Disappearing as a manipulation tactic

TW: self-serving behavior, rug sweeping, victim-blaming

I just disappeared for nearly a month, so…I thought a post about disappearing might be an appropriate re-entry.

I linger around a forum on Reddit where people talk about difficulties they have with family members. In the comments section of one post, a really interesting conversation happened about a different sort of disappearing act, which I offer as a companion to the post I wrote previously about how some abusers temporarily (and strategically) withdraw from relationships when things don’t go their way.

In the Reddit thread, another sort of disappearing act was brought up – the act of a full physical disappearance. The pattern that many contributors have experienced works like this:

  1. Abuser does something terrible to a victim. Victim (or others) react to the abuse, give pushback, tell someone, etc.
  2. Abuser promptly disappears – as in leaves home, refuses to reach out to anyone to let them know they’re okay, will not pick up the phone, etc. They’re just gone. Sometimes police are even involved.
  3. Everyone worries and the focus shifts from the victim to trying to find the abuser.
  4. The abuser eventually turns up, and everyone is so relieved that they don’t hold the abuser accountable for their actions.

I’ve never dealt with this personally, but if you know someone who has done this, please see it for what it is: Extreme manipulation. Instead of feeling sorry for the victim, everyone now feels sorry for the abuser. Some Redditors who experienced this even said that they ended up being blamed for upsetting the abuser.

This is exactly what the abuser wants – to twist the scenario so that they’re actually the victims.

Abusers are really good at blaming others for their behavior. Sure, they may have flown off the handle and done something bad, but it’s because YOU did something first. YOU started it.

Sadly, a lot of generally normally people have internalized this very flawed enabler logic as well – if someone gets angry with you, surely you did something to trigger the anger. I’ve heard a lot of people say things like, “I’m not saying [Abuser’s] actions are okay, but [victim] did [xyz] and if it was me, I’d be upset, too.”

That’s called victim blaming. Whatever the abuser’s actions, the victim is never at fault.

And this is exactly the additional downside to the a staged disappearance – sometimes, others refuse to believe that the abuser reacted to something simple. On the Reddit thread, examples given were that abusers disappeared after being told no, after a boundary was enforced, or after being called out for bad behavior.

A normal person isn’t going to disappear without a trace or any communication over something that relatively small. Therefore, enablers may then blame the victim. Obviously you did more than just say no or enforce a boundary; you must have done something else. There must be more to the story. No one disappears over being told ‘no’.

When the abuser eventually turns back up with tales of how they were lied to, assaulted, screamed at, etc., others are willing to believe it. Suddenly, the victim is re-victimized by family/friends/others who are now siding with the abuser.

One way of dealing with someone who has done this, or who you feel might do this, is to record interactions. If you’re in the U.S. and live in a one-party consent state, this is relatively easy to do – there are free phone apps that will run quietly in the background during calls and face-to-face interactions. That way, you can confront the abuser and enablers later on with evidence.

Other people advocate cameras in and around the home, if the abuser is prone to coming over. I belong to several Reddit subs where having hidden cameras present was ultimately an abuser’s undoing, and they ended up being exposed – in a few cases, abusers were sent to jail once video evidence was turned over to authorities.

This is not always feasible or affordable or legal, but if it is, consider it. Here’s the Wikipedia page which discusses laws in a few different countries, including the U.S. (The U.S. sections also lists the all-party consent states.)

Aside from using technology, there are other simple things you can do. Avoid being alone with the abuser as much as possible. Meet in public rather than private, preferably with someone else either with you, or within earshot. Bonus points if the place you’re meeting also has security cameras. Communicate via email or text message so you have records of the conversations. As much as possible, avoid situations such as one-on-one meetings and phone calls, where it’s your word against theirs.

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