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Reactive Abuse: How to Learn to Get Out of It?
Mental Health

Reactive Abuse: How to Learn to Get Out of It?

HR_author_photo_Edibel
Written by Edibel Quintero, RD | Medically reviewed by Medically reviewed by Rosmy Barrios, MD check
Published on November 28, 2022
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11 min

A victim of abuse reaches a point where they react in a similar way to their abuser’s attacks. This is called reactive abuse.

Reactive abuse
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In reactive abuse, the victim does not understand that their attacks on the abuser are not because they are violent but because it is a way of defending themselves. This article teaches readers about reactive abuse, how to identify it, and how abuse victims can get out of it.

Reactive abuse is a response a victim has to the mistreatment they receive. Many times, it can go unnoticed or is confused with another action since this type of abuse is characterized by responding to the perpetrator’s attacks, and it may seem that the person is just as violent as the attacker. 

When reactive abuse occurs, it may seem that both are violent since the perpetrator uses these reactions to make the victim believe they are the abuser, but in reality, this is not the case. The victim is not usually someone violent but has reached the point where they feel they have to do something for their well-being.

Reactive Abuse – What Is It?

Reactive abuse is defined as the response a victim has to the attacks they receive. The attacks that the victim receives can be termed physical and psychological abuse. The victim reaches a point where they do not tolerate the different mistreatment they receive from their abuser, so they respond similarly. Responses to abuse are known as reactive outbursts.

Given the reaction of the victim, the abuser uses these responses to manipulate the victim, which is known as gaslighting. The abuser tries to make the victim believe they are the abused because they have evidence of their behaviors and expressions. Faced with this change of guilt, the victim may come to think that they are just as violent or worse than their victimizer.

Because of the manipulation, the victim may experience feelings of guilt, shame, and confusion for their reactions. What the victim does not know is that these responses are natural to the body since it identifies a threatening situation and has to protect itself.

Reactive abuse is present in an abusive relationship, where one of the members physically, psychologically, or emotionally attacks the partner. It is also active in domestic violence situations, where one of the family members may have abusive actions against another member of the family.

The person who responds with reactive abuse is usually someone who is mentally ill because of the abuse they have received. Their emotional well-being is affected, as is their physical well-being, and they can remain that way for a long time because of the abuser’s constant manipulation and mistreatment.

How Common Is Reactive Abuse?

There are currently no statistics that show exactly how widespread reactive abuse is, but there is data on abuse in the US.

According to CCADV, approximately 1 in 4 women (23.2%) and 1 in 7 men (13.9%) have been victims of severe physical violence due to an intimate partner. 1 in 2 women (47.1) and 1 in 2 men (47.3%) have experienced psychological assault by an intimate partner in their lives.

Approximately 1 in 2 women (47.1%) and 1 in 2 men (47.3%) have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

The previous data gives a sample of how the acts of violence are situated and that among these statistics, there may be cases of reactive abuse. Also, that violence occurs not only between romantic partners but also between family members or other relatives.

Why Do Abusers Utilize Reactive Abuse?

Abusers utilize reactive abuse as proof that they are, in fact, the “abused.” When their victim reaches the point where they can no longer tolerate the abuse and react to it, the perpetrator uses these reactions as evidence that they are the victim, and their victim is the abuser.

The person who commits the reactive abuse may suffer since they think they are an abuser because of the way they reacted. The victim feels bad, blames themselves for what happened, and starts to doubt themselves.

The victimizer uses the victim’s guilt and shame as manipulation. In any situation, the victimizer reminds the victim of the way they reacted, making them feel worse and worse. Because of this manipulation, the victim may find it more difficult to feel better as they doubt the type of person they are, believing that they are an abuser.

The manipulation of the perpetrator is a way to control or silence the victim. If the victim wants to report the abuse, the perpetrator shows the evidence or reminds the victim that they were the ones who attacked and that it would not be convenient for them to talk about it.

Signs of Reactive Abuse

The most common signs of reactive abuse are the physical and verbal responses that the victim makes in response to the constant attacks of their perpetrator.

Some of the reactive abuse manifestations are screaming, insulting with obscene words, and throwing whatever they have around them, like a plate or glass. The victim can also fight or start hitting, cracking, or kicking the abuser.

The difference between these signs and other types of abuse is that they manifest as a response to the mistreatment received. As a defense mechanism, the victim responds to the abuse they receive. It is different from mutual abuse, where two people are equally abusive toward each other.

The elevated levels of stress and anxiety that the abused person receives from their victimizer can lead them to the point that they react in the same way (or worse) than their abuser.

To be called reactive abuse, there must be behaviors that precede the reaction, hence the name “reactive.”

Another symptom of reactive abuse is the victimizer’s reaction to the attack. If you are the victim of some type of abuse, you react to it, and your perpetrator manipulates you with extortionary comments or tries to blame you for everything that happened, you may have experienced reactive abuse.

Feelings of guilt, shame, and believing that you are the violent one are symptoms of reactive abuse. This occurs from the manipulation that the victimizer exercises on their victim.

Examples of Reactive Abuse

Reactive abuse can manifest itself in many ways. It can occur among family, friends, and relationships.

Example No. 1

Andrea is a girl who has been a victim of bullying for more than a year by one of her classmates, named Laura. For more than a year now, Laura has been calling Andrea unpleasant nicknames.

Laura not only calls her names but also, at lunchtime, takes Andrea’s lunch. There were times when in the bathroom, she had cornered her, pulled her hair, and threatened her. Faced with these attacks, Andrea feels bad and sad and often tells her mother that she does not want to go to school.

One day, Andrea was entering the class, and Laura pulled her hair again. Andrea already felt tired of all the mistreatment she had received, so she decided to do the same. She pulled Laura’s hair, yelled at her, and started pushing her. In the face of these attacks, Laura cries, plays the victim, and complains in the office.

Because of Laura’s complaint, Andrea is suspended. During all this time, Andrea was Laura’s victim, and nothing happened, and now Andrea defends herself and is punished for her behavior, when in reality, what she was doing was defending herself.

Example No. 2

Kate has been in a relationship with Ryan for 2 years. Over the last year, Ryan’s behavior has changed. He constantly criticizes Kate, and when she does something wrong, he yells at her.

One day Ryan called Kate, and she did not answer. When he went to where she was, he yelled at her and asked her why she did not answer, insulting her at the same time. Kate got tired and started yelling at Ryan. Ryan told her that she was crazy and that because she yelled at him, she should seek help for talking like that.

Ryan tells his friends what Kate did to him, and they all start talking badly about her when, in reality, they don’t know that Kate is only responding to Ryan’s constant attacks.

The above examples can give you an idea of what reactive abuse is. If you are a victim of abuse and you respond similarly, it is not because you are abusive but because you are doing it to defend yourself.

How to Identify Reactive Abuse?

Reactive abuse has 3 specific steps that show the pattern of an abuser’s behavior.

#1 Antagonism

The first phase of reactive abuse is antagonism. In this phase, the victimizer tries to provoke the victim in order to get a response from them. To elicit this response, the abuser may physically and verbally attack the victim.

The attacks can be minimal, like a specific comment or criticism. Then it can escalate with yelling and louder words, and then it can be accompanied by physical abuse.

#2 Proof

The second stage of reactive abuse is proof. At this stage, the abuser has obtained what they were looking for – a response to their provocations. The victim has reacted with verbal and physical attacks, which may be like those manifested by the abuser.

The abuser takes the victim’s reactions as proof that the victim is a violent person, which allows them to handle the situation in their own way, and here is when manipulation begins.

#3 Turning tables

The third stage of reactive abuse is turning tables. Already at this stage, the abuser has evidence of their victim’s responses to their attack and begins to manipulate them.

The abuser begins to point the finger at the victim, telling them that they are violent and that they are the ones to blame for everything that’s happened. The abuser tries to compare themselves to the victim, telling them that they are also an aggressive and violent person and that the cause of their actions is the reactions that the victim has.

At this point, the abuser will also try to play the innocent role. They will try to play the role of the victim, while the real victim will make them look guilty.

How to Disempower Your Abuser? 6 Tried-and-Tested Tips

There are several ways to escape from the vicious circle of reactive abuse. Our experts share 6 tips with you:

#1 Treat the abuser’s actions as if they are not important

The abuser is looking for a reaction from you to have arguments to manipulate you, so it is best to stop reacting to their attacks. It may seem difficult at first as the victim wants to fight back, but try to stay calm and remember that not responding is a way for the abuser to feel less dominant. The action of not responding and not hooking on the abuser’s actions is known as the gray rock method.

Consider that reactive abuse is the response to an act of abuse, which the abuser is waiting for to feed themselves. Try not to fall for their traps, as at one point, they will get bored because they are not getting a reaction.

#2 Involve a professional

A mental health professional can help you find strategies to deal with reactive abuse. The victim may experience prominent levels of stress and anxiety, which may not subside even after the abuse has ended.

The help of the right therapist allows the victim to navigate the feelings of guilt or shame that they have because of their reactions, to understand why they have been around the abuser for so long, and how to heal.

#3 Do not contact the abuser

Decreasing contact with the perpetrator reduces the chances that reactive abuse will manifest. It may seem complicated, but this will help to provoke fewer reactions and keep feelings of anger and irritability present.

#4 Try an app

These days, various applications have different strategies to work on your mental health, and the Sensa app is one of them. This app helps people to control and manage their emotions, thoughts, and decisions. It helps create habits, reduces stress and anxiety levels, and teaches how to heal at your own pace. The app’s material is based on the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) method.

Sensa Health
Your calm mind assistant
  • Lessons based on the CBT method
  • Mood journal
  • Challenges & self-improvement activities
  • Quick relief function
  • Assessments to help you grow
Our rating:
4.5
Visit Sensa Health

If you have experienced reactive abuse, this app can help you navigate those feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, shame, and irritability. It can serve as support when reacting again to another abuse from your victimizer and helps to make healthier decisions to get out of the abuser’s manipulation.

#5 Recognize the manipulation

One of the key elements in reactive abuse is manipulation, and it is how the abuser makes the victim feel guilty for defending themself. As a victim of abuse, if at the time of reacting in a similar way, you feel the abuser accuses you, makes you feel it’s your fault, and says that you are worse – understand that they are trying to manipulate you.

#6 Use emergency lines and police contacts

Lines like the national domestic violence hotline can provide support when experiencing any type of abuse, they are always available. Going to the police is also necessary if you feel like you are in danger and or that you cannot escape from the abuser.

A Word From a Psychologist

People with narcissistic and antisocial personality disorders are more likely to engage in abusive behavior toward someone. Narcissists often have trouble maintaining healthy relationships and taking responsibility.

Individuals with an antisocial tendency have no remorse for the things they do. They manipulate others and lie easily. If you have experienced reactive abuse, the abuser is likely to be someone with one of the above characteristics.

Psychological therapy is a good ally for different cases of abuse. There are situations where the person does not recognize that they are the victim of abuse by someone else and can normalize it.

If you are in a situation where a partner, friend, or family is destructive and abusive, and you feel you are responding in the same way, it is time to seek professional help and start taking care of yourself.

Conclusion

Reactive abuse is the response that a victim of abuse has toward the abuser. The abuser manipulates the situation and makes the abused person believe they are the aggressor.

The abused person reacts to protect and defend themselves against different attacks, such as physical and verbal abuse. These reactions are known as reactive outbursts and are the body’s responses to threatening situations it identifies, the abuse in this case.

Reactive abuse is present in people who experience abuse in abusive relationships and domestic violence. The reactions to abuse do not mean that mutual abuse is present, as the victim is usually not violent.

For reactive abuse not to continue, the victim must identify that the abuser is looking for a reason to accuse them. Avoiding contact with the abuser, not responding to the attacks, and seeking psychological help are ways you can work through this type of abuse and heal from all the damage the abuser has caused.

Sensa Health
Your calm mind assistant
  • Lessons based on the CBT method
  • Mood journal
  • Challenges & self-improvement activities
  • Quick relief function
  • Assessments to help you grow
Our rating:
4.5
Visit Sensa Health
HR_author_photo_Edibel
Written by
Edibel Quintero is a medical doctor who graduated in 2013 from the University of Zulia and has been working in her profession since then. She specializes in obesity and nutrition, physical rehabilitation, sports massage and post-operative rehabilitation. Edibel’s goal is to help people live healthier lives by educating them about food, exercise, mental wellness and other lifestyle choices that can improve their quality of life.
Medically reviewed by Rosmy Barrios, MD
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