There’s been significant debate and public discussion about the term, mutual abuse, which has been used to conclude that some situations of domestic violence, psychological or physical, are actually mutual abuse with both people in the couple equally responsible for being both aggressors and victims.
In this article, we’re going to debunk the myth about mutual abuse and explore other explanations for what is really happening. We’ll consider why people stay in these relationships and how complicated it is for responders to understand what is really going on. We discuss ways to distinguish domestic abuse from situational violence and look at some things the abuse victim can do to protect themselves from blame when they respond in defense.
OK, let’s get started.
What do people mean when they say “mutual abuse”?
The phrase “mutual abuse” is used when it appears both people in a relationship are instigators and recipients of violent acts. When referring to a relationship as “mutually abusive,” the assumption is made that both people in the couple are both abusers and both are victims.
This is not true.
Is mutual abuse real?
The phrase “mutual abuse” is deceptive and inaccurately describes any form of emotional or physical relationship abuse. Professionals who are experts in the field of domestic violence agree there is no such thing as mutual abuse. It doesn’t exist.
To be fair, an unhealthy or abusive relationship can be incredibly confusing to the people in the relationship and those on the outside. Even though there is only one abuser and one victim in an abusive relationship, this doesn’t mean that the victim never lashes out aggressively.
To the outsider who comes upon the scene in which both people have been hurt by the other person’s violence, it’s natural (or at least it’s much easier) to conclude they are both equally at fault. This is wrong.
Tragically, the faulty conclusion leads them to wash their hands of the couple and walk away, leaving the real victim without a life vest.
Incorrect Conclusions of Mutual Abuse
As we said, mutual abuse implies an equal abuser/victim role for each person in the relationship. To accomplish this, the power distribution between them needs to be close to equal, which is not what happens in a situation of domestic violence. Relationship abuse is all about power and control with the abuser intent upon obtaining as much dominance as they can to tip the balance in their favor. The offender’s primary motive, whether or not they are aware of it, is to have all of the control in the relationship. It’s their safe space.
Domestic abuse is different than “mutual abuse”?
For the abuser to prevail in their pursuit for total control requires a regular pattern of various forms of abusive behaviors to take place repeatedly over time with the victim’s power weakening progressively. There is one aggressor in every case of domestic abuse.
Both people in any relationship can exhibit unhealthy behaviors, but when the relationship is abusive, one person has more control than the other. “Mutual abuse” by the definition it’s been given doesn’t do this.
None of this answers the question as to why, if there’s only one aggressor, you might witness a situation where both people in a couple have used some form of violence against the other in a single moment. When the victim lashes out verbally or physically it is usually because the victim of overt or covert emotional abuse or physical attacks is acting in self-defense.
Reactive defense is not mutual abuse either.
It’s commonly known as reactive abuse, but we call it reactive defense. “Reactive abuse” is as much of a misnomer as “mutual abuse”.
The abuse isn’t mutual when the one without equal power reacts in defense of the abuse by the one who is in power. Reactive defense is a victim’s natural and involuntary reaction to their partner’s emotional, physical, sexual, or even economic abuse. Self-defense is not abuse, even if it’s violent.
The dynamic of reactive “abuse” stems from the trauma the original abuse causes initially and how it repeats itself and escalates over time. While the relationship is “volatile” or “high conflict,” that does not mean it is mutually abusive. Instead, it literally means the victim is fighting for their life.
When others, or even the victim themself, refer to it as mutual abuse, it intensifies the feelings of fear and uncertainty about their situation. If domestic abuse were understood, most would agree the reactive defense is justified.
Situational violence is not domestic abuse
Referring back to mutual abuse and those situations where both people in a relationship are violent with each other and the violence is not defensive. What is it?
There is something called “situational violence”. This is not domestic violence or abuse. In cases of situational violence which may occur within a relationship, the power and control dynamics are missing as is the pattern of abusive violence. “Situational violence” within a relationship does not happen regularly.
Situational violence occurs when both people are accustomed to responding to conflict with violence. Usually, it’s in response to a specific situation. It is not about power and control and contains no pattern to support it. It’s a violent response. It’s unhealthy and dangerous but does not fall within the definition of domestic violence.
Unlike situational couple violence, domestic abuse includes ongoing tactics of manipulation, power, and control by the abusive partner that reoccur in between any violent outbursts. In addition, situational couple violence doesn’t usually have the same impact on the individual that domestic violence has, which often results in long-term psychological and subsequent physiological harm.
How Do Responders Tell the Difference between Situational Violence and Domestic Violence?
So back to the couple who are both hurt by the other’s violent acts. How do you tell the difference between domestic abuse and situational violence, particularly if you’re a first responder such as a police officer or paramedic?
Look for more
Look for more. To be fair, police officers may need to react based on mandatory arrest laws based on the limited information they have. Often, both people admit to hurting the other, requiring the officers to respond a certain way. If it isn’t clear that someone is acting in self-defense, it’s difficult to discern who the primary aggressor is. Victims who react by pushing away their partner who is raging at them are often labeled the aggressor.
This is especially true when the victim is confused by their own response and might not yet identify as a victim of abuse. They apologize profusely for their reactions while failing to explain clearly to responders the sequence of abusive events which compelled such a strong act of self-defense. To figure it out, the responder must look for more.
Gain a deeper understanding of domestic abuse
Knowing what to look for requires a better understanding of the dynamics of abusive relationships, including psychologically abusive dynamics, which over time may cause the victim to defend themself with violent responses. To the brain, long-term psychological abuse is similar to a physically abusive relationship, because of how it attacks the victim’s emotional and physical well-being..
With that understanding, responders will find it helpful to ask more targeted questions of each person separately. It helps to ask each person questions about the relationship’s history and the sequence of events that led to the current violent altercation. Asking questions about the environment in the home may reveal one person as the dominant aggressor over the other. The challenge in doing this “at the scene” is that a victim will likely be in a trauma state triggered by the event and might be unable to respond intelligibly to questions.
Women and men remain in violent relationships for a variety of reasons, which might be hard to grasp as an outsider. Inability to understand why they remain in the relationship shouldn’t hinder responders from doing everything they can to help
Go deeper in your knowledge by joining our course for responders.
Learn about trauma and PTSD symptoms
A further understanding of the signs of trauma and PTSD would help those responding to evaluate what’s really happening. Screaming, crying, or raging by one person might be in response to incessant emotional terror from their partner. Consistent demeaning, degrading, or manipulative comments and actions directed at the victim will eventually break them down. When the victim breaks, the abuser presses “record” on their phone and uses the video or audio to shift the blame for the violence onto the victim.
All of this can make the victim look like the aggressor if the responder does not carefully evaluate the situation.
What if you are a victim of domestic violence who acts out violently? What should you do?
While it might seem impossible, exercise some grounding techniques and remain as calm as you can when being questioned. Hopefully, prior to the altercation, you have been recording abusive behavior you’ve experienced over time. If so, share it with the responders. Try not to simplify the altercation as just a “fight”. Pause before answering and think back to what led to the violence, then communicate the abuse that happened before you acted in defense. It’s essential to point out that you responded to abuse or violence, you didn’t instigate it.
Although these are helpful suggestions, it’s key to recognize that victims often freeze at the moment and are unable to communicate clearly or remember the sequence of escalating events. This is a result of the PTSD or other trauma symptoms they experience. PTSD can hinder cognition, memory and the ability to communicate sequentially. If this happens to you, have grace for yourself, wait a few days, and when you are calm and your brain begins to remember, write down all of the important events and update the responders with the new information.
If you are confused about psychological abuse and reactive violence, you can find clarity by reviewing a free download of our comprehensive terms and definitions. Using the proper terminology and language explained in this tool, to describe your experiences makes you a more credible witness while it also allows you to better advocate for yourself. For even deeper learning, join our course for those in abusive or high conflict relationships.
And then get help. Talk to someone at a domestic violence shelter, a therapist, or a community service agency specializing in domestic abuse. You deserve the healing these places can help you achieve.