Covert Psychological Abuse and the Process of Breaking Free: A Transformative Mixed-Methods Study on Female Survivors of Male Partners

Publication Date



Psychological abuse has been identified as the most pervasive and harmful type of abuse (Geffner & Rossman, 1998; Hamarman, Pope, & Czaja, 2002; Miller, 2006), yet research on the topic has been slow to advance and has predominantly focused on overt forms, such as verbal aggression. The covert forms of psychological abuse (e.g., manipulation and gaslighting) remain largely unaddressed in academic literature due to their inherently insidious nature. However, a growing movement across social media has allowed tens-of-thousands of covert psychological abuse survivors to gain awareness of the dynamics and support from one another. The present study used mixed-methods to pursue an in-depth understanding of covert psychological abuse in romantic relationships. Quantitative measures of psychological abuse frequency, adult attachment style, and differentiation of self were administered in relevant online support groups to glean a descriptive picture of this understudied population. From this group, a purposively-selected sample provided an in-depth understanding of the phenomenon through narrative life story interviews. In this qualitative component, particular attention was paid to formative relational and cultural experiences, the lived experience of covert psychological abuse, and the process of breaking free. Integrating the quantitative and qualitative data allowed for deepened examination of covert psychological abuse in romantic relationships and its enablement in power-over culture (Miller, 1976). Ultimately, this study advocated for increased clinical awareness regarding manipulative dynamics and provided insights into how to better treat survivors of this insidious form of abuse.

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Clinical Psychology (PhD)

First Advisor

Pak, Jenny H.

Document Type





Psychological abuse, Manipulation, Gaslighting, Narcissism


Clinical Psychology | Women's Studies


Public Access: If you attend a college or university, you may be granted access for free through your school library subscription to ProQuest Theses & Dissertations. Copies may be available for purchase via ProQuest Dissertations Publishing https://dissexpress.proquest.com/search.html

Upload File


Embargo Period