Beware the Covert-Aggressive Personality

The covert-aggressive personality employs a potent one-two punch: the covert-aggressive conceals aggressive intent to ensure you never really see what’s coming; and he or she exploits your normal sensitivities, conscientiousness and other vulnerabilities to manipulate you into succumbing.

Covert-Aggressive Personalities are the archetypal wolves in sheep’s clothing that I introduced in my first book, In Sheep’s Clothing. These individuals are not openly aggressive in their interpersonal style. In fact, they do their best to keep their aggressive intentions and behaviors carefully masked. They can often appear quite charming and amiable, but underneath their civil façade they are just as ruthless as any other aggressive personality. They are devious, underhanded, and subtle in the ways they abuse and exploit others. They have usually amassed an arsenal of interpersonal maneuvers and tactics that have enabled them to effectively manipulate and control those in relationships with them. The tactics they use are effective because they simultaneously accomplish two objectives very effectively:

  • The tactics conceal obvious aggressive intent. When the covert-aggressive is using the tactics, the other person has little objective reason to suspect that he is simply attempting to gain advantage over them.
  • The tactics covert-aggressive personalities use effectively play on the sensitivity, conscientiousness, and other vulnerabilities of most persons — especially neurotic individuals — and therefore effectively quash any resistance another person might have to giving-in to the demands of the aggressor.

So, it’s this one-two punch of the tactics: never really seeing what’s coming, and being vulnerable to succumbing to them, that’s at the heart of why most people get manipulated by them.

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A good example might be the case in which a wife confronts her husband about not spending as much time as she would like him to with the family. He might retort that he constantly feels as if unreasonable demands are being placed on him by her (casting himself as the “victim”), that he works hard to provide for his family but no one seems to appreciate it (casting himself as the suffering, under-valued servant), and that she never has anything good to say about him and is always complaining (using the techniques of shaming and guilt-tripping). Within moments, the woman’s good intention to correct a problem in family relationships is now framed as a heartless attack on an unappreciated devoted husband and father. If the wife buys into the tactics, she will be successfully manipulated. She won’t see the situation as one in which she is in a relationship with a person who puts his own desires and his career first and his family second. In fact, she might not view him as an aggressor at all and may even come to believe that she is the unjust attacker. She’ll probably relent and remain under her partner’s dominance and control.

Now, as you can see from the preceding example, aggressive personalities that use such tactics to bring potential adversaries to submission are anything but passive in their interpersonal styles. Yet for years many have erroneously applied the label “passive-aggressive” to such behaviors. I wrote about this in a prior post: “When Passive-Aggression isn’t Very Passive”. Furthermore, personalities such as the husband described in the example above are very different from the kind of personalities that are appropriately labeled passive-aggressive personalities. The eminent researcher Dr. Theodore Millon describes passive-aggressive personalities as having an “active-ambivalent” pattern of relating to others. That is, they are very ambivalent about whether to adhere primarily to a staunchly independent mode of conduct or to rely primarily on others to tend to their emotional needs. As a result, they engage in a continuous pattern of vacillation between the two extremes. Ask them where they want to go for dinner and they will tell you to decide. Pick a place and they will complain that they don’t really like it that well and don’t want to go there. Invite them to pick a place of their own liking and they will complain that they asked you to decide. Tell them of another preference and they will be lukewarm to your suggestion. It goes on and on. Therapists who treat passive-aggressive personalities know this kind of scenario well. Their client will pelt them with pleas for assistance. But when the therapist recommends a course of action, the client will come up with ten reasons why he or she can’t do what the therapist prescribes. When the therapist throws up his or her hands in exasperation, the client will wail and complain that nobody cares. It’s a horribly self-defeating vicious circle of ambivalence.

As you can see, covert-aggressive personalities are very different from passive-aggressive personalities, and they are anything but passive. They are very actively aggressive personalities who know how to keep their aggressive agendas carefully cloaked. Dealing with them is like getting whiplash. You don’t know how badly you’ve been taken advantage of until long after the damage is done. They are, perhaps, the most manipulative of all personalities with the possible exception of the psychopathic (alt: sociopathic) personality — the subject of an upcoming post.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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