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Don’t Let the Tricksters Trick You: The Dangers of Covert Abuse
Covert narcissistic abuse is tricky, because these types of manipulators are "wolves in sheep's clothing."
“Don’t let the tricksters trick you, because if you turn around they’ll get you in the end.”
What an odd saying! And what does it mean?
First, let me give you a bit of background. One of my clients (“Juliet”) relayed to me that when she and her husband were newly married and she was still in the haze of not understanding what was wrong with her relationship, they went out for dinner. After paying the check and getting ready to leave, a strange and perhaps prophetic thing happened in the lobby of the restaurant, something that has stuck with her ever since.
An elderly gentleman was standing at the exit, his back to Juliet and her husband, silently gazing out of the doorway as he waited for his ride to pull up. Without warning he spun around and stared at Juliet, unblinking and unapologetic, as if to give her an urgent message that he was unsure of himself, but that he knew must be said.
“Don’t let the tricksters trick you, because if you turn around they’ll get you in the end,” he said, then just as abruptly he turned back around and walked out the door.
Did he know something Juliet was failing to see? Was he trying to give her a warning?
Of course, she’ll never know the motive behind the man’s sudden and seemingly inexplicable message. Had it been given to him by the Spirit, a direct warning to help her be on her guard, or was it the senile ramblings of an elderly person? Juliet doesn’t believe the man was senile, and his words struck her so thoroughly that they were instantly seared into her memory, verbatim, and have refused to let go ever since. She’s told me that it certainly feels like a purposeful and God-given message, and is something that has kept bursting into her mind, again and again, as she’s repeatedly traveled through the cycle of abuse over the course of too many years. In fact, despite the passage of well over a decade, the message feels stronger to Juliet than ever before.
Don’t let the tricksters trick you, because if you turn around they’ll get you in the end …
Cyclical abusers tend to have many narcissistic/borderline traits (a person can have traits without having an actual personality disorder, so when I refer to “narcissist” or “borderline,” I’m not claiming an official diagnosis). When abuse is covert, it’s easy to be so trusting that you can be tricked by your supposedly-loving spouse. Covert narcissism is also called vulnerable narcissism or fragile narcissism, because that’s just what the individual with this trait is—fragile in his persona, deeply believing he’s worthless but barely admitting his profound sense of shame even to himself, instead burying it through escape techniques such a drugs and alcohol, or through a “counterattack.” Rather than facing his problems head-on, he buries them by blaming others, turning to criticism and projection to hide his own shame, and making his spouse feel as if she’s the one who’s defective and wrong.
Let’s make no mistakes about the facts, as harsh as the reality may be: Abuse is evil. The Most Reverend Ricardo Ramírez even calls it a “virulent evil.”This isn’t to say that those who employ abusive techniques to manipulate and control others are inherently evil people, but that the actions themselves are evil. This may be a particularly confusing truth to come to terms with, because during the “love bombing” or “adoration/idealize” stage of the abuse cycle, the abuser again acts like the man he initially appeared to be—kind, caring, loving, and genuine, a great lover and the perfect soulmate.
He also plays the victim, which causes the target to feel extreme empathy and support towards him (further solidifying the trauma bond). All this creates a high level of bizarre and bewildering cognitive dissonance. With two conflicting ideas swirling around the target’s head at the same time, it’s inevitable that she’ll experience great distress and confusion—for example, arriving at the realization that there’s an abusive pattern to her marriage, yet still holding hope that his most recent “love bombing” stage will miraculously be permanent and he’ll suddenly be kind and caring all the time, not just in fits and starts. It’s heartbreaking to finally have to come to the terms with the fact that the “love bombing” stage is part of the cycle of manipulation and isn’t reality—and, as the relationship progresses, the “calm” and “adoration/idealization” stages of the cycle tend to grow shorter and shorter, sometimes disappearing altogether.
Abuse is “a virulent evil.” Don’t let the tricksters trick you.
The person who employs covertly abusive tactics in order to gain control, to hide their core shame and vulnerability, and to maintain power over their spouse appears, to the outside world, like the nicest man in the world. He doesn’t think of himself as an abuser. Instead, he imagines himself to be a decent guy (or even a great guy) who sometimes loses control and gets a bit too mad, but that’s it. And only from time to time. In general, he’s awesome.
The abuse cycle isn’t something he recognizes, or even knows about (without a decent dose of self-education, most victims don’t recognize or know about this cycle, either).
To outsiders, and even to family members other than their intimate partner, covert aggressors appear humble, giving, kind and even approachable. Only their spouse endures the destructive characteristics of their rage-filled, coercive behaviors. Dr. George Simon, Jr. calls these types of abusers “wolves in sheep’s clothing,”drawing upon Jesus’ warning: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits” (Matt 7:15-16).
These “wolves in sheep’s clothing” are those subtle abusers who are the most manipulative, whether they act consciously or not. They are tricksters. Their fruits are destructive.
If we allow abuse to continue, we run the risk of it eventually killing our spirit. Always remember that we’re made in the image and likeness of God. We can’t allow that image to be broken or even tarnished. We need to love ourselves, and God, more than that. Jesus told us to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31), but these words presuppose that we authentically love ourselves.
“Love is patient, love is kind …” (1 Cor. 13:4)
We need to be patient with ourselves, and kind; and allowing ourselves to continue to be abused after we’ve recognized the destructive pattern in our marriages is not being kind to ourselves. We need change—one way or another, we need authentic change.
The end. Of the story. Questions? Contact me. Ask me anything.
Most Reverend Ricardo Ramírez, C.S.B., “Speaking the Unspeakable,” as quoted in Dr. Christauria Welland, “Violence & Abuse in Catholic and Christian Families: Preparing an Effective and Compassionate Pastoral Response,” online course at https://health-transformations.learnworlds.com.
George Simon, Jr., Ph.D., In Sheep’s Clothing.