Reactive Abuse

By Dana Morningstar

This is when a target of abuse “reacts abusively” to an abusive person. A target often puts up with a lot of abusive behavior, because they either can’t escape it, or because they’ve been conditioned through stonewalling, silent treatment, threats, or more abuse to put up with it. When a person reacts abusively to abuse, they often do so because they’ve reached their breaking point and lash out due to pent-up frustration and anger at being an emotional (or physical) punching bag. Once the target does react abusively, the original abusive partner will portray themselves the victim of their target, exclaiming how abusive, crazy, or unhinged the target is. Reactive abuse is a delayed self-defense response. It is often extreme, and is often disproportional to the current situation (it’s the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back). A person can become reactive in ways that are either immediately aggressive, or they may begin to plot a way to hurt the abuser in order to settle the score. Reactive abuse is also one of a narcissist’s favorite weapons against their target. They will push their target’s buttons in ways that would push any sane person to their breaking point, and once their target does explode, they’ll sit back and exclaim how unhinged, abusive, or crazy their target is.


Example: Jordan is a seventh-grader who has been bullied by Nick for the past year. Nick has made his life a living hell with his relentless teasing, taunting, name calling, and put-downs. He continually told Jordan that he was a loser, and that he should kill himself. At first, Jordan tried talking to his parents about it, but they only told Jordan that he needs to stand up for himself; however, Jordan feels this would only make things worse. Jordan’s teacher saw what was going on and, much to Jordan’s horror, she pulled both boys aside so they could all talk about it. Nick pretended not to know that what he was doing was wrong, and gave an insincere apology to Jordan. Jordan could tell that Nick was enraged and that things were just going to get worse for him. Jordan felt trapped, and over time he began to wonder if Nick was right about him being a loser and that maybe he should kill himself. No one seemed to take what was going on seriously, and his parents wouldn’t let him switch schools. One day, Nick took a picture of Jordan in his underwear in the locker room and texted it to other kids in the school, including the girl he liked. Jordan was infuriated and ran full-steam at Nick, pushing him to the ground, and beating him. He didn’t stop until the gym teacher pulled him off Nick.


Example: Sarah and Tim are dating. Tim makes flirty and inappropriate comments to other women, has a bunch of female “friends” that are all former lovers, is overly secretive with his phone, as well as who he’s going out with and where he’s been. Another woman messages Sarah on Facebook, telling her that she has been dating Tim for close to six months and didn’t know that he was also dating Sarah. When Sarah confronts Tim about this, he stonewalls her and refuses to admit anything. Sarah becomes more and more upset with Tim shutting down, and out of frustration and anger, she begins to yell at him demanding answers. Tim stays calm and overall “indifferent” as Sarah becomes more and more upset. Sarah begins messaging all of his female “friends” on Facebook in an attempt to gain clarity as to whether or not Tim is having sex with them. The more Tim withholds clarity (and honesty), the more enraged Sarah becomes, to the point where she begins throwing things, cussing at him, or shoving him. Tim tells Sarah that she is abusive and crazy. (And when their relationship eventually ends, odds are Sarah will be confused as to who really is the abusive one. She may even return to the relationship as Tim continues to point out that she’s not perfect, and look at everything he’s had to put up with from her.)


Example: Rhonda has a restraining order on her ex, Chris, which he has broken many times. However, he continues to text her and periodically shows up at her house. She is tired of him harassing her, tired of living in fear, and tired of the police and courts not being able to stop him. One day, Rhonda was at the grocery store when she saw Chris standing at the other end or the aisle, staring at her. He smiled and waved and walked off. Rhonda knew this wasn’t a coincidence, as she’d moved several hours away to get away from him. She chased him down in the store and began screaming at him to leave her alone.

Dana Morningstar is a former psychiatric nurse turned domestic violence educator who specializes in abuse awareness and prevention. Her passion is working with survivors of abuse to reclaim and rebuild their self-esteem, boundaries, confidence, and identity. She is an author of multiple books on the subject, and also has a blog, podcast, and YouTube channel, as well as several online support groups, all of which you can find under the name “Thrive After Abuse.”

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