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Unveiling Covert Verbal Abuse: How It Can Distort One’s Understanding of Love

Kerry Jehanne-Guadalupe


“In our family, we connect through judging each other.”


“We have to be hard on each other. That is how we express that we care.”


Relationships are complex by nature. Yet, certain verbal and/or behavioral interactional patterns can foster wellness or pain.


I have witnessed how verbal jabs are not only made into jokes and denied for what they indeed are (abusive tactics) but also weaved into one’s concept of love. Verbal jabs can include snubs, insults, smears, rejections, ridicule, consistent teasing, mimicking, recurring put-downs, and habitual sarcastic, critical, or condescending remarks. Such jabs can fall under conscious or unconscious covert verbal abuse, a form of psychological or emotional mistreatment where an individual uses subtle and indirect methods to manipulate, control, or demean another person through verbal communication.


Covert verbal abuse differs from overt verbal abuse, which can be presented as yelling or shouting, name-calling, scorns, slurs, taunts, blaming, humiliation, threats, intimidation, and bullying, all of which would be undeniably violent, cruel, maltreatment of a person or a group.


In contrast, barbs, cracks, digs, and gibes can be more subtle and insidious. They can be presented as a joke, brushed off as witty, but, in truth, are made to hurt the recipient. Gaslighting, blame-shifting, and guilt-tripping can also fall under covert verbal abuse, along with backhanded compliments. Unlike overt verbal abuse, which is more direct and obvious, covert verbal abuse can be challenging to identify because it often involves subtle tactics that may be disguised as harmless or even caring behavior. People can feel like they are loved and not be able to access the source of mental/emotional pain they are experiencing or understand why they have such a low sense of worth and confidence in themselves.


Much like overt verbal abuse, covert verbal abuse can take various forms and may occur in different contexts, such as intimate relationships, families, workplaces, or social settings, and is characterized by a pattern of behavior rather than isolated incidents.


Passive-Aggressive Communication Within Family Systems


Sometimes, covert verbal abuse presents as passive-aggressive communication and backhanded complaints, with a hint of joking around. Such comments can be delivered in a clever or witty manner, yet their purpose is often to undermine or belittle the target without directly confronting them. While they may not be as overtly aggressive as direct insults (e.g., “You are stupid”), such comments can still carry a sting. The behavior is passive because a person is not directly saying what they are feeling, yet aggressive because they indeed intend to hurt the other person.


For example, a parent who says, “Just when I thought you’d never graduate college, look at you,” might really be saying, “Thank God my failure and disappointment of a child finally did something to please me.” The hidden insult or criticism can sometimes create confusion for the child, along with undermining their self-esteem, talents, or achievements in subtle ways.


A child who grew up with a parent who used passive-aggressive comments might have various responses to such a statement. The child might defend themselves and honor their accomplishments, which can be empowering. However, it's still disheartening that they have to defend themselves in the first place.


The child might not push back on the comment because they bought into the belief that they deserve jabs (i.e., punishment) for all the years they never lived up to their parents' expectations. To prevent more judgment, the child might agree, consciously or unconsciously, with the parent and praise the parent: “I am so sorry it took me so long to graduate. You have been wonderful in supporting me. Thank you.”


A common response I have seen is that the child not only agrees with the parent but will criticize themselves to control the judgment coming towards them. “I will put myself down so you will stop.” In such circumstances, self-deprecation is likely to can become a coping mechanism.


The insidiousness of covert verbal abuse might lead the child to be hypervigilant about hidden judgments and the undertones of their parent’s communications to see if they are being shamed or viewed as worthless.


When Covert Verbal Abuse Gets Intertwined with One’s Concept of Love


To me, there is a distinct difference between heart-based love and mental concepts of love. Heart-based love is a transcendent force that connects us to something greater than ourselves. It encompasses a sense of unity and interconnectedness. From this place of unity, love is expressed as acts of kindness, compassion, and selflessness; love involves caring for others and acting in their best interest; love transcends flaws or imperfections; love involves a deep sense of loyalty and support; love fosters emotional connection and intimacy; love involves having positive regard for oneself and others; love includes self-care, self-acceptance, and a healthy sense of self-worth; love nurtures and restores; love cultivates deep affection, commitment, and a sense of companionship; love is stable, enduring and unwavering.


Heart-based love can vary greatly from mental concepts of love. Our concepts of love are usually formed in early childhood, in the first seven years of life. People's concepts of love differ for various reasons, and a combination of factors, including upbringing, family background, and cultural influences, can impact these differences.


For me, my concept of love from childhood included being belittled and made fun of. Love was associated with fear of being yelled at, in trouble for something, and abandoned. Love was linked to conflict, walking on eggshells, and more.


The way individuals are raised, and the dynamics within their families can greatly contribute to their conceptualization of love. Family structures, parental relationships, and the level of emotional support can influence one's expectations and attitudes toward love. People may model their understanding of love and relationships based on what they observed in their families or other significant relationships. If they witnessed or experienced abuse in their formative years, they may perceive controlling or harmful behavior as normal expressions of love.


Cultural influences, such as norms, traditions, and values, can also significantly shape people's understanding of love. Portrayals of love in movies, literature, and popular culture can shape expectations and ideals.


Love is a subjective and complex emotion, and individuals may have unique combinations of these factors, among others, influencing their concepts of love. As a result, there is considerable diversity in how people perceive and express love in their lives.


Confusing love and covert verbal abuse can happen for various reasons, and it often involves a complex interplay of emotions, beliefs, and behaviors. A person may use manipulative tactics to make the people they are hurting believe that controlling behaviors and belittling comments are expressions of love or concern. They may claim their actions are meant to protect the person, showing affection through indirect criticism.


The intertwining of covert verbal abuse with the concept of love can lead to a distorted understanding of what love truly means. Instead of love being supportive, caring, and nurturing, it is marked by covert negativity and disapproval. When covert verbal abuse becomes intertwined with one's concept of love, it typically suggests a problematic and unhealthy dynamic in a relationship. However, I have often witnessed such dynamics being highly normalized within a family structure and, therefore, not seen as unhealthy.


I have heard people share that jabs, to them, are indeed expressions of love. Some have expressed that by picking on someone, they are doing the person a favor; making them a better through criticism. They believe that covert disapproval is a way to express love and that they are actually doing a good job the more they criticize someone. Providing unsolicited feedback, focusing on perceived flaws or weaknesses, and undermining the person's self-esteem is viewed as breaking someone down to build them up. They believe that showing love through covert negativity is the way to feel connected.


When covert verbal abuse is tied into love, anything can become material for jokes; everything is fair game for comment. One can’t make a sandwich, go to work, fix one's hair, or graduate from college in peace. Nothing is left sacred or untouched.


In some cases, individuals who have grown up in environments where love was mixed with covert verbal abuse might develop low self-esteem (i.e., one’s own subjective appraisal of their worth and value). In turn, individuals with low self-esteem may have difficulty recognizing healthy love and may accept covert abusive behavior as a reflection of their worth. They may be more likely to accept or internalize covert verbal abuse, believing they deserve such treatment or that it's a reflection of their value. They might unconsciously believe that covert abusive behavior is a normal aspect of relationships. They may associate love with control, criticism, or punishment.


Normalization can be a powerful standardizer of all sorts of abusive behaviors. Normalization (or becoming accustomed to and validating certain behaviors or situations as standards – normal) can make it harder for the person receiving the abuse to gain perspective on the relationship and recognize the abuse. Normalization may, at times, coincide with denial. Denial can involve blocking out or ignoring the impacts of covert verbal abuse that may be too difficult to accept for someone. This can include denying the existence of covert tactics or minimizing their severity. Normalization and denial of abuse can both serve to perpetuate harmful behaviors and maintain dysfunctional dynamics within relationships. Individuals may convince themselves that the covert abuse is not as serious as it seems or that it is warranted in some way.


Along with normalization and denial, confusion can also perpetuate a pattern of covert verbal abuse. The person delivering the covert verbal abuse may also express love and affection, creating confusion for the person they are abusing and making it difficult to distinguish between genuine love and abusive behavior. It can also be that someone's gut instincts have been damped from long-term abuse. Their innate signals are not informing them that something is off about how they are being treated.


Though jabs are never a healthy expression of love, when they have been incorporated into one’s concept of love, mutual respect, trust, and support may feel foreign and unfamiliar. Differentiating between genuine love and abusive behavior can be a complex process.




The pattern of covert verbal abuse can be left unquestioned. If someone in the family system questions the pattern, challenges the norm, or says, “That hurts,” they can get made fun of and called “sensitive.” The "you-are-just-sensitive" jab can maintain the pattern of covert verbal abuse.


Labeling someone as "sensitive" can undermine, invalidate, or minimize their emotions by implying that their feelings are irrational or unwarranted. It can minimize the impact of covert verbal abusive behavior by framing it as a problem with the "sensitive" person rather than acknowledging the harm caused by the words. It may downplay the seriousness of the situation and can cause the person to feel guilty or ashamed of their emotions.


In some cases, calling someone "sensitive" can be a form of gaslighting, where the abuser manipulates the person into questioning their reality. By labeling someone as sensitive, the abuser implies that the person's perspective is not valid. It can suggest that they are overreacting or being unreasonable, making them doubt themselves and their perceptions.


Calling someone "sensitive" can sometimes shift the blame onto the person by suggesting that their sensitivity is the problem rather than addressing the abusive behavior. Blame-shifting allows the abuser to avoid taking responsibility for their actions and deflect attention away from their behavior.


People who label others as “sensitive” might do so because they have become desensitized to mistreatment or learned to downplay its severity as a coping mechanism for themselves. This desensitization may contribute to them feeling uncomfortable around others who are not desensitized and are in touch with how painful covert verbal abuse can be.


Love-Hate Relationships


Sometimes, covert verbal abuse is present in love-hate relationships, where the hate is disguised under jabs rather than blasted outwardly in strong verbal abuse. A love-hate relationship is typically characterized by intense, conflicting emotions between the individuals involved. In such relationships, the feelings of love and affection coexist with feelings of frustration, resentment, or even hatred. Love-hate relationships are marked by shifts in emotions where a blend of loving support and belittling comments are tightly woven. Individuals may sometimes experience deep love and affection for each other, followed by intense negative feelings, even if the feelings are masked with covert verbal abuse.


A heartbreaking dynamic that I have witnessed as a result of parents having a love-hate relationship is the impact on the children’s concept of love, as well as their view of the parent receiving the covert hatred. In a family where the mother was covertly abusing the father, their children learned to ‘love’ their dad through covert hatred. The children repeated their mother’s behavior and felt they were expressing love by constantly criticizing their father.


It seemed like this behavior was not only the children mimicking the covert verbal abuse but also a way to gain the approval of their mother. I have seen these children seem to gain a great sense of satisfaction when they verbally jabbed their father and then

immediately look to their mother to see what kind of approval they are getting for being abusive. “Look, I am making fun of Dad just like you did – therefore, will you love me.”


In such family systems, I have witnessed the children having difficulty understanding and expressing empathy as well as being desensitized to covert verbal abuse. They might have developed a coping mechanism of living in their head versus living in their hearts so they don't feel the pain in their hearts. This might keep them emotionally distant from their own feelings and may present as a lack of empathy toward others – which, in turn, makes it easier to pick on their family members. Desensitization and the lack of empathy can perpetuate the pattern, as people are not feeling the impact on themselves and others.


The complexity of love-hate relationships can make them difficult to understand. The individuals involved may struggle to explain the contradictory nature of their feelings, especially when they are entangled in one’s concept of love.


The Costs of Associating Covert Verbal Abuse with Love 


The impact of covert verbal abuse depends on various factors, including the frequency, intensity, duration, and the specific circumstances surrounding the abuse. It can cause significant trauma, and individuals may experience it differently based on their resilience, coping mechanisms, and support systems.


Connecting through judgments and being hard on one another can often come with costs. I think of covert verbal abuse as “a death by a thousand cuts:” a slow, gradual, and cumulative process of harm. Each verbal jab may not be overly harmful on its own. Still, the cumulative effect of all the jabs can gradually erode a person's well-being and contribute to feelings of exclusion and alienation.


When these negative verbal interactions become linked with one's understanding of love, it can have several implications. Toxic communication can become normalized to the point that it is not even noticed. Though covert verbal abuse indicates a breakdown in healthy communication within the relationship, it is not always noticed as such. Instead of expressing kindness, respect, and understanding, people may resort to hurtful words that can damage the emotional connection. Yet, they can feel like they are connecting emotionally and expressing love.


Emotional and mental abuse can sometimes not be seen as abuse. If verbal jabs are frequent and intentionally hurtful, they may be a form of emotional and mental abuse. This can erode a person's self-esteem and create a hostile emotional environment, all while it is not being seen for what it is because it is melded into one’s concept of love. Constant exposure to negative verbal interactions can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and feelings of inadequacy, yet get brushed off as “This is what love is.”


Covert verbal abuse can contribute to an erosion of trust in the relationship. When communication is characterized by sarcasm or passive-aggressive remarks, it becomes difficult for people to trust each other and feel secure in their interactions. When hurtful comments become a regular occurrence, believing in the sincerity of expressions of love can become challenging. Yet, lack of trust may be integrated into one's concept of love and, therefore, seen as normal and acceptable.


Covert verbal abuse may create tension and resentment, which might be interwoven into one’s concept of love. The general negative atmosphere of tension can be established as the acceptable norm. One may perceive that interacting with a person who delivers a thousand cuts may have long-lasting negative effects on them, yet view the harmful impact as normal and inevitable. A belief that love hurts can become the standard.


Identity confusion may occur from covert verbal abuse. I have witnessed in family systems where an individual takes the brunt of the verbal jabs that two things may occur. First, the constant criticism, manipulation, and lack of emotional support may lead someone to struggle with feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. They might start thinking they are not good enough as well as the cause of what is wrong in their family. The constant criticism can make it challenging for them to develop a clear sense of self. They may grapple with identity confusion and have difficulty seeing who they truly are.


Second, when many family members have normalized picking on an individual in the family, they can stop seeing the person they are ridiculing in their truth. The person receiving the jabs can start to be seen through the lens of backhanded compliments or put-downs expressed as jokes. An inaccurate perception of someone can form; one that doesn't represent the truth of who they are.


For example, I have witnessed a brilliant individual picked on by their family members for basic, everyday things. A distorted lens of the person was formed: they can never do anything right; they need assistance with the basics. This coincided with a lack of respect for healthy boundaries. Family members offered unsolicited advice and pointed out mistakes or areas where they believed their family member could improve without the family member even asking for input. A lack of boundaries can be tied into one's concept of love.


Approval-seeking behavior and perfectionism may develop. When covert verbal abuse gets intertwined with one’s concept of love, it can lead to people-pleasing behavior and difficulty asserting one’s own needs and desires. Also, one may develop perfectionistic tendencies. They may feel compelled to strive for perfection to gain approval and avoid criticism. They may beat themselves up for not being perfect to avoid the critique of others. These tendencies can appear as a coping mechanism to avoid constant criticism while at the very same time being tied into their concept of love.


As a result of covert verbal abuse, children may develop a fear of abandonment and may go to great lengths to avoid rejection. This fear can make them more likely to tolerate abusive behavior in order to avoid being alone. The fear of losing a relationship can override their ability to stand up against covert verbal abuse. Fear of abandonment can also be associated with love.


Children of parents who used covert verbal abuse may learn to suppress their own needs and desires to avoid conflict or gain approval. They may have a difficult time expressing themselves and communicating effectively because anything they say can be used as a joke against them. This can result in challenges in expressing their feelings and needs in adult relationships. This might lead to misunderstandings and frustration in relationships, yet feeling misunderstood and frustrated might be within one's concept of love.


Individuals who have experienced covert verbal abuse as children may unconsciously repeat harmful relationship patterns in their adult lives. They may be attracted to individuals who replicate the dynamics of their parent's behavior, leading to patterns of toxic relationships. They might have normalized being the recipient of the abuse or, in turn, become the abuser themselves. They may be entering relationships based on their childhood concepts of love. They might not see it as toxic because, to them, love might be equated to being judged, belittled, and eventually abandoned.


It's important to emphasize that while past experiences may contribute to the normalization of covert verbal abuse, it is not an excuse for abusive behavior. Recognizing and addressing this pattern is crucial for breaking the cycle and promoting healthier communication and relationships.


Breaking Free


I honor the difficulty of recognizing unhealthy patterns. Much had become normalized in my upbringing. It was like I knew something was very off, but at the same time, I didn’t know because much had become normalized and then cemented into, “Well, this is just what love is.”


Of course, open communication, empathy, and a commitment to fostering a positive and respectful environment are essential for addressing and resolving unhealthy relational dynamics. Yet, I believe the first step is to recognize covert verbal abuse for what it is: abuse. After it is acknowledged for what it is, I have witnessed time and time again, the transmutation of the trauma endured opens oneself to a heart-based expression of love. Healing the trauma can allow a more heart-based love to bloom.


After naming the abuse for what it is, processing the trauma endured can lead to a sense of self-empowerment. Individuals no longer tolerate verbal slights because their sense of self and self-worth has blossomed. They are able to sense in their hearts the vibrations of words or gestures from others that are laden with harm, regardless of how disguised. With an increase in self-worth and an ability to sense vibrations of words, setting healthy boundaries becomes easier. They are not afraid to challenge the normalized family dynamics, regardless of whether they remain in the family system or are rejected for questioning the norms.


Heart-based experiences of love sometimes coincide with a self-awareness of our own emotions, needs, and boundaries; a greater ability to express our feelings, needs, and concerns openly and honestly; a recognition of our own worth and value, independent of external validation from others. It can foster a sense of feeling more secure in our lives and make it easier to learn new ways of relating and normalizing supportive and safe relationships.




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