- Named after the monkeys in the Wizard of Oz, so-called "flying monkeys" encourage abusers in their behavior.
- Unfortunately, it can be difficult to know who has the potential to act as a flying monkey, especially in the beginning.
- Taking steps to protect yourself can help decrease their ability to get information, while helping to keep you safe.
In my practice, clients often ask how to find out who has the potential to act as their abuser’s “flying monkeys”—a colloquial term for the people who encourage the abuser, who typically displays narcissistic traits, in their behavior and provide them with information to use in their harassment and abuse. As a therapist who specializes in working with survivors of relationship and family trauma, this question is understandable. They want to know how to identify those who have the potential to engage in this behavior so that they can better avoid them.
Flying monkeys can be present during the relationship, such as people who go back to the abusive person with information—sometimes even lies—that the abuser then uses against the target. One example of this is a person whose partner comes home and yells, "What's this I hear about you flirting with the new office assistant at work?" because of information they learned from a third party. As not everyone knows that they are assisting with abuse when they give others information, sometimes an offhand comment—like "Oh, I saw Billy at the bar last weekend!"—can actually be the thing that triggers the rage of an abusive partner.
Unfortunately, flying monkeys can also be present after the relationship ends, especially if the person has narcissistic traits and is looking for information with which to harm the target—for example, someone who emails their ex-spouse, "Why did you have the kids outside after dark?" after learning this information from a neighbor.
Because flying monkeys are not always obvious, it is essential to protect yourself, especially when ending a relationship with someone who has strong narcissistic traits and/or who has already demonstrated a history of abusive behavior. Taking steps to protect yourself can help decrease their ability to get information while helping to keep you safe.
Unfortunately, there is no way to know for certain where an abuser will find their flying monkeys, but there are a few ways victims can prepare for them:
- Assume that everyone has the potential to be a flying monkey until proven otherwise. As disheartening as this assumption is, victims should accept this possibility from the beginning, especially about mutual friends or business associates. It might seem harsh, but I argue that doing so is an appropriate safety measure considering the risk. They may not participate in an abuser’s behavior maliciously or realize they are being used as a flying monkey, but even innocent comments about your whereabouts or behaviors can be used against you. There's no need to react defensively or be disrespectful; just limit what you say and to whom until you know for sure who is on your side and who can be trusted.
- Limit how you talk about your ex-partner to third parties. Since we never know who might be repeating our words to our abuser, never say anything that might get back to them and fuel their retaliation. Never insult, make fun of, or speak badly about them to legal officials, mutual parties, mutual family, mutual friends, or business associates. Stick to neutral facts and objective information only.
- Try to keep your support system small. Reserve your venting for a close support group of people who you trust have no ties or contact with the abuser, and keep your conversations private. Do not post anything online without asking yourself if you would want to later have it used against you. If others outside your immediate support circle want to talk to you about the situation, do not be afraid to put up a boundary. Tell them, “I’d rather not talk about them right now, but thank you for asking, I just wish them well and hope they move on.” Adopting this type of mindset will help show your abuser's behavior for what it is, as it will keep you from engaging in the unhealthy behavior that they are likely doing—which will eventually make them look bad.
Adapted in part from It's Not High Conflict, It's Post Separation Abuse: When Abusers Weaponize the Courts as a Form of Retaliation.
If you or someone you love is experiencing domestic violence, call 800-799-7233 or visit thehotline.org