As the #MeToo movement continues to explode, and stories of sexual assault and abuse flood our news feeds, toppling one idol after another, violence towards women has rightly taken a place in the foreground of our public consciousness. With enough commitment, we should keep it there.
But there’s another kind of violence, directed at men and women alike, that isn’t as obvious. It creeps into people’s lives in the form of whispered profanities, subtle put-downs, and simmering rage. It thrives in the shadows, as it always has, wreaking havoc with people’s health, safety, and sanity. Mental health professionals call it “covert abuse.”
Recently, some people worried I was denying the very existence of such insidious abuse when — in an effort to clear up widespread confusion — I wrote a piece explaining that covert narcissism and covert abuse are not, as some bloggers appear to believe, interchangeable terms. But the fact that covert narcissism has falsely become equated with covert abuse doesn’t make the latter any less real. It just means that covert narcissism, when properly defined, doesn’t predict covert abuse.
Briefly, covert narcissism is simply a version of the trait — the drive to feel special — in which people keep their grandiosity hidden and their (apparent) vulnerability on the outside. (Overt narcissism is the loud, arrogant brand, where people wear their grandiosity like a badge and conceal the slightest hint of vulnerability.) At the level of extreme or disordered narcissism — narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD — both covert and overt narcissists are quite capable of either obvious or hidden abuse. Which is why, to avoid confusion, I introduced the terms introverted and extraverted narcissism.
If “covert” narcissists aren’t any more or less likely than overt narcissists to engage in covert abuse, who is?
In the last few decades, researchers have been measuring a cluster of traits ready-made to predict abuse — the Dark Tetrad (formerly Triad), a frankly exploitative, aggressive type marked by four traits: narcissism, best thought of, again, as the drive to feel special; psychopathy, a pattern of remorseless lies and manipulation; Machiavellianism, a cold, chess-playing approach to life and love; and finally, sadism, a troubling tendency to delight in the suffering of others. A quick glance at this cluster is enough to give anyone chills. But some of these traits are patently more dangerous than others.
In decades of studies on bullying and aggression, one aspect of pathological narcissism — EE, or exploitation and entitlement — predicts just about every nasty behavior documented, including physical abuse, chronic lies, and even workplace sabotage. But when it comes to predicting aggression, EE also tends to disappear, mathematically, once psychopathy is thrown into the mix. It’s the correlation between psychopathy and narcissism that makes narcissists dangerous.
Put another way, psychopathy appears to be the biggest driver of destructive behavior, so it’s the blend of psychopathy and narcissism — or psychopathic NPD, often called malignant narcissism — which likely accounts for most bullying and violence in people with Dark Tetrad traits.
What, then, of the quieter, hidden forms of abuse? As you might suspect, it takes a cold, calculating approach to target people secretly with the sole intent of undermining their emotional and physical health. It takes someone who views others more as pawns than people, who treats them like objects to be toyed with and tossed aside — and indeed, that’s what most research suggests.
In studies of bullying, people with Machiavellian traits are more likely to be savvy about how they abuse — and whom they target. This is hardly surprising, since they agree with statements like, “Never tell anyone the real reason you did something unless it is useful to do so,” and “The biggest difference between most criminals and other people is that the criminals are stupid enough to get caught.”
Sadism, cleverly explored in a journal article with one of the best titles ever, “Trolls Just Want to Have Fun,” is the latest trait added to the Dark Tetrad, and since it describes people who take pleasure in pain, it may well turn out to be even more prominent in the profiles of covert abusers. Research already shows that sadists enjoy lurking in online comment sections and social media feeds, anonymously insulting people for fun.
So if you seek to protect yourself from covert abuse — and to enable yourself to see it coming — you’ll want to remain vigilant of the Dark Tetrad traits, especially dead giveaways like a history of shady behavior at work, plotting to “get back” at others, and quick, retaliatory rage.
And by all means, turn to trusted friends and professionals if you’re faced with someone exhibiting Dark Tetrad traits; it takes powerful support to extricate yourself from the grip of these relationships.