The Covert Aggressor: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Imagine the following scenario: Karl manages his own successful business, owns his own house, and drives a nice car. He is active in his church and is a friendly, easygoing person. Karl has a modest savings and a plan for the future–but the one thing he doesn’t have is a girlfriend. His body clock is ticking, and if Karl wants a family, he really should think about putting himself out there.

Enter Monique. Fiercely independent, Monique has been on her own since graduation. She played sports in high school and has a few friends, but she’s having a hard time finding a mate who meets her high standards. She is waiting for “Mr. Right.” She’s heard since childhood that she’s smarter and better than most people, so Mr. Right has been hard to find so far.

Through a mutual friend, Monique and Karl meet. Monique, used to competing for and winning just about everything, feels she’s finally found “the one.” Karl is amazed that someone as beautiful as Monique wants him. He wants to make a good impression, so he jumps at the chance to prove his worth, bending over backwards to please her.

Monique and Karl get married a year later, and their life together begins. Karl wants to continue to prove himself worthy of such a great catch, so he works extra long hours to make sure he brings in enough money. Even though he works a long day, Karl makes a special point to have the house spotless when Monique gets home. She complains about the floor not being mopped, and Karl feels guilty but promises to do it the next day. After all, she doesn’t have time to clean.

After a while, Karl finds that his opinion is being sidestepped. Their relationship has begun to tilt. Monique takes the upper hand, managing the household and eventually controlling Karl’s finances, while Karl tries to please her so he doesn’t make her mad. Little by little, Monique’s bossiness is starting to get to Karl. “Don’t leave that there.”  “You missed a button.” “Shut the door.” Soon, Karl starts lying to Monique and hiding things from her, because he has no privacy. She has double standards: she needs to know every app and text on his phone, but he’s not allowed even to look in her purse for an antacid tablet. After a while, Karl turtles in. He figures the less he moves, the less she will have to criticize. He shuts her out, and she leaves him alone. She wonders why he never does anything anymore.

Little microagressions like Monique’s are typical of a “covert aggressor.” According to Dr. George Simon, one of America’s leading experts in character disorders, covert agression is defined as “concealing aggressive intent while exploiting someone’s normal sensitivities and vulnerabilities, in order to manipulate that person into succumbing.” It’s the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. Covert aggression is not like passive aggression at all. Rather than reactive, like when a passive aggressor takes revenge for something that she doesn’t like, a covert aggressor is proactive, often setting up a victim for failure, then criticizing him for failing. Often those being manipulated have no idea they are under attack until it’s too late, and they’re left feeling an overwhelming sense of shame or guilt for something they weren’t aware they did wrong. Coupled with sometimes crippling self-reflection, reactions like Karl’s take a mental and physical toll over time.

For covert aggressors, it’s all about winning, so they are constantly in competition with those around them. They always need to feel they have a one-up on everyone else. If they ever perceive their position at the top might be compromised, they must re-assert their position. Rather than starting a fight, as an overt-aggressor would, covert-aggressors set traps and then wait for their victim to fall into them, so they can “win.” For the victim, who often has no idea there even is a competition, let alone that he is in one, it’s a surprise to find himself feeling bad for doing something that, in a normal relationship, would be good.

We all have covert aggressors in our lives. Whether it’s a parent, a sibling, a spouse or a boss, living with a person who feels they have to manipulate people to get what they want is difficult. Anyone who is perceived as a threat will be manipulated until they succumb or leave. People who are neurotic or especially vulnerable or sensitive are typical targets of covert aggressors because they are easier to manipulate.

So how should we deal with covert aggression? Well, if it’s a boss or parents, it’s a little difficult, but Dr. Simon, in his book, In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People, recommends confronting the aggressor directly. If you ask a simple question and they evade it, ask it again and again until you get a straight answer. Accept no excuses. Set strong personal limits; don’t let people walk on you.  If what they say or do makes you feel bad, say so. Above all, be honest with yourself. We all have our own agendas, and being aware of how yours dovetails with those around you will help you get your own needs met in any relationship.

The drive to be successful is in all of us to some degree. The need to understand our own personalities and how we deal with others is a part of our nature. Awareness of problems in relationships and understanding the other person’s perspective is the first step to resolving conflict and getting our needs met. Manipulative people are all around us, and they may not even understand that some people don’t compete, or that they can get what they want by simply asking for it. Have you hugged your bully today?

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