8:41 am

    Thank you for this amazingly-timed, thoughtful response. My husband is in denial about his need for help for intimacy aversion and porn addiction and I cannot tolerate the neglect and emotional abuse any more. We are sleeping in separate bedrooms and I had asked my husband to move out last week and he won’t. So now I’m considering moving out with my three young kids and have been thinking about what to say to them and others as it will be more outwardly obvious something is wrong. I will save this post and make myself some scripts. Thank you!

    • Susan K on July 8, 2024 at 9:00 am

      May God be with you as you make these very difficult decisions and have tough conversations, Megan. Thanks for being part of our community.

  2. Kristi on July 4, 2024 at 9:30 am

    Thank you for addressing this. So often husbands have such a charming reputation in the family and church because we wives have made excuses for years and covered for them for decades. And yet, at the time events occur, some of them can sound too petty to mention, even if trying to speak the truth. Others see it as a single event, not the years of similar put-downs, lies, and/or control. I think giving up the NEED for people to understand is almost crucial to our mental health. “I understand why you don’t understand this death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts relationship. If I hadn’t lived it for years, I probably would be confused too.” I think being misunderstood or judged is one of the toughest parts about this. Thank you for your ongoing support!

    • Debra on July 4, 2024 at 11:50 am

      Kristi you are soo right!!

      • Ellen on July 5, 2024 at 12:33 am

        Holly, thank you for sharing how you have been praciticing “letting go of the outcome”. That’s super helpful. I appreciate your wisdom and tips.

    • Mary on July 5, 2024 at 1:50 am

      Yes kristi… You are spot on. I used to desire desperately for someone, anyone to affirm my dilema as I began to heal after my 26 yr marriage to the covert narcissist. I struggled to define it to myself as well as others and by studying each aspect of the relationship thru the word of God, the Lord healed me, made me healthy again and freed me from the need to be validated by others. But it is very real for us to want someone to simply say… I understand, I so get it and I see it.

    • Susan K on July 5, 2024 at 8:59 am

      Thanks for your wise words, Kristi! I agree; it is so hard to be misjudged and misunderstood. Learning to let go of that need can be life changing.

      • Dee on July 5, 2024 at 4:44 pm

        I experience your reply to this question as extremely helpful. Your words land with me as both practical and wise. I’ll be saving this link to share with other women seeking support as they walk through similar circumstances. Thank you, Susan!

        • Dee on July 5, 2024 at 4:46 pm

          Oops! I meant to post ☝🏻that in regard to your response to today’s question, not your reply to a comment. 😆 I don’t know how to fix that. LOL

  3. Holly on July 4, 2024 at 10:50 am

    I agree with Kristi. This is just a difficult situation!

    As the person receiving the covert abuse, the tough work we have to do is three-fold. First, stop covering for our abuser. Second, we have to learn how to set appropriate boundaries…this can be difficult if we are struggling to understand ourselves what’s happening, or if we’ve covered so long and are now at a point of desperation or fear due to escalation of abuse. The third is the hardest, letting go of the need for others to understand what we’ve been through. This is especially hard when it’s our own children, family and close friends. It feels like the covert person is “winning” and also like a continuation of the abuse/manipulation.

    For me, I felt more anxious the harder I tried to explain to or tried to comvince others of what was happening. I learned fairly quickly that I was only going to have true peace if I let go of that desire to make others see what was not visible to them. That is a heavy cross to pick up when you’re trying to get your feet under you from years of covert manipulation and abuse, but I learned that it was only heavy as long as I was wrestling with it. Once I decided peace was better than my desire to be vindicated in the eyes of others, it no longer was heavy. Now I can share if someone asks and Ican walk away peacefully when someone wants to blame me. What I’ve found though is that when I don’t focus my relationships on explaining what’s happened, but instead focus on being a solid friend, parent, sister and daughter, there generally isn’t any blaming or questioning of why as time goes on. Those initial questions taper down when people see you firm but loving in your boundaries and responses and begin to see who you truly are apart from and inspite of the chaos you’re leaving behind.
    It’s a difficult journey and I pray for the perseverance of those just starting it, but I am thankful for the internal peace the Lord has brought me to along the way…. one step at a time.

    Finding a group of people who do understand and who you can talk to like the support groups Leslie offers, or personal counseling, will be helpful.

    • L on July 4, 2024 at 11:25 am

      This is so wise and helpful. Thank you so much.

    • Carmen on July 4, 2024 at 9:40 pm

      Holly and Kristi-
      You both gave me tools to practice-
      Focus on being a great mom , gramma, and friend.
      Let go of the need to explain and repeat the stories of the Covert Narcississm.
      The truth is, God alone was there with us behind closed doors, and it is up to Him what happens now.

    • Susan K on July 5, 2024 at 9:05 am

      I appreciate you sharing your wisdom and your experience here, Holly! Shifting focus to intentionally show up as your noble self is so important. Thanks for supporting others on their journey. Stay strong!

  4. Susan R. on July 4, 2024 at 11:54 am

    I think that is great advice. I especially like that calm question: do you think he might present himself differently when alone with me than when he is around others? Excellent way to defend yourself without feeling the need to list off all the ways he acts or feeling like you have to defend their subtle insinuation that you’re to blame.

  5. Lily on July 4, 2024 at 12:05 pm

    I am so grateful this was addressed! So very needed. I would appreciate continuing to hear more advice & encouragement on this topic.

  6. Karen on July 4, 2024 at 12:09 pm

    My husband is a Covert Narcissist. He is an elder in our church, the guy that everyone knows and loves, and a great Dad. I know that there are times when separation and divorce are the right answer for Christian women but in most cases I do not believe so. I have seen life-long damage to kids from divorce. Leslie and my time in Conquer have helped me to remain in my marriage but detach emotionally. I have had to learn to not depend upon my husband in any way for affirmation, emotional support or encouragement. Hard for us people- pleasers! But I really see Jesus as the person that I trust, serve and can believe. I am here on His behalf. I am here to know and pray for my H in ways that nobody else can. At the heart of Narcissism is a damaged ego that is protecting itself. All of us have some of that. At the heart of Christianity is total humility and knowledge of our unworthiness and of His utter holiness. I am more and more aware every day of how far I am from that. I pray that all of us get there….

    • Carmen on July 4, 2024 at 10:00 pm

      Karen,
      I have personally seen life-long damage from allowing my children to see me raise them in a sick atmosphere of being detached emotionally and just kept on keeping on for decades. to keep the marriage intact.
      What has now happened is my adult children are also people- pleasers. settling for unhealthy relationships, and pursuing Narcissists in their own life, because that was what they saw me portray to them in the name of Chrisitanity.

      Children come to believe abusive is normal because they watch their mother allow their dad to power over her to their detriment. You would do well to read “Life Saving Divorce” by Gretchen Wilkerson. or watch her Youtube videos
      .https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJjv6eN1BDs
      She reasearched the long- term effects of your chlldren living in an abusive relationship.

      • Marie on July 11, 2024 at 8:25 am

        Carmen I agree. I have 4 married children that have married their father- type, following in my footsteps of dying to themselves , covering for their spouses and over functioning. I gently encourage them to not do this. I have 2 more sons dating. I pray for them all to live in truth, so it can be addressed and healed.

    • Mary on July 5, 2024 at 2:02 am

      I do not believe Narcissist change. We may choose to stay because we feel it is the honorable thing to do. We may choose to stay because in some way it seems the righteous thing to do. We may stay thinking it is our responsibility as Christian women to carry a dysfunctional abusive toxic relationship on our back so as not to taint the unbelievers view of Christian Dom. Whatever we tell ourselves the reason is, it will never be solid enough to be a healthy loving reason.

    • Susan K on July 5, 2024 at 9:13 am

      So glad you have been involved with Conquer, Karen, and have been able to detach well. It is such a difficult and individual choice to either stay or leave. Either way, I pray that we are all well enough to thrive and live with purpose and humility. Thanks for commenting!

    • Lori Visser on July 10, 2024 at 11:00 am

      It sounds like you’re really seeking to honour the Lord in this, but are you sure this is how He wants you to live as his beloved daughter?

    • Lori Visser on July 10, 2024 at 11:03 am

      Is he truly a great dad if he is treating you, his childrens mother, in such an unChristlike way?

  7. Connie on July 4, 2024 at 1:13 pm

    “Is it possible that he could show himself differently around you than he does around home with me?”

    This is helpful for me, thanks.

    I’m working with a life coach. She’s been somewhat helpful, yet I get the feeling that she doesn’t get this dynamic. I said this: Imagine a family goes dancing. Kids ask mom for a treat. Mom believes in submitting to dad, so she says she’ll ask him. Mom and dad are dancing. Dad keeps stepping on her feet and kicking mom in a war that the kids don’t see, mom smiles and pretends she’s having a good time. Dad is also whispering insults in her ear, while smiling, and tells her that the kids can have a snack. She gets them a snack, and dad yells at her, saying he never said they could have a snack, how could she disobey his authority like that?

    My life coach’s response? Maybe he forgot he said that. Everyone remembers things from a different perspective.

    People. Don’t. Get. It.

    • Susan K on July 5, 2024 at 9:17 am

      Connie, many people don’t get it! LV&Co does offer coaching and we do get it. For a free 15 minute consultation, go to https://leslievernick.com/coaching/ We would be happy to help. Thanks for your dynamic example.

  8. Nan on July 5, 2024 at 7:41 am

    This is so helpful, but in the last paragraph, the statement “For biblical references and more information, click here.” there is no link to take me there. Can that be shared, please? Thank you!

  9. Michelle on July 5, 2024 at 10:20 am

    I’ve noticed that it’s difficult for people to truly understand because they typically only see things through their lens (including my part in all of it). Dr Les Carter has some really great podcasts that explain these behaviors in plain terms (as does Leslie and Dr. Alison Cooke) that have helped my family understand the degree of manipulation and control that was exerted over me and my daughter. It was eye opening to them – didn’t make them love my ex any less – but helped them have some compassion for me on what I had endured and why I needed to divorce because things would not chang. For me there was really no easy answer to this question either – meaning I just had to figure out who my audience was and then decide what was appropriate. I will not cover up his bad behavior any longer, so am upfront and open, but agree that labels are often misleading without specific context and psychological understanding. Luckily we have the Holy Spirit to help us=)

  10. Janet Nachtigal on July 5, 2024 at 11:51 am

    Thank you for addressing this. Kristi and Holly, thank you for your responses. NEEDING others to believe, understand or validate us and our experiences in order to be ok with ourselves is a big hurdle to overcome but the personal growth that develops as a result of the struggle is well worth the effort.

    My former husband was an elder, an adult Sunday School teacher that packed the room and a good dad (I learned later that this was because I wouldn’t tolerate anything less.) With me however, he was right about everything, repeatedly used Scripture out of context to tell me I was sinning and over time I uncovered multiple patterns of deceit.

    When I separated it was shocking to all. After 35 years of marriage and ministry we had connected with and impacted many people and because of our business and the financial deceit, I had many people I had to speak with to regain financial stability for myself. I developed this “go to” statement that helped me broach the subject of my impending divorce: “I have something to share with you that may be awkward and shocking. The friendly, amiable (husband’s name) that the public knows is not the (husband’s name) that I lived with behind closed doors. Unfortunately , we are now in the process of a divorce.”

    Some people were judgemental and everyone asked at least a few questions. Over time it is helping me grow to not NEED people to understand or see my side. Several people even thanked me for the way I handled the awkward situation.

    Although I had spent 34 years crying out to the Lord about my marriage, I didn’t understand the control/abuse pattern. Once I understood what was going on, it changed my whole perspective. Realizing how much I didn’t know for so many years and how I might have judged someone in my shoes helps be be gracious to those who don’t get it.

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