Covert abusers are master of deception who take pleasure in spinning a devious web of confusion and destruction around their victims. They often conceal their true evil intent behind a nice guy façade. Using all the right words, actions, and seemingly good intentions, they sap their victim of life; entrapping them like prey caught in a spider web. The effects of covert abuse are harmful mentally, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. It can be difficult to identity this kind of abuse while in the midst of it, leaving many women to wonder what is happening in their relationship and questioning if they are being abused.
Last week I wrote an article called “Sexual Abuse and Rape Happen in Marriage Too: Exposing Sexual Abuse, Sexual Coercion and Marital Rape.” I received of lot responses from women who were trying to make sense of what they have been experiencing in their marriage and questioning if they have been abused.
Some Common Responses I Received Were:
- “Am I in an abusive marriage?”
- “He has never hit me so is it actually abuse?”
- “Everyone thinks he’s such a great guy. Can he really be abusive?”
- “Why do I have such a hard time labeling what I am going through as abuse?”
- “I know that I was in an abusive marriage but I have a really hard time, even now that I am out of it, to grasping that it was abuse.”
Four Common Reasons Women May Struggle to Identify They Have Been Abused:
By definition cognitive dissonance is a mental discomfort humans experience when they are in a state of holding two or more contradictory thoughts or beliefs at one time.
Women tend to experience cognitive dissonance in psychologically abusive relationships due to the level of deception and hypocrisy they have experienced. A wife will often struggle to reconcile the “nice guy” she married versus the devious side of him that often shows up after she is fully committed in the relationship. It’s truly a mind-bending experience having someone alternate between acting like Dr Jekyll one minute and then Dr. Hyde the next. You never know who he will be each day, or even moment, and which side is the real side.
Generally, people want to give their spouse the benefit of the doubt. Even if the victim’s gut instinct tells her something is off or just not adding up, covert abusers will always deny anything is wrong and lead the victim to believe that the issue is her or that she expects too much. She is often barraged by her abusive spouse minimizing his poor behavior with phrases like, “Nobody is perfect.” It often takes many years and many painful experiences to realize his true nature is the dark, devious and destructive side.
Signs You Might Be Experiencing Cognitive Dissonance:
- Feeling confused about, or trouble making sense of, your relationship.
- Feeling uncomfortable or having a gut instinct something isn’t right.
- Finding yourself lulled into a false reality that shatters with each harmful truth exposed or abusive incident.
- Having a tendency to avoid conflict or having to “walk on egg shells.”
- Rationalizing that other people have experienced worse than you so it must not be that bad.
- Feeling shame or asking yourself “How could I have not seen or known?”
- Struggling with guilt after leaving the relationship, wishing you had never married if you had known the truth beforehand.
The Denial Stage of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) can result after experiencing traumatic and destructive events that overwhelm a person. As in the case of an abusive marriage, the level of trauma, intensity and frequency of traumatic events can often cause victims to develop C-PTSD.
C-PTSD Typically Has Five Stages:
- The Emergency Stage
- The Denial Stage
- Short-term Recovery Stage
- The Transition Stage
- Long-term Recovery Stage
The second stage of C-PTSD is referred to as the denial stage. Denial is the inability to believe something, especially when it is unpleasant or painful. Denial is a natural human instinct of protection from pain and overwhelming emotions.
It’s important to note that this stage of denial is not always a conscious choice but can be due to the physiological effects of hormones that are triggered in the body from repeated stress and abuse. It can also be a reaction to gaslighting or even the confusing effect of cognitive dissonance.
During the denial stage, it’s common for victims to be unaware that they are in an abusive relationship. Struggling from the effect of cognitive dissonance, a victim of abuse will often vacillate between times of brief clarity and times of confusion, due to the falsely constructed world a covert abuser creates around them.
This is compounded by an abuser’s own denial. In an effort to conceal his true nature, he will usually refuse to admit his destructive behavior. A covert abuser will often gaslight his victim so much that she may even believe that she is the cause for the trouble in their relationship.
Some Signs of Denial Are:
- Dismissing your feelings or believing others when they dismiss you.
- Praying for breakthrough in your relationship but the only thing that is breaking is you.
- Believing things will change for the better but no lasting change ever happens.
- Thinking about how you wish things were in your marriage.
- Believing broken promises.
- Feeling resentful or used.
- Toxic positivity.
- Spiritual bypassing.
- Confusion or inability to make sense of the relationship.
- Forgetful of every day details or glossing over hurtful experiences.
- Inability to focus.
Brain fog is just that—a mental fatigue where it is often difficult to think straight. If someone experiences prolonged and repeated trauma like abuse, C-PTSD can develop. Parts of the brain function differently, specifically the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex, when there is C-PTSD.
- The pre-frontal cortex controls decision making, rational thought, learning, and memory which may temporarily shut off.
- The amygdala detects danger and activates the sympathetic nervous system—which often becomes stuck in activation.
It is not surprising therefore, that victims of abuse may experience brain fog because they are not able to access their pre-frontal cortex.
C-PTSD can also cause a disruption in sleeping patterns, leading to poor quality of sleep. It’s well known that poor sleep quality can affect memory. This is due to the effects of stress hormones released in the body. It may feel as though you are trying to sleep but your mind and body still thinks and feels as if it is trying to fight off a potential threat. This can result in fatigue caused by the fight or flight response being permanently turned on.
Signs You Might Be Experiencing Brain Fog:
- Feeling like your head is cloudy or foggy.
- Having to work really hard to do every day or simple tasks.
- Difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness and/or confusion.
- Poor sleep quality.
- Feeling chronically fatigued even if you have had a good night’s sleep.
- Having a hard time remembering details or drawing a blank.
- Difficulty making decisions
- Difficulty learning.
- Tired eyes.
- Having a sense of detachment from the present.
- Feeling more emotional than normal.
The Voice of Shame
Victims of abuse often live under incredible shame, both while still in a toxic marriage or even after they may have left one. It can be difficult to admit to both themselves or others that they were in an abusive relationship. It’s as if by admitting they have been in a bad relationship, that they are somehow bad or defective.
Difference Between Shame and Guilt
Guilt is connected to our actions. Shame is connected to our identity. Guilt says, we have done something bad. Shame says, we are something bad.
Shame thrives in secrecy. Connection in unhealthy relationships can cause shame but connection in healthy relationships can break the power of shame. I encourage you to reach out to safe and trusted friends. It’s vital to share your story and process within a safe community.
Just as our identity should not be wrapped up in our achievements, it also should not be wrapped up in shame and what we perceive as our failures. Things may have happened to you but they do not have to become you. Our identity will always be rooted in shaky ground if it is not rooted in God and who He says we are.
If you struggle to understand what you have experienced or wonder if you are in an abusive marriage, please know that your confusion is normal. The fact that you are even questioning your experience, indicates that you have likely been abused. Women who are in healthy marriages don’t live in confusion, wondering if they are in an abusive relationship.
One of the reasons why Esther Company exists is to bring clarity to women who are in abusive and toxic relationships. My prayer is that God would continue to bring clarity to those who need it. That He would heal and cleanse you from the impact of trauma, clear the fog of confusion, and break the power and voice of shame off of your life. May you fully embrace your true identity as a daughter of God and walk in the fullness of all He has for you.