The Signs and Effects of Abusive Relationships

The term reactive abuse refers to reactive outbursts that present when an abuser provokes their victim. Reactive abuse occurs when the perpetrator in an abusive relationship wants to shift blame and make a victim feel as though they’re abusive, too.

How does reactive abuse work, and how can you tell if that’s what’s going on in your relationship? In this article, we’ll answer those questions and discuss how to heal if reactive abuse is something you’ve been through personally.

Keep reading to find out effective forms of treatment for trauma, and how Emerald Isle Health and Recovery can help you form a trauma recovery plan!

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What Is Reactive Abuse?

Reactive abuse is when an abused person or victim responds to an abuser’s actions with self-defense. Often, the goal of the person who aims to provoke this behavior in someone else is to hide their own abuse. The abusive person may use it to their advantage in other ways, too.

Reactive abuse is manipulative, and it is often associated with gaslighting behaviors. Gaslighting is when an abusive person makes their victim question their own reality to gain more power and control over the person. Since abusers can use reactive abuse as a form of “evidence,” it makes sense for gaslighting to pair with it, and leaves even more emotional scars in its wake.

How Does Reactive Abuse Work?

Reactive Abuse

How does a person incite reactive abuse? By intentionally provoking you, whether in private or in public, an abuser aims to get a reaction out of you. At times, this could mean that you defend or protect yourself in a fashion that would be viewed as abusive from the outside looking in.

A common example would be raising your voice – even if that’s something you wouldn’t usually do. While the abuser may use this to make you out to be “the bad guy,” what you’re actually experiencing is called reactive abuse within an abusive relationship and can even result in trauma bonding.

The abuser may push the abused person to their breaking point. Abusers rely on reactive abuse because they can use the victim’s reaction to “prove” that the victim is unstable in some capacity. They may use it as evidence or garner sympathy from other people.

In serious situations, this could mean that law enforcement believes you are the one engaging in abuse, or that your abuser tries to get them to. Another intention behind your abuser’s behavior could be to make you feel as though you are the one abusing them, or as though it is mutual abuse. This can disrupt a victim’s sense of self severely. You may start to feel bad for engaging in self-defense or fear that you are abusive.

Is Reactive Abuse The Same As Mutual Abuse?

Reactive abuse is not the same as mutual abuse. “Mutual abuse” is exactly what it sounds like. Mutual abuse refers to a situation where two partners are abusive toward each other. However, experts say that mutual abuse rarely exists. Almost always, there’s a primary abuser.

Abuse of any kind can lead you to question your reality, and it can pick at your sense of self or self-esteem, leaving you feeling broken and alone. There are potential ways to identify if reactive abuse could be what you’re experiencing.

How to Identify If You’re Experiencing Reactive Abuse

Reactive abuse can happen to anyone experiencing intimate partner violence. This is the case, whether it is emotional trauma and abuse, verbal abuse, or physical violence. You may have an inkling that reactive abuse is what you’re experiencing. Above all else, listen to your gut. If you think that your partner is exhibiting abusive behavior and using your reaction to maintain power over you, you are probably right.

That said, here are some signs of reactive abuse to look out for:

  • They provoke you
  • Any abusive behaviors you exhibit are a response to theirs
  • The abuser expects you to take the abuse but acts shocked and upset when you react
  • You feel guilty and upset about reactive outbursts you did not know you were capable of
  • You are experiencing negative physical or mental health effects

Reactive abuse is often a three-part pattern of antagonism, proof, and turning the tables. If you notice a pattern where your abuser antagonizes you, uses your reaction as “proof” that you are bad, whether in private or to others, and turns the tables, saying that you are responsible for everything that’s wrong in the relationship, you are almost certainly in a cycle of reactive abuse.

What Causes Reactive Abuse?

Reactive abuse is a justified natural response. Your brain responds to threats in your environment by initiating a flight, fight, or freeze response. Someone may shut down, flee, or fight back. Reactive abuse is an excellent example of the fight-or-flight response. It is a protective, natural biological mechanism.

One of the hardest parts of overcoming reactive abuse is feeling as though you are a “bad person.” It’s hard to make sense of the emotional abuse that is inciting reactions from a partner. Healing takes time, but it is possible to overcome the effects of reactive abuse.

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How Common Is Reactive Abuse?

It is hard to say how often reactive abuse occurs, but it is very common in abusive relationships. What we do have are general statistics on abuse. According to the national domestic violence hotline website, almost 3 in 10 women and 1 in 10 men in the United States have faced rape, physical violence, or stalking from an intimate partner and say that it has had an impact on their functioning.

More than 35.6% of women and 28.5% of men had experienced physical violence, rape, or stalking at the hands of an intimate partner at some point in their life overall.

It is important to remember that reactive abuse is a natural way for a victim to defend themself in the face of an abuser. Additionally, it is critical to remember that you are not broken if you have experienced abuse and that you can get to a better place with the impacts of past experiences on your life. Those who have experienced reactive abuse are not alone.

What Are the Long-Term Effects of Reactive Abuse?

Long-Term Effects of Reactive Abuse

Abuse of any kind can have lasting effects. It can affect physical and mental well-being alike, even long after the abuse has stopped and you are out of the relationship. Potential long-term consequences of reactive abuse can include but aren’t limited to:

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a very common and diagnosable mental health condition some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Abuse is a form of trauma that can have a serious impact on all parts of your life. People with PTSD may experience:

  • Changes in mood (e.g., depression, irritability, feelings of guilt or shame, detaching from others)
  • Intrusion symptoms (such as flashbacks, repetitive and involuntary thoughts and memories, or distressing dreams)
  • Avoidance symptoms (such as avoiding thoughts, people, places, activities, situations, and objects that remind the person of the event they experienced)
  • Alterations in arousal and reactivity (e.g., being startled more easily, reckless or self-destructive behavior, hypervigilance)

A professional such as a primary care provider or psychiatrist can diagnose PTSD. Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) is not yet diagnosable but is common in victims of abuse. PTSD and C-PTSD are often treated with therapy, though some people take medication for the condition as well.

Difficulty pursuing future relationships

It can be difficult to trust others after an abusive relationship, and rightfully so. Once you are ready to pursue relationships with another person, you may attend talk therapy to work through challenges that come up along the way or help you feel more confident and prepared.

Other mental health concerns

Emotional dysregulation and mental health conditions outside of PTSD, like anxiety, are common in those who have been in abusive relationships. Like with PTSD symptoms and relationship problems, therapy can be helpful for these concerns.

Can You Cultivate Healthy Relationships After Abuse?

It is possible to have a positive and healthy relationship after an abusive relationship. It makes sense to take time to trust other people. Reactive abuse is a lot to recover from. As you heal from reactive abuse, you can start to increase confidence, think about the kind of relationship you want to have moving forward, and build a set of tools to use to approach relationship problems in a healthy way.

No relationship is perfect, but there are green flags you can look out for in a future partner. The way they respond to conflict and stress, accountability, and their willingness to discuss and work on the relationship, can all be positive signs.

Healing From An Abusive Relationship

Healing From An Abusive Relationship

Depending on the circumstances of your relationship, you may have emotional, financial, or other forms of healing to pursue after abuse. Here are some things that can help you heal and promote your mental well-being along the way.

Talk to a therapist

Seeking professional help is ideal for those who have been in an abusive relationship of any kind. When you seek professional help from a provider such as the licensed therapists at Emerald Isle, not only can they help you approach future relationships when you are ready or if that is your goal, but they can help you address the long-term effects of abuse. Research indicates mental health improvements in both CSA survivors as well as abuse victims who seek help.

Build a support system

Create a community around you. Sometimes, this will include family members. Other times, a support system will include friends, other survivors, professionals, or all of the above. Since abuse can mean suffering from isolation, it is important to work on building a group of people in your life that you can trust and turn to.

Some people seek to meet other survivors in support groups, whether online or in a face-to-face setting.

Improve your sense of self and confidence

Abuse can have a negative impact on a person’s ability to listen to their intuition, as well as their sense of self. Take time to tend to and identify your needs. Work on self-love and trusting yourself. It is possible to rebuild.

Use coping skills

We all need healthy coping skills to use when stress hormones are high. Those who have experienced abuse may notice that they face physical and emotional signs of high-stress hormones more frequently.

If this is true for you, too, there are ways to cope. When you encounter trauma triggers, coping skills such as deep breathing, reaching out to others, self-care, and cognitive reframing can be valuable.

Find Trauma Healing with Emerald Isle Health & Recovery

Whether you need support with your trauma healing journey, a substance use disorder, or another mental health concern, Emerald Isle Health & Recovery is here to help. Emerald Isle Health & Recovery is located in Arizona, with multiple facilities in the state.

Emerald Isle Health & Recovery offers individual therapy in addition to outpatient, inpatient, and partial hospitalization programs. When you contact Emerald Isle Health & Recovery, a treatment specialist will be there to answer your questions and help you find the right level of care.

Call us for a confidential consultation or fill out the Contact Us form on the Emerald Isle Health & Recovery website to talk with a treatment specialist within minutes!

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on Trauma and Abuse

Does reactive abuse make you an abuser?

Abuse experts say that reactive abuse does not make you an abuser. Reactive abuse occurs as a natural form of self-defense. That said, it is common for those experiencing reactive outbursts to be in a situation where their abuser accuses them of abusive behavior or of being the one that is “the problem.”

This can have lasting effects on a victim’s sense of self. However, it is possible for survivors of abuse to overcome the effects and live a happy, healthy life.

How long does reactive abuse last?

Reactive abuse can last for as long as the abusive relationship does. It can be difficult to exit an abusive relationship, but it is possible. Individuals in an abusive relationship should be supported and should not be blamed for how long the relationship lasted.

What is reactive violence?

Reactive violence is exactly what it sounds like. In domestic violence situations, one partner may be physically abusive. The abused person may act in a physically aggressive manner as a means of defending themselves, often as a natural and knee-jerk reaction.

This is an example of how reactive violence can occur in domestic violence situations.