What does reactive abuse look like, and how do I get through it?

Abuse is a dangerous and prevalent issue for many people. However, it can be incredibly nuanced, which can make the abuse difficult to identify. One type of abuse that happens frequently is called reactive abuse. Reactive abuse is much like gaslighting, as it’s a tactic used by perpetrators of abuse to shift justifiable blame away from themselves and onto other people.

What Is Reactive Abuse?

Reactive abuse is specifically defined as a manipulation tactic used by perpetrators of abuse to convince both the victim of abuse and others that they are the ones being abused. It occurs when the person being abused reacts strongly to the abuse they’re suffering, perhaps choosing to argue back or physically defend themselves from the person abusing them. Once they do this, the person abusing them uses it as an example or “proof” that they are actually being abused, and that the person being abused is actually to blame.

They can then use this scenario later as a threat to win arguments, keep the person they’re abusing at bay, or as a bid to maintain their power. If it happens enough, the gaslighting can be so harmful that it starts to convince the person being abused that they really are to blame and that they are a bad person.

How Does Reactive Abuse Work? How to Identify If You’re a Victim of Reactive Abuse

Reactive abuse can sometimes be used to bait others into acting out against them so that they have some kind of proof to hang over their head and manipulate them into doing what they want, even going so far as to take their claims to the police. They can also claim that their partner and themselves are committing “mutual abuse,” which would mean both parties are just as guilty of abuse as the other, while in reality the person committing abuse is the only guilty party.

Perpetrators of abuse turn a person’s valid anger and frustration at the abuse they’re facing into a weapon to use against them at any time to inflict psychological and emotional damage. Reactive abuse will often involve someone gaslighting others by claiming that they are the one that’s “crazy” and “needs help,” the abuser being gracious enough to stick around and “put up with them.” It can be extremely detrimental to one’s self-esteem, making it harder to see oneself as a good person deserving of better treatment.

This tactic is used specifically to condition and manipulate people using guilt and shame so that they become easy to control. The longer it happens, the more the guilt and shame can influence someone’s perception, causing them to believe that they are not only being abusive themselves, but also perhaps responsible for any outbursts by the person abusing them.

If these kinds of arguments or confrontations sound familiar to you, or these claims make you feel extremely uncomfortable and defensive, it may be a sign that you could be experiencing a level of reactive abuse. It’s important to find professional help immediately, either by contacting a therapist or through online resources like the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

What Are the 3 Signs of Emotional Abuse?

If you are unsure whether this description of reactive abuse applies to you, there are specific patterns to look for. Not all of these red flags will be present during situations of reactive abuse, but they are types of emotional abuse and common red flags to look for in perpetrators of abuse:

      1. Intentionally provoking you, in private or in public. 

Many perpetrators of abuse try to antagonize and bait their partners until they snap and lash out. There are many ways they can do this, such as name-calling, gaslighting, threatening to walk out, being condescending, and taking digs at their partner to lower their self-esteem. Doing this in public also helps feed their agenda of proving that they’re in the right and that their partner is the one with issues.

      2. Collecting “proof.” 

This tactic is one that fits in with reactive abuse. When an abused person finally reaches a breaking point and fights back or lashes out at the person abusing them, the abuser can use that as evidence of misbehavior or “abuse.” Those abusing others will use this evidence to gain sympathy for themselves, justify their own abuse, or blackmail the person they’re abusing to keep control of them, perhaps threatening to tell people about what happened.

      3. Claiming that they are being abused. 

Like with reactive abuse, this involves a perpetrator of abuse using the “evidence” they’ve collected to show that they are in fact the victim of abuse. The abuser calls the actions of the person they’re abusing “abusive” or “crazy,” and tries to prove that their own actions are justified, since they are being caused by their partner’s action.

These tactics can be extremely effective at isolating victims of abuse from any support, either convincing them that they are actually in the wrong, or that no one will believe them if they try to share what’s happening to them.

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Is There a Link Between Reactive Abuse and Narcissism?

Yes, there is a common thread between reactive abuse and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). One common trait of NPD is refusal to take ownership of one’s actions. Narcissists will frequently try any tactic to keep the blame off of them, including trying to place that blame on others. As reactive abuse can be an effective way to shift blame from a perpetrator of abuse to the person being abused, people with NPD will often use it to make the situation work in their favor and maintain power over others.

How Long Does Reactive Abuse Last?

Reactive abuse can last indefinitely—if it continues to give them power, perpetrators of abuse will continue to wield it. As long as it gets them what they want, perpetrators of abuse can use reactive abuse for months, even years. They can even bring up instances of fights or disagreements from years back, using it as leverage to maintain power and control by manipulating the abused person’s justifiable reaction into an act of aggression and malice. 

How Does Reactive Abuse Differ from Active Abuse and/or Overreacting?

There are marked differences between reactive abuse, active abuse, and overreacting. Reactive abuse is the purposeful manipulation of a confrontation by someone committing abuse to portray themselves as a victim of abuse. This can technically be classified as active abuse, as it is a conscious, intentional act of harm. 

Overreacting, however, is not necessarily an abusive action, though perpetrators of abuse can use it as a way of controlling others. Overreacting can actually be a big reaction to something, and is a very common response that anyone can experience. Oftentimes, the person that overreacts will come to see that their reaction was unwarranted and apologize, allowing the relationship to return to normal. However, the term can also be used to devalue people’s opinions and feelings, especially women’s.

How Do I Deal With Reactive Abuse?

Reactive abuse can be hard to effectively combat, but there are a few methods that can help de-escalate things and give you some power back in your dynamic. 

  • Talking to a therapist is an excellent option for anyone dealing with reactive abuse. A therapist can help you figure out what to do about your specific situation, give you ways to help manage the conflict, create healthy boundaries, and heal from the abuse you’ve endured. Therapy can also give you a good foundation of support and safety as you figure out what to do.
  • Cutting off contact can help both parties gain some perspective and give you necessary space to sort out your feelings and live a more emotionally healthy life. 
  • Contacting an abuse or domestic violence hotline is the best course of action if your safety is in jeopardy. There are organizations like the National Domestic Violence Hotline that can provide help and resources to get you out of your situation.
  • Developing awareness is a way to limit reactive abuse, something that’s also called the Gray-Rock Method. Once you realize which types of conflict are used to get a rise out of you and help the person abusing you angle for more power, it might be easier to moderate how you respond to them and avoid reacting to baiting tactics or toxic interactions. This can help wrest control from the person abusing you, make firm boundaries, and perhaps shut down the behavior, helping to keep you safe from their attacks. 
  • Practicing self-soothing can help keep your mental health intact while you suffer from reactive abuse. Meditation, mindfulness, and breath practices can help release tension and give you a space to feel the valid anger and hurt you might be bottling up.
  • Talking to a friend or family member (if it is safe to do so) can give you necessary emotional support and a safe space to air your troubles.
  • Finding ways to keep your sense of self can help you not only relieve stress but also improve your self image. Getting back into hobbies or doing other things you love are great ways to affirm yourself and boost self-esteem, hopefully giving you a sense of peace and safety.

It’s important to seek help right away—professional help like therapy or a hotline is the place to start as you work through your other options. Talk to someone like a therapist or contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling them at 1-(800)-799-7233 or texting them at 88788 to get in touch with an expert. As you discuss your situation and go over next steps, remember that the first priority is your own safety and well-being.

Table of contents

What Is Reactive Abuse?

How Does Reactive Abuse Work? How to Identify If You’re a Victim of Reactive Abuse

What Are the 3 Signs of Emotional Abuse?

Is There a Link Between Reactive Abuse and Narcissism?

How Long Does Reactive Abuse Last?

How Does Reactive Abuse Differ from Active Abuse and/or Overreacting?

How Do I Deal With Reactive Abuse?

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Kate Hanselman, PMHNP in New Haven, CT

Kate Hanselman, PMHNP-BC

Kate Hanselman is a board-certified Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP-BC). She specializes in family conflict, transgender issues, grief, sexual orientation issues, trauma, PTSD, anxiety, behavioral issues, and women’s issues.

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Hannah DeWitt

Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

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The information on this page is not intended to replace assistance, diagnosis, or treatment from a clinical or medical professional. Readers are urged to seek professional help if they are struggling with a mental health condition or another health concern.

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