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You have probably encountered a perplexing phenomenon known as reactive abuse if you have faced narcissistic abuse in a toxic relationship. Victims of verbal, emotional, or physical abuse experience great stress and suffering. It is normal for an abused victim to lash out at their attacker during an incident of violence. They may scream, weep, curse, or even violently protect themselves. In response, the assailant may react by saying that perhaps the victim is the abuser. This whole phenomenon is reactive violence/abuse and sometimes is also referred to as gaslighting.

It is highly harmful to a sexual assault victim because it gives perpetrators something to hold against them. However, it can occur in the context of verbal, psychological, or physical abuse.

What Is Reactive Abuse?

Reactive abuse, also known as reactive aggression or retaliation, refers to a pattern of behavior where an individual responds to provocation, mistreatment, or abuse with aggressive or abusive behavior of their own. In this context, “reactive” implies that the behavior is a reaction to a perceived threat, harm, or injustice. It’s important to note that reactive abuse is not an excuse for abusive behavior but rather an attempt to understand why some individuals may respond to mistreatment with aggression.

When an assault victim responds to the cruelty and injustice inflicted on them with abusive actions of their own, this is referred to as reactive abuse. It occurs when an abused person is forced to the point by their abuser where they can no longer tolerate the agony, hurt, and unfairness they are experiencing. It is frequently the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” The abuser will continue to prod the victim over time as the victim tries to remain calm and not respond. They will stay close to the edge for as long as they want to until they are shoved just a little too far. Then they will go full bonkers on the victim and strike out with their might. They may respond to verbal criticism with insults, match scream for scream, or strike back after being battered. They have been driven to the point where they participate in the precise conduct that they abhor in their abuser.

Reactive abuse can occur in various interpersonal relationships, such as romantic partnerships, family dynamics, or even among friends and coworkers. It typically involves a cycle of provocation, retaliation, and escalation, which can be harmful to all parties involved.

It’s essential to address reactive abuse within the broader context of unhealthy or abusive relationships. While understanding the reasons behind reactive abuse can help shed light on the dynamics at play, it should not be used as a justification for abusive behavior. Instead, it highlights the need for healthier communication, conflict resolution, and intervention in such relationships to break the cycle of abuse and promote constructive solutions to conflicts.

When this occurs, their abuser may seem to be astonished or saddened at how cruel they are. Others will smugly grin because they finally achieved the answer they want. They now have a treasure trove full of “evidence” that abusers can use to further deceive their victims.

Understanding Reactive Abuse

Reactive Abuse, a defensive response, is exhibited by victims of abuse in reaction to the overwhelming injustice they face from their abuser. It’s important to clarify that this reaction doesn’t equate the victim to the abuser or transform them into an abuser themselves. To grasp this concept, it’s crucial to delve into the mindset of an abuser.

The Abusive Mindset

Reactive abuse victims of domestic violence do not provoke violence; they are not inherently abusive like their perpetrators. Abusers harbor deeply ingrained flawed beliefs and a sense of entitlement that drives them to employ manipulative and defensive tactics, all in the pursuit of maintaining power and control over their victims.

Abusive behavior can manifest in various ways, whether overt, like physical violence, sexual abuse, or explicit psychological torment, or covert, through gaslighting, minimization, or other concealed manipulative behaviors. Regardless of the form it takes, any abusive act is a form of violence.

Reactive Abuse, however, does not automatically mirror the abusive mindset, nor does it constitute mutual abuse. To grasp this distinction, it’s essential to understand what triggers a victim’s reactive response.

The Involuntary Reaction

Reactive abuse is a victim’s response, an involuntary reaction that arises due to the cumulative trauma they’ve endured over time. It stems from a place of extreme frustration and self-defense. Whether the abuse is physical, emotional, or sexual, it induces profound fear and stress, placing the victim in a heightened state of alertness.

When a victim senses danger, their brain releases stress hormones to prepare the body to defend itself. This is commonly referred to as the “fight, freeze, or flight response.” In essence, the victim’s natural reaction is to prepare to freeze, flee, or fight back, especially when they perceive a threat to their safety or freedom.

This response occurs almost instinctively, without prior contemplation, often catching the victim off guard. It’s a survival mechanism triggered by the trauma and stress they’ve endured.

How Does Reactive ABuse Work?

Reactive abuse is a term often used to describe a dynamic in which one person’s abusive or harmful behavior is triggered or exacerbated by the actions or behaviors of another person. It’s essential to understand that reactive abuse should not be used to excuse or justify abusive behavior. Abuse is never acceptable, regardless of the circumstances.

Here’s how reactive abuse typically works:

  1. Triggering Event: A triggering event or situation occurs that causes tension or conflict between two individuals. This event can be related to various issues such as communication problems, disagreements, jealousy, or any other source of conflict.
  2. Escalation: In response to the triggering event, one person may react emotionally, become upset, or exhibit negative behavior. This reactive behavior may include yelling, name-calling, or other harmful actions.
  3. Victim Blaming: The person who initially triggered the situation may then accuse the reactive abuser of being the sole source of the problem, often ignoring or downplaying their own role in the conflict. They may shift the blame entirely onto the reactive abuser.
  4. Escalation of Reactive Abuse: The reactive abuser may feel cornered, overwhelmed, or provoked by the victim-blaming and respond with further negative or abusive behavior. This can create a toxic cycle of escalating abuse between the individuals involved.

Examples of Reactive Abuse:

It’s important to note that reactive abuse is not a justification for abusive behavior. Instead, it highlights how a toxic dynamic can develop when there is a lack of effective communication, boundaries, and conflict resolution skills between individuals. Both parties may contribute to the escalation of the situation, but the responsibility for abusive behavior ultimately lies with the person who engages in such actions.

It’s important to note that reactive abuse doesn’t excuse the original abusive behavior, but it’s still essential to recognize and address this pattern in relationships. Here are some examples of reactive abuse:

Name-calling: When someone is subjected to constant insults or derogatory comments, they may eventually respond by using hurtful language in return. For example, if someone is called derogatory names repeatedly, they may eventually resort to name-calling as a way to defend themselves.

Yelling or screaming: A person who has been subjected to shouting or yelling may react in a similar manner during an argument, escalating the conflict further.

Threats: In response to threats from the other party, someone might make threats in return as a way to protect themselves or assert control.

Physical aggression: While it’s never an acceptable response, reactive physical aggression can occur when someone feels threatened or physically intimidated by another person’s abusive actions. This is a dangerous and unhealthy cycle.

Gaslighting: Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation where one person tries to make another doubt their own perceptions and reality. In some cases, the person being gaslit may respond with their own form of manipulation, trying to regain control or assert their perspective.

Silent treatment: In response to being ignored or given the silent treatment, someone may start using the same tactic to retaliate and make the other person feel the same isolation and frustration.

Passive-aggressive behavior: When faced with passive-aggressive actions from another person, someone may start behaving in a similar way, using indirect communication or undermining tactics.

What Are Its Long-Term Effects of Reactive Abuse?

Long-term reactive violence gaslighting can result in serious trauma, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex PTSD.

The following are possible long-term consequences of reactive abuse behavior:

It is important to note that abuse in any form is not condoned, and this response is not a healthy or productive way to handle conflicts or disagreements. The long-term effects of reactive abuse can be damaging for both the perpetrator and the victim. Here are some potential consequences:

Relationship damage: Reactive abuse can seriously harm relationships, as it can erode trust and create a cycle of conflict. It can be particularly harmful in intimate relationships, leading to emotional distancing and, in some cases, separation or divorce.

Emotional and psychological impact: Both the person exhibiting reactive abuse and the victim can suffer emotional and psychological consequences. The person engaging in reactive abuse may experience guilt, shame, and regret, which can contribute to mental health issues. The victim may suffer from trauma, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem as a result of the abusive behavior.

Escalation of conflict: Reactive abuse can escalate conflicts and create a cycle of violence, making it difficult to resolve disputes in a healthy way. This can further damage the relationship and lead to more severe forms of abuse.

Legal consequences: In some cases, reactive abuse may result in legal repercussions if it involves physical violence or threats. This can lead to criminal charges and legal issues, which can have long-term consequences for the individual involved.

Impact on children: If reactive abuse occurs within a family setting, children can be adversely affected. Witnessing abusive behavior can lead to trauma, anxiety, and other emotional issues in children, which can have long-term consequences for their well-being.

Isolation and social consequences: Individuals who engage in reactive abuse may become socially isolated as friends and family distance themselves from them due to their behavior. This isolation can lead to further emotional and psychological issues.

Difficulty in future relationships: Reactive abusers may have difficulty establishing healthy relationships in the future, as their pattern of abusive behavior can persist and affect their interactions with others.

Apart from these effects, there are some major consequences of it. Some of them are:

Psychological and Emotional Stress:

Although there are certainly very few people who will genuinely blame you for responding to such abusive conduct in such an extreme way, you probably still feel horrible about it, partly because it is not common for you. You are not abusive or harmful to others. But now and again, your abuser drives you to the point where you no longer care about what they’re doing to you because you are so emotionally and mentally tired and overwhelmed. This puts you in an unhealthy mental and emotional condition, which can lead to a variety of issues, including C-PTSD.

Still In Control of Abuser:

The abuser may use your excessive reactions to indicate that you are the unstable one. A perfect example of reactive abuse psychology is that the abuser will spread stories and tell everyone how terrible you are for people to feel sorry for them thereby providing further narcissistic supply as well as being slightly terrified of you and/or feeling sorry for or disgusted by you. Of course, this will give them a permanent motive to continue abusing you since they will always hold your emotions against you. The abuser will constantly remind you of the times you were abusive to them and how much of a nutjob you are.

What Are the Signs of Reactive Abuse?

Reactive abuse often follows the pattern mentioned. The signs of reactive abuse may include:

Escalation of aggression: The person who is reacting abusively may exhibit an escalation of aggression in response to provocation. This can include yelling, shouting, name-calling, or even physical violence.

Loss of control: The person may lose control of their emotions and actions, reacting impulsively to the abusive behavior they are experiencing. This can make the situation more volatile.

Rationalization: The person who engages in reactive abuse may try to justify their actions by claiming that they were provoked or pushed to their limits by the other person’s abusive behavior.

Regret and remorse: After the incident, the person may feel regret and remorse for their abusive response, recognizing that it was not an appropriate or healthy way to handle the situation.

Repeating pattern: Reactive abuse can become a recurring pattern in an abusive relationship, with both parties engaging in harmful behaviors in response to each other’s actions. This can create a toxic cycle of abuse.

Erosion of self-esteem: Engaging in reactive abuse can lead to a further erosion of the individual’s self-esteem and emotional well-being, as they may feel guilty and responsible for the harm caused.

The most evident sign of knowing if the person has faced abuse is that sometimes victims may begin trembling, sweating, shivering, and/or stammering if they are placed in an abusive or stressful setting. Their blood pressure or sugar levels may decrease, leading them to feel dizzy. Some may even faint, whereby the abuser may interpret as a sign that they are “dramatic.”

They become hyper-emotional, or some might disassociate themselves emotionally. Some people may have problems concentrating and feeling bewildered, making them appear chaotic and incomprehensible when speaking.

If they have usually been quiet or stoic, they may act in an odd way, such as sobbing at the drop of a hat or getting irritated. These signs are quite evident that the person has faced some serious and heart-wrenching trauma which has made them behave this way.

Is Reactive Abuse Justified:

Reactive abuse is not justified. Reactive abuse refers to a situation where someone reacts aggressively or abusively in response to provocation, mistreatment, or abuse from another person. While it is important to consider the context and circumstances in any situation, reacting with abuse or aggression is generally not an appropriate or justified response.

It’s crucial to address conflicts and issues in a healthy and constructive manner, rather than resorting to abusive behavior. Justifying reactive abuse can perpetuate a cycle of harmful behavior and make it more challenging to resolve conflicts or maintain healthy relationships.

If you find yourself in a situation where you or someone you know is experiencing reactive abuse, it is essential to seek help, such as counseling or therapy, to learn how to manage emotions, communicate effectively, and break the cycle of abusive behavior. Violence and abuse are not acceptable ways to handle conflicts or disagreements.


Reactive abuse is the body’s instinctive way of protecting itself during a traumatic encounter. The person being harmed initially has little to no control over their response. Their reaction is often justified and may be necessary to safeguard themselves.

Here’s why:

Brain’s Response: When faced with threats, the brain triggers a fight, flight, or freeze response. Fleeing involves the victim trying to escape the situation (e.g., walking away, shutting down, or turning away). It’s a self-defense mechanism aimed at protecting the person from their abuser. Just like fighting and freezing, fleeing feels like a natural, automatic response, as the brain chemistry behind it isn’t significantly different. Fleeing isn’t considered an aggressive act toward the abuser, so its justification isn’t typically questioned.

Self-Defense Dilemma: When a victim fights back in self-defense, it introduces more complexity and challenges for the victim. In both fleeing and fighting, the brain guides the action, and the traumatized individual often cannot ignore their brain’s directives. Their response is automatic.

Determining whether reactive abuse is justified isn’t an appropriate question to ask. If it’s reactive abuse, it’s a response to ongoing abuse and can be considered justified. The traumatized victim is defending themselves from a continuous stream of abusive behaviors that have occurred over time. It’s not fair to compare the victim’s reaction to a single abusive incident.

The Dangers of Reactive Abuse:

Reactive abuse, while a natural response to protect oneself from an abuser’s violent behavior, often ends up serving the abuser’s agenda more than the victim’s. Here, we explore the danger it poses and its impact on both the victim and responders.

Advantage to the Abuser:

  • Bait and Switch: Abusers rely on victims’ reactive outbursts, pushing them to the breaking point. When victims react aggressively, abusers use this as an opportunity to shift blame onto the victim and gain an advantage.
  • Narcissistic Manipulation: Narcissistic abusers thrive on sympathy from others, portraying themselves as victims. They exploit the victim’s reactions to bolster their image and gather support from friends and family.
  • Isolation: Public shaming labels the victim as “unstable,” causing them to lose their safe community. Friends and family may side with the abuser, making it challenging for the victim to seek help.
  • Legal Implications: In legal battles, abusers use reactive abuse incidents against victims, casting doubt on their stability as parents or even framing the victim as the abusive one. This can hinder the victim’s efforts to seek protection or support.

Impact on the Victim:

  • Dependency: Victims may feel compelled to stay in the abusive relationship due to fear of inadequate support if they leave, while abusers remain unaccountable.
  • Confusion and Guilt: Victims are often surprised by their aggressive reactions, which are uncharacteristic of their usual behavior. Abusers compound this guilt, labeling victims as abusive or unstable.
  • Gaslighting: Abusers may pretend to care for the victim’s well-being, offering to pay for professional help, increasing the victim’s self-doubt and dependence.
  • Undiagnosed Trauma: Victims may not realize they have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or complex PTSD, which manifests in various emotional responses.
  • Confusion and Stress: Covert emotional abuse may go unnoticed, causing stress and confusion, leading to PTSD. The longer this continues, the more compromised the victim becomes, both mentally and physically.
  • Misunderstood Reactions: Responders often misinterpret reactive abuse, labeling both parties as abusive or assuming the victim is the true abuser due to the violent nature of their responses.

The Role of Responders:

  • Educational Gap: Responders need to educate themselves on abuse dynamics and trauma to provide effective help.
  • Understanding Abuser Behavior: Recognizing the abuser’s manipulative tactics and the victim’s defensive reactions is crucial.
  • Mutual Abuse Myth: Mutual abuse is a rare concept, as true domestic violence typically involves a power imbalance. Reactive abuse is not mutual.
  • Avoiding Victim Blaming: Responders must refrain from blaming the victim and instead offer support and understanding, addressing the root causes of reactive abuse.


The term, reactive abuse, means just that: you are the one reacting to abuse, not the one to blame for it. The problems in your relationship are caused by your abuser’s behavior. To be certain about what role you have assumed, seek help from a licensed professional experienced in emotional abuse and trauma, the national domestic violence hotline, or your local domestic violence shelter. They will help to provide or refer you to resources to help you respond in a healthy way to your situation.

What you’re going through is unique to you, but you’re not alone. Reactive abuse and domestic violence should never be condoned. Even any kind of violence should never be tolerated. Talking to a therapist who specializes in this area can make a major difference in how you feel if you’re struggling with it. You and your therapist will work together to create a strategy to help you get through this circumstance and learn how to set better boundaries and recover.

Lisa Clontz

Author Lisa Clontz

Lisa Clontz is an experienced Executive Director at Shelter Home of Caldwell County, specializing in providing shelter and support services to victims of domestic violence, child support, rape, and sexual assault. With her years of expertise, Lisa passionately assists women and children, helping them access the necessary resources and care they need. Her unwavering commitment to creating a safe environment and empowering survivors has made her an invaluable advocate in the community.

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