Have you ever been the target of abuse by proxy? If you have, you know it’s a very confusing and emotionally draining experience. Abuse by proxy occurs when one person is abused by another who uses someone else to intimidate and threaten them.
It can be tough to deal with abusers who use individuals close to us, like family members, friends, or even our children, to make threats or carry out intimidation attempts on us. Here’s a breakdown of what abuse by proxy means and suggestions for how to handle it if this happens to you.
What Does Abuse by Proxy Mean?
Abuse by proxy is a form of abuse that involves one person hurting another person by abusing someone close to them. The most common type of abuse by proxy is child abuse—when a parent or caregiver abuses a child in some way. This can include physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
It can also occur when an older sibling abuses their younger siblings, when an older child abuses a younger child, or when a parent or caregiver abuses another adult who lives with them (like their spouse).
Abuse by proxy can occur in any relationship where one person has power or authority over another. It is most common in families where the abuser is a parent or caregiver; however, it can also occur between spouses or partners who share an intimate relationship.
How Common Is Abuse by Proxy?
Abuse by proxy can happen to anyone. It’s not just a problem for marginalized or disenfranchised people, though it does happen more frequently to those groups of people. It can affect anyone who allows themselves to be put in a position where they’re vulnerable to being manipulated and controlled by someone else.
Abusers often seek out new victims. They may try to find them elsewhere when they can’t find them in their social circles. In some cases, abusers will target family members or other close friends who are emotionally close to the person they want to abuse and then try to manipulate those family members or friends into doing the abuse for them.
Abusers are often controlling and manipulative. They may use threats, intimidation, or other emotional abuse to control their victims. But they also frequently use other people to carry out their actions — whether those people realize it or not.
For example, an abuser might have a friend or relative who allows him to stay at her house even though she knows he has a history of domestic violence. Or an abuser might tell his victim that if she leaves him, he’ll take the children away from her — then threaten to report her for child abuse when she doesn’t let him see them as often as he’d like.
A person being abused by proxy may not realize what’s happening until it’s too late. And even if he does figure it out, he may be afraid to confront the person abusing him in case it makes things worse instead of better.
If you’re being abused by proxy, you should know that help is available for you — even if your abuser isn’t willing to seek treatment on his behalf.
What Are the forms of Abusers in Abuse by Proxy?
Abuse by proxy is a form of abuse in which one person is abused by someone the victim trusts. It can involve:
- Abuse by a carer. Carers are responsible for looking after people who need help with daily tasks. They may be paid to do this, such as nurses or care home staff, or they may be friends or family members helping out for free.
- Abuse by an intimate partner. Abusers often use physical violence against their partners and children.
- Abuse by an ex-partner. If your ex-partner has abused you, you may feel scared when they contact you or hear about them contacting someone else. This could be through phone calls or texts, emails or social media messages, or even letters through the post.
- Abuse by a stranger. If someone makes you feel unsafe or threatened by following or stalking you, it’s classed as abuse. This could happen when someone follows you on public transport, watches your house from outside, comes near your workplace, or live without permission.
Who can be affected? Anyone can experience abuse by proxy if they have contact with an abuser – including friends and family members of the person being abused.
How to Know if Your Child Is a Victim of Abuse by Proxy?
If you’re a parent, you may be concerned that your child is being abused by someone else. Here are the most common signs of abuse by proxy:
The child may have bruises or cuts on his arms and legs, and there may be signs of physical assault, such as burns, scars, or broken bones. The child may also show neglect by being underweight or malnourished since the abuser often deprives him of food to punish him for misbehavior.
The child may withdraw from friends and family or exhibit excessive fear around them. He may act aggressively toward others to get their attention and help him escape his tormentor.
If the abuser is sexually assaulting children, they will likely show signs of sexual trauma, including sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and pregnancy, before they reach puberty or adolescence (since their bodies are not yet fully developed).
How Do You Know if Someone Is Abusing You by Proxy?
It can be difficult to determine whether you’re experiencing abuse by proxy. Abusers tend to be very manipulative, and they will often isolate their victims from others in an attempt to control them.
If you suspect that someone is abusing you through manipulation and isolation, it’s important to look for the following signs:
- You feel extremely fearful and anxious about something that makes no logical sense to others.
- You’re experiencing physical symptoms that don’t appear related to any medical condition, such as headaches, stomach aches, or back pain.
- You have unexplained injuries or bruises.
- Your abuser threatens to harm your loved ones if you don’t do what he wants or if you try to leave him.
- You feel helpless because there’s nothing you can do to stop it — your abuser is more powerful than you are.
What Are the Characteristics of an Abuser?
People who abuse other people are not always obvious. They can come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and genders. But there are some common characteristics that many abusers share. Here are some characteristics of an abuser:
- Justifies their actions by blaming others for their problems. For example, an abuser may say that they do not have a problem with alcohol or drugs but that their friends do.
- Has trouble controlling their anger. The abuser may become angry when they do not get what they want and may lash out at other people verbally and physically when angry.
- Uses threats and intimidation to control others. Threatening to hurt someone’s pets, family members, or friends can make them feel frightened and unable to leave the relationship with the abuser.
- He is selfish and self-centered; he always puts himself first, no matter what happens. They are only concerned about his needs and not anyone else’s needs in the relationship.
Abusers also use some tactics to maintain power and control over their victims. These include:
- Isolation – Keeping victims away from friends and family members who may offer support or challenge abusive behavior.
- Blame shifting – Transferring responsibility for abusive behavior onto the victim.
- Minimizing/denying abuse – Making light of incidents of abuse or otherwise failing to acknowledge that abuse has occurred.
- Gaslighting – Manipulating situations so the victim is always wrong, making them doubt their perception of reality and sometimes even their sanity.
- Threats – Using intimidation and fear to keep victims in line with an abuser’s wishes.
The characteristics of an abuser are varied and can be used by anyone. So, the sooner you identify them, the sooner you can stop the abuse.
What Is the Impact of Abuse by Proxy?
The effects of abuse by proxy can be as devastating as direct physical and sexual abuse. They may be even more devastating because abusers often use psychological manipulation to gain control over their victims and make them feel like they are responsible for the abuse. This can lead to blaming, shame, guilt, and self-doubt, which may cause long-term emotional damage.
It can also impact the victim’s life outside the home — from school or work to social relationships. The effects may include:
- Anxiety and depression
- Feelings of low self-worth or guilt
- Poor academic performance
- Low self-esteem
- Social isolation
How to Stop Abuse by Proxy?
People who are abused by proxy often feel trapped and unable to escape the situation. They may be unable to leave the relationship, afraid of what will happen if they do. They may also fear losing custody of their children, or no one will believe them if they speak out.
If you’re being abused by someone who is not your partner, there are several things you can do to protect yourself:
- Talk to a trusted friend or family member about what’s going on in your relationship. Tell them about how the abuse makes you feel and affects your life. You might find it helpful to write down your experiences to record them if you need them later.
- If possible, start slowly distancing yourself from the abusive person. This could mean not answering phone calls or e-mails immediately or spending less time with them than you usually do. It could also mean speaking up when they’re abusing you — saying “stop” or “no” and walking away if necessary to get some space between you and them.
- If possible, try telling someone else about the abuse — perhaps another friend or family member who knows both of you well enough to see through any lies the abuser may tell.
- Seek professional help. If your partner abuses you through a third party’s actions (such as the children), you must seek professional help immediately. An experienced counselor or therapist can help you develop strategies for dealing with the situation and may be able to assist you with securing legal protection for yourself and your children against further abuse.
There are many facades that abusers use to hide their true natures. So we can never know what’s in a person’s heart or mind, and the only thing we can do is try to use our intuition to guide us. This can be extremely frightening, especially if you’ve been abused by someone who professes love daily. I understand your fear and hope this article might ease your mind so that you may move forward and heal from it.
- Rakovec-Felser, Z. (2014). Domestic violence and abuse in intimate relationship from Public Health Perspective. Health Psychology Research, 2(3). https://doi.org/10.4081/hpr.2014.1821