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What's Going On With Me? Reactive Abuse and Remorse
What it is, and why professionals hesitate to call it "abuse"
“See, I told you that you’re the abusive one. And you just proved it!”
Have you ever heard those words from your partner? Have you been tempted to doubt yourself and believe them, even if in your deepest heart—perhaps a place you can no longer reach—you know those words aren’t true?
If you’re in a toxic relationship, rotating around and around on the dreadful abuse cycle, you may have sometimes reached your breaking point where the “fight” part of your reaction system took over. Perhaps you just couldn’t take it any longer. Your body felt like it couldn’t handle another second of mistreatment, and your mind had already become so confused and chaotic it was difficult to be inside your own head.
Because of the extreme stress you may have shouted back at your partner, called him regrettable names, even slapped or kicked him in an effort to … well, to just make it all stop! Afterward you likely felt shame, guilt and tremendous remorse for your actions, causing you to grovel an apology and wonder: Is he right? Am I the abusive one?
The self-defensive reaction, although it’s not helpful or particularly healthy, is understandable when someone is shoved to the edge of their toleration zone. In fact, individuals who truly do use abusive tactics in their relationships will often purposely push their partner to that breaking point, causing her to lash out verbally or even physically. They then use her actions as a way to “prove”—to themselves, to their victim, even to others—that she’s supposedly the abusive one, not him.
Can you see how craftily the tables have been turned against the true victim? And, because this is gaslighting, the victim will often agree with her perpetrator. She’ll berate herself for her actions, and stay in the toxic relationship out of a desire to repair the damage she’s supposedly done.
Because she has empathy. Because she has love. Because she is willing to self-reflect—even though, in the midst of gaslighting, her self-reflection is actually a reflection of her partner’s words, used against her.
Many mental health and domestic violence experts now understand that “reactive abuse” is a misleading term, and they’re leaning toward simply calling this behavior what it is—self-defense. Certainly there are many ways of engaging in healthier and more productive modes of self-defense, but lashing out at someone who is consistently abusing us is still a knee-jerk reaction of self-preservation.
The term “reactive abuse” is also mislabeling because it seems to imply that both individuals are mutual abusers. In fact, this reaction is due to a nervous system kicked into high gear due to repetitive and prolonged abuse. The body has gone into fight-or-flight mode to ensure its survival, and it feels so desperate that only one option seems possible in the moment. None of this is conscious—it’s a reaction of our dysregulated nervous system, a primitive response of fighting so as not to be annihilated. In this case, the self-defending behavior only starts after a victim has reached the precipice of emotional or even physical collapse, and simply cannot find another way to make the abuse stop.
This is actually the body’s way of taking care of itself. It’s a matter of survival.
However, often the best form of defense in abusive situations is not to go on the defensive at all. Attempting to defend ourselves, no matter how justified, simply adds fuel to the toxic behaviors. It gives the perpetrator an excuse to increase manipulative techniques such as circular talk, gaslighting, and blame shifting.
Mutual Abuse vs. Defensive Mechanisms
Relationships of true mutual abuse are relationships of power equality—even though in unhealthy ways. By “equal” I mean that both people in the relationship consistently act manipulatively toward each other. Both are instigators of self-serving conflict, both gaslight equally, both seek power-over the other, and both consistently use tactics of blame, accusation, and control.
Key word: Consistently.
Abuse is a habit and a pattern, not a reaction. Understanding the difference is so, so crucial.
In cases where someone is reacting to abuse in the fight mode of self-defense, they don’t have a history of abusiveness. They also tend to blame themselves for conflict in their relationship, rather than the other way around. They take full responsibility for their actions and wonder, through a method of self-reflection unknown to a true abuser: Am I the abusive one after all?
Someone with a history of abuse who uses manipulative tactics to control their relationship won’t ask themselves, “Gee, maybe I’m abusive and need to get help.” If they do embrace the humility and self-reflection it takes to admit their abusive patterns, this happens after they’ve hit rock-bottom, had their eyes opened by a tragedy, or experienced some other “Road to Damascus” conversion. Otherwise, they think they’re the spotless one—and everyone else is to blame.
On the other hand, if a victim’s nervous system is stuck in flight-or-fight mode because it can’t discover any other way of surviving, the self-defending response is merely in reaction to ongoing and exhausting abuse.
Additionally, the person who engages in this type of self-defending behavior will:
Experience guilt and remorse, acknowledging that their behaviors were unhealthy
Once in a calmer space, take ownership for their reaction
Never act first—their actions are reactions to what is being done to them
Often will worry that they’re the abusive one and believe their partner when the actual perpetrator projects this label onto them.
The victim who resorts to fight-or-flight self-defensive behaviors has no previous history of abusive mindsets or tendencies, and never engages in this behavior within the healthy relationships they may have (or had).
This is the primary difference between those who truly us abuse to manipulate their relationships versus those who react to toxic treatment through the fight/flight reaction of their sympathetic nervous system. Actual abusers have a history of abuse, although that history is often shrouded in lies, manipulations, and confusingly covert behaviors. Still, if one digs deep enough, they can be uncovered.
If you’re a victim of domestic violence who has used certain self-defense efforts to get the abuse to stop, you’re not alone.
Don’t blame yourself—instead, realize you’re not to blame.
Don’t fall for your partner’s lies and gaslighting—instead, be aware of his particular tactics so you can internally defeat them.
Find ways to self-soothe, and to disengage form the situation whenever possible. I know—that’s easier said than done. I’ll discuss this more in a future article, with tips and suggestions.
When you, as victim, defend yourself in any way—even in rational, level-headed or peaceful ways—someone with a strong abusive part will often claim your reaction to their maltreatment is “proof” that you’re the crazy one, you’re the delusional one.
All of this is lies. Pure, evil, outright lies.
It’s projection, as well as further gaslighting.
They need outsiders to believe this lie. They need a “team” on their side. Love is a competition to individuals with this sort of mindset.
How to deal with this situation:
First and foremost, be aware. Educate yourself about “reactive abuse.” Understand the dynamic and what’s truly going on in your particular situation. For example, are you being “baited” to react a certain way? Whatever you do, please don’t take the bait.
Maintain your personal integrity and identity in Christ. Don’t believe the lies of your the person mistreating you. Remind yourself who the father of lies is (John 8:44).
Develop a healthy routine of self-care, self-awareness, and self-preservation. Practice these skills in times of calm so they eventually become automatic in times of chaos. I highly recommend the CHRIST Program from Hope’s Garden, which is a Christ-centered, DBT skills program to teach you how to heal and develop healthy coping behaviors. Contact me if you want more information.
Check in with your body. It’s true that “the body keeps the score,” as Bessel van der Kolk points out. If you feel yourself becoming dysregulated—whether that’s freeze (numbing out, disassociation, etc.) or fight/flight, separate yourself from the situation if you can. If you can’t, try to keep a self-soothing token in your pocket (such as Rosary beads or a blessed medal, a smooth stone, or some other object you can use for grounding) and try to emotionally detach.
Talk to a trusted support person, whether a solid friend, family member, coach, therapist, or in a safe and protected support group. If you’re looking for a solid Catholic support community I recommend Hope’s Garden (for women) or Men of Hope (for men).
If possible, use the “gray rock” method to deflect the abusive behavior. Gray rock is when you make yourself as boring as a gray rock—not engaging in the situation, answering questions briefly (for example, “yes” or “no” without further detail), not attempting to verbally defend yourself.
Establish boundaries and stick with them—even if the other person won’t respect your boundaries, respect your own in every way possible.
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