Reactive Abuse: Meaning, Examples, Patterns, Signs, Effects

Disclosure: this page contains affiliate links to select partners. We receive a commission should you choose to make a purchase after clicking on them.

Speak to an accredited and experienced therapist to help you process the abuse you suffered (and reactive abuse you engaged in) and rid yourself and your life of its effects. Simply click here to connect with one via BetterHelp.com.

If you’ve been doing any work to heal trauma from narcissistic abuse, or if you follow court cases and news articles about domestic trauma, then you’ve probably come across the term “reactive abuse” before.

While at first it sounds fairly self-explanatory, it’s actually a complex type of abuse that can encompass psychological, emotional, and physical violence.

The key thing to know about reactive violence is that while both parties end up getting hurt, this type of violence is knowingly and intentionally instigated by the abuser.

It’s an insidious type of cruelty because of how multi-tiered and manipulative it is. Let’s take a look at what reactive abuse really means, as well as how it affects everyone involved.

What is reactive abuse?

Reactive abuse occurs when an abuse victim responds to the cruelty and injustice being visited upon them with abusive behavior of their own.

It happens when a person who’s being abused gets pushed so far by their abuser that they can no longer contain the pain and hurt and injustice they feel.

Reactive abuse is often a “straw that broke the camel’s back” situation. The abuser will keep goading the victim over a period of time while the victim keeps trying to stay calm and not react. They’ll hover at the breaking point for as long as they can until they’re pushed just a little too far. Then they’ll go full-on Oppenheimer and lash out with all their fury.

They might answer verbal criticisms with insults of their own, match scream for scream, or hit back after being beaten. They’ve been pushed so far that they actually take part in the very behavior that they despise in their abuser.

When this finally happens, their abuser might pretend to look shocked or hurt at how mean they’re being. Others will smirk smugly instead because they finally got the response they were aiming for. Now they have a treasure chest full of “proof” that they can use to manipulate their victim further.

At this point, abuse escalates far more because of the additional fuel that’s been thrown on the fire.

Examples of what reactive abuse can look like.

Any type of verbal or physical violence that’s done by the victim as an act of self-defense can be considered reactive abuse.

The examples listed below are just a few different ways that reactive abuse can manifest:

Let’s say “Olivia” is a teenaged high school student who’s being relentlessly bullied by another girl named “Jenna.”

Jenna mocks and insults Olivia on a constant basis, spreads lies about her, stirs up all kinds of trouble about her, even gets Olivia’s boyfriend to cheat with her.

Finally in class one day, Jenna tells Olivia about how she and Olivia’s now-ex boyfriend talk about how bad she is in bed… and Olivia goes ballistic.

She starts screaming at Jenna to leave her alone, calls her all kinds of names, and totally loses it on her. Jenna then plays the victim, going to the guidance counsellor and principal about how traumatized she is by Olivia’s abuse. As a result, Olivia gets suspended, forced into counselling, and becomes a social pariah.

Olivia has been the victim of immeasurable cruelty, but she’s the one punished because her “crazy” outburst was witnessed publicly, and seemed to be unprovoked since nobody knew about the long-ongoing backstory.

Then we have parent-child reactive abuse.

30-year-old “Dan” has a chronically ill mother named “Hannah” who’s a malignant narcissist. She lives with him because her illness won’t allow her to live alone. She nitpicks and criticizes him constantly, telling him that he’s useless, ugly, stupid, will never get a girlfriend, etc. She’s physically abusive towards him as well, making a point of pinching, slapping, kicking, and shoving him around.

Finally, one day, after several years of abuse building up, he grabs her arms to stop her from hitting him.

She throws herself to the floor in a melodramatic fit and calls the police when he goes out back to catch his breath. He ends up being investigated for elder abuse, while she gets to redouble her efforts picking on him, PLUS guilt-tripping him for “abusing” her.

When Dan finally tries to kill himself to try to get away from her, she torments him further for trying to abandon her (another type of abuse in her eyes), plus being too weak and incompetent to even get suicide right.

In a romantic relationship, a partner of any gender can be the abuser. Sometimes it’s a boyfriend or husband tormenting his partner, other times it’s the girlfriend or wife abusing her partner. Abuse can happen in same-sex relationships, and even in nonbinary or asexual/aromantic (ace/aro) pairings.

What ends up happening is that the abuser will torment their victim, and when the victim finally shouts or hits back, the abuser then turns it around and says that they “don’t feel safe” with their partner. They’ll then use this to get something they want. Maybe it’s an expensive gift or a holiday, or it might even be a breakup that they don’t want to initiate.

Other abusers might have a “home base” that they’re cultivating with a pliant partner victim. For example, let’s say 35-year-old “Anya” is in a relationship with 40-year-old “Mark” who follows this particular pattern in his relationships.

Anya has low-self esteem from an unhappy marriage, and met Mark online: he swept her off her feet and “rescued” her from that relationship to start anew with him.

Everything in their relationship was wonderful to begin with, but then Mark started to get verbally and emotionally abusive. He began to control what she wore, what color she dyed her hair, and which friends she was allowed to associate with. Next he found an excuse not to work (let’s say because of a “health issue”), so he was being supported by Anya financially.

Anya ends up being stressed out and depressed. Mark starts to spend more time in his office and outside the house. He’s also spending a lot of Anya’s money without explaining why. She suspects that he’s cheating, and confronts him about it angrily.

Mark tells her that he thinks these accusations are abusive, and that between her unfounded cruelty and her depression (which he finds incredibly unattractive), he’s thinking of leaving her. Anya feels terrible about hurting his feelings, is terrified of him leaving her, and redoubles her efforts towards him.

So Mark has his cake, is eating it too, and has ensured that his cozy little nest is exactly how he wants it. Anya isn’t going to stir up trouble any time soon, and if she does, he’ll just threaten her with abandonment again. He will eventually leave once he gets too bored and annoyed by Anya, and will white knight his way into the life of another damaged, pliant woman who’ll be eager to fix him and love him the way he feels he deserves.

How can you identify reactive abuse?

Reactive abuse tends to follow a very specific, three-part pattern:

  1. Antagonism
  2. Proof
  3. Turning tables

First will be the constant provocation to try to get an emotional or physical response. Then they’ll use that response as “proof” that the abuse isn’t coming from them, but from the victim. Finally, they’ll turn the tables and imply that the victim is responsible for everything that’s going wrong in the relationship because of how unhinged they are.

The abuse is unlikely to deviate from this pattern specifically because it’s a necessary one. Proof of instability can’t happen without antagonism, and the victim can’t be gaslit and manipulated if they don’t behave in an unstable manner that’s out of character for them.

Do you recognize these kinds of patterns in your own relationship?

Try to keep emotionally detached enough to recognize if this is the case. If there are friends or family members whom you trust, and who have been watching your relationship unfold, you can even ask for their input on it. Chances are many people have noticed these issues over time and just haven’t said anything because they’ve felt it isn’t their “place” to do so.

What are some signs that reactive abuse is imminent?

People who are exposed to abusive trauma over long periods of time can manifest a number of different symptoms. Most will end up being averse to any kind of confrontation and will flinch or startle easily.

If and when they find themselves in a situation that may be abusive and traumatic, they might start shaking, sweating, trembling, and/or stammering. Their blood pressure or sugar might drop, causing them to feel lightheaded. Some might even faint, which the abuser may use against them as a sign that they’re being “dramatic.”

The victim might disassociate emotionally, or they might become hyper-emotional. If they’ve always been quite calm or stoic, they might behave in a manner that’s quite unusual for them, such as crying at the drop of a hat or becoming irritable. Some might have difficulty concentrating and feel confused, thus making them seem erratic and unintelligible when they’re speaking.

Meanwhile, their abuser is absolutely calm and collected, manipulating the situation like a puppeteer twiddling a marionette’s strings. They seem completely coherent and put together, while the victim is erratic, unstable, even frantic. As a result, the victim gets seen as unhinged while the abuser seems completely rational.

You can see how justice can utterly fail a victim of reactive abuse on so many levels. When someone has been tormented to the point of madness, they will react as though they are mad. And that can seal their fate unless those around them have been privy to the cruelties that have pushed them that far.

If you find yourself in a position where the abuse you’ve been suffering is pushing you to your breaking point, then you need to work that energy out of your system before you go incandescent.

Try to physically get away from the abuser, even if it’s just into another room where you can lock the door and be alone. Even better if you can go somewhere else; somewhere you’ll be safe from them, like to a sympathetic friend or family member. Call an abuse hotline if you need to speak to someone immediately, and don’t be afraid to get to a hospital if you’re in serious mental distress.

There are people around who can help you.

Furthermore, if you take the initiative and get help before the situation escalates to the point of reactive abuse, then your abuser won’t have anything to hold over you. They can only continue to manipulate you if you give them fuel to do so. If you don’t scream or strike back, then all the evidence pointing towards abuse is against them.

It’s important to note, however, that many abusers – especially narcissists – have elevated abuse to an art form. They are master manipulators and can gaslight just about anyone. Many of them have learned techniques to trick therapists and doctors into believing what they say over anyone else.

This is why it’s so important to never seek couples therapy with a narcissistic abuser. In all likelihood, they’ll dominate the sessions to the point where the therapist will end up siding with them, with all “evidence” pointing to you being the bad guy in this situation.

How does a person provoke reactive abuse in the victim?

As you can tell by the examples listed earlier, provoked reactive abuse can take a number of different forms. Similarly, getting someone else to behave in those matters can also happen via various means.

Everyone has their own individual triggers and buttons that will cause emotional, psychological, and even physical responses within them. Abusers – especially narcissistic ones – learn these triggers well, and subsequently use them to manipulate their victims.

Let’s say the abused person is hypersensitive to being cornered and physically dominated. Maybe they were terrorized or beaten by someone significantly larger than them when they were very young and as such get panicky when they feel trapped.

Their abuser might purposely corner them in a place where they can’t escape, like a small bathroom or in a tight corner in a kitchen. They’ll then loom over them, physically trying to prevent them from being able to get away, while insulting them, yelling at them, or otherwise inflicting verbal (or even physical) abuse.

The victim’s emotions will run higher and higher and their fight-or-flight response will intensify until they finally lash out.

Maybe they’ll yell back, or maybe they’ll push, hit, or kick their abuser so they can get away from them to a place where they can feel safe. They might lock themselves in another room or leave the house entirely so they can get away from the situation that was hurting them.

Later, when they inevitably have to face their abuser, that’s when things get particularly awful.

Their abuser will turn the victim’s defensive behavior around and imply that the victim was abusing THEM.

They might cry, or flinch, or otherwise imply that the victim has done them some damage because of how horrible they were. While the victim was out of sight, they might have hit themselves repeatedly in a spot where they were touched or shoved to create a big bruise, solely so they can say “look what you did to me!!!” and try to make the victim feel guilt and shame for their violence.

To add insult to injury, the abuser might even escalate the situation by telling their friends and family that they’ve been abused by their victim. They might even file a police report so they have the abuse “on record.” This way, if they abuse their victim horribly in the future and their victim retaliates in self-defense, there will be a record on paper that THEY are prone to violence: not the other way around.

Meanwhile, the victim feels absolutely devastated at the fact that they have engaged in this kind of behavior. They’re most likely empathic or otherwise extremely emotionally sensitive, and are horrified at the thought that they could be as abusive as the one who’s been tormenting them.

The fact that they had little to no control over their outburst doesn’t alleviate the guilt and horror they feel towards themselves: they hate themselves for their behavior and often end up feeling like they “deserve” whatever punishment ensues as a result. Of course, this just empowers their abuser even more, which makes them then try to trigger the victim again… and on it goes in an incredibly ugly circle.

It’s horribly manipulative and unjust. Sadly, it’s an incredibly common tactic used by abusers in order to maintain power and control over their victim(s).

What is the difference between reactive abuse and mutual abuse?

Or, in other words: “does reactive abuse make you an abuser too?”

In the simplest possible way: no. No it does not.

This is a similar situation in which a person who is defending themselves against attack by a stranger is not attacking said stranger. They might cause damage as they defend themselves, but said damage is caused in trying to save themselves. The one being attacked is under real threat, and is doing what they can to protect mind, body, and spirit.

It might not even be a conscious reaction.

When we’re feeling seriously threatened, our innate self-defense mechanisms kick in to try to preserve us. We might get physically violent by kicking, pushing, scratching, or hitting the other person to get them away from us. Or we could be more verbally expressive by screaming, shouting insults, etc.

Quite often these reactions are unconscious. Furthermore, many people who experience these extreme fight-or-flight responses can’t remember what they said or did afterwards. Their innate instincts completely take over to save them.

In contrast, mutual abuse is when there isn’t a primary abuser who keeps provoking the other to respond in kind. Rather, each party is independently abusive towards the other in their own way. One might be verbally abusive while the other is physically abusive, or they might both abuse in the same way. In situations like these, it’s more a case of incompatible people living in a poisonous situation and lashing out at one another as equals, or close to it.

With reactive abuse, the perpetrator tries to make the situation appear as though the abuse is mutual by antagonizing their victim until they react in such a way as to seem abusive. Then, in the future, if the victim tries to confront them about their awful behavior, they can say “well, you hit me too, so I guess we’re both guilty here” or similar.

It’s a perfect way for them to evade any kind of justice for the damage they’re inflicting.

What is the impact of reactive abuse on each party?

The person who’s been on the receiving end of abuse for a long period of time will have trauma in every aspect of their life. Long-term stress has a number of different effects on individuals, ranging from emotional and psychological issues to very real physical ones.

For example, many people who suffer long-term abuse develop complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). This condition can manifest symptoms such as anxiety, depression, emotional dysregulation, and insomnia.

Long periods of elevated stress also take their toll on the body. Studies have shown that stress can contribute to several different physical conditions.[1] Some are degenerative, others are inflammatory, but all are very real results of elevated stress hormones over months or years of unhealthy, abusive environments.

A few of the physical issues that can result from exposure to long-term abuse include:

  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Cardiovascular issues (heart disease, heart attacks, strokes)
  • Sensory oversensitivity (light, sound, sudden movement)
  • Cancer
  • Chronic migraines
  • Hair loss
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Ulcers
  • Diabetes
  • Infertility

And that’s just the physical aspects.

When abusers use the victim’s reactive abuse as leverage against them, it’s an added layer of torment on the victim. They start second-guessing everything about themselves. They’ll start wondering if they’ve been imagining all the suffering they’ve been experiencing (hello gaslighting), causing their entire sense of self and the way they perceive their world to unravel.

Furthermore, they might feel such guilt about what they’ve done (in self-defense) that they try to do anything they can to repair the damage they’ve think they’ve caused so they can repair and save the relationship. This is also known as “trauma bonding,” and can cause the abused person to create even stronger bonds with their abuser.

This can cause unbelievable emotional and mental suffering, and can even cause psychotic breakdowns. Meanwhile, their abuser can use all of this as fuel for their cause. They can get doctors, therapists, and their entire social circle on “their side” with all their proof that their victim is unstable and abusive.

The abuser is literally driving their victim insane, and then using the results of their abuse as proof of the insanity. It is one of the most reprehensible abusive situations out there, and sadly, many psych professionals miss very important clues and cues because the abusers – usually narcissists – have elevated their abuse and manipulation to an art form.

The victim ends up a completely broken shell of their former self, often heavily medicated, and (most terrifyingly), dependent upon their abuser for care.

As mentioned earlier, trauma bonding can be particularly bad in situations like this. Not only does the victim feel like they can (and should) do everything in their power to save the relationship, they might also feel that they can change their partner for the better.

Some of them feel like they’re meant to “save” or “fix” their broken partner; that the abuse they perpetrate is because they’re deeply wounded, and as such are in need of unconditional love and care.

Yes, the abuser may indeed be the way they are because of childhood abuse and torment, but they aren’t likely to be “fixed.” Not by a partner who’s been abused to the point of insanity anyway.

There really is no negative effect on the perpetrator of this abuse. They’ll just keep doing what they do best, learning new techniques to provoke and antagonize their victims. They’ll do so until they get bored with or break their victim, then move on to do the same thing to someone else.

Maybe eventually they’ll end up alone, having reaped what they’ve sown all their lives. And maybe they won’t.

Why do abusers intentionally provoke reactive abuse in their victims?

Ultimately – and this is the number one thing to remember when it comes to reactive abuse – the abuser’s main goal is to completely disempower their victim. They lower the victim’s self-esteem until they feel weak, useless, and powerless.

Then, if and when they finally find a burst of real energy in themselves, and use it as a means of self-defense, they’re gaslit into feeling like they’re the abuser because they dared to defend themselves.

The abused person ends up being damaged twice over: first because of their abuser’s behavior towards them, and secondly because they don’t want to feel like the “bad guy” in any way, so they refuse to defend themselves against the abuse.

Thus, the abuser has someone under their complete control. They can do whatever they want to or with this person, knowing that they’ll never fight back. The abuser can dominate them mentally, physically, emotionally, sexually, and always have weapons in their arsenal to use as leverage if the victim ever tries to put a stop to their cruelty.

This will often continue until the abuser gets bored and moves on, or the victim ends up institutionalized, or dead.

Some people try to instigate reactive abuse when they want to end a relationship, but don’t want to appear like the “bad guy.” They’ll antagonize their victim until that poor soul finally lashes out, and then use their response as justification to leave. Furthermore, they’ll play victim to garner sympathy from others.

A great description here is that it’s like a lockpicker’s form of abuse.

The abuser finds all the different nooks, crannies, and triggers they can use, and then pick and pick bit by bit until they unlock the response they want.

And then they use that to their greatest advantage.

How can you stop reacting to a person’s abuse in that way?

The one surefire method to stop reacting to this kind of abuse is to get away from your abuser permanently.

If that isn’t an option for the time being, either because of financial circumstances or because they’re family members you have to deal with for a bit longer, then going “gray rock” as a coping strategy can be an effective option.

Remember that reactive abuse can only happen if one chooses to react.

Learn to recognize when this abuser is trying to goad you into the type of response they want. They feed off emotion and drama and will often try to instigate responses that will give them the rush that they want. If you don’t engage, they might redouble their efforts briefly, but most will quickly get bored and turn their attentions elsewhere.

This is sort of like a child poking a dog with a stick until the dog snaps at them. Then they can run to mommy and daddy to get attention because the big, scary dog scared them. But if the dog doesn’t react, they’ll soon put the stick down and toddle elsewhere.

Ultimately, it is up to you whether you want this cycle of abuse to continue. If you want it to stop, then you’re going to have to be the one to stop it by getting help, and getting out.

Still not sure how to deal with your own reactive abuse or the abuse you suffered in the run-up to it? In truth, this is not something you should attempt to work through alone. It is very much a situation in which a therapist is going to be required if you are to overcome the damaging effects of the abuse you suffered and took part in. So speak to a therapist today who can walk you through the process. Simply click here to connect with one of the experienced therapists on BetterHelp.com.

You may also like:

References: 

  1. Mariotti A. (2015). The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain-body communication. Future science OA, 1(3), FSO23. https://doi.org/10.4155/fso.15.21

ATTENTION PLEASE: Our brand new YouTube channel is live. You'd be mad not to subscribe to it and click the bell icon to get notifications when new videos go live. What are you waiting for?

This page contains affiliate links. I receive a commission if you choose to purchase anything after clicking on them.

About Author

Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais region. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.