I have this friend, a person who has several qualities I still — and probably unreasonably — admire. There’s drive, adventurousness and a seemingly unquenchable thirst for seeing the world in my friend. We used to travel together, it was our shared passion. And it was hell: I now believe that my friend is a covert aggressor. Here is the story from my point of view. Some lessons I have learned and what I would do differently today will be covered in another post: Traveling with the Covert Aggressive — Part 2.

I’d like to think of myself as a fairly well-socialized person. I believe that (most) people are inherently good and follow a shared set of principles; that humaneness, fair treatment, communication, understanding, common goals and the power of compromise are the firm foundations of any solid interpersonal relationship. If you lean more on the cynical side of the sliding scale of idealism vs. cynicism, you might say I am a bit of a sucker.

The Covert Aggressor

Covert aggressors are differently wired (for more on what a [covert] aggressive personality is, see [1]). For them, it is ALL about winning and the immediate gratification of their needs. It’s about power and control and their need to maintain a position of dominance. When they feel their dominance threatened or see their needs as unmet, they WILL fight aggressively to get what they want. And the tactics that they have learned to best achieve their goals are often sly and underhanded. They wield wit and charm, instrumentalize anger, keep you off-balance, cast themselves as the victim of others and of circumstances, all the while attempting to veil their intentions and keep up a facade that reflects positively on their image.

Some Literature on the Subject

Another friend of mine with a background in psychology recommended George Simon’s books to me after I told him that I did not understand what had happened.

They were quite enlightening to read, particularly with regard to my own misconceptions of how people behave and why they might behave the way they do. In Sheep’ s Clothing provides a good introduction:

George K. Simon, In Sheeps’ Clothing, Parkhurst Brothers Publishers Inc; Revised ed. edition (April 1, 2010)

The author also maintains a blog on the subject at www.drgeorgesimon.com. Here is a big thank you to him; I understand better now.


If you are normally disposed, you likely won’t know that you are being attacked or what has hit you until the attack is in full swing. And your conventional notions of social behavior might not help you — they certainly did not help me. Your attacker is NOT neurotic or unawares of their actions. They know exactly what they are doing and the potentially harmful consequences it will have on your emotional health. They just don’t care. Their immediate needs trump everything: empathy, conscience, even their own best long-term interests.

Traveling Together

Traveling together, as a pair or in a larger group, is a commitment. This holds especially true for the more adventurous type of vacations. You are essentially stuck with each other for a couple of weeks, have a joint itinerary and will most likely exasperate each other at some point or another.

You are also moving out of your comfort zone, leave behind your usual support structures and are free from the constraints of everyday life. If you do it alone, this breeds self-reliance. When you do it with somebody else, building increased mutual trust, respect and reliance is not just the objective, it is a necessary antecedent to truly enjoying your vacation. As you get to know your travel companion — the good and the bad — you also get to learn about the power of compromise, acceptance and friendship. Ideally, that is.

The Crux of the Matter

And here, we come to the crux of the matter. Mixing traveling together and a covert aggressor, you get a volatile and unpleasant concoction. You have just put yourself in a position to rely on a kind of personality who does not value compromise in the slightest, who jockeys for dominance in any interpersonal relationship, and expects their every need and desire met without any consideration for other people. They also abhor having to rely on anybody — if they have to and feel their dominance threatened, they will almost immediately attack to reassert themselves and regain the advantage.

An Example 

Let me illustrate this behavior with one example from a trip I took with my friend a couple of years ago. This was a time when I was emotionally particularly vulnerable: my father had passed not too long ago and I was trying to make amends for what I considered at the time a cruel lapse of character on my part. So, I was ripe for what was to come — in fact, I might have been done in by a strange need for atonement through (self-)punishment.

Illusions of a Happy Reunion

Airport Reunion

When my friend and I met up to spend the last two weeks of a five week adventure traveling together, I was glad to see my companion and looked forward to the next days. There might have been a slight hint of emotional neediness in my friend, and I was happy to comfort that need — Stage 1: Sucking You In.

Beware the First Signs

Pretty soon, the assertive process began. After two or three days, the clues appeared. Withdrawal, cold-shouldering and selective attention were deployed against me. I was suddenly met with sullenness and what felt like unspoken accusations. Raising the subject led to evasion, gently pushing the subject to feigning ignorance and physical withdrawal from the discussion under a pretense. I let it slide. After all, I thought, three weeks of traveling solo meant that my friend just needed a little time to adjust. Plus, maybe it really was me, I thought, maybe grief still had a hold on me. She was also quite charming and vulnerable when she chose to talk to me — Stage 2: Unbalancing You and Establishing the Rules of Engagement.

Folding When You Should Stand Firm

The only “high point”, according to my friend.

At that point, my instincts told me that something was amiss. And although I should have been able to, I could not quite recognize what it was. So, I intellectualized it away. Still, the feeling remained, and I tensed up. I tried to relax and concentrate on the fun day trips we had planned.

This worked for a bit, but once I expressed that I was really having fun and was grateful to be able to share this adventure, I was met with cold reserve and the accusation the I was “strange”. Thinking that maybe I was, I made the mistake of sharing the grief I still felt over my dad’s death. What I got back was strangely dispassionate advise on how to handle the situation. Unwittingly I had just put myself in a position of weakness and self-doubt. A cardinal mistake with a covert aggressor: once you appear to be inferior, the last bit of respect vanishes — Stage 3: Establishing Dominance.

Mistaking Aggression for Neurosis 

A day trip by myself.

With that, my resistance must’ve seemed to have been broken. It followed arbitrary changes to our itinerary — I didn’t really care — further accusations of my “strangeness”, reclusive behavior from her and a cancelled day trip for “some alone time”. When my friend returned from a day at the spa — while I had roamed the the local sights alone — and I greeted her, the reply I received was an angry: “I told you I needed alone time — why are you talking to me?” I still did not realize that I was being fought, stupid as that may sound. Instead, I chalked it down to my friend’s underlying wounds (which she had talked about at length) and the resulting insecurities and commitment-phobia. In other words, I was naive and a sucker steeped too deep in the Freudian — Stage 4: Wielding Power Arbitrarily.

Being a Good Man Won’t Shield You 

And then there was the thing with the credit card. ATM reliability can be be spotty when you explore the world. For some reason or another, my friend’s credit card worked only some of the time. She was clearly uneasy and reluctant to rely on me. I had little qualms about lending her the money — she had always been reliable at paying me back. But having to borrow from me obviously unsettled her. I can relate, I’d also rather not have to rely on somebody else for money.

Even though I assured her that that’s just what friends are for, my friend’s mood darkened. In the end, it seemed as though she was actually angry at me for lending her a couple of Euros. And that, in turn, unsettled me so that after a couple of attempts at making light of the situation, I actually spilled my coffee down my shirt.

I told myself not to worry: Being a good friend, an upright man, would be enough to soothe her concerns and her fear of having to rely on someone. Yet, now, I think there was never any fear. She just REALLY disliked being in a position where I could possibly have any control or dominance over the situation. So, she went on the offensive again. My intuition told my body that I was under attack, that I was being put on the defensive, the stress made me tremble, resulting in a coffee stained shirt — Stage 4a: Defending Control Aggressively.

The End of My Usefulness

We had originally planned to spend the last couple of days of our vacation on a road trip. And then, on the day we were to set off, right before leaving for the airport to take our final regional flight, it happened:  she changed plans again. She had booked the car and the accommodation — so she might as well just do the road trip by herself, she said, and I could see how I would spend my time. I was uninvited. There would be no discussion.

Sitting on the dock of the bay, contemplating what had happened.

That was enough! I thought to myself: Two can play at this game. So, for about two hours, I would not talk at all, checked in at the airport by myself and went for a coffee. When my friend approached me at the airport, her face was apologetic, her voice soft — the words an attack, nonetheless. She told me my behavior on the ride over had been asocial, we could’ve sat next to each other on the airplane. I was flabbergasted. She rationalized her decision with the need for “more alone time” but was otherwise civil.

I should’ve smelled something cooking, but by that time I was shellshocked and bewildered by the whole thing. I just thought that a little bit of firmness had maybe caused her to reflect on how let down I must have felt.

The truth, alas, was more mundane: On landing, she checked until she had found a working ATM, with me in tow — and once I was of no immediate use anymore, she sped off in the rental while I lugged my stuff to the bus for a ride into town — Stage 5: Devalue and Discard.

One Last Attempt

I made one last attempt to resolve the situation then and there. When we met for the flight back, I tried to talk it out. But what came back was more of the same: She told me that she was obviously a most empathetic person and that she understood my needs. However, she could not address my needs at all because she had only energy to look after her own needs. Plus, I was the unempathetic and unsympathetic one, the villain.

Seriously, I am not a villain. But at that point, I was so confused, exhausted and hurt that I was probably neurotic.

Villains and Victims, Abusers and Enablers

This, of course, is my view of what happened. It is necessarily clouded by pain, consternation and disillusionment. I am sure if you asked my friend, you would hear a very different version.

As painful as it was and as much as it damaged my conceptual model of people, however,  it was also a good learning experience. Yes, I felt and still feel abused — something I thought would never happen to me. But putting some false ideas to bed is actually beneficial, isn’t it? There really are people out there who don’t function like the rest of us, who have little qualms about using others. They don’t suffer from neurosis and don’t need to be rescued. They may not be evil per se, but we have to stand up for ourselves when we come face to face with them.

Are they ALL villains? No, I don’t think all of them are. But they are ill-socialized and (severely) character impaired. They fight dirty and underhanded, with little empathy or conscience. If you think they are worth it, stand up to them, establish firm boundaries, confront them without anger. If, in your opinion, they are not, shun them and walk away.

They will not change unless they want to — and that will show in their actions. You, however, cannot make them change. So don’t waste energy on that. Their redemption is their responsibility, not yours. Don’t waste energy on revenge, either. In the long run, they will — hopefully — bring themselves down. Because only then, I believe, can they begin the long, hard and sweaty path to building character. And to becoming a wellspring of happiness for themselves and others.

Home: A warm word holds enough warmth for three winters.

My friend — or former friend, I fear — is not a perpetrator and I am not a victim,  there was no crime committed. But my friend is an abuser and I was her enabler. I could, at any moment, have put a stop to my abuse if I had just listened to my instincts and walked away. It was my faulty thinking on loyalty, neurosis and conscientious actions that kept me around as much as her aggressive tactics. I simply was a bad judge of character. I may still be: I believe that there is still so much potential for good in my friend.

In part 2 of this post, I will go into what I would do differently today.

Thank you for reading! If you have any input, insights, criticism or just want to sound off, leave a comment below.

[1] George K. Simon, In Sheeps’ Clothing, Parkhurst Brothers Publishers Inc; Revised ed. edition (April 1, 2010)



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