How To Escape The Cycle Of Reactive Abuse In A Relationship

All abusive relationships are dangerous, toxic, and damaging. However, many people don't recognize that there are many different types of abuse in relationships. When you first hear the word "abuse," you might imagine someone hitting their partner or viciously screaming at them. Those are the sort of scenes often depicted on TV and in movies, but we can't forget about other varieties of abuse, such as verbal abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, and reactive abuse.


It's also important to understand that victims respond differently to abuse. In media, it's common to portray the victim as small and helpless, crying or cowering in fear as a result of their abuser's aggressive actions. But that's not always what happens in real life. Some victims defend themselves or fight back and get blamed for it — that's reactive abuse, and if you think this sounds like gaslighting, you're correct about the similarities (via Thriveworks). Much like gaslighting, reactive abuse involves the person at fault flipping the situation on the victim.

What is reactive abuse?

Abusers who initiate violence or yelling often provoke the victim until they fight back, and then treat the self-defense as abuse, when it was only a reaction to the real abuse in the situation. "After the individual being abused has reacted to the prolonged abuse, the abuser will then flip the script and label themselves the victim," Elizabeth Jarquin, a licensed marriage and family therapist, told Insider. Even if the victim fights back against the abuser, any relationship with reactive abuse is still a toxic partnership and never acceptable. Regardless of what the abuser says, the victim is still a victim and should not be blamed.


For one example of reactive abuse in a relationship, let's say a person is physically hurting the other, and the victim starts bleeding. At that point, the victim shoves the abuser and hits back in self-defense. The abuser then accuses the victim of abusing them, even though it was self-defense. Or, perhaps the couple is arguing, and one partner starts screaming at the other. The victim doesn't say anything until they can't handle the yelling anymore and yells back. Then, the abuser who started the screaming accuses the victim of emotional abuse for raising their voice back at them. This is another scenario of reactive abuse.

Reactive abuse can happen in any relationship

Reactive abuse can occur in toxic romantic relationships, but it's important to remember that any form of abuse can happen in other dynamics, such as families and friendships. For example, if a parent physically abuses their child and the child reacts in self-defense, the abusive parent might punish the child for their "disrespect" or "violence," despite being the one who initiated the abuse. Abuse from family members is often less talked about than abuse in romantic relationships, so it's crucial to understand the signs. "One example might be a child being told they are too sensitive ... An emotionally abusive parent guilts you," Carolyn Cole, LCPC, LMFT, NCC, explained to Bustle.


Reactive abuse can also occur in toxic friendships. If you feel like this is happening to you, trust your instincts and don't fall into society's dismissive traps like "it's just boys being boys" or "girls can just be so catty." For instance, a "friend" might yell insults at their "friend," putting them down and ruining their self-esteem. Then, the victim decides they can't take it anymore and yells something like "shut up" at the abusive friend to make it stop. The abuser might then claim that they were "just kidding" and that they can't believe their friend would talk to them like that, making the victim's defensive act seem abusive.

The effects of reactive abuse

Reactive abuse, like any other form of abuse, can cause damage to people's lives and mental health. For instance, an abuser with a charming personality or acting skills may attempt to alienate the victim from their loved ones by telling their friends how the victim hurt them and omitting any details about how the abuser is the actual initiator of violence or any other form of abuse. To make matters worse, the abuser may go as far as calling the police when the victim defends themselves or recording the incident to make the victim appear dangerous or untrustworthy. This can result in isolation or even legal trouble for the victim.


Furthermore, the way the abuser blames the victim can cause them to feel guilty and affect their emotional well-being. "This dynamic can be extremely damaging and harmful to the person's mental health, as it may cause them to experience increased anxiety, depression, isolation, sleep-related issues, confusion, and mood swings," Alexa Connors, LMSW, a senior therapist at The Dorm, told Verywell Mind.

Reactive abuse vs. mutual abuse

It's important for people to understand the difference between reactive abuse and mutual abuse. Mutual abuse occurs when both parties initiate abuse in the relationship, with both individuals equally at fault. "It's generated by a situation that people can't resolve in some other way," Mindy Mechanic, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at California State University Fullerton, shared with


Reactive abuse, on the other hand, is not mutual. The victim's actions are in self-defense, as they did not initiate the abuse. "There is nothing mutual about power and control. We call these responses 'self-defending' when a victim stands up to their abuser and says 'no more,'" Debra Wingfield, a retired licensed professional counselor with expertise in coercive control and domestic abuse, told Insider. Therefore, if you find yourself in a situation where you are being abused and you stand up to your abuser, don't let anyone blame you. Reactive abuse is a dangerous cycle, and victims of this form of abusive relationship deserve just as much love, validation, and care as any other victim.

Nip reactive abuse in the bud

To begin with, watch out for red flags such as gaslighting, the silent treatment, or public humiliation. Emotions are indicators of your emotional wellbeing and shouldn't be dismissed. When a person provokes you to the point of reacting negatively, you need to take action, according to YANA. Try to make your opinions heard, avoid unfruitful arguments, and maintain your cool lest the abuser uses your outbursts to gain the upper hand. Remember that reactive abuse only happens when you react, so choose your battle wisely.


Furthermore, it would help if you made an effort to validate your self-worth and acknowledge that you're not in the wrong. Whether your partner likes it or not, do not hesitate to establish boundaries, make your intentions clear, and enforce consequences when necessary. If you're not persistent, you might fall into a trauma bond — a situation where you develop empathy toward the person who abuses you and become a willing participant in the oppression, per Diversity for Social Impact. A reactive abuser's manipulative strategies can barely work when they realize they have little influence over your feelings.

You don't have to suffer reactive abuse in silence

When your partner's behavior causes you to worry about your bodily or mental health, you should seek outside help for guided support, per BetterHelp. Many times, you are not even aware that you're in an abusive relationship. Therefore, a friend, family member, or therapist can do a better job at identifying the signs and guiding you out. When push comes to shove, you might want to contact a domestic violence hotline or go to the police for timely assistance. Even when you have reacted negatively, it doesn't change the fact that you are the victim and justified in seeking help.


Supposing you've decided to end the abusive relationship you're in, the next step is to remove yourself from the abuser, says A Conscious Rethink. To give yourself room to heal, you need to keep a physical and emotional distance from that person. If you can, cut communication with the abuser so as not to give them any chance to play the sad puppy and stop you from moving on.

Nobody deserves to be abused in a relationship, regardless of how high their pain threshold is. Ultimately, only you can end your suffering. No matter how much you want your relationship to work, putting up with abuse is never the solution to a long-lasting relationship. If someone you love has repeatedly forced you to defend yourself, perhaps letting go is the best option.


If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.