By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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.
One 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.
Abusers often use other people to do their dirty work for them. These – sometimes unwitting – accomplices belong to three groups:
I. The abuser’s social milieu
Some offenders – mainly in patriarchal and misogynist societies – co-opt other family members, friends, and colleagues into aiding and abetting their abusive conduct. In extreme cases, the victim is held “hostage” – isolated and with little or no access to funds or transportation. Often, the couple’s children are used as bargaining chips or leverage.
Ambient abuse by the abuser’s clan, kin, kith, and village or neighborhood is rampant.
II. The victim’s social milieu
Even the victim’s relatives, friends, and colleagues are amenable to the considerable charm, persuasiveness, and manipulativeness of the abuser and to his impressive thespian skills. The abuser offers a plausible rendition of the events and interprets them to his favor. Others rarely have a chance to witness an abusive exchange first hand and at close quarters. In contrast, the victims are often on the verge of a nervous breakdown: harassed, unkempt, irritable, impatient, abrasive, and hysterical.
Confronted with this contrast between a polished, self-controlled, and suave abuser and his harried casualties – it is easy to reach the conclusion that the real victim is the abuser, or that both parties abuse each other equally. The prey’s acts of self-defense, assertiveness, or insistence on her rights are interpreted as aggression, lability, or a mental health problem.
III. The System
The abuser perverts the system – therapists, marriage counselors, mediators, court-appointed guardians, police officers, and judges. He uses them to pathologize the victim and to separate her from her sources of emotional sustenance – notably, from her children.
Forms of Abuse by Proxy
Socially isolating and excluding the victim by discrediting her through a campaign of malicious rumors.
Harassing the victim by using others to stalk her or by charging her with offenses she did not commit.
Provoking the victim into aggressive or even antisocial conduct by having others threaten her or her loved ones.
Colluding with others to render the victim dependent on the abuser.
But, by far, her children are the abuser’s greatest source of leverage over his abused spouse or mate.
Abuse by proxy continues long after the relationship is officially over (at least as far as you are concerned). The majority of abusers get the message, however belatedly and reluctantly. Others – more vindictive and obsessed – continue to haunt their ex-spouses for years to come.
These are the stalkers.
Most stalkers are what Zona (1993) and Geberth (1992) call “Simple Obsessional” or, as Mullen and Pathe put it (1999) – “Rejected”. They stalk their prey as a way of maintaining the dissolved relationship (at least in their diseased minds). They seek to “punish” their quarry for refusing to collaborate in the charade and for resisting their unwanted and ominous attentions.
Such stalkers come from all walks of life and cut across social, racial, gender, and cultural barriers. They usually suffer from one or more (comorbid) personality disorders. They may have anger management or emotional problems and they usually abuse drugs or alcohol. Stalkers are typically lonely, violent, and intermittently unemployed – but they are rarely full fledged criminals.
Contrary to myths perpetrated by the mass media, studies show that most stalkers are men, have high IQ’s, advanced degrees, and are middle aged (Meloy and Gothard, 1995; and Morrison, 2001).
Rejected stalkers are intrusive and inordinately persistent. They recognize no boundaries – personal or legal. They honor to “contracts” and they pursue their target for years. They interpret rejection as a sign of the victim’s continued interest and obsession with them. They are, therefore, impossible to get rid of. Many of them are narcissists and, thus, lack empathy, feel omnipotent and immune to the consequences of their actions.
Even so, some stalkers are possessed of an uncanny ability to psychologically penetrate others. Often, this gift is abused and put at the service of their control freakery and sadism. Stalking – and the ability to “mete out justice” makes them feel powerful and vindicated. When arrested, they often act the victim and attribute their actions to self-defense and “righting wrongs”.
Stalkers are emotionally labile and present with rigid and infantile (primitive) defense mechanisms: splitting, projection, projective identification, denial, intellectualization, and narcissism. They devalue and dehumanize their victims and thus “justify” the harassment or diminish it. From here, it is only one step to violent conduct.
Domestic Violence and Abuse statistics – Click here
Before we proceed to outline the psychological profile of the stalker, it is important to try and gauge the extent of the problem by quantifying its different manifestations. More plainly, studying the available statistics is both enlightening and useful. Contrary to common opinion, there has been a marked decline in domestic violence in the last decade. Moreover, rates of domestic violence and intimate partner abuse in various societies and cultures – vary widely.
It is, therefore, safe to conclude that abusive conduct is not inevitable and is only loosely connected to the prevalence of mental illness (which is stable across ethnic, social, cultural, national, and economic barriers). There is no denying that the mental problems of some offenders do play a part – but it is smaller than we intuit. Cultural, social, and even historical factors are the decisive determinants of spousal abuse and domestic violence.
The United States The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) reported 691,710 nonfatal violent victimization committed by current or former spouses, boyfriends, or girlfriends of the victims during 2001.
About 588,490, or 85% of intimate partner violence incidents, involved women.
The offender in one fifth of the totality of crimes committed against women was an intimate partner – compared to only 3% of crimes committed against men. Still, this type of offences against women declined by half between 1993 (1.1 million nonfatal cases) and 2001 (588,490) – from 9.8 to 5 per thousand women.
Intimate partner violence against men also declined from 162,870 (1993) to 103,220 (2001) – from 1.6 to 0.9 per 1000 males.
Overall, the incidence of such crimes dropped from 5.8 to 3.0 per thousand.
Even so, the price in lost lives was and remains high. In the year 2000, 1247 women and 440 men were murdered by an intimate partner in the United States – compared to 1357 men and 1600 women in 1976 and around 1300 women in 1993.
This reveals an interesting and worrying trend: The number overall intimate partner offences against women declined sharply – but not so the number of fatal incidents.
These remained more or less the same since 1993!
The cumulative figures are even more chilling: One in four to one in three women have been assaulted or raped at a given point in her lifetime (Commonwealth Fund survey, 1998).
The Mental Health Journal says:
“The precise incidence of domestic violence in America is difficult to determine for several reasons: it often goes unreported, even on surveys; there is no nationwide organisation that gathers information from local police departments about the number of substantiated reports and calls; and there is disagreement about what should be included in the definition of domestic violence.”
Using a different methodology (counting separately multiple incidents perpetrated on the same woman), a report titled “Extent, Nature and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey”, compiled by Patricia Tjaden and Nancy Thoennes for the National Institute of Justice and the Centres for Disease Control and published in 1998, came up with a figure of 5.9 million physical assaults against 1.5 million targets in the USA annually.
Profile of a Stalker
Stalkers have narcissistic traits. Many of them suffer from personality disorders. The vindictive stalker is usually a psychopath (has Antisocial Personality Disorder). They all conform to the classic definition of a bully.
Before we proceed to delineate coping strategies, it is helpful to review the characteristics of each of these mental health problems and dysfunctional behaviors.
I. The Narcissistic Stalker
The dramatic and erotomaniac stalker is likely to show one or more of these narcissistic traits:
Feels grandiose and self-important (e.g., exaggerates accomplishments, talents, skills, contacts, and personality traits to the point of lying, demands to be recognised as superior without commensurate achievements);
Is obsessed with fantasies of unlimited success, fame, fearsome power or omnipotence, unequalled brilliance (the cerebral narcissist), bodily beauty or sexual performance (the somatic narcissist), or ideal, everlasting, all-conquering love or passion;
Firmly convinced that he or she is unique and, being special, can only be understood by, should only be treated by, or associate with, other special or unique, or high-status people (or institutions);
Requires excessive admiration, adulation, attention and affirmation – or, failing that, wishes to be feared and to be notorious (Narcissistic Supply);
Feels entitled. Demands automatic and full compliance with his or her unreasonable expectations for special and favourable priority treatment;
Is “interpersonally exploitative”, i.e., uses others to achieve his or her own ends;
Devoid of empathy. Is unable or unwilling to identify with, acknowledge, or accept the feelings, needs, preferences, priorities, and choices of others;
Constantly envious of others and seeks to hurt or destroy the objects of his or her frustration. Suffers from persecutory (paranoid) delusions as he or she believes that they feel the same about him or her and are likely to act similarly;
Behaves arrogantly and haughtily. Feels superior, omnipotent, omniscient, invincible, immune, “above the law”, and omnipresent (magical thinking). Rages when frustrated, contradicted, or confronted by people he or she considers inferior to him or her and unworthy.
II. The Antisocial (Psychopathic) Stalker
APD or AsPD was formerly called “psychopathy” or, more colloquially, “sociopathy”. Some scholars, such as Robert Hare, still distinguish psychopathy from mere antisocial behaviour. The disorder appears in early adolescence but criminal behaviour and substance abuse often abate with age, usually by the fourth or fifth decade of life. It may have a genetic or hereditary determinant and afflicts mainly men. The diagnosis is controversial and regarded by some scholar as scientifically unfounded.
Psychopaths regard other people as objects to be manipulated and instruments of gratification and utility. They have no discernible conscience, are devoid of empathy and find it difficult to perceive other people’s nonverbal cues, needs, emotions, and preferences. Consequently, the psychopath rejects other people’s rights and his commensurate obligations. He is impulsive, reckless, irresponsible and unable to postpone gratification. He often rationalises his behaviour showing an utter absence of remorse for hurting or defrauding others.
Their (primitive) defence mechanisms include splitting (they view the world – and people in it – as “all good” or “all evil”), projection (attribute their own shortcomings unto others) and Projective Identification (force others to behave the way they expect them to).
The psychopath fails to comply with social norms. Hence the criminal acts, the deceitfulness and identity theft, the use of aliases, the constant lying, and the conning of even his nearest and dearest for gain or pleasure. Psychopaths are unreliable and do not honour their undertakings, obligations, contracts, and responsibilities. They rarely hold a job for long or repay their debts. They are vindictive, remorseless, ruthless, driven, dangerous, aggressive, violent, irritable, and, sometimes, prone to magical thinking. They seldom plan for the long and medium terms, believing themselves to be immune to the consequences of their own actions.
III. The Stalker as a Bully
Bullies feel inadequate and compensates for it by being violent – verbally, psychologically, or physically. Some bullies suffer from personality and other mental health disorders. They feel entitled to special treatment, seek attention, lack empathy, are rageful and envious, and exploit and then discard their co-workers.
Bullies are insincere, haughty, unreliable, and lack empathy and sensitivity to the emotions, needs, and preferences of others whom they regard and treat as objects or instruments of gratification.
Bullies are ruthless, cold, and have alloplastic defences (and outside locus of control) – they blame others for their failures, defeats, or misfortunes. Bullies have low frustration and tolerance thresholds, get bored and anxious easily, are violently impatient, emotionally labile, unstable, erratic, and untrustworthy. They lack self-discipline, are egotistic, exploitative, rapacious, opportunistic, driven, reckless, and callous.
Bullies are emotionally immature and control freaks. They are consummate liars and deceivingly charming. Bullies dress, talk, and behave normally. Many of them are persuasive, manipulative, or even charismatic. They are socially adept, liked, and often fun to be around and the centre of attention. Only a prolonged and intensive interaction with them – sometimes as a victim – exposes their dysfunctions.
Zona M.A., Sharma K.K., and Lane J.: A Comparative Study of Erotomanic and Obsessional Subjects in a Forensic Sample, Journal of Forensic Sciences, July 1993, 38(4):894-903.
Vernon Geberth: Stalkers, Law and Order, October 1992, 40: 138-140
Mullen P.E., Pathé M., Purcell R., and Stuart G.W.: Study of Stalkers, American Journal of Psychiatry, August 1999, 156(8):1244-9
Meloy J.R., Gothard S.: Demographic and Clinical Comparison of Obsessional Followers and Offenders with Mental Disorders, American Journal of Psychiatry, February 1995, 152(2):258-63.
Morrison K.A.: Predicting Violent Behavior in Stalkers – A Preliminary Investigation of Canadian Cases in Criminal Harassment, Journal of Forensic Sciences, November 2001, 46(6):1403-10.