Many people wonder, is it considered mutual abuse when a victim hits back? Today, I will unpack reactive abuse vs mutual abuse from the physical and verbal perspective. First, I must say that reactive abuse vs mutual abuse was not addressed or brought into the public eye until the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trials. Now, it is getting more mainstream attention, and more information online is available. I did cover the subject slightly in narcissistic abuse dog whistles and are you temporarily narcissistic. Yet, I wanted to unpack this subject because there seems to be some confusion. To begin, this is a subject matter that I wish more law enforcement, school staff and principals, therapists, social workers, parents, and attorneys were educated on. Why? Because I feel too many victims get blamed for being pushed over the edge and losing their composure. Let me explain.
Before I explain, I must give a trigger warning. Some women might not like what I am about to say, and others will get it. Men are raised not to hit a woman. Unfortunately, some women take advantage of this critical life lesson and like to push boundaries. A narcissistic woman or woman that favors reactive abuse tactics will bait and provoke a man or woman into hitting them. The woman might slap the person first in the face to trigger a reaction. She might continue to slap or hit the person, anticipating that eventually, they will put their arm up to block the assault. Then the woman will react in shock if you defend yourself. It can be challenging to walk away when someone is physically hurting you. Some women might pretend that you made them lose their balance and they fell. This results in an injury in which they can blame you for being the abuser. Again, this is reactive abuse, not mutual abuse. Some women will egg the person on, taunting them into violence. And some women get off on being hit, abused, or having rough sex. This concerns me because people can find themselves in a difficult situation to explain or get out of. Their life and future are on the line. And some people can be blamed for a crime when they are just trying to protect themselves. There can be jail time, loss of child custody, supervised custody visitation, expensive legal fees, and layers of trauma upon trauma. Is it really worth it being pushed over the edge and paying the price that could alter your life forever? Of course the answer is, “NO!” But, many people are not educated and informed about reactive abuse vs mutual abuse, especially the people that we count on to keep us safe. That’s how it goes undetected and leaves the victim destroyed.
I was pushed over the edge when I wrote about my reactive abuse situation in chapter fourteen. I do my best to keep my composure during a conflict and avoid letting people push me over the edge. Many of my friends have told me that it takes a lot to get me angry, and it does. What concerns me is there were so many signs that law enforcement did not notice and several questions that should have been asked of me. If you have read that chapter, you know my abuser was highly intoxicated, and I was sober. Our newborn son was locked in the bedroom with my abuser, and he would not open the door until I signed a piece of paper waving all my parental rights for our son. It was a situation I never expected to find myself in, but it did happen. I am good at communicating and negotiating, but when a psychopath narcissist is drunk and wants to see you snap visually, my snapping point was to use our son as a pawn. When he finally opened the bedroom door, he was cold as ice. He said, and I quote this from my book, “Get the fuck out of this house and take your pathetic daughter with you. You will never see our son again. You are dead to me.” Where did the love go, right? I am about love and peace, but he was about war. In my anger and disgust, I saw a lint roller brush and grabbed it. It is a moment I am not proud of, but nobody threatens to take away my child and hand it over to a drunk, irresponsible man baby. So, I hit him in his right arm about five to eight times with the sticky tape. When I dropped the lint roller brush next to the bed and picked up my son, he started laughing in my face to my shock and horror. He said, “You just assaulted me. Now, I will call the police and have you arrested.” I was frozen and didn’t believe him. His behavior and laughter were normal human behavior.
Now would you consider that mutual abuse or reactive abuse? I think there is nothing mutual about manipulation, threats, power, and control. It is all about control for the abuser. The abuser is trying to control you and make you snap. When a person snaps and can appear as the aggressor, the difference is they are not exerting control. They are defending themselves, saying no more, and drawing a line in the abuse cycle. This is key because it all boils down to who started it. The abuser will say it is you, but can someone spot and detect the difference between mutual abuse and reactive abuse?
Here is what happens within the body of the victim. When a person is continuously abused, a high amount of cortisol and adrenalin is produced in the body. These stress hormones lead the person to a fight, flight, fawn, or freeze response. A fight response may make the person react by swearing, yelling, name-calling, making verbal threats, or physically lashing out. When this happens, the person can and will appear to be unstable, emotionally charged, aggressive, and out of control. However, underneath all those heated emotions and the stress hormone overload, they are reacting to the abuse. The term “reactive abuse,” rather than “mutual abuse,” best describes what is happening in this crazy-making scenario. Now, the abuser is most likely not filled with the same stress hormones, and that is why they can appear calm, stable, and sympathetic. This is key for law enforcement. I Googled, “How long does it take for stress hormones to leave the body?” I found out, “Cortisol levels increase systemically about 15 minutes after the onset of stress and remain elevated for several hours.” Unfortunately, law enforcement cannot do a cortisol or adrenalin test, but being aware of the signs can help during the investigation. The signs are:
What are the signs of high cortisol levels?
- Fast weight gain, especially an increase in belly fat
- Fatigue that continues despite sleep
- Acne and other skin issues
- High blood pressure
- Easy bruising
- Mood changes
- Weak muscles
- Brain fog or difficulty concentrating
What I did was considered self-defense, and I was protecting our newborn son from parental neglect or abuse. I had to say no more. If you know the story, law enforcement was not educated in reactive abuse. Because when I told them my side of the story, they would have known that he did push me over the edge. Law enforcement did agree that what he did was wrong, but my abuser was determined to press charges against me. He was being abusive, controlling, threatening, and unreasonable. I was not making threats, being unreasonable, or controlling. Yes, hitting him with the lint roller brush was abusive, but ask yourself this question, would you have done the same thing or hit him with something hard? I was sleep deprived and my cell phone was in the locked bedroom. Yet, law enforcement should have known that the sticky side of the tape could never leave a welt on a person’s arm – especially 45 minutes to 1 hour later. So, how did the welt get there on his arm? It was not from me but self-inflicted. Law enforcement did not pick up on that either. If they did, I would not have been arrested. Even though I told the officer that he stayed in the garage until law enforcement arrived and several tools were in the garage that could have made that self-inflicted welt on his arm, I was still arrested and charged with assault. How? My abuser was able to flip the script and used the self-inflected welt on his arm as “proof” that I, the victim, was the abuser. He also used it as an excuse to justify his abuse. Do you see why law enforcement needs more extensive training and help? Plus, reactive abuse is a sign of Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD). Any parent with a newborn will tell you that it is not easy the first few months after giving birth. Lack of sleep, mommy brain, and being exhausted for days and weeks can weaken your composure. Like PTSD, you can have similar symptoms that include intrusive thoughts, repetitive yelling when tired or frustrated, moments of anger, frustration, fear, paranoia, insomnia, and sleep disturbances.
I hope you can now comprehend why law enforcement and other agencies working with families and people must be educated about reactive abuse. Because when my abuser did sober up and realized what he had done, he had regrets. His family was pissed at him. His mom had to bail me out of jail because he didn’t have the money. And, had I ever been in trouble with the law before? The answer is no. Had I ever been arrested? Same response, no. Did the chargers get dropped? The answer is yes. Was the experience of being booked, spending the night in jail, and having to pump my breast milk in jail embarrassing, humiliating, and damaging? The answer is 100%. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to check that off my non-bucket list of stupid ideas. And why am I being so vulnerable and open about this traumatic experience? Because I know I am not alone. I am only human and would do almost anything to protect and save my children. People who are being victimized and traumatized by their abuser(s) end up in trouble, are falsely accused, can have a law enforcement record, and might spend some jail time while the actual abuser gets away with the real crime. This form of abuse can and will impact the victim’s life forever regarding employment or any place that does a background check. And if it affects one’s life dramatically, they can develop secondary or temporary narcissism. And without therapy or support, this person can end up isolating themselves from the world and in a constant state of victim mentality.
I wish I had learned about reactive abuse before I met my abuser. Like most people, I had to learn the lesson the hard way because we don’t teach this stuff in high school or college as a general elective. Parents don’t talk to their children about reactive abuse either. Therefore, I am doing it today. I feel it should be taught because everyone will meet someone on this planet that will try to push them over the edge. We can agree to disagree, but most people reading this blog post or listening to this podcast have encountered someone with a mental health issue. You are seeking answers, and I want to cover all those answers, so nobody gets hurt or has to spend time in jail. Because trust me, my abuser tried numerous times to bait and provoked me again. He begged me to hit him again. He thought it was funny when he knew I was boiling inside. I would not give him that sick and twisted pleasure of letting him win. And it is about winning because you snapped. I kept quiet, did my best to avoid eye contact, left the room, or took the kids for a car ride. I did anything and everything to distance myself from him. Do it if you need to lock yourself in a room and call 911. Because that is what I should have done in the past, but I did not have access to a phone. So, if you know that your ability to call for help is limited and you are in an abusive or toxic relationship, hide a pay-as-you-go emergency phone. It can save your life.
Therefore, I want to teach you a trick I taught myself. I call it “the end game.” The end game is becoming self-aware that someone is using reactive abuse tactics on you, and you stop. You stop and think of the end game. What would happen if I did X? What are the consequences of those actions and words? Would I regret anything? Could the choices I make now alter my life forever? Would I have regrets? Would my life be destroyed or damaged? What would I lose? I had to learn to step back in my mind and think rationally before I slipped into my survival brain and reacted instead of responding. I knew what he would do to me and what he begging me to do. I learned the hard way not to take the bait. What kept my sanity was my kids. I knew that if I snapped, I would have my kids taken away from me, I would go to jail, I could no longer practice being a therapist, and I would lose my business. He was not worth it. I had to take the high road, be the bigger person, and remind myself that my kids mattered more than his immature, mind-bending games of abuse.
Now, where do most of us learn about this reactive abuse tactic? This is my perspective. Siblings, friends, coworkers, or family members know how to push another person’s buttons over time. We have seen siblings bait and provoke each other. They call it sibling reverie. You might have even noticed your child pushing your buttons until you snapped and raised your voice. It boils down to pushing boundaries and how far can that boundary line be pushed back until you say, “No more.” We have seen kids bullied repeatedly, and eventually, they snap. People have been dared or verbally abused to do stupid things on social media, altering their lives forever. Setting healthy boundaries can be challenging if you grew up in a home where boundaries were not enforced or existed. We have seen friends say to one another, “If you were my friend, you would do X.” We have heard people call someone chicken or say, I dare you to do X, without thinking of the end game. Every choice we make, either rational or irrational, does have good or bad consequences. The problem is how far the boundaries are pushed; disrespect tolerated, manipulation overlooked, and the end of no return evaluated. Is it minor, mild, extreme, or deadly? I want to give you an example.
Skye Borgman directed and filmed the three-part documentary series, “I just killed my dad” on Netflix. This documentary is about reactive abuse and how trauma impacts one’s life. We all are given one life to live on this planet in this body and how we treat one another matters. In this story, reactive abuse was in self-defense. It was not mutual abuse. This documentary teaches you the back story of “WHY” Anthony Templet shot his father. Anthony never denied it. He experienced years of abuse, and his father kidnapped him from his mother’s care when he was five. This is important to me because Anthony’s life could have been spared any additional trauma, abuse, self-doubt, self-shame, and violence. If Anthony had someone at his high school speaking to the class about narcissism, trauma, mental health, and reactive abuse, would he have been spared? Would he have recognized and listened to the warning signs when his father was abusive and threatened Anthony’s life? If Anthony had been educated about reactive abuse, would he have escaped the house by jumping out of his bedroom window or been able to call 911? Would Anthony have known there were help and resources before he killed his father? Would the authorities have protected Anthony and put his father in jail? All these “what if” questions. We must discuss these uncomfortable and unpleasant circumstances because they can impact one’s life forever. We cannot go back in time to fix our mistakes. So, let’s put safety nets out there for these young kids and adults. I am attempting to do that with my work and these words.
Lastly, I want to give you an example of reactive verbal abuse. This comes from my perspective. This one is much harder to detect. But when someone has targeted you, you know it. It is personal. It can be indirect or direct verbal reactive abuse. Indirect is where the person is talking about you but not saying your name, and you are in the same room, or the abuser knows you are within listening distance. Direct verbal reactive abuse is in your face, and it is all about blame, insults, dares threats, manipulation, and dominance over you. Let me give you an example of indirect verbal reactive abuse.
Let’s say that you were assigned to coordinate a significant event for the company you work at. It was your first time doing it last year, and it had a few mishaps. You realize that the person training you did not train you properly, didn’t really like you, and wanted you to fail because money was involved. It’s that time of year again, and this year you are prepared and asked to do it again by your supervisor. You are talking to a newly hired coworker in the office breakroom about ideas for this year’s event. In walks the person who trained you last year. The new hire has yet to learn about the back history of what happened last year. The person who taught you overhears the conversation and starts to mention how last year was a flop. It was poorly coordinated and managed. In their opinion, the person running it should not be allowed to rerun it. They detail all the things that went wrong, how everyone was disappointed, and even exaggerate a few details to make it sound like a nightmare.
You are being verbally insulted, smeared, disrespected, and abused in front of this new employee without their knowledge. You know precisely what they are doing. You know the person who trained you is expecting you to react out of insult and anger. Do you take the bait? If you do, what is the end game? Does the person who trained you want the assignment back and a bonus in pay? Does this person want you to appear flawed and incompetent to the new employee? How do you respond? Do you ignore it and go to HR? Do you take the bait and react with anger? And if you do, what are the consequences? The abuser could flip the script when you have to sit down with HR and explain the situation. One trick the abuser might use is triangulation. Where they play the victim, you are the abuser, and HR or the new employee is the savior. And what if the abuser convinces the new employee to side with them before you speak to HR? So many questions and choices.
I dislike it when someone plays the verbal reactive abuse card. It takes a lot of restraint, self-control, and courage not to react. It can even be challenging to respond because your response can sometimes backfire. That is why you must practice and consider the end game every step of the way. What is their end game? What will be yours? That is why I like to agree to disagree. Be silent and know they are not worth it. You can stay quiet, smile, and think of all those choice words you want to scream into their face without them even knowing. You can even respond and agree if you like. Agree that last year’s event did have some miss haps, but it will be better this year. Then you can give a friendly smile, say it was good to chat with you, and walk away. Then you can go to HR if you feel the need to have that person reported.
I hope you have gathered some gems of information today. If you like this blog post or podcast, please promote it, subscribe, share, or tell a friend about it. I am doing this for free and out of the kindness of my heart for humanity. There are no sponsors, ads, financial backers, or support. I am trying to make the world a better place for all human beings. And I want to put a thanks out there for the Mental Health News Radio Network for including me in their network. So, thank you for learning about reactive abuse vs mutual abuse.