Discerning the experiences and stories of two people can be tricky and confusing. This is especially true when a long history of abuse is involved and the victim’s internal defense mechanisms are triggered by recurring abusive attacks. Both people act in ways that could be considered violent and abusive to an outsider.
This may make it appear as if there are two victims and two abusers when there is only one. Aren’t we promoting a double standard when we refuse to call the victim an abuser when they lash out violently toward their abuser? No.
A violent or aggressive response to an abusive partner is called reactive abuse. The victim’s reaction does not turn them into an abuser. So, what is really going on? In this article, you will learn how to define reactive abuse, what causes the abused person to react violently, the difference between the abuser’s mindset and their victim’s, and how to discern who’s the abuser.
Let’s get started.
What is Reactive Abuse?
When a victim has been in an abusive relationship for a while, they begin to defend themselves against emotionally violent attacks. The term reactive abuse refers to a victim’s defensive response to narcissistic abuse behaviors they have been experiencing over time. In fact, although it is called reactive abuse, MEND prefers the term reactive defense because a victim is not an abuser.
Reactive abuse occurs when the victim becomes the aggressor against the abuser, such as by pushing, punching, kicking, hair pulling, raging, or angry outbursts of aggressive verbal attacks. Reactive abuse is self-defense, not abuse.
This happens when the victim, who has been dealing with abusive behavior over a sustained period of time, reaches an internal breaking point. The prolonged physical or emotional abuse they have endured makes them lash out defensively in a hostile manner.
A victim who reacts abusively is usually acting out of character, leaving them confused and surprised by their response. Even though it comes out of the body’s natural defense mechanism, which is designed to protect them from violence, reactive abuse almost always harms the victim more than the abuser.
Even in healthy relationships, there are times we respond in ways that are uncharacteristic of our true selves. Why isn’t reactive abuse really abuse?
Let’s take a look.
How Does Reactive Abuse work?
Reactive abuse is a victim’s way of self-defense against the overwhelming injustice their abuser is doing to them. Their defensive reaction does not put the victim on an equal par with the abuser or transform them from victim to abuser.
“Why doesn’t it?”, you might ask. To answer this, let’s look into the mindset of an abuser.
The Abusive Mindset
Victims of domestic violence do not bring violence upon themselves, nor are they abusive like their partner is. Abusers, or those who cause harm, have entrenched faulty beliefs and feelings of entitlement rooted deep within. These feelings encourage them to use manipulative and defensive tactics so they can maintain power and control.
The abusive behavior can be overt, such as through physical violence, sexual, or overt psychological abuse. Or, it can be covert through gaslighting, minimization, or any other hidden manipulative behavior. Whether overt or covert, any abusive act is a form of violence.
The reverse, however, is not automatically true because violence does not necessarily equal abuse. When victims fight back, it is usually to stop a dangerous situation. The actions do not come from an abusive mindset to power over and control their partner. Reactive Abuse doesn’t equal mutual abuse. Understanding this requires us to take a look at what causes the victim to respond this way.
The Involuntary Reaction
The victim’s response is an involuntary reaction caused by the cumulative trauma they have been experiencing over time and comes from a place of extreme frustration or self-defense. Whether the abuse is physical, emotional, or sexual, it causes deep fear and stress and puts the victim on high alert.
When the victim senses danger, the brain releases a stress hormone that helps the body defend and protect itself from the threat. This is known as a “stress response” or what is more commonly called “a fight, freeze, or flight response.” In other words, the victim’s natural response is for their body to prepare to freeze, flee or fight back, especially when they perceive a threat to their safety or freedom.
The response happens almost automatically, without thinking about it in advance. It usually surprises the victim more than the abuser.
Examples of Reactive Abuse
When the victim feels overwhelmed with distress, fear, and powerlessness, their natural defense may be to scream, yell insults, or even physically lash out at their abuser to cut off the abuser’s attack. A person who does not normally, curse, hit, or rage may find themselves doing these things in response to their partner’s abusive and controlling aggression.
For example, a child who is abused by their parent feels defenseless against their attack. They might react by destroying furniture in the house, ruining that parent’s favorite shirt, cursing at their parents, calling them names, or telling them they hate them. Although the child is defending themself in the most powerful way they can, the abuser will likely blame and punish them. Outsiders will assume the parent is doing all they can to help an “unruly” or “problem” child. On the inside, the child often feels guilt for acting in a way that is uncharacteristic of him or her. Or the adult punitively shames them for their understandable reaction.
Perhaps a woman reacts to years of her husband’s abuse by hitting him with a skillet. Or, she screams at him, calls him names, or slaps him. When the police respond to the domestic violence call, her abuser will be calm and sadly tell them she assaulted him. She will admit she hit him, apologize, and try to explain. Inside, she doesn’t know how to explain because she probably doesn’t understand why she reacted that way. The police may see her as the abuser, or one of two abusers. Rather than getting the help she needs, she will take all of the blame for reacting to months or years of physical, psychological, or sexual abuse.
Even in self-defense, reactive abuse behaviors can be violent. It can be difficult even for skilled responders, which is addressed below in the Confusion for Responders section. Sometimes, the reactions are so violent it leaves us wondering if reactive abuse is justified or should be on an equal par with the original abuse.
Is Reactive Abuse Justified?
As you can see, reactive abuse is the body’s way of protecting itself instinctively from a traumatic encounter. The one being harmed has little to no control over their response in the beginning. The reaction is justified and sometimes necessary to protect the victim.
The brain responds to threats by commanding a flight, fight, or freeze response. Fleeing is when the victim runs from the situation (walks out, shuts down, turns away). Fleeing is one form of self-defense aimed at protecting the person from their abuser. Fleeing, just like fighting and freezing feels like a natural response to them – they flee without even thinking about it. The brain chemistry which causes them to flee isn’t significantly different than when they fight. Because fleeing isn’t an aggressive act toward the abuser, whether it’s justified isn’t a question we ask.
However, when a victim fights back in self-defense, the questions (and problems for the victim) begin. With either fleeing or fighting, the brain directs the action. The traumatized individual often is unable to ignore the brain’s directive. The response is automatic.
Determining whether reactive abuse is justified isn’t really an appropriate question to ask. If it is reactive abuse, it’s done in response to abuse and is justified. The traumatized victim is defending themself from a continuous stream of abusive behaviors which have happened over time. One cannot compare the victim’s reaction to a single abusive incident.
The Danger of Reactive Abuse
Even though reactive abuse is the body’s way to protect the victim from the abuser’s violent behavior, it usually does not protect the victim as much as it helps the abuser.
The Advantage to the Abuser
Abusers rely on the victim to react aggressively at some point, giving the abuser the upper hand. They are often relentless in their efforts to push the victim to the breaking point, hoping they will react uncontrollably. When they do, the abuser then uses the victim’s reaction to shift the blame onto them and gain the advantage.
Abusers rely on the victim’s reactive outbursts to protect abuser’s image and shift blame to the victim.
When a victim reacts aggressively, the abuser uses the reaction as proof the victim is unstable or to shift blame for the abuse in the relationship on the victim. Those with narcissistic personality disorder thrive when they garner sympathy from friends and family members, including those closest to the victim. Narcissists are highly focused on their public image and they are most powerful when they garner positive attention.
Meanwhile, the victim loses whatever safe community they had and moves closer toward complete isolation. Public shaming effectively labels the victim “unstable”. Over time, once friends and family question the victim’s mental well-being, they side with the abuser. This makes it nearly impossible for the victim to feel safe asking friends or family for the help they desperately need and deserve.
If the victim decides to leave the relationship, the abuser will use the reactive abuse incidents against them to continue their control. In child custody court battles, for example, the abuser may highlight the reactive abuse to make the judge question the victim’s stability as a parent or blame the victim for being the abusive one. Or to defend against the victim’s valid claims of domestic violence, possibly defeating requests for protective orders.
Some states nullify the responsibility to pay spousal support if they can document abuse by their partner. Abusers use this loophole to frame the victim. Having turned their community against them, their friends and family might end up testifying on the abuser’s behalf. The fear of these types of outcomes successfully prevents the victim from seeking community help.
The Effect on the Victim
Of course, the same things that are advantageous to the abuser are the most damaging to the victim. These things can make the victim feel they need to remain in the relationship because they don’t believe they’ll get the support they need if they leave. All the while, the abuser is never held accountable.
Also, most victims are very confused to see themselves reacting abusively with their partners. The hitting, raging, or other toxic reactions are uncharacteristic of how the victim would normally react when dealing with toxic situations. Witnessing their own aggressive response (which comes without forethought) is surprising and concerning to them.
They try to stop reacting aggressively, but may not know how to shift their involuntary traumatic responses. The abuser compounds their guilt by calling the victim abusive or unstable. Or, they feign concern for their emotional well-being, making the victim believe they are not well, They might even offer to pay for the victim to seek professional help. This increases the victim’s sense of self-doubt, makes them question their own sanity, and increases their sense of dependence on their partner while also establishing a therapeutic record of their tendency to react aggressively.
What victims often don’t realize is they likely have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or complex PTSD, which presents in myriad ways from anger, frustration, fear, paranoia, and other emotions and explains their uncharacteristic response to their partner.
Often, with covert emotional abuse, the victim does not realize they are being abused, which results in significant stress and confusion about their circumstances. High stress and confusion over an extended period of time will likely cause PTSD making it nearly impossible to recognize a connection between their trauma symptoms, covert abuse, and their reactive actions. The longer high stress and confusion continue, the more stress hormones and the more compromised the victim becomes. Fragmented thinking increases, they involuntarily shake and are overwhelmed with exhaustion. In many cases their endocrine and immune systems become compromised, resulting in physical illnesses.
Each symptom primes the victim to become more compromised and reactive in ways that are not normal for them. Initially, they are unable to control how they react, and it’s nearly impossible for them to understand why they responded so aggressively. Many feel significant shame and guilt long after they have left the abusive relationship.
The Confusion for Responders
A common issue with reactive abuse is that responders mistakenly believe both people in the relationship are abusive or that the victim is the real abuser. This happens because reactive abuse often includes the same types of destructive behaviors the primary abuser uses and responders do not know how to recognize the signs of trauma in the victim, which tell a more accurate story
They also fail to understand an abuser’s faulty worldview and pattern of behavior or why victims react aggressively.
As soon as they see the violent nature of the victim’s response, it’s proof that the victim is the person to blame. Many abuse experts consider the idea of mutual abuse to be a myth. Simply put, there are rarely two abusers in an abusive intimate relationship. There is a pattern of power and control that makes “mutual abuse” virtually impossible in true situations of domestic violence and also does not exist when so-called abuse is reactive.
People may engage in situational violence, which is not intimate partner violence. But situational violence lacks the power imbalance existing in relationship abuse. There is nothing mutual about a victim’s defensive reactions to their abuser’s harmful behaviors.
Where hidden forms of abuse that cause a victim to feel “crazy” are present, the way the victim presents themself makes it more likely for others to believe the victim is the one who is out of sorts and guilty. Responders make the mistake of blaming the victim instead of helping them.
Instead, responders need to educate themselves about the dynamics of abuse and become aware of the relationship between abuse and trauma. If they don’t, they risk causing further harm to the victim through their uninformed responses.
How Can You Know When Violence is Reactive or Abusive?
So how do you know who in the couple before you is the abuser and the victim? How can you tell the difference when both are acting in a violent manner?
To answer these questions, it’s important to understand some of the signs of trauma. Trauma from abuse causes physical symptoms such as shaking, trembling, and extreme fluctuations in blood pressure or blood sugar and insulin levels, which may cause the victim to feel faint or pass out.
Trauma victims often experience emotional dysregulation, vacillating between strong emotional outbursts, crying, anger, frustration, confusion, or complete disconnection between any emotion. In contrast, the abuser shows a high level of skill when controlling their emotions, words, and physical stature, making them appear cool and calm compared to the victim’s frantic or confused state. Victims are also much more agreeable to accepting responsibility for their mistakes. The abuser, on the other hand, will say and do just about anything to avoid accountability and responsibility for their actions. The victim will be so traumatized by the false accusations and presence of law enforcement that they will likely be incapable of articulating an explanation to counter them.
As a responder (therapist, pastor, officer, social worker, etc), it’s key for you to ask about the history of behavior in the relationship. But keep in mind that the victim is confused and traumatized so you may not receive the answers you expect when the victim responds. Also, remember to separate the people in the relationship so the victim responds to your questions authentically. It’s wholly ineffective and damaging when responders require the abused person to answer questions in front of their abuser. You don’t need to know who the abuser is, separate the two.
This includes parents and children. Far too often, children are asked, while in the presence of their abusive parent or family member, if they feel safe without taking into consideration whether fear is making it impossible for them to answer honestly. Simply put, there’s no shot you’re getting to the truth if you keep them together.
Remember, mutual abuse is rarely, if ever, real. Please do not throw your arms up in frustration and walk away from the couple, pretending they are both abusers. If you watch and listen closely, in time you will begin to see clearly which person is responsible for the chaos.
What to do if You’re the Victim Lashing Out
Many victims who react abusively to their abuser’s actions wonder if they are the real abuser and experience considerable guilt about how they responded. How can you know for sure that you are not an abuser? That you’re wondering at all, is an excellent sign you are not.
When you find yourself confused by your reactive outbursts, take note of it. If those behaviors are uncharacteristic, do not assume you are mentally ill or abusive. The fact that those responses are uncharacteristic is important.
The term, reactive abuse, means just that: you are the one reacting to abuse, not the one to blame for it. The problems in your relationship are caused by your abuser’s behavior. To be certain about what role you have assumed, seek help from a licensed professional experienced in emotional abuse and trauma, the national domestic violence hotline, or your local domestic violence shelter. They will help to provide or refer you to resources to help you respond in a healthy way to your situation.
If you are in an abusive relationship, you have likely been emotionally beaten down and disparaged for a long time, months, years or even decades. Once you have gained clarity regarding the types of abusive patterns you’ve endured, the way you view yourself internally is a good next phase to work on with a therapist trained in abuse. In the past, your focus has likely been on helping your abuser change. Now it’s time to examine your worth and value as well as your internal beliefs about yourself and relationships in general.
A good goal is to attain a sense of confidence and deep self-love, which will help you shift your faulty beliefs about your identity to more healthy thoughts. Healing may be a long process but don’t be discouraged. You are not alone. Thousands of victims have achieved emotional and physical health that has forever changed their life for the better. You are worthy! You can do it!