Unmasking Covert Tactics: How to Recognize and Counter Hidden Manipulation

covert emotional manipulation

Ever feel manipulated by forces just beneath the surface, invisible yet influential? Those moments when the intent behind someone’s actions doesn’t seem to match their words? If so, you’re likely encountering covert tactics — hidden strategies used to manipulate thoughts and actions discreetly.

This article offers a roadmap to identifying these tactics, understanding their effects, and equipping you with the means to counter them confidently and effectively.

Recognizing Covert Manipulation in Relationships

Covert manipulation, including covert emotional manipulation, is a confusing and harmful experience, often causing a significant amount of psychological distress for the victim. This manipulation can be disguised as:

  • Concern
  • Love
  • Charm
  • Fake empathy

The tactics covert manipulators use range from the common, such as creating emotional highs and lows, to the more sophisticated, such as false apologies and diversionary maneuvers. Identifying them is important to safeguard one’s mental and emotional health.

As you become aware of what really lies behind certain actions or words, you can start to liberate yourself from oppressive control and reclaim your emotional balance.

Emotional Highs and Lows

Covert manipulators are masters at playing emotional puppeteers, exploiting the vulnerable strings of people’s hearts. They create an emotional rollercoaster ride of highs and lows, deliberately designed to foster an addictive cycle of dependency.

Emotional highs, experienced during the early stages of a relationship or after a manipulator’s positive reinforcement, are periods of intense positive emotion. These are the moments when you feel like soulmates or best friends, with everything seeming too good to be true.

However, following these emotional highs, the manipulator tends to withdraw their attention or approval, leading to emotional lows characterized by feelings of sadness, rejection, or inadequacy.

It’s like a sudden fall from a mountain high; you are left confused and feeling worse than before the relationship began.

Creating Power Imbalance

Power imbalances in relationships may result from one partner having more influence over key aspects of the relationship — emotional, social, financial, etc. — which allows them to gain power.

Such imbalances can often lead to an abusive relationship where the other partner feels helpless and controlled.

Manipulators maintain power imbalances by making the victim feel guilty for wanting to protect their individual interests, controlling communication, asserting dominance through decision-making, or limiting the victim’s access to resources.

This serves to confine the more vulnerable partner, fostering a sense of dependency on the abuser for emotional or financial support.

Love Bombing and Trauma Bonding

love bombing meaning

These are two potent tools in a manipulator’s arsenal. Love bombing is a manipulative tactic where the manipulator showers the victim with excessive affection, attention, and gifts in an attempt to create a powerful bond and gain trust rapidly.

On the other hand, trauma bonding occurs when a strong emotional connection is developed out of a repeated cycle of abuse, devaluation, and positive reinforcement.

For instance, a person engages in verbal attacks, insults, and manipulative behaviors, causing their partner to feel constantly on edge. But there are times when the abuser shows moments of affection, apologizes profusely, and promises to change. The victim’s attachment deepens due to the intense emotional experiences, even though the relationship is toxic.

Gaslighting and Distorting Reality

Gaslighting is a particularly insidious form of manipulation that involves constructing a false narrative, causing the victim to doubt their own perceptions and reality.

Imagine being told constantly that your own perceptions are wrong, that things you clearly remember never happened, or that events you recall as painful were, in fact, insignificant. This is gaslighting, and it’s not limited to romantic relationships; it can also be seen in friendships and familial dynamics.

Manipulators who engage in gaslighting often use selective truth-telling, sharing only parts of the truth and framing themselves in a positive light. This manipulative tactic hinders the victim’s ability to make fully informed decisions since they’re operating on skewed information.

Playing the Victim and Blame Shifting

One of the most common tactics used by manipulators is playing the victim and shifting blame. In these situations, the manipulator redirects responsibility for their actions onto external factors or the victim themselves.

A specific strategy employed by manipulators is DARVO, where the covert abuser denies their behavior, attacks the victim for attempting to hold them accountable, and reverses the roles of the victim and the offender.

The tactic is designed to control the narrative by making the victim appear less credible and the abuser unfairly targeted. Thus, the manipulator tries to avoid responsibility and maintain control.

Silent Treatment and Emotional Withdrawal

Silent treatment and emotional withdrawal are often used as forms of punishment, expressions of aggression, or power moves. These could be avoiding interaction, ignoring the other person’s needs, or physically distancing for hours or even months.

These tactics can be erratic, involving dismissive behaviors such as avoiding eye contact, giving minimal responses, or deliberately engaging in other activities to evade communication. Subtle manipulation is aimed at disorienting the victim and leaving them in a state of uncertainty and doubt.

How to Counter Covert Manipulation

recognize covert tactics

Covert manipulation can severely affect self-esteem and self-worth, leading to constant devaluation. Despite this, it is possible to counteract these manipulative tactics.

Here’s what you can do:

  1. Notice inconsistencies in the manipulator’s actions versus their words to identify their true intentions.
  2. Place trust in your own memory and perceptions rather than doubt yourself due to the manipulator’s gaslighting techniques.
  3. Take firm action against patterns of manipulation by setting boundaries, developing self-esteem, and seeking support from trusted friends or a therapist to gain perspective and validation in dealing with covert manipulation.

Setting Boundaries

Setting healthy boundaries in relationships acts as an emotional fence, allowing you to:

  • Control which responsibilities to accept or decline
  • Protect yourself and maintain sustainable relationships
  • Preserve your emotional well-being
  • Prevent yourself from becoming overwhelmed by taking on more than you can handle

This involves:

  • Saying “no” to additional responsibilities
  • Understanding that you’re not responsible for another person’s emotional reaction to these boundaries
  • Exploring feelings of guilt and obligation, including moments when you feel guilty
  • Having realistic personal expectations
  • Maintaining emotional composure
  • Overcoming emotional barriers
  • Avoiding clouded judgment

By defining and maintaining boundaries, you can reclaim control and resist the manipulator’s attempts to weaken your autonomy.

Building Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion

Cultivating self-esteem and self-compassion play a significant role in countering manipulative tactics.

It’s necessary to be forgiving and understanding toward yourself and assess mistakes objectively. Treat yourself with the same respect and dignity you expect from others.

Some ways to enhance self-esteem include:

  • Changing self-talk to be more positive
  • Engaging in mindfulness
  • Accepting emotions
  • Seeking personal fulfillment
  • Expressing gratitude for oneself

Doing these practices for internal validation rather than seeking approval or validation from external sources also fortifies a sense of self-worth and dignity.

Seeking Support and Sharing Experiences

Seeking support and sharing experiences is an essential component of resisting covert manipulation. You can do so through:

  • Acknowledging shared human experiences
  • Seeking support from trusted friends, family members, or a therapist
  • Joining support groups or online communities
  • Sharing personal experiences without self-judgment

Opening up to trusted people about your experiences can alleviate feelings of isolation and give you a fresh perspective. What’s more, support groups, whether offline or online, can provide a safe space to share experiences and learn from others who have gone through similar situations.

Professional help, such as counseling or therapy, can be instrumental in navigating through the complexities of covert manipulation, too. Mental health professionals can share tools and strategies to deal with manipulation, helping you move toward a healthier, more positive life.

The Dark Triad: Who Are the Manipulators?

covert emotional manipulation tactics

The Dark Triad, a term coined by psychologists, refers to a trio of negative personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Individuals with these traits often disregard the well-being of others and are willing to exploit people to get ahead, typically feeling little guilt for the harm they cause.

Comprehending these traits can provide insights into the mindset of manipulators and assist you in safeguarding yourself from their manipulative tactics.

Narcissism and Manipulation for Personal Gain

Narcissists are often characterized by feelings of superiority, entitlement, and a constant need for admiration. They may initially maintain a facade of humbleness and selflessness to gain trust before exposing their true intent to dominate and control.

When their manipulative behaviors are challenged, narcissistic individuals may reveal their nature through explosive anger and retaliation. The presence of narcissistic traits like entitlement and anger management issues in a relationship can lead to emotional trauma and exhaustion, profoundly destabilizing it.

Psychopathy and Lack of Empathy

Psychopathy is characterized by:

  • Lack of empathy
  • Emotional detachment
  • Impulsiveness
  • Tendency to engage in risky behavior

This lack of empathy and remorse, often due to impaired moral decision-making, is a hallmark of psychopathy and can be a key indicator of covert manipulation tactics.

Psychopaths are seen as cold and unemotional, with an insatiable need for excitement, novelty, and adrenaline-inducing experiences and a disregard for the well-being of others. Despite this, they can be highly intelligent and charismatic, which helps them blend into society while preying on unsuspecting victims.

Machiavellianism and Deceptive Tactics

Machiavellianism is characterized by a manipulative nature and a cynical worldview, where deceptive tactics are used to achieve one’s aims without regard for others.

Behaviors like cheating and betrayal are often observed in those with Machiavellian tendencies and are indicative of their propensity for manipulative communication tactics. In relationships, they frequently engage in manipulative behaviors, including sexual deception and infidelity, leveraging their deceptive skills to exploit partners.

Body Language and Nonverbal Clues of Covert Manipulation

While words can be deceptive, body language and nonverbal cues can reveal a person’s true intentions. Identifying these nonverbal cues is a significant stride toward discerning and countering covert manipulation.

Reading Between the Lines

Reading between the lines involves deciphering the implicit meanings and messages that lie beneath the surface of verbal or written communication. This skill is crucial in detecting covert manipulation, as manipulators often use subtle hints, indirect insults, or hidden messages to influence their victims.

For example, a manipulator may:

  • Make backhanded compliments that seem positive on the surface but contain subtle criticisms or insults
  • Give advice that subtly suggests you are incapable or inadequate without their guidance
  • Use sarcasm or jokes that belittle your abilities or decisions
  • Express support while subtly steering you toward their desired outcome
  • Question your choices or actions under the guise of concern, which plants seeds of doubt in your mind

To enhance your ability to read between the lines, focus on active listening, observing non-verbal cues, and considering the context of the communication. Discrepancies between verbal communication and nonverbal cues can suggest dishonesty or hidden motives, urging you to trust your instincts about perceived mismatches.

It’s not only about what is verbalized but also how it’s articulated and what is left unspoken.

Nonverbal Signals of Covert Abuse

Things like inconsistent or intense eye contact, unexpressive facial expressions, and inappropriate touching can all signal covert psychological abuse.

Covert manipulators may also strategically mirror someone’s posture or movements nonverbally to engender trust or likability.

Awareness of subtle nonverbal cues during interactions, such as slight gestures or facial expressions, is crucial in interpreting covert messages. For example, seeking constant validation while feigning modesty can be a nonverbal indicator of an individual’s tendency for covert abuse.

Breaking Free From Covert Manipulation

breaking free from covert emotional manipulation

Liberating oneself from the chains of covert manipulation demands courage, self-awareness, and a robust support network. Acknowledging that a relationship is damaging and deciding to leave can be considered an act of self-care integral to personal development and well-being.

Identifying Unacceptable Behavior

Unacceptable behavior in a relationship is marked by warning signs, known as red flags, that indicate the potential for emotional, psychological, or physical harm. These red flags can include overly controlling behavior, a pervasive lack of trust, or repeated breaches of personal boundaries.

Persistently experiencing these red flags can lead to low self-esteem, signifying an unhealthy or toxic relationship environment. It’s essential to trust your instincts and not ignore these warning signs. If you consistently feel uncomfortable, undermined, or disrespected, it may be time to reevaluate the relationship.

By pinpointing and addressing unacceptable behavior, you can take the initial step toward liberating yourself from covert manipulation. Keep in mind that you have the right to feel secure, respected, and cherished in your relationships.

Prioritizing Self-Respect and Emotional Well-Being

Sustaining emotional well-being directly influences how we handle stress and interpersonal conflicts. Reasserting personal values and self-worth can help individuals resist manipulative tactics aimed at eroding self-esteem.

Engaging in self-care routines can contribute to preserving one’s dignity and self-respect when dealing with manipulation. Some practices to consider include:

  • Mindfulness
  • Meditation
  • Regular exercise
  • Maintaining a balanced diet

These practices can significantly improve emotional well-being.

Fostering self-reliance reduces the hold a manipulator can have over someone’s feelings and decisions. Detaching emotionally from the manipulator is crucial for regaining emotional well-being. And remember, a supportive network of friends and family can provide the affirmation and validation needed to maintain self-respect in the face of covert manipulation.

Moving Forward and Healing From Abuse

Progressing and healing from abuse is a journey that demands patience, self-compassion, and professional guidance. According to statistics, on average, it takes seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship permanently.

Acknowledge your emotions, understand that it’s okay to feel pain, and give yourself time to heal. Seeking professional help, such as counseling or therapy, can aid in the healing process.

As you move forward, remember to foster connections with your loved ones. Healing from abuse as a human being is not a journey you have to undertake alone.


Covert manipulation can be a complex and challenging issue to navigate. However, by understanding the signs of covert manipulation, recognizing the tactics used by manipulators, and learning to counter these tactics, you can protect yourself and maintain healthy relationships.

Remember, you have the right to be treated with respect and dignity. Don’t be afraid to seek help and support if you need it. You are not alone, and there is always a way forward.


What is covert manipulation?

Covert manipulation is a subtle form of influence that often goes unnoticed, where a person uses deceptive and underhanded tactics to control or harm another person. It’s a form of psychological manipulation with potentially negative consequences for the victim.

How can I recognize covert manipulation?

Recognizing covert manipulation involves understanding a range of tactics used by manipulators, including emotional highs and lows, power imbalances, and love bombing. It also involves noticing the discrepancies between someone’s verbal affirmations and their body language or actions. Be aware of these signs in your interactions.

How can I counter covert manipulation?

To counter covert manipulation, it’s important to act decisively against manipulation patterns, establish boundaries, build self-esteem, and seek support from trusted sources.

What are the Dark Triad personality traits?

The Dark Triad personality traits include psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism, which are characterized by a lack of empathy, manipulation of others, and a focus on self-promotion. Individuals with these traits often disregard the well-being of others and feel little guilt for any harm they cause.

Is it right to check my partner’s phone if I suspect I’m being manipulated?

It’s understandable to feel the need to check your partner’s phone if you suspect manipulation. However, it’s important to approach such situations with sensitivity and respect for privacy.

If you think open communication and addressing concerns directly won’t resolve your doubts, reverse searching the suspicious number from their phone’s call history might provide some clarity.