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What Is Reactive Abuse?

* I generally write using the pronouns he/him when referring to narcissists, but females are just as likely to be narcissists or exhibit narcissistic traits. So please don't think just because article uses the word him or he that it could not be a woman in that same role.

When an abuser lashes out at a victim, it is very traumatic. Now, it’s important to remember that violence is just one form of abuse. Emotional and verbal abuse are just as stressful and upsetting for victims. But what is reactive abuse?

After consistent abuse, it can be common for victims to lash out at their abuser as a way to try and fight back. This may involve them screaming, crying, or even getting physical themselves as a form of self-defense.

What Is Reactive Abuse

This reaction is often provoked by the abuser as a way to manipulate the victim and shift blame away from themselves. It is a control tactic used by abusers to portray themselves as the victim and justify their own abusive behavior.

These actions are then used against them by the abuser to ‘prove’ that they are the victims themselves. 

The concept of reactive abuse is closely related to gaslighting, as it involves emotional manipulation where the abuser tries to make the victim doubt their perception of reality and believe that they are the one at fault.

Reactive abuse is not the same as mutual abuse, where both partners are equally abusive to each other. Instead, it is a response to prolonged and sustained abuse, and many experts argue that mutual abuse is very rare.

This can occur in many different situations of abuse but is arguably the most dangerous for those who are sexually assaulted, as they will use this information or power and hold it against them, to try and deter them from coming forward. 

Why Abusers Will Exploit Reactive Abuse

An abuser’s end goal can often be to ensure they push their victim to reactive abuse so that they have ‘evidence’ that the abuse is the victim’s fault.

They will exaggerate the reactive abuse while massively understating the abuse they give out.

They will often force the victim into reacting and then use those reactions against them in the future, sometimes even months and years after the incident. 

It is a method that an abuser will use to make the victim feel guilted or shamed into believing they caused or deserved the abuse or violence they received.

This tactic is often used to keep victims from feeling comfortable coming forward and to also keep them focused on their response to the traumatic events rather than the actual events themselves. 

What Causes A Victim To Become Reactive?

Many victims feel deep shame for their reactions to abuse, but this is undeserved. This is a natural defense mechanism or reaction to danger. After all, your body is programmed to try and keep you safe subconsciously.

It’s a little like how you never decide to pull your hand away when you burn it, you just do it instinctively. When in danger, like you are from abuse, your body will go into flight or fight mode as a stress response. 

If you feel threatened, and don’t feel like ‘flight’ is an option, your body will prepare to fight back against the danger.

Responses such as punching, screaming, crying, and kicking are all automatic, so victims should not feel guilt for not having complete control over these actions. 

What Causes The Assailant To Reactively Abuse?

It is important to remember that abuse is always abuse, regardless of how a victim reacts. So just because you do not necessarily react the way we speak about in this article, does not mean that you are not being abused. 

An abuser may shift the blame and gaslight you for many different reasons, but two mental disorders, in particular, create a tendency for this type of behavior.

Narcissistic Abuse

Narcissistic personality disorder is a personality disorder that affects how one might view themselves. Narcissists usually display an excessive sense of self-importance and have a very deep desire for attention, while also lacking any empathy for others. 

Because of this, those with narcissistic personalities struggle to keep healthy relationships. A narcissist is, in their mind, very rarely wrong, everyone else has to be responsible for their own self-motivated actions.

They will often place the blame on others. 

While it is not the case for every person with this disorder, narcissists are more likely to engage in abusive behavior and are more likely to manipulate those around them into believing that they are at fault.

Antisocial Personality Disorder

Typically, people with this Antisocial Personality Disorder have a tendency to be good actors and liars. They are also as a general rule, more likely to be intimidating or deceitful in their relationship as they struggle to feel remorse for their actions. 

An abuser with this disorder may have a higher predisposition to engage in reactive abuse.

This can be quite dangerous for the victims as they are good liars who can manipulate others into believing they are actually the victim and that the victim is the abuser. 

Effects Of Reactive Abuse

Reactive abuse, is yet another form of abuse, and so can be very traumatic for victims. It can often make victims feel completely trapped in a relationship that is detrimental to their safety and mental and physical health

Those who experience reactive abuse are also more likely to form trauma bonds where the victim becomes emotionally attached to their abuser and this can make it much more difficult to walk away. 

These trauma bonds are often formed through stages of abuse which are followed by extreme remorse which manipulates the victim into believing the abuser will change.

This combined with manipulating the victim into believing they are also causing abuse, makes them feel trapped into staying in the relationship so that they can both work on their ‘similar faults.’

But they are not similar, and the abuser is well aware of this. 

Preventing Reactive Abuse

While reactive abuse is a natural response, it is important where possible for victims to try and prevent it so that the assailant can not use the reaction to manipulate them in the future. Here are a few other things you can try. 

  1. If you are in the early stages of a relationship where you often find yourself reacting in this manner, try to get out as soon as possible. The earlier you leave, hopefully, the safer it should be to do so.  
  2. As hard as it is, try to always remain as calm as possible in situations. If it is safe to do so, remove yourself from them. Abusers can use negative reactions to gain the upper hand, if you don’t respond they have no power. 
  3. If you are worried for your safety, reach out to a domestic hotline when and where possible it is safe to do so. Family members can also do this for relatives and friends they are concerned about. 

Final Thoughts on Reactive Abuse

It is important to note that reactive abuse is a poor term to describe an act of self-defense. When a victim reacts to abuse, it is a physiological survival mechanism employed to protect themselves from harm, and it does not make them an abuser.

Abusers may use instances of reactive abuse to maintain power and control over their victims, often bringing up these reactions indefinitely as “proof” that the victim is unstable or abusive themselves.

Victims of reactive abuse may find themselves in a cycle that is difficult to break free from, and seeking professional help, such as therapy or support groups, can be crucial for them to regain their emotional well-being and escape the abusive relationship.

Victims must realize that reacting to abuse does not make them an abuser. Reactive abuse is a powerful manipulative tactic that can be used by abusers to trap victims in the relationship. 

If you fear that you may be a victim of abuse, when it is safe to do so, speak to a family member, friend, or professional (domestic abuse helplines) and reach out for help. 

Read More about Narcissist Abuse and Domestic Violence

Emergency Numbers

Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) is the nation’s largest organization fighting sexual violence: (800) 656-HOPE / (800) 810-7440 (TTY)

988 Mental Health Emergency Hotline: Calling 988 will connect you to a crisis counselor regardless of where you are in the United States.

911 Emergency

The National Runaway Safeline: 800-RUNAWAY (800-786-2929)

Self Abuse Finally Ends (S.A.F.E)

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Trauma & Child Abuse Resource Center

Domestic Violence Shelters & Resources

Futures Without Violence

National Center for Victims of Crime

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

National Network to End Domestic Violence

National Sexual Violence Resource Center

Prevent Child Abuse America

Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center (SPARC)

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) HelpLine: 1-800-950-NAMI, or text “HELPLINE” to 62640. Both services are available between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. ET, Monday–Friday

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255); www.suicidepreventionlifeline.orgOr, just dial 988

Suicide Prevention, Awareness, and Support: www.suicide.org

Crisis Text Line: Text REASON to 741741 (free, confidential and 24/7). In English and Spanish

Self-Harm Hotline: 1-800-DONT CUT (1-800-366-8288)

Family Violence Helpline: 1-800-996-6228

American Association of Poison Control Centers: 1-800-222-1222

National Council on Alcoholism & Drug Dependency: 1-800-622-2255

LGBTQ Hotline: 1-888-843-4564

National Maternal Mental Health Hotline: 1-833-TLC-MAMA (1-833-852-6262)

The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 678678. Standard text messaging rates apply. Available 24/7/365. (Provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning—LGBTQ—young people under 25.)

The SAGE LGBT Elder Hotline connects LGBT older people and caretakers with friendly responders. 1-877-360-LGBT (5428)

The Trans Lifeline is staffed by transgender people for transgender people:
1-877-565-8860 (United States)
1-877-330-6366 (Canada)

Veterans Crisis Line: https://www.veteranscrisisline.net

International Suicide Prevention Directory: findahelpline.com

The StrongHearts Native Helpline is a confidential and anonymous culturally appropriate domestic violence and dating violence helpline for Native Americans, available every day from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. CT. Call 1-844-762-8483.

‘Find a Therapist’ Online Directories

Canada

UK & Republic of Ireland

  • Emergency: 112 or 999
  • Hotline: +44 (0) 8457 90 90 90 (UK – local rate)
  • Hotline: +44 (0) 8457 90 91 92 (UK minicom)
  • Hotline: 1850 60 90 90 (ROI – local rate)
  • Hotline: 1850 60 90 91 (ROI minicom)
  • YourLifeCounts.org: https://yourlifecounts.org/find-help/

Citations:
[1] https://nationallegalservice.co.uk/what-is-reactive-abuse/
[2] https://www.charliehealth.com/post/what-is-reactive-abuse
[3] https://thriveworks.com/help-with/abuse-neglect/reactive-abuse/
[4] https://www.verywellmind.com/reactive-abuse-signs-impact-and-tips-to-break-the-cycle-7567483
[5] https://breakthesilencedv.org/reactive-abuse-what-it-is-and-why-abusers-rely-on-it/
[6] https://www.insider.com/guides/health/sex-relationships/reactive-abuse
[7] https://www.choosingtherapy.com/reactive-abuse/
[8] https://theprivatetherapyclinic.co.uk/blog/reactive-abuse-in-relationships/

4 thoughts on “What Is Reactive Abuse?”

  1. I hate what you did to me, but me carrying on is ridiculous and only hurting me. I told you before we moved in together I couldn’t deal with it if you ever treated me the ways you did. Everything you ever promised in all those deep sincere ways feels like a setup for your sick, manipulative, ptsd inducing discard. You are are most insincere disgraceful hypocritical coward I’ve ever had the misfortune of knowing. How you could fake a whole personality!! fake your one true love and all the nonsense you sold me about communicating and working through anything for and years! You need to torture and recreate your childhood of neglect and false promises, to dangle people in desperation as they fall apart and can’t feed or take care of themselves like you?? You have to ruin me as a person for your pathetic victim stories, how can you be so cruel, do the opposite of everything you ever promised for your needs while betraying me in the biggest way, using my past and my trauma to just up and leave and never ever talk or look at me again. Of course you really think you’re the victim, you accused me of insane crap I never did and treated me like your abuser… even when I tried to do things you way you left me dangling kept making your stories worse and worse. You didn’t have to leave in the first place all you ever had to do was really talk to me like you always said you would, but you just used me. You can lie to yourself and everyone else for the rest of your cowardly life, but somewhere inside your sick addled brain you know used me for your growth and made my nightmares come true so you could feel better about it. Thanks for making me weaker in all the ways you used to praise me for giving you strength and costing me my life and piece of mind, you’re the big winner you fake activist, fake compassion, fake all your cares and beliefs, you use mental health to abuse I’m done.

  2. I truly cared for my ex and tried to explain what reactive abuse was to him and he thought it was something that I made up. This is my unsent letter/final words to him, it doesn’t include all the details for both sides of the story to be heard, but he’d know what I mean if I ever sent it:

    It’s outrageously absurd you keep hanging over my head about the time when I swung at you downtown and the random guy who saw told you he can have me arrested. I don’t believe I even touched you. You degraded and demeaned me so much I snapped. I’m not saying it’s okay to hit or be violent, but I barley touched you and you have to keep reminding me that you could have had me arrested…as if I was ever a threat to you…why? Just to hurt me or get rid of me? You pushed me to the edge emotionally numerous times and you can’t hold yourself accountable for that, but can easily call me violent and say you are scared of me? Recently pulling out your phone to record me when I wasn’t even doing anything wrong, just so you can try to catch me on a recording flipping out? A different occasion, remember in the building hallway? You even told me you let me hit you, the one time I actually did. You probably let me because the hallway camera would catch it as if you already knew that looking at me dead in my eyes calling me a cunt would initiate me to hit you. After I apologized and explained the emotions and the cause to make me react that way, you said it was okay and you weren’t hurt at all. You put me through an emotional roller coaster and have apologized a dozen times for treating me bad, but yet that doesn’t matter? What matters is this 112lb girl swung at you.

  3. I cared enough about my ex to try to figure out why things the way they were. I tired to explain to him what reactive abuse was and he thought it was something I made up. This is my unsent letter to him. It may not cover both sides from an outsiders prospective, but he’d know what I mean if he ever read it:

    It’s outrageously absurd that you keep hanging over my head about the time when I swung at you downtown and the random guy who saw told you he can have me arrested. I don’t believe I even touched you. You degraded and demeaned me so much I snapped. I’m not saying it’s okay to hit or be violent, but I barley touched you and you have to keep reminding me that you could have had me arrested…as if I was ever a threat to you…why? Just to hurt me or get rid of me? You pushed me to the edge emotionally and you can’t hold yourself accountable for that, but can easily call me violent and say you are scared of me? Recently pulling out your phone to record me when I wasn’t even doing anything wrong, just so you can try to catch me on a recording flipping out? A different occasion, remember in the building hallway? You even told me you let me hit you, the one time I actually did. You probably let me because the hallway camera would catch it as if you already knew that looking at me dead in my eyes calling me a cunt would initiate me to hit you. After I apologized and explained the emotions and the cause to make me react that way, you said it was okay and you weren’t hurt at all. You put me through an emotional roller coaster and have apologized a dozen times for treating me bad, but yet that doesn’t matter? What matters is this 112lb girl swung at you.

  4. I understand this. I finally left a narcissistic husband. I did all these things. I reacted alot. but when I pulled the pin he started holis abuse and gaslighting in our daughter. what on earth do you do then?

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