Recognising Reactive Abuse and Navigating the Grey Area

Recognising Reactive Abuse and Navigating the Grey Area

Abuse is a complex subject and can take myriad forms. While some forms of abuse are instantly recognisable as such – multiple black eyes or persistent bruising are clear indicators of physical abuse, for example – others are not quite as clear cut.

Reactive abuse falls into this grey area as it isn’t as straightforward as a deliberate pattern of malicious behaviour or physical violence inflicted by an abuser on a victim.

What is a reactive victim?

Victims of abuse often feel trapped within the cycle of abuse. Their abuser may use threats, intimidation, coercion, violence, or manipulation to ensure their victim remains under their control. However, some victims reach a point where their flight or fight mechanism kicks in and they lash out in response to yet another instance of abuse being directed at them.

Imagine years of name calling, belittling, intimidation or control. It’s easy to see how instincts could become finely honed and strong feelings of fear, anxiety, or resentment built up. At some point, those feelings of fear and frustration may reach boiling point.

When the victim reaches that breaking point, they may react out of character and react to the abuse with anger of their own. That anger could take the form of shouting and yelling, or manifest as a physical act, such as a shove, punch, or kick directed at their abuser. The abuse victim has found themselves at a point where they can’t help but lash out. They are then a reactive victim.

What is reactive abuse?

Reactive abuse happens when a victim of abuse reacts to that abuse in a way which could include physical violence or shouting of their own. This isn’t because the victim is an abuser, rather that they have been a victim of abuse for such a period that they have themselves lashed out. This gives the abuser the opportunity to further manipulate their victim. Often, they’ll try to shift blame– suggesting that the true victim is are overreacting and painting themselves as the ‘victim’ instead.

Reactive abuse is not just a form of abuse. It’s also a form of manipulation which allows the abuser to exert even greater control over their victim and inflict severe emotional and mental distress.

Once a victim has been pushed into a reaction, the abuser can use that reaction to justify their behaviour and make their victim believe they are the one at fault.

This kind of emotional manipulation will often see the abuser gaslighting the victim. They may tell the victim that they have imagined the abuse, that they are the abuser, that they are mentally unstable or violent. In fact, they are a victim of reactive abuse and are being further abused and manipulated.

This is an insidious mix and can provoke feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety in the victim, further adding to their trauma. It may make them question their own sanity, their own capacity for abuse or the reliability of their own recollections. This in turn makes them easier to control and less likely to leave or report their abuser.

How to evaluate reactive abuse?

Recognising reactive abuse can fall into a grey area because victims are often made to feel that they are abusive, crazy or have imagined the abuse that they have been subjected to. The abuser will regularly twist the situation to their advantage, so the victim feels they should be grateful to their abuser for staying with them.

As a form of covert abuse, victims of reactive abuse may not recognise that it is part of a larger pattern. Having reacted out of character themselves, perhaps with a raised voice or a violent gesture such as a raised hand or physical contact, they may question their own behaviour and believe themselves to be the party at fault.

Reactive abuse often happens following a prolonged period of abuse. It’s a reaction to the heightened emotions that accompany life with an abuser. For victims, it’s important to ask if their reaction was out of character. If shouting, screaming, or attempting to push or kick another person isn’t a typical response, that unusual behaviour could be a red flag that something deeper is taking place.

A constant narrative of being wrong, being crazy, overreacting or imagining a reason to behave in that manner is also a signal that all may not be as it seems within a relationship.

If you’re concerned that you may be a victim of reactive abuse, or you’re worried for the wellbeing of a friend or family member, our experienced team of family solicitors can help you to access legal protection from your abuser. Contact us to discuss your situation.

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