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A person dealing with reactive abuse in her relationship crosses her arms as she looks at her partner.

What Is Reactive Abuse?

6 min.

Reactive abuse is a control tactic used by perpetrators of abuse to shift blame away from themselves and onto their partners. Learn how to identify reactive abuse in a relationship and gain skills to end this toxic cycle.

By: Alex Bachert, MPH

Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC

June 5, 2023


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Table of Contents

“Reactive abuse” is when a perpetrator of abuse deliberately triggers their partner into reacting to their abusive behavior aggressively. Abusive partners may use this manipulative tactic to shift blame away from themselves by claiming that the abuse is two-sided. Reactive abuse often occurs in romantic partnerships, but, like all forms of abuse, can also happen within other relationships.

Experts largely agree that a more appropriate term for this behavior is self-defense, which is not abuse. When a person is continuously exposed to emotional or physical abuse, they may look for ways to defend themself against their abuser. This defense behavior typically occurs when a person has been dealing with prolonged abuse and finally reaches their breaking point. Examples of defensive behaviors include yelling, verbal attacks, pushing, punching, kicking, and hair-pulling. Partner violence is never healthy, but using these strategies as a form of self-defense is not abuse. 

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Is there a difference between self-defense and mutual abuse?

You may have heard the term “mutually abusive” to describe a rocky or tumultuous relationship, but experts largely agree that the concept of mutual abuse does not exist

Two people in a relationship can both exhibit unhealthy behaviors, but abuse stems from one person’s desire for power and control over another person. In an abusive relationship, the abuser will purposely behave in a cruel, violent, demeaning, or invasive manner toward their partner to create an imbalance of power. 

The victim may eventually react to that abuse, but that response is considered to be self-defense. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, signs that your behavior is in self-defense include:

  • You acted when you felt that your safety was at risk 
  • You acted as a way to try and re-establish your independence
  • You’d like to change your behavior because you know it’s not who you are or healthy for a relationship

What does reactive abuse look like?

Reactive abuse is a manipulation tactic that follows a specific behavior pattern. It can be difficult to recognize when you or a loved one are in an abusive relationship, but these three stages demonstrate what an abusive relationship with reactive abuse can look like.   

1. Antagonism

At first, the abuser will find ways to provoke or antagonize their partner. These habits may not seem harmful initially, but they can eventually cause a person to hit their breaking point. 

Here are a few examples of behaviors that can trigger reactive abuse:  

  • Asking you a personal or triggering question, especially around other people.
  • Posting or commenting on your social media in an intentionally triggering way.
  • Intentionally violating your emotional or physical boundaries. 
  • “Forgetting” to do something.
  • Baiting you into arguments and then belittling your reaction.

2. Proof

After enduring prolonged physical or emotional abuse, it’s understandable that a person would reach their breaking point and lash out in self-defense. However, the abusive partner will use this to their advantage and consider it “proof” of two-sided abuse. Abuse is about power and control so the abuser, who ultimately holds the most power, will use their partner’s reaction as a way to control the narrative. 

3. Turning the tables

The perpetrator of abuse may use certain phrases to manipulate or gaslight their partner into thinking it’s their fault or that both partners are responsible for the abuse. 

Here are some examples:

  • “Your words/ actions made me act that way.” 
  • “You yelled/hit/shoved/pushed me too.”
  • “You started this.”
  • “You’re the one trying to gaslight me”.

Reactive abuse can happen in relationships with various kinds of abuse, including narcissistic abuse—a type of emotional abuse employed by people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) to exert control, exploit, and undermine others. Many people display narcissistic traits every once and a while, but people with NPD have an excessive sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy, and a need for constant admiration. In relationships, they may exploit others for their own gain, emotionally manipulate them, engage in gaslighting, belittlement, and various forms of control—all examples of narcissistic abuse. 

Narcissistic abuse tactics often intentionally push on a victim’s boundaries to provoke a reaction. When a victim of narcissistic abuse reaches their breaking point, they may react with anger, frustration, or even aggression. The narcissist then seizes this opportunity to further manipulate the situation, portraying themselves as the victim and justifying their own abusive behavior. They may use the reactive abuse as evidence to discredit the victim’s claims, deflect responsibility, or perpetuate a cycle of abuse.

Narcissistic abuse is harmful and can indicate a toxic relationship dynamic. Seeking professional help, such as therapy or support groups, can be crucial for victims to break free from this abusive cycle and regain their emotional well-being.

A person dealing with reactive abuse in his relationship stands over a sink thinking.

How to deal with reactive abuse

Reactive abuse can be insidious, sometimes only making itself known when a person hits their breaking point. If the earlier descriptions of reactive abuse sound like a behavior pattern present in your relationship, consider the following tips to help you break the cycle of abuse.

Acknowledge the abuse

The first step in disengaging and breaking the cycle of abuse is to acknowledge the problems in the relationship. Healthy relationships are based on respect, trust, and equality, while abusive partners tend to find ways to control their partner. Here are some signs that you’re in an abusive relationship:

  • Hurtful, insulting, or demeaning communication
  • Blame shifting
  • Gaslighting
  • Isolation 
  • Inconsistent behavior
  • Manipulation
  • Physical violence

Talk to someone you trust

Maybe it’s a family member, friend, teacher, or co-worker. Choose someone you trust to help process your feelings and share what’s really going on in your relationship. Regardless of whether you stepped away from an abusive event or reacted in self-defense, talking to a friend offers you a different perspective on the situation.

Lean on your support system

If you’re not ready to talk about the abuse, you can still prioritize spending time with people who treat you with respect. Abuse can be isolating, so staying in touch with friends and family is essential for emotional support.

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Remember your worth and sense of self

Suffering from abuse can take a toll on your mental health and self-esteem. When someone you care about doesn’t show you respect, it can make you feel unworthy or unlovable. In order to help you process the pain and regain your sense of self, find ways to prioritize your emotions. For example, try grounding techniques like meditation, deep breathing, or journaling.

Try therapy

Talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can help people better understand their thoughts and feelings. CBT also teaches coping skills to deal with stress, distorted thoughts, and difficult abuse-related emotions.

Consult a helpline

If you need immediate support, consider one of the following helplines:

Mental health consequences of prolonged abuse

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of abuse or witnessed a loved one in an abusive relationship, you know that it can significantly affect person’s mental and physical health. Being in a relationship with abusive behavior patterns can cause long-term emotional trauma, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as short-term symptoms like: 

  • Fear
  • Shame
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Hopelessness
  • Powerlessness
  • Guilt

How Charlie Health can help

Being in an abusive relationship can cause anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) combines one-on-one therapy, facilitated groups, and family therapy to create a personalized treatment plan for your unique needs. Learn how connecting with a compassionate, experienced mental health professional can provide a safe place for you to heal and grow. Get started today.

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