Asked in Abusive FamiliesPost Traumatic Stress Disorder
What is ambient or stealth abuse?
September 13, 2011 1:51PM
This is a very tricky tactic used by an abusive person to make you crazy. Since ambient abuse can not sometimes be visible the victim may believe they are so bad and or are going nuts. The abuser may want to isolate their victim from other people as they provide the partner with reality checks such as feedback and reference points. Since their main goal is to de-stabalize the victim's reality they try to ruin these "outside influences." They may gossip about their partner to people in a manipulative manner such as pretending to be concerned for their well being as their partner is acting a little nuts. They wont give there self away to other people, they are calculated in their interactions. People may start to wonder about the partner as the ambient abuser fills their minds with distortions and the abuser apparently my come across as a nice person.
Ambient abuse is the stealth, subtle, underground currents of maltreatment that sometimes go unnoticed even by the victims themselves, until it is too late. Ambient abuse penetrates and permeates everything - but is difficult to pinpoint and identify. It is ambiguous, atmospheric, diffuse. Hence its insidious and pernicious effects. It is by far the most dangerous kind of abuse there is.
It is the outcome of fear - fear of violence, fear of the unknown, fear of the unpredictable, the capricious, and the arbitrary. It is perpetrated by dropping subtle hints, by disorienting, by constant - and unnecessary - lying, by persistent doubting and demeaning, and by inspiring an air of unmitigated gloom and doom ("gaslighting").
Ambient abuse, therefore, is the fostering, propagation, and enhancement of an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, instability, unpredictability and irritation. There are no acts of traceable explicit abuse, nor any manipulative settings of control. Yet, the irksome feeling remains, a disagreeable foreboding, a premonition, a bad omen.
In the long term, such an environment erodes the victim's sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Self-confidence is shaken badly. Often, the victim adopts a paranoid or schizoid stance and thus renders himself or herself exposed even more to criticism and judgment. The roles are thus reversed: the victim is considered mentally deranged and the abuser - the suffering soul.
There are five categories of ambient abuse and they are often combined in the conduct of a single abuser:
I. Inducing Disorientation
The abuser causes the victim to lose faith in her ability to manage and to cope with the world and its demands. She no longer trusts her senses, her skills, her strengths, her friends, her family, and the predictability and benevolence of her environment.
The abuser subverts the target's focus by disagreeing with her way of perceiving the world, her judgment, the facts of her existence, by criticizing her incessantly - and by offering plausible but specious alternatives. By constantly lying, he blurs the line between reality and nightmare.
By recurrently disapproving of her choices and actions - the abuser shreds the victim's self-confidence and shatters her self-esteem. By reacting disproportionately to the slightest "mistake" - he intimidates her to the point of paralysis.
The abuser gradually and surreptitiously takes over functions and chores previously adequately and skillfully performed by the victim. The prey finds itself isolated from the outer world, a hostage to the goodwill - or, more often, ill-will - of her captor. She is crippled by his encroachment and by the inexorable dissolution of her boundaries and ends up totally dependent on her tormentor's whims and desires, plans and stratagems.
Moreover, the abuser engineers impossible, dangerous, unpredictable, unprecedented, or highly specific situations in which he is sorely needed. The abuser makes sure that his knowledge, his skills, his connections, or his traits are the only ones applicable and the most useful in the situations that he, himself, wrought. The abuser generates his own indispensability.
III. Shared Psychosis (Follies-a-Deux)
The abuser creates a fantasy world, inhabited by the victim and himself, and besieged by imaginary enemies. He allocates to the abused the role of defending this invented and unreal Universe. She must swear to secrecy, stand by her abuser no matter what, lie, fight, pretend, obfuscate and do whatever else it takes to preserve this oasis of inanity.
Her membership in the abuser's "kingdom" is cast as a privilege and a prize. But it is not to be taken for granted. She has to work hard to earn her continued affiliation. She is constantly being tested and evaluated. Inevitably, this interminable stress reduces the victim's resistance and her ability to "see straight".
IV. Abuse of Information
From the first moments of an encounter with another person, the abuser is on the prowl. He collects information. The more he knows about his potential victim - the better able he is to coerce, manipulate, charm, extort or convert it "to the cause". The abuser does not hesitate to misuse the information he gleans, regardless of its intimate nature or the circumstances in which he obtained it. This is a powerful tool in his armory.
V. Control by Proxy
If all else fails, the abuser recruits friends, colleagues, mates, family members, the authorities, institutions, neighbours, the media, teachers - in short, third parties - to do his bidding. He uses them to cajole, coerce, threaten, stalk, offer, retreat, tempt, convince, harass, communicate and otherwise manipulate his target. He controls these unaware instruments exactly as he plans to control his ultimate prey. He employs the same mechanisms and devices. And he dumps his props unceremoniously when the job is done.
Another form of control by proxy is to engineer situations in which abuse is inflicted upon another person. Such carefully crafted scenarios of embarrassment and humiliation provoke social sanctions (condemnation, opprobrium, or even physical punishment) against the victim. Society, or a social group become the instruments of the abuser.
Addendum (by a different poster) VI. Cliques of Bullies
Of course, ambient or stealth abuse and manipulation can exist in the context of any kind of relationship and intimacy whatsoever. However, sly abuse of power and underhanded manipulation, with bizarre paranoid malicious gossip and all manner of Sadistic instigators and their eager and foolish proxy pawns, are only all the easier given distance, even shunning and social isolation as experienced by targets of relational bullying and harassment, scapegoats, dissidents and whistleblowers.
In my view, creating a climate of rivalries via unfinished relationsips - such as the allegedly estranged wife the narcissist hangs onto but claims "nothing" is going on, while simultaneously being inappropriately involved considering the relationship is allegedly defunct; failing to disclose & openly conduct what is supposed to be the narcissist's current and primary relationship; insisting on communcating with past girlfriends and making it known one is doing so while agreeing this is not appropriate given narcissit's betrayals, but breaking such agreements; betraying trust by returning to past girlfriends - and so forth, is an example of what is termed "ambient abuse" because an adept and persuasive liar finds excuses and various reasons to explain away all of the above, while continuing to undermine what is supposed to be a primary relationship (and refusing to relinquish such relationship even when caught betraying trust).
The end result is a supposedly primary relationship built on nothing but lies, deceit, betrayal, complications and a pervasive atmosphere of fear in the form of intense insecurity.
The individual caught in this web of intrigue is naturally hypervigilent and afraid because nothing makes sense. Meanwhile, the narcissist inists "black" is "white".
An empty guarantee is often worse than none at all. Bound by exclusive fidelity, never reciprocated, the hapless partner of such a Narcissistic playa becomes only the more isolated and in the dark. The manipulative abuser has not only locked out any possible competition that might press fair value and dignity, but craftily enlisted the mark in the desperate and lonely effort.
Husband to wife: You think you have friends?! Our friends are courteous people. They don't tell you how ridiculous they think you are, but they tell each other...and I've overheard comments. You don't have any friends; just people who feel sorry for your ignorance. People merely tolerate you out of a sense of kindness and feeling sorry for your pitiful appearance and your ridiculous ideas. Perhaps you should practice keeping your mouth shut...and while you're at it, take a look in the mirror. If that looks good to you, you're really more messed up than they think you are. Rather than embarrass me further, why don't you just stay at home so I don't have to be seen with you. After all, I would like to have friends who don't avoid me, just because they don't want to be around you or be put in a position where you're imposing on their patience and tolerance. It might be a good idea for you to consider seeing a psychiatrist. Maybe a professional could get through to you. I'm tired of trying to get through to you. You're just too far gone for me to be able to help you by telling you the truth about yourself. If you don't believe me, that's proof enough that you're beyond help. Why can't you be more like other women I enjoy being around? Do you really think it's attractive to be so boring and stupid?... but you really aren't capable of seeing the truth beyond your fairytale world, are you? You really are a mental case. You're lucky I'm so devoted to our marriage vows...or you'd be on the street. Do you think any other man would have you? Do you think you'd have even friends who pretend to be interested, if I put you out of my house? If you don't have the ability to see beyond your own warped truth, at least, appreciate the fact that I let you stay here...at least, for now. You have a roof over your head, clothes on your back and food in the kitchen. What more do you want? That's gratitude for you!!
I have experienced this several times with different individuals before I realized my pattern and finally found a true friend to marry. Whatever I contributed to the household was never good enough. We could have something that was perfectly edible but he would go out of his way to get a different brand of the same food...and complain about what I brought into the home. Never really saying anything directly to me but just constantly making sure I knew that his preferences were different...and superior. The constant disregard or "forgetting" of my likes and dislikes. "Oh yes that's right; you don't like mushrooms. Well, there's plenty of the sidedish." My husband had a desk job and used to go to work and call home to check on me or tell me what to do or monitor my progress according to what he thought should be done. So annoying.
Your letter mentions "ignoring my intuition". It's odd, because in my two+year relationship with an abuser, I often had feelings of dread and foreboding. Each time I was correct in those feelings, though I did indeed see him those times when he would call, drunk, and ask to see me. My gut was telling me to run in the opposite direction, but I didn't. And each time, there was drama-fights and abuse. There were times when I turned around and went home without seeing him, and I am certain I avoided trouble. In the final months, when he would call and I would return to him, almost immediately I felt sad and wanted to cry. Even if things were good for a week, or two, or three, I knew that nothing would really change. If I ever tried to discuss anything that upset him, he became angry. His apologies were always in some way my fault. Enough is enough. Nothing will change, unless I take the first step-I left him last week. As the Stabbing Westward song goes "If I must be lonely, I think I'd rather be alone". Be strong. Thanks for your input. Beverly I've experienced stealth abuse in my past two relationships, and am now addressing it and becoming healthy again. Neither of these relationships involved the classic abuse pattern (controlling behavior, extreme jealousy etc) but both were abusive none the less.
I'm 22 now. The first relationship was when I was 18, with a person a good friend of mine set me up with. He had been interested in me, and I thought he was sweet and that I'd give him a chance. I knew something was wrong but ignored my intuition -- he was immediately very intense about the relationship, talking about marriage and whatnot. He idealized me to the extreme, which I was uncomfortable with, but also routinely tore me down and criticized me, so I felt sad and confused. He also pressured me about sex. A few months into the relationship, he had sex with me against my will. I did not see him any more after that, but did try to resolve things through e-mail, which was a huge, unproductive mistake. There was no resolution with him-- he changed from idealizing me to completely devaluing me, calling me names, telling me I said and did things which in reality were his actions(!), implying I was delusional and making things up because I was in love with him, that he had the power. It was a nasty shock to me that there are really people like that out there.
The violation was my first experience having sex.
I began another relationship a year and a half later, after I'd spent a significant amount of energy dealing with my last experience and felt ready to have a positive relationship. This time it was my choosing, not a set-up, and I resolved to be true to myself. I felt comfortable enough with my partner to tell him what had happened sexually in my last relationship, and was glad that he seemed so respectful about it. He also respected my space and was reasonable and un-intense. However, several months into my relationship with him he launched into a speech about how he had dated a sexual assault survivor before, and I was similar to her and must act in certain ways because of my experience, and he felt sorry for himself for being burdened with that, and he had more power in the relationship because of it, and I would surely become co-dependent etc. He took a deep vulnerability I had shared with him and threw it back at me.
I should have walked away without looking back. But I felt threatened and scared, and sexually insecure.
He apologized later, and I believed him and continued trying to have a relationship with him. But I found that I was scared to express my emotions to him. He acted closed off and refused to have intercourse with me, and it was an executive decision rather than something we discussed together. This made my fears about sex much worse, and it didn't do much for my self esteem either. I felt completely humiliated, and that I would never be able to have a healthy relationship. He was physical with me but isolated me emotionally. When we talked about everything that had been happening between us emotionally, and started having open communication and moved into a forgiveness and resolution process, we did make love together-- my first real experience ever. But less than a week later, he cheated on me by having a threesome with my coworker and her boyfriend.
I also found out that he had cheated on me with an old girlfriend for several months, and concealed this information from me. He even got tested for HIV knowing that his results might not be fully accurate, deciding the risk was low enough to risk my health.
So, I haven't dated anyone who fits the classic abuser profile, but I've dated some pretty mean dudes.
And I am someone who is very ashamed of my relationships, and very ashamed that I let all that stuff happen to me, so I don't talk much about it. As you will see I'm even anonymous here. I feel pathetic. I feel like I should have stood up for myself and trusted my gut, walked away and made self-loving, self-respecting choices. But I will now! I learned a lot of hard lessons in a relatively short period of time.
It breaks my heart when I think of how many people are being abused. Stay strong everyone.
I am or have been in a relationship just like this. Except it's things like my tone of voice. Example I had my "work voice" on instead of my normal voice so he cut the conversation off. Or he'd say I was listening but that he didn't listen (like there's a distinction some how). Offer to buy me a new bar-b-que but take it off my child support payments. And he only takes 2 out of the 3 kids (the last one is an infant) and he doesn't have the room in his apartment to take all three. But maybe he'll think about taking her on the weekends when he doesn't take the others. So I never have a childfree weekend (there's 5 children in total here). Everything is on his terms.He wants the kids to call him every night so he feels needed but frequently hangs up on them because they didn't talk to him (they're only 2 and 4 years old). If he has the kids and knows I'm going to be renovating the house he'll call several times over the weekend to see if I'm done yet, and how lonely he is. And if he knows that I'm doing something for the kids like make them a quilt or paint the room or something special for them that's going to be a surprise, then he'll tell them that he has a surprise for them. And he'll make comments like oh you must be bored if you're doing that... They're very subtle comments but they're constant. Daily really. And everything, everything is always my fault. It's terrible and he's not even here!! If i don't answer the phone then he'll either call every 15 minutes or else he'll stop by unexpectedly with a coffee. Very intrusive. Even neighbours have come over because he's asked them to stop by and "see how I'm doing". Heaven forbid if someone comes to visit!! I even get intrigated when people park their cars across the street from my house. the neighbours are just being polite saying oh there's this type of car parked outside of the house, she must have company. But if he doesn't recognize the car then the phone starts ringing and the comments come flying. He even questions things I sort through and give to the goodwill. It's a nightmare really. But at least he's no longer living in the house anymore so the physical violence, and intimidation is gone.
My self confidence and sense of self is began to diminish in December of 2004. Now I have only a vague idea of what I think I have become. I�ve all but given up my identity and in some way made myself an extension of his personality. I realize from my past that I�ve always had weak ego boundaries and domineering personalities allow me to be more submissive, less confrontational and unwilling to make waves in the interests of �getting along."
I have a 2 year old daughter and she continues to witness her father constantly calling me names like that are denigrating, or having reference to filth. I'm sometimes sworn at in an appareant attempt to 'get my attention' As if I weren't listening in the first place. The outbursts were never this strong and not as frequent. We used to have fun together, now we just pass each other in the house, with me hoping I don't provoke him into another rage or another intense lecture. I'm always given instruction or directions when he leaves the house, as if I wouldn't know what to do with my time if he weren't around. It's hard to really put a finger on the abuse itself because it usually happens in a lot of different scenarios at a lot of different times. Most times, he makes it seem as though if I hadn't provoked him, he wouldn't have yelled or lost his cool or what ever. I guess, if I had to compare it to anything, it's a little like living with a slightly senile person who remembers some things, but not others. He finds you comical to torment and even if you tell him his behavior hurts you, he says things like, "I don't know what you mean." "Exactly when did I do anything that hurt you". If you come up with specific examples, they say, "I don't remember that." Then you sit there like a fool trying to find an incident he does remember and then he says you're just overreacting to an incident and pushes it off on your interpretation of it. And they honestly, honestly don't remember the incident the way that you do and if you ask them, they will tell you a completely different story in order to distract you from your true intent which is to engage them in dialogue. It is really hopeless.
I've told him several times that if he is not happy with me, he may leave at anytime. The house and the business I started are in my name alone. He owns the car. I hide within myself when he's around and I don't like to sleep with him. We don't have sex anymore. I can't stand it.
I thought it was me. I thought I was being ungrateful and picky. I made excuses for his behaviour, "because he came from so far away to see me (us) and he was working so hard to save up the time to come and visit". I began a long distance romance with a firefighter in California. It was the biggest mistake I have ever made in my life. Slowly, my sense of self-worth was eroded by this needy, manipulative, narcissistic man. Obviously, I was a sitting duck. Separated and trying to raise two boys. He just slipped in under my radar. Arguments were pointless because he had a special way of making me feel like I was the crazy one. When I refused outright to allow him to help with my mortgage, his use of the words stubborn and ungrateful were like he was swearing at me. When I refused his offer of a new microwave, he went down to the breaker box and disconnected the connection (unbeknownst to me). When my old, faithful microwave suddenly stopped working, there he was with a new one. When I put a downpayment on a new door for my entranceway, he secretly went back to the store and paid it all off. This is typical behaviour for a man in the early stages of abuse - he wants to make himself indispensible. When he expressed an interest in disciplining the boys, I told him if he had issues with the boys, to discuss them directly with them, but that I was going to handle discipline. He then went on a rant about how the job of a step-parent was thankless and that I was not supporting him in his hopes of being a good father figure. We were not married/living together and I didn't consider him as anything more than "the boyfriend". He wanted to adopt the boys and when I pointed out that their father would never give up his parental rights (and had no reason to), once again, I was not being supportive. He would shame my sons into tears and be proud of it. He raped me anally when I was pregnant with our daughter and then told me I had imagined it. How do you imagine anal violation? When I wanted my daughter to have a hyphenated last name, he ranted and raved about hauling me into court and taking her away from me (she was 10 days old). He shared my innermost thoughts and feelings about my family with my brother and sister-in-law and denied that he had. He told my neighbours he couldn't refuse my request to have a baby (that I trapped him into it). He told friends that I expected him to quit his job in California and move to Canada. At that point, I was grateful for the time away from him...why would I want him to come here fulltime? When I wanted to return to school after the baby, he offered to help financially, but somehow, the money just couldn't make it from California to Ontario. Mysterious. He claimed he didn't have a checking account. Enter the financial control. Yuck. When I think about the things he did to me sexually, the hurt he caused, the humiliation. He used to tell me, "You need this". I haven't been with a man since I kicked him out 3 years ago. Don't want sex. I want to heal mentally and physically.
He had to go. He started to tell me that no one else would want me. That who else would come from so far away? I started not to care. He still watches my house. I am sure he is responsible for at least 90% of the hangup phonecalls we get. He comes to visit my daughter and uses her as an excuse to shadow me. My lawyer just doesn't get it. I guess this form of abuse is just too subtle for his brain.
This story is just a short version of the months of crazy-making behaviour I have experienced at the hands of this nut. We are still trying to wash off the "dirt" he brought into our home. Please, please listen to your instincts. If you find yourself making excuses for someone's bad behaviour, stop. It is NEVER EVER your fault. Does he scowl at you to make you behave in a certain way? Give you the silent treatment? Does he insist on taking you to appointments and picking you up? This guy was insulted when my therapist didn't want to talk to him. Like he had the inside track on my thinking...Does he show up even when you tell him you will make your own way home? You cannot change him. If he promises he will when you threaten to leave, just leave. He will not change. Above all, don't get sucked back into his game. He will just make you crazy all over again. Women deserve so much better than this. Be strong. Stand up for yourself. Believe in yourself. There are good, helpful people out there. Women's Shelters and Sexual Assault Centres are good places for support. Calling a Crisis Line can get you in contact with other sources. I found this website interesting - although some of the messages are not very helpful.
Now with all that said, i want to address the 5 categories I read above:
1. Inducing disorientation: I am still in the process of going over all the things that may have caused this in her. Although i supported her in all her endeavors, i failed to tell her. I told my friends how great she was in handling dilemmas, but it should have been her i told. I did make her doubt her decision from the past but I did not use lying as a tool. I used my black/white perception (which is changing). I did encourage her to pursue her dreams in her sport and life. But I did not do it consistently.
2.Incapacitating: I do not believe i did this, although she is the one who can answer this best. I would help her if she needed help, but I did not see her as a hapless person who needed me to do everything for her. Although i did try to offer advice on certain situations and how to handle them in order to make things easier for her (she works hard and I was attempting to alleviate some of the burdens).
3.Shared Psychosis (Follies-a-Deux): I live in the real world so i do not see this as a factor. I did not perceive "imaginary enemies" other than those I have actually encountered in real-world situations, which she was no where near. The ones I faced were real and if any of you have been in the "Sand Box" you will understand. I did test her integrity and loyalty, which i hold as a creed. I showed her complete loyalty and integrity, i would never violate that and would expect the same. I do not believe in flirting, cheating, or any other way that would make her doubt she was the one I loved.
4.Abuse of Information: I was allowed access to her email and phone records and I did look at it. Just as i offered her access to mine so she could have peace of mind if she wanted it. I abused that and now see it as an invasion of privacy that I should not have done.
5.Control by Proxy: The only times I have "recruited" anyone was to talk to her. She is angry with me and if she could hear from others I believed that she would listen to a third party. I did not prod, cajole, or script anything. My friends are just that, friends, and they saw how devastated I am and asked if they could do anything. All I asked is if they had anything to say, to just call her and talk. But I do not dump them.
There is no doubt i did some wrong things, probably a lot in her view (which is what counts the most). But the fact now is she is devastated and I am to blame for that. With her bringing this up to me, I am able to look at the harm I caused. I am hoping that it is not too late, because now that it is out in the open, I can see it and do something about it. Whatever changes i need to make are not impossible now that they are in full view in my eyes. They are changes i will make in order to make right what I have done wrong. I know deep inside that these are things that are not impossible but rather "common sense". Her fear is that i will revert back to the same thing, but the real truth is I am going to revert back to the original person she first met and fell in love with. I can remember her smile and laughter and beaming love and that is what i wish more than anything to see again. Her trust in me is not going to happen right away, and i understand that and accept that and the only thing that is left to do is show her these changes and keep showing her over and over. Maybe one day she will accept me and believe in me again. Now that i have been shown the outcome of my actions, it is my responsibility and duty to her to show her how much she means to me and never fail her again. And i would expect of her to not take any "crap" from me and tell me so.
This is a topic I so desperately need to do research on to build a battered woman's case in a law-suit with my battering ex-husband's sister (she is his defender and enabler and traitor to battered women. . Her brother once beat someone up with a baseball bat the guy was in intensive care, but Valerie has stated in legal documents she is "proud to be an enabler" (and supposedly the defender of family honor...the one who makes more money that all of us and can therefore "save" us all". Anyhow, I barely have time for all the research but I would love to hear from any and or all of you on my message board. There is so much perception here of the subtle treachery. Anyhow, I really want to mention that long ago I wondered how to detect an abuser (after I came out of an abusive childhood wwith a cruel mother who tried to kill me in a car accident over a lollipop I asked for) and many years later I could spot an abuser plain as day in borad daylight. One of thee most prevalent characteristics of these men is that at FIRST they make the most obvious public displays of their interest (how inappropriate...intimacy is private, not public). They try to occupy the heights of public life while they attempt to conquer you. You'd almost cower in the grocery store in submission if you didn't realize how despicable this type of "courtship" is. They do it in public at first because the odds are you are not going to publicly embarrass him or yourself. Public domination is almost a guarantee you'll "be nice". So I've had to defend myself in public plenty and not feel the slightest bit guilty over the fact that I've saved myself from this type of public exploitation where I have no choice except to be "nice". You're out there trying to work and take care of personal needs...you're not out there to "socialize" or make friends. You already have plenty of friends, you socialize plenty, your time is your time whenever you choose it. The fact that you are walking in broad daylight does not mean you are an open door they can walk through. One more thing....lets not confuse when "nice guys" are just nice just to be nice. Not everyone who is nice means he wants to jump into bed. And that works both ways. I've had plenty of guys think I meant more than I did just because I meant to be polite and "nice."
I should certainly hope that not all solicitation of third party consultation or even of intervention outright automatically constitutes abuse by howsoever unwitting proxy! I'd even hope that all public attention of any sort whatsoever does not automatically constitute manipulation by deliberately creating awkward tension and invading privacy. I certainly hope that there can be allowance for interest and support. Otherwise, I might need to invest in a portable cone of silence! The concept of stealth abuse is not of simple misunderstanding but of something intentional and devious.