Reactive abuse is a concept that is often misunderstood and misappropriated in certain sections of society.
It can be a polarising topic. Because the perception of any term that contains the word abuse is pretty absolute.
Abuse is abuse. End of story.
But is it really?
There’s no doubt that any kind of abuse is unwelcome in a relationship dynamic. It goes against everything that’s trying to be built.
But what is it? When does it take place and is it ever justified?
What is Reactive Abuse?
Reactive abuse is a unique expression of abuse, which comes in the form of retaliation towards abuse that has been received by an innocent party. It is often enacted by the victim and/or someone who feels cornered or relentlessly provoked, which causes a reaction. The retaliations are often in self-defence or out of reaching the end of patience, which can often result in behaviours that appear to be malicious without proper context for the situation.
How Does Reactive Abuse Work?
The mechanics of reactive abuse are far more complex than simply being a reaction. It essentially functions as a coping strategy or form of self-defence to minimise prolonged maltreatment. It’s often enacted by someone who isn’t violent but instead is being driven to these behaviours as a last resort due to being continually subjected to emotional, physical, or psychological abuse.
Initial Phase – The Relationship Begins: There may be an initial honeymoon phase in the relationship, where everything is going well. The abuser will come across as charming caring, and go out of their way to create a sense of safety in the relationship.
The Gradual Escalation: After a time, the abuser may begin to exert their will through the various forms of abuse which may be physical, mental, or emotional. These initial instances will often be downplayed as mistakes with the abuser often portraying themselves as the victim to elicit sympathy.
The Sustained Abuse Phase: Once the abuse has become normalised, it will increase in intensity and frequency. If there is only one type of abuse present in the beginning, now there may be various different expressions. The victim may feel trapped, helpless and fearful losing self-esteem and self-confidence.
Reactive Phase – Onset of Reactive Abuse: Over time, as the abuse intensifies, the victim may eventually reach a point in which they simply have to retaliate to keep themselves safe. This may involve mirroring abusive behaviours or other acts which are out of character. This is reactive abuse.
The Cycle Continues: The reactive abuse of the victim is often used as proof by the original abuser that the victim is the one responsible. The sense of gaslighting creates further confusion and will often fuel further ongoing cycles of retaliation creating a toxic loop of abuse.
Seeking Help: Eventually, the victim of the abuse realises the cycle that they’re part of and may have the courage to reach out for help. This can involve speaking with friends, families, or professional therapists. The key point here is that there needs to be an intervention to interrupt the pattern.
Breaking the Cycle: Once the abuse has been rationalised and validated, the cycle can finally be broken. This involves cutting ties with the abuser through no contact. There can also be elements of trauma bonding in place, which also need to be worked through.
Examples of Reactive Abuse
Reactive abuse is a very broad definition. Just as traditional abuse manifests in several forms, so can the reactive expression of it, as well. Reactive abuse may come in the form of verbal expletives, reciprocal emotional manipulation, or physical retaliation following an episode of physical aggression.
Emotional Reactive Abuse
1. Intense Emotional Outbursts: After continual emotional abuse, the victim may retaliate with heightened emotional responses which may take the form of anger, blaming, and shaming. These responses might often be out of context and disproportionate to the immediate situation.
2. Mirroring Abusive Behaviours: Over time, the victim may start to retaliate and reflect on some of the emotional abuse they’ve been enduring, such as belittling, shouting, or name-calling.
3. Emotional Shutdown: There may come a point where the abuse is too much to take, which can result in emotional shutting down and a refusal to engage with the abuser. This form of emotional detachment can be viewed as reactive as it mirrors the emotional unavailability of the abuser.
Physical Reactive Abuse
1. Retaliatory Hitting: If the victim is regularly subjected to physical abuse, they may reach breaking point and retaliate by striking their abuser out of self-defence or frustration.
2. Throwing Objects: If the victim doesn’t possess the same physical strength or aggression as their abuser, they may resorts/react to throwing objects at them out of frustration to scare them off.
3. Escalated Response: After repeated episodes of physical abuse, the victim may escalate the situation and resort to using weapons in an effort to protect themselves from their abuser.
Does Reactive Abuse Make You An Abuser?
Reactive abuse can blur the lines between appropriate and acceptable behaviour, leading victims of the situation to believe they’ve become abusers themselves. But the important thing to remember, is the actions of reactive abuse are often not in character with the victim’s true personality. While reactive abuse might involve harmful behaviours, is important to distinguish acts of desperation and intentional systematic abuse.
Is Reactive Abuse Justified?
This is where the water is getting murky. While no form of violence or abuse should be advocated for, understanding why it happens in times of danger when there are no other options available is necessary so the victims don’t feel more shame. The victims of abuse that are forced into ‘reactive abuse’ didn’t ask for that experience. So while it shouldn’t be celebrated, there is a certain sense of validation that is required by those who were left with no other choice.
The Grey Zone: Mutual Abuse vs Reactive Abuse and Abuse vs Reactive Abuse
When you bring reactive abuse into the conversation, it can be hard to discern between other expressions of abuse that might look similar. One of the biggest issues is in assuming that this kind of abuse is mutual abuse because there are two parties involved. The same is true in trying to understand abuse vs reactive abuse.
Mutual vs Reactive
Mutual abuse can be thought of as abuse where both individuals initiate abuse independent of the other person’s actions. So those expressions of abuse will not always be in response. In contrast, reactive abuse is always rooted in retaliation towards an action which has happened previously.
Abuse vs Reactive
Abuse as it is understood, is an intentional and deliberate act that seeks power through control or harm of a victim. It is malicious by design. Reactive abuse, on the other hand, is trying to counter these actions for control. It is trying to undo the damage by way of self-defence.
Reactive Abuse in Narcissistic Relationships
Narcissistic relationships can be especially challenging due to the narcissist’s tendencies towards manipulation tactics, gaslighting and other abusive behaviours. Because there is such a high incidence of abusive behaviour, it can lead to forms of reactive abuse quite easily. Here are some of the unique ways that reactive abuse can manifest in a relationship with a narcissist:
Signs of Reactive Abuse in Narcissistic Relationships
Some of the most common signs include the victim doubting their sanity (gaslighting), feeling guilty or responsible for the conflict, or feeling powerless or trapped in the relationship. Here’s how they might be presented in a relational context.
1. Passive-Aggressive Behaviours: Since narcissists attempt to use belittling and humiliation as a method of control, the victim may resort to “innocently” asking personal or triggering questions which they know will provoke an emotional response from the narcissist.
2. Violating Boundaries: As the victim’s boundaries may have been stepped over for long periods, they might retaliate by intentionally doing things that they know will trigger the narcissist. This might look like using personal property they know is off-limits.
3. Gaslighting Reversal: It is possible after being continually gaslighted that the victimised partner may attempt to manipulate the narcissist in return. In the expression of reactive abuse, this might take the form of ‘baiting’ the narcissist into a ‘logic trap’ with the intention of shaming them.
4. Withdrawal and Silence: After prolonged exposure to the narcissist’s neglect and lack of empathy, the partner might withdraw emotionally, mirroring the narcissist’s emotional neglect as a form of abuse.
Reactive Abuse in Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) Relationships
In relationships where one partner has borderline personality disorder (BPD), abuse might occur as a result of the patterns of blaming and emotional instability. Reactive abuse is not something that happens overnight; It creeps in over time. Here are some of the ways it could manifest within a BPD relationship:
1. Mirror Image Accusations: Over time, if the non-BPD partner receives enough mental, and emotional abuse, they may resort to mirroring some of the same accusations. This may be done as part of a defensive manoeuvre in order to prevent from always being the recipient.
2. Isolation or Withdrawal: As part of the cycle of push and pull, the non-BPD partner may lean into avoidant tendencies and become emotionally unavailable. This can be seen as a mirroring of the behaviour of their partner and used as a means of protecting them from abandonment.
3. Excessive Assertiveness: If abuse is sustained enough over a long period of time, the non-BPD partner may become excessively assertive or confrontational as a defence mechanism. What might be seen as an attempt to establish boundaries could escalate into reactive abuse.
Reactive Abuse in Parent Relationships
When it comes to reactive abuse in the context of a parent-child relationship, it can be extremely difficult to navigate because of the closeness of familial bonds. However, when these bonds are marred by consistent abusive behaviour, there needs to be a revaluation of the dynamic. As the early developmental years pass, the abuse of a child may lead to the abuse of others.
Given their vulnerability, dependence and limited life experience, children may often defer to modelling/mimicking the behaviours of their parents as coping mechanisms. This can lead to ‘retaliatory abuse,’ which could be then used as ‘proof’ by the parent/caregiver to continue on with the cycle of abuse which may be justified as ‘punishment.’
Let’s break this down into typical scenarios:
Emotional Reactive Abuse: This might involve the child mimicking the parent’s patterns of manipulation, verbal insults or devaluation as a way of trying to defend themselves and regain a sense of control.
Physical Reactive Abuse: In cases where the parents engage in physical abuse towards the child, the child may also resort to physical retaliation as a direct response to the physical harm that has been inflicted upon them.
Healing From Reactive Abuse in Therapy
To properly heal from reactive abuse takes courage to walk away from the relationship, knowing that you are not the problem but you have been abused and forced into behaviours that do not reflect your true character. However, there can still be some mental and emotional processing, which needs to take place in order to bring a more complete resolve to the experience. Here are some of the most effective therapeutic approaches that will be supportive in your journey.
1. Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): CBT is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on transforming cognitive distortions to create better/more aligned behavioural choices. In the context of reactive abuse, CBT can help individuals identify triggers and reshape their responses to replace negative patterns with better-quality choices.
2. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT): DBT is a branch of CBT which assists in teaching skills to cope with stress, regulate emotions and improve your relationships. It can be particularly helpful in helping to manage the emotional dysregulation associated with reactive abuse.
3. Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR is a specialised therapy designed to help individuals recover from traumatic experiences. It uses a unique technique of guided eye movements to help process and make sense of traumatic memories, which can be useful for those experiencing reactive abuse.
4. Group Therapy: Being part of a group therapy setting can be beneficial in some instances. Hearing the stories of others who’ve had similar experiences of reactive abuse can be validating, and help rationalise the experience through a sense of shared vulnerability.
5. Family Therapy: If the abuse occurred within a family setting, and there is the willingness from both sides to find a resolution to the situation, entering into family therapy can be extremely beneficial in finding a resolution for all parties concerned.