Playing the Victim as a Means of Control

One of the most common tactics of a covert, self-focused abuser is that of playing the victim. After all, it gets him a lot of mileage. In the early, “love-bombing” stage of a partnership, claiming to be the victim in a past relationship plays the dual role of creating a bond of empathy within the target while at the same time allowing him to appear sensitive and caring. The target often feels as if she can make up for his past by finally being the one to love him as he deserves. She longs to be the partner he always dreamed about. She also feels as if she’s found a treasure—after all, a man who’s sensitive and caring must also be trustworthy. He’s showing his vulnerability, and so soon in the relationship … This must be true love!


Initially, it’s easy and even comforting to believe stories of his victimhood. Even though an abuser’s tales are typically heavy on slandering those who supposedly mistreated him, the harsh negativity and resentful, seething tone is lost on the enraptured target, who wants nothing more than to comfort her poor, abused new partner.

  • Reflect a pattern, not merely a single instance.

  • Tend to be hypocritical (i.e. he’ll criticize in others the traits he actually represents and reflects).

  • Full of blame. According to him, all the issues and problems in his past relationship were due to the other person. He tried so hard, but his ex was tremendously mean / cruel / cold / abusive / unreasonable / (fill in the blank with a negative word of your choice). And, most importantly, all this is said with a high level of contempt and resentment.

  • Stories often grow and expand over time as he presents himself as more and more of a victim.

  • Heavy on negativity, anger, and malice toward the person who supposedly wronged them.

  • Plays up his sensitivity and vulnerability, easily admitting even the most raw emotions very early on in the relationship.

  • Loves to harp on stories of how bad the people in his life were to him, and never lets it go. Months, years, even decades later … He’s still telling the same stories, still claiming to be a victim.

  • Often seeks to inflict a sense of misplaced guilt onto his target (i.e. “you did this, so now I feel horrible about myself, and my bad behaviour is a result of how you made me feel, so it’s all your fault,” or simply, “you triggered me”).


  • Full of doubt, self-blame, hesitation, and an admittance of when she may have done something wrong—and her stories are not easily told.

  • Focused on sharing what happened in a non-negative but completely honest way, often with inserting such comments as, “but he’s not all bad, he’s done some great things for me, and I made mistakes, too.”

  • A true victim never tells her story except to those she knows she can completely trust. There’s always a semblance of hesitation, and often she holds things back, even with people close to her. She may tell a new partner that she was abused in a previous relationship as a way to explain her hesitancy in moving too fast, but she won’t go into extensive detail until the new relationship is no longer new, but well-established. Even then, she doesn’t focus or obsess over being a victim. 

  • A true victim becomes a survivor. She doesn’t harp on her stories of how others have wronged her, but makes an authentic effort to heal and move forward.

Covert abusers who play the victim love to tell their tale far and wide. Always remember, actions speak louder than words.

If you’re in a relationship with a covert abuser who uses claims of his own victimization as a tool for control, it’s crucial to recognize this tactic. If you don’t, you’ll be prone to falling into a swirl of misplaced empathy, which will result in further entanglement and a dangerous deepening of the trauma bond. (I’ll write more about misplaced empathy in a future post.)

Another reason recognizing this mentality is so important is because, as time goes on and your bond deepens, the relationship will inevitably emerge from the love-bombing stage and into more frequent and intense episodes of abuse. During both the “tension-building” and “explosion” stages of the abuse cycle, accusations of neglect and mistreatment will be hurled at you. Examples may include (but certainly aren’t limited to):

  • You hate me / you don’t love me.

  • You’ve never found me attractive / I know you’re attracted to someone else.

  • You’re cold / cruel / unfeeling / uncaring.

  • You don’t understand me or even try to understand me.

  • You’re so disrespectful.

Those are just brief excerpts of some of the accusations that may be thrown at you, but you get the idea. The point is, in his mind he’s become a victim once again—this time a victim of you and your lack of love, understanding, or respect.

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The danger of these types of personalities is that, because of their distorted thinking and insistence on being right—all the time—they truly believe their own lies. They honestly see themselves as a poor, beleaguered, picked-on and unloved victim.

Because they’ve convinced themselves of this, and because those prone to playing the victim also tend to be black-and-white thinkers (seeing someone as either “all good” or “all bad”), they can be particularly vicious when they feel they’ve been mistreated or disrespected. If you leave such an abuser you’ll be stuck in the “all bad” mode in his mind, so be prepared for a potential smear campaign.

Always remember your true worth, your value, your talents and your beauty. Remember who you are, not who he claims you are. Those are his lies. They’re a reflection of his personality, not yours.

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me! I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works, my soul knows it very well!” (Psalm 139:1,14).

Lately I’ve received quite a few questions about divorce and annulment. To address all the questions, I invited guest blogger Msgr. Charles Pope to re-print his article on my Prodigal Parishioner website.

“What is Annulment and How Does it Differ From Divorce?”

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