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111 Comments (35 Discussion Threads) on “Beware the Covert-Aggressive Personality”

  1. This post confused me because I know someone who exhibits both of these behavioral styles. He has engaged in the kind of helpless dependency you attribute to the passive-aggressive personality. He is also very covertly aggressive, desiring to appear an innocent victim when he is being manipulative and dishonest. How would you describe someone with both of these behavioral styles? Also, what’s the best way to set limits with such people? I have had hours long conversations with this person that have led to nowhere and made me want to scream. A simple task can result in an endless back in forth. At the same, the P/A or C/A in my life is extremely willfull and manipulative. It’s hard to know which side of the guy I’m dealing with. At this point, I am afraid to deal with him in person. We’ve been communicating solely in email but even that led to a disagreement. Oy vey!

    1. Dr Simon, I have been in marriage relationship (11 married and 9 living together, 20 total years) with the most genius man a serious Covert Aggresive. Terrifically mentally and emotionally abusive. I’m needing a counselor in Phoenix AZ, but few seem aware of this devastating disorder. Can you direct me to someone? He cycles through odd personality changes like clockwork all of it bad and directed at me. He is the Poster Boy for a ” wolf in Sheeps clothing. ” spends all his days energy in a mean, manipulative chess game to hurt, manipulate and decieve me. Yet to others who haven’t been slapped by his antics he looks to be so nice, so concerned. Even many who have had harmful experiences, he is such a good manipulator, they seemed dazed and let him have a pass and stay in relationship. I’m not sure he won’t do something covert to harm me, he does put me in dangerous situations and mocks me for my concerns. I have a young child, adopted. His behaviors have reached a crisis point, I can’t tolerate him, he sabotages my parenting, the child even yells at him for how he treats me. He has ruined everything from my vehicle, farm equipment, to entire property. Does it do ANY good calling this person out on the rug as to what they are? I don’t want to stay in this but financially have no outs. I’m old, have a young child, have often debilitating illnesses. I must get him out, just not sure how to move forward and need some local counseling. He has already threatened me if I try to divorce yet I think he wants a divorce but doesn’t want to look the bad guy and wants out with 100% of everything we own. I think He wants divorce yet wants to not physically leave. Who else would he have to abuse? He won’t end issues with his exwife, I suspect he has been cheating with her. He hides and spends money, is super mean if / when I’m I’ll or even just tired. He is explosive, sarcastic, secretive, lying, self centered egotistical, condescending, mean and angry and has lifetime issues with cheating and pornography to name a few. I was so blessed to learn of the wolf in Sheeps clothing, you have described him to a T! He may be worst one ever. Local counsel suggestion is appreciated, most don’t even know about this disorder.

    2. I get asked the question about finding a therapist who “gets it” with regard to these character types more often than any other type of question. The label I use (i.e. “covert-aggressive), while I believe to be the most accurate descriptor, is not an “official” diagnostic category. Still, there are therapists who understand character disturbance, also understand that character disorders occur along spectra of type and intensity, and that there are some people with antisocial, psychopathic, narcissistic, etc. traits but who still don’t qualify for a specific personality disorder diagnosis. And there are therapists who are not only experienced in dealing with these types but who also adopt the cognitive-behavioral-perspective I advocate as well. If you do some inquiring, you should be able to find someone in your area. Alas, it long ago proved impossible for me to maintain a referral roster.

  2. Really good question, KN! In my post, I was trying hard to emphasize key differences in the personality types because there is often so much misunderstanding and misuse of terms. The reality is, however that individuals often have a smattering of personality traits and even if they are so dysfunctional that they might qualify as a personality disorder, they may have features of more than one personality type. So it’s quite possible for someone to have both CA and PA personality characteristics. If the person were simply CA, blowing their cover and having no more of their manipulations is often enough to make them go away. They won’t want to deal with you if they can’t get the better of you, and if they have to deal with you they’re likely to straighten up a bit if they realize you have their number. With individuals that have that active ambivalence about whether to break their dependency bonds as PAs do, then setting limits doesn’t settle things. They simply come back for more and try to goad you into the same sticky, yucky and endless debates. Persons with PA personality characteristics are among the most frustrating to deal with interpersonally because of this dynamic. The key to dealing with them is to make your regard for them as unconditional as possible if you want anything to do with them but to be totally unswayed and unresponsive when it comes to them using their tactics. This sends the message that they can have the engagement and support they want from you but that such regard is a free choice of yours and their ensnarling method of trying to manipulate such a thing is pointless. In time, they can decide whether to have faith in the genuineness of your regard for them and cease the shenanigans.

  3. *MY ex was diagnosed P/Schizophrenic in 01. Underwent testing voluntarily thinking he had Development Disorder of some type. Our son was also in testing at that time to isolate his difficulty which turned out to be ADHD.

    “…. key to dealing with them is to make your regard for them as unconditional as possible if you want anything to do with them but to be totally unswayed and unresponsive when it comes to them using their tactics. This sends the message that they can have the engagement and support they want from you but that such regard is a free choice of yours and their ensnarling method of trying to manipulate such a thing is pointless. In time, they can decide whether to have faith in the genuineness of your regard for them and cease the shenanigans.”

    He never let up trying to ensnare me, probably due to knowing I was exercising my free choice in engaging him during our marriage. He wouldn’t relate to me in any other way. That’s why important family issues and goals were never addressed, he couldn’t see himself as a part of a couple.

    As far as the PA goes, shenanigans never ceased, and in regard to CA, yes there was the pendulum effect I could see in conversations with my ex. It was exhausting, because at the heart of it, I could see nothing I was doing to actually prompt his defensiveness about his worth. But I would try to reassure him of his worth, so he did have me over a barrel for many years.

    When I started having the time and space to think about these things, I could see that he was concerned about maintaining his arsenal, not concerned about his feelings or worth, really. All that was about utility. And if the tools in the arsenal worked, he was in control. Forget about his lack of judgment when dealing with people.
    3 weeks before the divorce was final he used one final attempt at controlling the outcome and my feelings by telling me he would “do himself in but God won’t let him, and that the guilt was too much for him.”
    I told him without hesitation, the truth. I reminded him that if he belongs to God, then he has nothing to feel guilty about, that because he has faith in God that God doesn’t view him as a guilty person anymore. God views him as responsible, but not guilty. Yes, he holds us responsible for what we do, but we aren’t viewed by God as condemned, but in need of making restitution. I told him I did accept his apology, and forgive him. I also told him that I appreciated his forgiveness that I couldn’t go on with the games anymore, that I am emotionally spent, but that is MY deal, MY issue to deal with.
    How unfortunate for him.

  4. Hi Dr Simon,

    I have just finished reading you book ‘in sheeps clothing’.
    My husband and I have just had a fascinating and quite confronting year, as we now realise we were up against n extreme covert-aggressive personality.
    This person came into our lives last year when a core group of owners in our large residential building worked hard to remove a 7 year established building management (the head person who was a sociopath) that made the lives of many residents and owners miserable. We managed to remove this person with over 80% of the buildings support, but were subject to many lies, threats to take us to court etc. However, in retrospect it was relatively painless and easy as the sociopath personality was clearly aggressive and quite disliked by many owners. The biggest surprise was to find out 3 months into this year, that one of the core people we had worked very, very closely with to oust the previous management, and were working with very, very closely with in now managing the building was quietly lying and undermining my husband and I to other owners. I could go through a litany of examples, but suffice to say we were absolutely flabbergasted and disappointed. Firstly, that someone we had probably classed as a friend would do this, and secondly that other people believed some of the things he was saying behind our backs. A lot of people just assume that when someone tells them something that they are telling the truth, and don’t bother to check the facts. He never really attacked us in public himself, but managed to get others to aggressively do his attacking (it was clear the attacks were coming from him, based on the content and also what people told us about what he had said). This guy is very smooth, softly spoken, seemingly caring but completely lying and making things up! We considered moving out of the building, distanced ourselves from the day-to-day managing and weathered the storm. Finally people started seeing him for what he was. Over the period, we (and others) have had, lies propagated, sabotage of facilities in the building, anonymous defamatory emails sent around to many owners, inaccurate complaints to council, so many things — and throughout it all he has been in the back-seat (getting others to do his dirty work) and on the face of it pleasant and nice to us and any others he is attaching covertly (by the way I don’t speak to him anymore, but my husband does just so he can see what may be coming). Without even knowing about your book, one of the other owners who realised very quickly what he was, referred to him as a ‘wolf in sheeps clothing’, this comment and the fact that both building projects and physical property were being sabotaged led me to find your book and the realisation that a covert/passive aggressive personality was involved.
    One thing I must say is that the examples in your book are ‘mild’ compared to what this guy has done. These people are dangerous, not in the least that they can seem so credible on the surface to others. If you are a bit naive, trusting or not involved in the detail, you would find what they say credible.
    We are currently lucky that the attacks have stopped, due to others realising to varying degrees what was going on. The building is now actually progressing on improvement projects, and most of us are getting on well again (him and his wife seem to have decided to stop bothering to sabotage as it stoped working). But we still keep both eyes open for then next attack or manipulation.
    Two questions
    1) We are aware of many things that he has done that we could document or reveal to others and damage his credibility to those that may still see him as having some. Is it sensible to do this — or would it make him want to retaliate? Given things are calmer now we are keen to see things continue that way. But there is always the possibility he will come back with a vengeance next year. Do we try reveal what he is with some of the evidence we have or wait for new attacks and deal with them at the time. For your information, I am reasonably confrontational, my husband is much more amiable and less inclined to talk badly of anyone — his approach has worked well this year as we did not attack back and ‘eventually’ people realised there was no substance to his attacks.
    2) Will someone like this go away or will he come back and try to undermine us/others again? We have got majority owner support in the building (as we focus on actually getting things done, and being positive) but he has a few owners who have swallowed his lies completely. He is definitely stopped trying to sabotage at the moment, but is he just getting his breath for the next assault? Does someone like this know when they are beaten and have lost credibility?

    Thanks for your research and writing in this area
    Sally

  5. Hi George,

    I wanted to say thanks to you. I’ve been sharing some of your articles at a site for dedicated to emotional abuse. They have really helped people to understand more clearly what they are dealing with. I have been encouraging many to come over to this site from there and get informed.

    I also have been going to your site. Is the comments off right now?
    I figured it was but I thought I’d ask just in case.

    I thought I’d ask you this question. Alot of people are asking why when they go get help and look up a therapist there is no listing for emotional abuse as a specialty? One thought was that emotional abuse is so vague… its like a fog a specialist put it. PTSD is the next closest thing.. but as many have found out… you need a specialist. Can you elaborate on this. Sorry its off topic.

    On to topic, I really liked how you used examples in this article it was really on target. I often wondered the same thing as far if there are more of these tpyes than generally agreed upon. It seems to me there is more. I guess covert and under the radar system goes well together.

  6. Hi,

    Desturbing, but true… I am one of these personality types. It is quite an issue for me since I only started deciphering what this is in the last few weeks. (I am 35)
    (seems like there is almost a sense that this personality type has an underdeveloped conscience may be harsh, I know I have one) I would never think of actually hurting another person physically for personal gain, ever. I do seem to “attack” when I perceive my own safety to be under threat…. be it physical, emotional, spiritual… I try and limit these traits for absolute survival and last resort… It is very difficult not to “act out” when I see a chance tho…
    Complex origins? I dont know where this started :-(
    All I know is that it has a name, and I will try harder (seems to become easier with time) to be straight forward. To face this issue is not an easy one, because it means that have to almost adapt to “normal” trains of thought.

    My wife knows this, and still loves me…

    Peace and love,

    Jakes

    1. Jake- may I ask how/when you were able to recognize and acknowledge your behavior? My husband chooses to not recognize the abuse he has bestowed upon me (and kids) in the guise of “helping” us. 20 years of this and i’ve had enough. I have appointment with atty on Monday. Deep inside i know he has the potential to be a good man/husband and we have a comfortable life, but I can’t deal with the deception and cheating anymore despite that I do still love him. But love is not enough anymore. Leaving in all honesty is the hardest thing i’ll ever do. This is not the conclusion I had hoped for but realize he does not want to change his ways.

  7. Hi Jacob,

    I’m impressed you are looking at personality types with an aim to improve yourself. We all have personality issues we are not happy with and it is admirable to be introspective and desire change. I have been very burnt by a personality of this type, the behaviour seems so destructive and unpleasant. And yes I can see how he may have been threatened by some (seemingly relatively minor) differing opinions and by others taking the lead on some things. I don’t have an issue with someone fighting for their point of view, in fact I think it is important as you ultimately get to the best answer. I am personally not very good at dealing with disagreements; I get too emotional and a bit attached to ‘my’ opinion, but can change my view easily if am persuaded differently. It is never pleasant to not be agreed with, but my attitude is that “lets argue the facts” and try to persuade people honestly, or else maybe our opinion is not actually the best/right one (or not strongly good enough to be persuasive) if others cannot be persuaded by it. The problem I have with covert aggressive behaviour is the insidious, deceitful, backstabbing that is completely unacceptable. Unfortunately, it does work to some degree so must be a reinforced behaviour — please don’t interpret that I am saying you or others of this personality type are as bad as they guy we came across. In fact, without the covert aggression he is actually a delightful person (that is hard for me to say but we did consider him a friend before we realised what was going on). He was quite respected in the building before, but he has lost lots of friends and the skills and creativity he did contribute will now never be viewed with out strong wariness (certainly by us and a few other owners here).

    I wish you really good luck and success with the insights.

  8. Dear Sally, You are a kind soul, I can tell.. Thank you for the encouragement, realy.. if I may quote you:”2) Will someone like this go away or will he come back and try to undermine us/others again? We have got majority owner support in the building (as we focus on actually getting things done, and being positive) but he has a few owners who have swallowed his lies completely. He is definitely stopped trying to sabotage at the moment, but is he just getting his breath for the next assault? Does someone like this know when they are beaten and have lost credibility? Thanks for your research and writing in this area Sally” To put it straight forward from my perspective: NO, we ‘don’t’ know, although KNOW that there is a an approaching wall…cul-du-sac if you will. Winning and being beat/won is always a debatable subject in my mind. The person in your letter there may be acting out covert ‘attacks’, but in your case, not in my opinion covert enough ~ If this person knew the other people better(studied them closer), he would not have dissed you like that with the other members, he would cause them to diss you in the first place in some crafted manner. This is not an overnight process, and takes time and fine effort. Greedy people are not the same as covert PT..

    Maybe I am getting the wrong end of the stick here altogether, but I reckon we are roughly talking in the same realms.

    J

  9. Hi Jacob,

    Thanks for the responses and nice words. I think I am reasonably kind (as I assumed that most people are), combined with being pretty straightforward person, which is why dealing with a covet rocked me quite a lot. It was such a different way of behaving to what I imagined was possible.

    Thanks for your answer on whether he will come back. His behaviour was definitely in succeeding in getting others to attach us vs him directly. He did spin a carefully crafted web believe me, its just that this has played out over the past 9 months and we are not so naive as we were at the start. We were at first very confused and bewildered. After a while however, we started putting 2 & 2 together and we and some others figured out what was going on. Continued behaviour and discovery of past behaviour revealed the tactics. He is clever, but when someone even carefully lies and tells untruths, if the people he is attacking don’t go away, it has to becomes clear after a while what is happening — at least to some of the people.

    I see what you mean about ‘Knowing’ whether he is beat or not. I guess that was just hopeful thinking on my part as we seem to have calm weather for the last 2 months at least. There is always an opportunity to play the games as there are many owners left who know nothing of the attacks, but I’m hoping in this instance a lot of the game has been played out and exposed. I can’t see him actually being able to play with such success as previously as many of those he played with are now wise to it.
    Can I ask, you said this personality (you specifically) have a conscience & I do believe this guy has also but must be able to put it aside when threatened in some way. However he has absolutely no qualms in ‘dissing’ as you put it (I say lying and backstabbing :-) on even his best friend to us when it suited him (really bad stuff which caused his best friend not to get something he was working towards — I’ve no idea whether what he said was true or lies!). What goes on in the covert mind to justify this – when they know they are lying? I find it really hard to tell a lie (although of course a few white ones do get through occasionally). Before we realised that this guy was dangerous we used to laugh (nicely) that he wanted everyone to be happy, as even then realised he said different things to different people. We just though he wanted everyone to like him and not upset them by disagreeing with them or challenge their opinion or ideas in any way. I know I get annoyed at people for a range of reasons (believe me I’m no angel) but I just couldn’t bring myself to lie to get my way. It would seem a false victory if I did, I’d rather loose and retain my integrity.

    I’m in Aust so it is sleep time, I will check my email in the morning. Thanks for the communication with me on this topic — it is very interesting (and unfortunately also traumatic) to be victim of this type of behaviour even once. How do you cope living with it (and trying to restrain it) constantly? What do you get out of it?

    Best wishes Sally

  10. Dear Sally..
    Interesting journey …it’s very weird to confront this for me, suddenly having stumbled onto this specific site…I was looking up for someone describing things from my(CPT) perspective, not realizing that a victim’s point of view is indeed more sobering.
    I feel sorry for you having been hurt so badly by this individual. With him, it doesnt sound as if he doesn’t have much internal upheaval regarding another’s feelings. He may also be on medication that can alter the sensitivity of the conscience’s ‘on/off’ switch.. There must obviously be variations to this personality type, but I know for a fact that medication plays a role.

    “It would seem a false victory if I did, I’d rather loose and retain my integrity.” this is what we rely on. Even just that idea, if developed, can spin a victim into a very tight corner.imo.

    Looks like his game is over here. (or maybe I see his ways as course and unrefined…apparently, another trait of ours is to underestimate others)

    “However he has absolutely no qualms in ‘dissing’ as you put it (I say lying and backstabbing :-) on even his best friend to us when it suited him (really bad stuff which caused his best friend not to get something he was working towards — I’ve no idea whether what he said was true or lies!). ”

    There would be “show” of qualms at least. If i was to diss someone behind their back, I would let it come from the person Im dissing to.

    It depends here what the lie is about, and when in the game it occurs. It is usually the truth told from a simulated viewpoint as that of the dissed(primary victim). One has to merge your own vision/dream with a *dream(*positive hopes for the future) of the victim, to experience their happines and project it back to them in a way that they are reminded of themselves fondly(with charm)… and weaving a long term goal that may very well be mutually beneficial after all, is also a desired outcome, if not an intention. In the end one can say it may not all be a negative thing. Merits here to each case individually, see what I mean?
    I cannot speak for this person, but that is what I would be doing in a case like that. People are generally greedy creatures(I find), and thats a great flaw to exploit imo.
    If he did something to affect his friends life negatively on purpose, just because he can, I believe he has no conscience. This is where I differ from him I reckon. I could not hurt someone in a malicious fashion that I care for, willingly/knowingly.

    Maybe this specific guy borders on sociopathic. I dont relate to some of the things he does, he doesnt, also , sound extremely smart like some of the like minded people I know.
    If he played a game with these tactics, then he was losing from the get-go. To be able to succeed I feel a person has to be at the very least patient. Maybe there was a deadline(if only in his head)
    J

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