Let’s talk about reactive abuse — or reactionary abuse.
A form of gaslighting, reactive abuse is when one person intentionally provokes another into intense, adverse reactions.
It can be emotional, psychological, or physical — and in many cases, reactive abuse is an unconscious, reflexive instinct.
Is it harmful?
What types of people engage in the practice?
Why do they do it? How can you stop the cycle of reactive abuse?
Settle in — because we’re unpacking it all below.
What Is Reactive Abuse?
Reactive abuse is a complex form of emotional manipulation that has the power to cause severe trauma.
How does it work?
One person picks, provokes, and pushes another individual — (friend, family member, colleague, romantic partner, peer, etc.) — to their sanity brink.
Eventually, the bullied party blows up, and the instigator flips the script, points their finger, and claims victimhood.
Pushing Another Person To Their Brink
Colloquially speaking, reactive abuse is the act of pushing another person to the brink. It’s the process of causing someone “to snap” or “lash out.”
In most cases, reactive abuse victims (the people being pushed) mirror their adversaries’ tactics.
Because we’re programmed to hit back when we’re hit — and spew insults when we’re psychologically assaulted.
Trauma bonding is a toxic, co-dependent relationship cycle that goes hand-in-hand with reactive abuse. The phrase describes the strong connection sometimes forged between abusers and their targets.
Usually, these types of partnerships are built around an ongoing, destructive pattern of abuse followed by apologies and love bombing.
After a while, victims may believe they deserve the abuse and have no other option but to stay with the perpetrator. This cycle is known as trauma bonding, and it pushes some people to a psychotic breaking point.
It takes a while for this destructive pattern to affect some victims. But it can play a significant role in shaping the dynamics of a relationship from the first incident.
Reactive Abuse by a Narcissist
People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are especially prone to engage in reactive abuse. They will push and push until their targets break, then whirl around and say, “Look how terribly you treat me!”
NPD personalities cannot handle being wrong or at fault. They’ve perfected the art of evading responsibility and will scale walls to turn the proverbial tables. Some may even go as far as embellishing bruises to convincingly play the victim role when they’re causing the drama.
Is Reactive Abuse Common?
Unfortunately, reactive abuse is more common than you may think. Many people are stuck in destructive relationships, but there is a severity scale.
For example, breaking up is hard to do. So instead of pulling the plug, many folks will antagonize their romantic partners into ending it.
Unfortunately, these scenarios can metastasize into reactive abuse situations. Other times, failure to terminate is a harmless matter of immaturity.
Also, people with certain personality disorders — like narcissistic, histrionic, and borderline — are more apt to engage in reactive abuse.
Why Do Abusers Provoke Reactive Abuse?
Why do abusers goad their victims?
Offenders wield reactive abuse for various reasons, including:
- Disempowering victims
- Making targets feel powerless and weak (which abusers prefer)
- Giving the abuser “Proof” of their alleged “victimhood”
- Creating doubt about the other side of the story
Abusers strive to dominate on mental, physical, and social levels and will cajole trigger points until they break their targets.
Reactive Abuse Patterns
Reactive abuse is defined by three phases: antagonism, proof, and turning the table.
Step One: Antagonism
The first stage of reactive abuse is antagonism. It’s the groundwork — the poking and provoking, the nagging and needling. Reactive abusers get under the skin by messing with you psychologically or physically.
Usually, they start small. It may be so minor it doesn’t even register.
But over time, they turn up the volume and hone in on your specific triggers. At this point, the person being bullied may start to suffer the psychological pangs of gaslighting, hovering at the precipice of sanity.
Step Two: Proof
Eventually, the person being provoked blows their top and fights back. They snap.
This reaction is what the abuser wants. In their mistaken viewpoint, it provides the “proof” they need to cry foul and further manipulate the situation.
Step Three: Turn the Tables
The final stage is “turning the tables.” At this point, the victimizer will point their finger at the snapped party, accusing them of being unhinged and trying to garner sympathy.
When the target finally lashes out, the reactive abuser may even smirk or celebrate and say something like: “See! You [insert offense] too. I just do it to defend myself. At the very most, we’re both guilty!”
The assailant will do everything in their power to frame themselves as the innocent party while making the victim appear unhinged or reckless.
Does Reactive Abuse Make You An Abuser?
No, reactive abuse does not make you an abuser — and anyone who insists it does is either woefully misinformed or purposefully trying to mess with your head.
For starters, reactive abuse is often an unconscious, instinctual response. When we’re pushed, shoved, hit, or emotionally bullied, our bodies release stress hormones. When an excess amount builds up, our fight-or-flight reflexes take the wheel.
Besides, reactive abuse is a form of self-defense.
Most victims are horrified by their behavior and feel guilt and shame after reacting. But it’s important to shed those feelings because they accumulate and create further mental health hurdles.
Reactive Abuse Examples
Still unsure if you fully understand how it works? Let’s look at a few hypothetical reactive behavior examples.
Peer Group Reactive Abuse
“Chris” and “Pat” run in the same circles. Maybe they’re students at the same school or adults within the same friend or PTA group. Chris starts gossiping about Pat to anyone who will listen. In short order, Pat becomes a social pariah because of Chris’s bullying tactics.
One day, Pat can no longer take the whispers and humiliation and blows up publicly at Chris.
Since Pat exploded with other people around, everyone thinks she is the one with the problems, and Pat is further shamed as a result.
Related Life Tip: People who talk badly about others behind their backs will likely speak badly about you behind yours. So beware of the person who’s always gossiping, criticizing, judging, and pointing fingers.
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Parent-Child Reactive Abuse
“Jerry” is the at-home caregiver for his elderly father “Merv.” Suffice it to say, Merv is an obstinate, disagreeable, sneaky grouch. He hits Jerry with his cane and hurls awful names at his son all the time. Once, Merv even tripped Jerry on purpose.
One day, Jerry has enough and grabs Merv’s arm to stop his father from swiping the cane. Merv throws a fit, accuses Jerry of abusing him, and calls the cops.
Police arrive at the scene and see a bruise where Jerry grabbed Merv. The officers put Jerry under investigation for elder abuse, which triggers a bunch of bureaucratic busywork, not to mention it’s a big blow to Jerry’s reputation.
Related Life Tip: Caretaking is demanding. If you are looking after another person, it’s imperative to prioritize self-care, too.
Reactive Abuse in a Romantic Relationship
“Jack” and “Jill” have been dating for over a year and live together. For the past several months, Jack has been extra controlling, and the pair rarely participates in family events or friend gatherings anymore.
At home, Jack often nags Jill about her cooking, cleaning, work schedule, and phone time. He’s crawling in and out of her case about anything and everything. Jack also calls Jill derogatory names and regularly tramples on her self-esteem.
One weekend, Jack and Jill go to a family BBQ. Everyone is glad to see them because they seldom come around anymore.
At the party, Jack starts nagging Jill. To other people, Jack’s behavior seems like good-natured teasing. But for Jill, it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back — and she snaps.
Jill starts yelling at Jack and hurling nasty insults at him.
Since nobody else is privy to how Jack treats Jill behind closed doors, they’re convinced she is the problem and side with him.
Related Life Tip: Before moving in with a romantic partner, spend a few trial weeks living together. If an ugly side emerges in that short amount of time, hold off on cohabitation.
How Reactive Abuse Impacts You
The cycle of reactive abuse is insidious and deceptive. Abusers are often master manipulators and can easily convince bystanders — or even family and friends — that they’re the wronged party. Scarier still is that we humans are not nearly as good at detecting fraudsters and manipulators as we think.
Reactive abuse can impact you mentally, emotionally, and physically. Common symptoms include:
- Becoming conflict-averse to an unhealthy degree
- Being hyper-emotional
- Disassociating from family and friends
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Getting chronic migraines
- Dealing with insomnia
- Forming complex post-traumatic stress disorder
Moreover, stress can wreak physical harm to your body. It’s connected to various degenerative and inflammatory ailments and diseases; plus, studies strongly suggest that hair loss and ulcers are also stress symptoms.
How to Stop Reactive Abuse and Disempower Your Abuser
Changing an abuser’s behavior is rarely — if ever — possible. It’s something they must change on their own, and that’s impossible unless they genuinely acknowledge their problem and seek professional help.
As such, stopping reactive abuse is more about equipping yourself with the tools to either walk away or not react.
End the Relationship
Ending the problematic relationship is the best way to stop reactive abuse. The victimizer may bend over backward to “win” you back — and many will say what they think you want to hear.
Try not to fall for their machinations. You deserve to be treated well; you deserve to thrive. Staying with an abusive reactor will only accomplish one thing: keep you from living your best life.
But leaving the relationship isn’t always possible. The instigator may be someone in your family or a peer over whom you have no authority (i.e., another person in your book club, a colleague, a classmate, etc.). For what to do in those instances, keep reading.
Related Life Tip: Staying in an abusive romantic or platonic relationship — mental or physical — is never wise. If you find yourself in such a situation, do everything you can to get out. If you don’t, things likely won’t end well.
Tell Other People
Telling people you trust is smart. Not only will they give you support, but they may have a novel solution. Plus, when you let people know what’s transpiring behind closed doors, they’ll better understand any public blow-ups.
But be careful with whom you open up. Not everyone needs to be included in your circle of trust.
That said, don’t be afraid to tell people if you’re being abused by a partner, parent, or someone else. Speak up before it’s too late.
Related Life Tip: If you don’t have close friends or family to help you through difficult times, look into public services that may be able to lend a helping hand.
Leave the Room or Ignore
When you cannot extricate yourself from a relationship due to uncontrollable forces, you may be able to leave the room when your tormentor acts up. Putting up with someone else’s issues is not on your “must-do” list. Do you remember signing up to be someone else’s emotional punching bag? Didn’t think so.
If leaving the room isn’t an option, ignoring someone always is. You’re not required to internalize every nasty thing said about or to you.
However, it’s also always important to check yourself. Sometimes, it’s tough to realize when we’re being a pill or causing problems.
Related Life Tip: Saying you don’t feel well is always a polite way to exit a difficult situation.
Get Professional Help
Is the situation untenable? If so, consider getting professional help. And don’t assume you cannot afford it.
Local governments offer programs for residents at low or no cost. Also, explore online options. Many people find psychologists with budget-friendly fees through digital platforms.
Think twice, however, about going to couples counseling with someone who has narcissistic personality disorder. Researchers have yet to find an effective cure — either medically or cognitively — so therapy is often a waste of time with them.
By all means, go see someone on your own. But including an NPD patient in the process may make it impossible for you to get the needed treatment.
Related Life Tip: Not every therapist is for everyone. Don’t be afraid to try out several options.
Use Public Resources
If you can safely contact a hotline or other public service to help get you out of harm’s way, do it.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 via:
- Phone: 800-799-7233
- Live chat: https://www.thehotline.org/
- Text: by texting LOVEIS to 22522
Remember that you can also walk into an emergency room, explain the situation, and get treated for mental health stress.
You don’t have to have a physical problem. Law enforcement is another option for reporting abuse.
Reactive abuse isn’t something anyone should tolerate. If it’s a minor case, and you feel safe talking to the culprit, do so. If the situation is more serious, consider getting help from friends, family, or a domestic abuse hotline.