Defining the Different Types of Covert Domestic Abuse

Updated 05/15/19
Credit: LaylaBird. Getty Images 

Domestic abuse, whether obvious or covert, is about control. Aggression is a primitive and immature reaction to a sense of helplessness and feeling a loss of control; this also includes behavior known as "passive aggression." Domestic abuse may be violent or nonviolent, but its purpose is to maintain a sense of safety for the abuser. The victim's well-being is never considered. 

Covert abuse is sly and underhanded. It is hard to identify and requires long-term observation in some situations. It is made up of a few actions and creates an atmosphere of intimidation, uncertainty, and confusion in its victim. 

There are many types of domestic abuse a spouse can inflict upon another spouse. Physical abuse, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, and financial abuse are common forms of domestic abuse. Below are some guidelines that will help you identify them and hopefully make it stop. If you or someone you know is suffering, there are resources available at the National Domestic Violence Hotline

Ambient Abuse

Ambient abuse means living in an atmosphere of fear, intimidation and unpredictability. By creating an unsafe environment, the abuser avoids direct acts of abuse such as striking their spouse. They can maintain control by manipulation and threats, which will erode the victim’s self-worth and self-confidence. In such situations, the abuser’s actions are often referred to as “crazy making” behavior. The victim feels as if they are going crazy but cannot identify why. 

Some examples of ambient abuse would be withholding affection or intimacy, rolling their eyes when others express their opinions, or criticizing the victim's actions “for their own good.”

Disproportionate Abuse

As the name suggests, disproportionate abuse arises when someone reacts too aggressively to a small issue. In a situation like this, it does not matter how gently one partner may try to communicate an issue, their spouse will respond with a temper tantrum. The abuser causes intimidation with their reaction by throwing things, slamming doors, or screaming and yelling.

Impossible Situations

The abuser engineers impossible, dangerous, unpredictable, unprecedented, or highly specific situations in which they are needed, depended upon, or considered the only source of authority. Consequently, the abuser ensures their own indispensability. This creates complete dependence on them and they will remind their victim of this frequently. Any deviation from their authority may cause them to punish the victim as well.


Most abusers lack empathy. They dehumanize and treat others like objects, extensions of themselves, or instruments to be played with as they see fit. Physical, psychological, verbal, and sexual abuses are all forms of dehumanization and objectification. This elicits detached behavior, and in extreme cases will result in abandonment of their victims, even if they are married or have other legal or binding connections. 

Abuse By Proxy

Abuse by proxy is a situation in which an abuser will recruit friends, neighbors, family members, the police, the media, and anyone they can find to threaten, harass, or manipulate their victim into doing what they want. This kind of abuse is often seen in divorce court, when the abuser's attorney and witnesses will attempt to discredit or punish the victim through psychological abuse and other means of manipulation (custody arrangements, child support payments, etc). 

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