Domestic abuse may be violent or nonviolent, but its purpose always betrays the abuser's need to regain control and maintain a sense of safety; a victim's well-being is never considered. Many types of overt domestic abuse exist: Physical, emotional, verbal, sexual, and financial abuse are common forms. There's even something called ambient abuse, which happens covertly, doesn't leave obvious bruises or scars, and doesn't consist of overt insults or verbal assaults. It can also be hard to identify (it requires long-term observation in some situations)—and it creates an atmosphere of intimidation, uncertainty, and confusion.
Here are some guidelines to help identify the different types of domestic abuse, so you can, hopefully, make it stop for good. If you (or someone you know) are suffering any type of abuse, the National Domestic Violence Hotline can help.
What is Domestic Abuse?
Domestic abuse occurs when someone in either an intimate or familial relationship tries to gain control over another through a range of abusive behaviors, including violence.
What Is Ambient Abuse?
Ambient abuse is a subtle form of abuse where one partner makes another feel inferior. It's the fostering of an atmosphere of fear and instability through intimidation.
Ambient abuse is covert abuse. It beleaguers victims with fear, duress, and doubt. Direct acts of abuse, such as physically striking someone, is instead replaced by the creation of an emotionally unsafe environment (aka an abusive atmosphere). The covert abuser maintains control by manipulation and threats, gaslighting, invalidation of feelings, mind-game trickery, and comments meant to erode self-confidence. As Craig Malkin, Ph.D., says via PsychologyToday.com, an ambient abuser, "views others more as pawns than people [and] treats them like objects to be toyed with and tossed aside." The abuser’s disorienting actions are often referred to as “crazy-making” behaviors, which disconcert victims and make them feel as if they're going insane but can't pinpoint why.
Examples of ambient abuse include withholding of affection or intimacy, eye-rolling when opinions are expressed, and mocking or criticizing a victim's actions under the guise that it's for their own good just to get the upper hand. Social worker Sheri Heller, LCSW, explains, "By fostering a dependency that creates a power differential, the ambient abuser implies s/he possesses great insight, which will assist the targeted victim in her growth and well-being."
What Is Disproportionate Abuse?
As the name suggests, disproportionate abuse arises when someone reacts too aggressively to a small issue.
It doesn't matter how gently one partner tries to communicate an issue; their S.O. will feel provoked to respond with a temper tantrum of epic proportions. The abuser causes intimidation with their reaction by throwing things, slamming doors, or even screaming and yelling.
The abuser engineers impossible, dangerous, unpredictable, unprecedented, or highly specific situations in which they are needed, depended on, and considered the only source of authority. Consequently, the abuser relinquishes power via perceived indispensability. This creates complete dependence on them—and they will frequently remind the victim of this. Any deviation from their authority may cause them to punish the victim as well.
Most abusers lack empathy. They dehumanize and treat others like objects, extensions of themselves, or instruments to be toyed with. Physical, psychological, verbal, and sexual abuses are all forms of dehumanization and objectification. This elicits detached behavior, and in extreme cases will result in abandonment of their victims, even if they are married or have other legal or binding connections.
Abuse By Proxy
Abuse by proxy is a situation in which an abuser will recruit friends, neighbors, family members, the police, the media, and anyone they can find to threaten, harass, or manipulate their victim into doing what they want. This kind of abuse is often seen in divorce court when an abuser's attorney (and even witnesses) attempt to discredit or punish the victim through psychological abuse and other means of manipulation, such as custody arrangements and child-support payments.