Discerning through the experiences and stories of two people can be tricky and confusing. This lack of clarity is especially true when abuse is involved. From the outside, the behaviors of both people may seem to be unhealthy. This is especially true with relationships that have a long history of abuse. These cases can often appear as if there are two victims and two abusers. As someone trying to help the couple, it is hard to figure out what is up and what is down. There can be a temptation to throw your hands up and direct them to couple’s therapy. This blog is for you. Understanding the effect longstanding abuse has on a victim will help you recognize their body’s natural response to the harm they are experiencing. This recognition of the seemingly erratic responses as natural allows you to discern who is the victim.
There is only one victim and one abuser in most cases. This is true even when the victim reacts to the abuser in an abusive manner. The victim’s response is known as “reactive abuse”. This is a victim’s reaction to the overwhelming injustice the abuser is doing. Reactive Abuse 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. The answer requires us to go into the mindset of the person harming and the brain’s response to the one injured.
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 assumptions encourage them to use manipulative and defensive tactics so they can maintain power and control. These tactics can be overt, such as through physical, sexual, or overt emotional abuse such as name-calling, raging, and yelling. Or, they 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.
Victims may present as over-emotional, unstable, or angry and may have reacted violently to the abuse they experienced by what appears to be “abuse” of their partner. Yet, when victims fight back, it is usually to stop a dangerous situation. The actions often do not come from an abusive mindset to power over and control their partner. Their response could be an involuntary reaction caused by the cumulative trauma they have been experiencing over time. Either way, it comes from a place of extreme frustration or self-defense. Reactive Abuse happens when a victim lashes out towards their abuser in response to the abuser’s toxic behavior, which aims to manipulate and control or erase the victim’s personhood. 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.
When the victim senses danger, the brain releases a stress hormone that helps the body respond in defense against the threat and protect the person. This is known as a “stress response” or what is more commonly called “a fight or flight response.” In other words, the victim’s natural response is for their body to prepare to flee or fight back, especially when there is the belief that there is a threat to their safety or freedom. Fleeing is just that – the victim runs from the situation (walks out, shuts down, turns away). But fighting back can happen in the form of screaming, name-calling, or striking the attacker (or abuser). In either case, the brain is directing the action, and when an individual is in a trauma state, they cannot always ignore the directive.
A victim of ongoing abuse endures trauma that causes severe emotional harm, which also causes the body’s immune system to shut down, leading to physiological illness. For those responding to victims, it’s necessary they educate themselves and be aware of the relationship between abuse and trauma. (See resources below.) Over time, the ongoing trauma of recurring abuse fosters conditioned responses within the victim based on several variables, like basic temperament, upbringing (nurture or neglect), age, gender, and life history. An experience is intolerable when it becomes too much for the mind and body to organize and integrate. This lack of harmony in mind and body is due to the victim’s fragmented and disordered thinking caused by extended exposure to trauma.
The victim’s mind and body are overwhelmed due to their lack of control over the abuse and trauma—causing PTSD among many victims. PTSD presents itself in myriad ways ranging from yelling, anger, frustration, fear, paranoia, or other emotions. Victims with PTSD commonly display signs of hypervigilance. Hypervigilance comes from enhanced sensory sensitivity, increased anxiety, and the accompanying responses to trauma. Many experts consider emotional abuse to be even more damaging than non-lethal physical abuse. Covert emotional abuse causes victims to languish in prolonged states of stressful confusion or trauma states.
In contrast, overt forms of abuse are more obvious and are usually easier to identify as abuse or understand the behavior to be wrong. When abuse is covert, however, the victim doesn’t always recognize it as domestic violence and doesn’t make the connection between their trauma symptoms and the covert abuse. The longer this confusion continues, the more compromised the victim becomes. Fragmented thinking increases, they involuntarily shake, and they often develop PTSD and exhaustion. In some cases their endocrine and immune systems become compromised, resulting in physical ailments. Each symptom primes the victim to become more reactive.
While the reactive responses provide protection, they are prohibitive of healing and can be dangerous to the victim, as the abuser can use their outbursts against them. Often, after a victim reacts in a lashing-out manner, the victim also becomes confused and concerned by their actions, even to the point they may wonder if they are the abusive one. The confusion comes for the victim when they see themselves acting contrary to their true character. An abuser relies on this because it makes the victim appear at fault, unstable, delusional, and even mentally ill. The abuser then plays the victim and places all the responsibility for the conflict on the actual victim.
Where hidden forms of abuse that cause a victim to feel “crazy” are present, the way the victim presents themselves makes it more likely for others to believe the victim is the one who is out of sorts and guilty. When reactive abuse is a common response to the original abuse, the abuser is given the advantage and shifts the blame onto the victim, keeping the victim further oppressed, confused, and isolated. In other words, the victim’s natural response to the violence enables the abuser to increase their power and control over the victim. In time, they can manipulate the situation by provoking a victim who has a fight response to react in a way that might seem abusive.
Reactive abuse takes a toll on the victim mentally, emotionally, and physically. They feel bad about their behavior because it isn’t normal for them, and they aren’t abusive. Victims don’t hurt people. They are often empathic people. But when pushed to the point of being extremely overwhelmed, their body directs them to have reactions that may seem extreme.
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 (or abusive) manner? First, it’s important to understand some of the signs of trauma which you will likely recognize in the victim. As noted, trauma can cause 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 calm compared to the victim’s frantic or confused state.
Further, attitudes of self-blame, over-apologizing, desperate efforts to do anything to help the relationship are common for victims to display. These actions can be another traumatic response called “appeasing” or “accommodation.” But when you can get the victim to think back to the very beginning of the story to describe what was happening for them before they lashed out at their partner, you will begin to see the behaviors that triggered their reaction. What’s most important is not making any assumptions without listening more and getting a clearer picture of the events that preceded the reactive abusive behavior. In time, the roles each person is playing will become clear.
A common question we hear when discussing reactive abuse is what makes the victim stay with their partner once it’s reached this point. According to Break the Silence, an international voice on domestic violence, it takes an average of 50 incidents of abuse before a victim seeks help. 50!
To a responder of abuse, that may be incomprehensible. It may cause the responder to blame the victim, question the victim, or even going as far as to not help. And, to compound that, when a victim reacts in a manner that appears equally or even more abusive, a first responder may be tempted to think they are both abusing each other. A responder needs to remember that there is a cycle of power and control happening that is doing a number on the victim no matter how it looks. Responders need to glean what is going on for the victim that makes them stay. Therefore, it is important to understand the cycle of abuse. M3ND Founder Annette Oltmans recently discussed the phases within the cycle of abuse during our July training intensive, which you can check out in the resources below.
Remember, as a first responder, your role is critically important. Understanding the complicated dynamics of abuse, who is the victim, and who is the abuser will help you avoid causing further harm through your responses. The first interaction a victim has with a responder can empower them to set firm boundaries or leave the abusive relationship, or it can make matters worse. When a trusted individual responds poorly, or perhaps with good intention, but incorrectly, they cause additional harm and risk exacerbating the victim’s trauma. This is “double abuse”. Sadly, many victims have interactions with first responders that lead them to not trust someone to help them. Or worse, to be afraid a responder will cause further harm. In reality, these are the people whose job is to protect them. First responders are often the first call for help and maybe the last depending on how the interaction goes.
If you or someone you know is in a position to walk alongside someone impacted by abuse, we encourage you to take advantage of the training opportunities The M3ND Project provides. Join our upcoming Responding to Abuse training cohort of our comprehensive virtual curriculum. This seven-week online course includes a written curriculum, video recordings, a support network of like-minded individuals addressing the issue of abuse, and one-hour weekly live sessions with our founder Annette Oltmans. During this time, you will get tools and first-hand knowledge of how to equip and restore all those impacted by abuse. Registration closes on August 29, 2021, and we’d love to see you there. The link is in the resources section below. Sign up today!