If you have dealt with narcissistic abuse in a toxic relationship, chances are that you’ve experienced a confusing phenomenon called “reactive abuse.”
What is Reactive Abuse?
Reactive abuse is when you, as someone who is being abused, lash out toward your abuser in response to the abuse to which you’re being subjected. However, the truth is that it is a manipulation tactic that allows the user to shift the blame on to you. s shift blame from themselves onto the victim. You’ll be told that you’re overreacting or being overly dramatic and you’ll be accused of being the abuser yourself.
In other words, reactive abuse refers to what happens when you react in a significant way to a toxic behavior that is repeatedly used to control and manipulate you. Often, it involves a situation in which your reaction confuses or concerns you, and it causes you to begin to wonder if you are in fact the abuser in your relationship. This happens because often, narcissists are so abusive and manipulative that they provoke you into reacting in a way that, out of context, might seem abusive.
That means that in toxic relationships, abusers will do whatever they can to avoid taking responsibility for their behaviors. This results in a number of different manipulative and controlling behaviors, one of the most frustrating of which is deflection and blame-shifting. That means if you are the victim and you are being abused, you might fling insults, scream, throw things at the abuser, or lash out at them.
That is essentially the definition of reactive abuse. Basically, reactive abuse is what is happening when your abuser has provoked you into reacting in an extreme way (that is generally outside of your character) to their abuse and manipulation. Then, they will retaliate by calling you the abuser because of how insulting them and rude or disrespectful you’re being.
But guess what? Abusers count on this tactic and they use it to their advantage at every possible opportunity. I know, you’re shocked.
Examples of Reactive Abuse
For example, if you punched your partner in the face, you would be physically abusing them, without question, right? But things get a little muddy if you punched them in the face because, after they knocked you down and beat you up, it was the only way you could escape.
Or, if you burst into a red-hot rage and call them every name in the book when they just say a single sentence to you, you would be abusing them. But if that sentence was, “I’m stealing everything you have, I’m cheating on you with your best friend, and you look fat in that dress,” who could blame you?
Or, you’re at a party and you witness your spouse flirting with everyone in the place. You stay calm and say nothing, but when you get n the car, you ask them about it. They might then say you’re crazy and that they were just being friendly – and that you are insanely jealous, and they find that very unattractive, and if you’re always going to accuse them of this stuff, they might as well do it. This, along with a string of personal and painful insults, might lead you to be cussing them out by the time you get home. The neighbors might overhear it and feel sorry for your spouse because they have no idea what happened at the party or in the car.
What Are the Consequences of Reactive Abuse?
Mental & Emotional Stress and Illness
While there are probably very few people who will actually blame you for reacting to such abusive behavior in an extreme way, you probably still feel bad about it, primarily because it is not something that is normal for you. You aren’t abusive and you don’t hurt people. But every now and then, your abuser pushes you to the point where, for a moment, you no longer care what they do to you because you are so mentally and emotionally drained and overwhelmed. This puts you into an unhealthy mental and emotional state and can lead to many other complications, including C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder).
Keeping You in an Abuser’s Control
When you have these extreme reactions, your abuser may exploit them to prove that you are the unstable one. For example, some abusers will pull out their phones and record your meltdown, but fail to acknowledge the amount of brow-beating and gaslighting they had to do to get you to that point. The abuser will then call you crazy, mentally ill, sick, stupid, and/or otherwise unsavory.
They will spread rumors and tell everyone how awful you are so that people will both feel sorry for them (offering additional narcissistic supply) and also be a little bit afraid of you (and/or feel sorry for or disgusted by you). Of course, this will also give them a permanent reason to continue to abuse you, because they will keep holding your reactions against you all of the time and forever. The abuser will always remind you about when you were abusive to them and of what a nutjob you really are.
And as I noted, they conveniently forget that they were the ones who instigated your reaction. Abusers will even use this kind of “evidence” against you in court or other legal situations. This just one of the many reasons I highly recommend dealing with these people with the gray rock method.
Abusers Manipulate Their Victims To Push Them to React
Abusers know that their victims will react to the abuse and manipulation to which they subject them, and push them to the point that the victim might sort of “abuse them back.” If you’re involved with a narcissist, you might have experienced this. Knowing they can get you to react and to even retaliate, they will sometimes take the opportunity to even potentially record what you’re doing or saying during this time. This, of course, will later be used against you in the various smear campaigns the narcissist runs against you.
Not only does this help them to “remind you how crazy you really are,” but the narcissist is even likely to attempt to use it against you during court and other legal proceedings.
But are there actually situations in which the victim may actually be abusive by nature as well? Yes, and this is called “mutual abuse.”
Is Reactive Abuse The Same As Mutual Abuse?
Mutual abuse is what some people call it when both members of a couple appear to be abusive to each other. This is more of a myth than truth. In other words, narcissists and other abusive people will tell their abuse victims that their responses to the abuse are also considered abuse. And those reactions can sometimes be considered “reactive abuse,” as we’ve discussed – but in reality, this is yet another manipulation tactic.
In fact, the claim of “mutual abuse” is often heard by domestic violence counselors, such as those at TheHotline.org.
“Many times, we speak with survivors of abuse who want to address concerns they have about their own behaviors. They will often express that their relationship is mutually abusive, a concept used when describing a relationship where both partners are abusive towards one another,” the organization reports. “But ‘mutual abuse’ doesn’t exist.”
The counselors at DomesticShelters.org agree, noting that, “perpetuating the myth of mutual abuse is at best irresponsible and at worst dangerous.”
“To say partners are mutually abusive or equal in abuse puts undue blame on the survivor,” says an article on their website. “When a survivor hears that he or she is mutually abusive, what’s heard is that he or she is to blame, and that reinforces what the batterer has been saying all along—that the abuse is the survivor’s fault. The myth of mutual abuse also reinforces the behavior of the batterer—that his or her actions were justified.”
All of that to gently remind you that if you’re being abused, your reaction to the abuse cannot be considered equal to the abuse.
How Can The Victim Stop Reacting To Abuse?
How can you prevent yourself from falling for the abuser’s manipulation tactic?
Remember that when you are being abused, it means that someone is holding power over you. If you are struggling to reclaim your power during narcissistic abuse, you will want to learn and employ the gray rock method, when possible.
What is the Gray Rock Method?
The grey rock method (also known as Gray Rock) was named and first published by a writer called Skylar, who advises that you act boring and don’t react to the narcissist’s attempts to engage you in drama. The tactic is highly effective but also infuriating for narcissists to experience. Be careful and use this method with caution if you are dealing with any physical abuse as the abuser may not react well. Learn more about the gray rock method here.
More Resources on Using the Gray Rock (Grey Rock) Method
- Gray Rock: Origin, Meaning and How to Use It Safely
- The Narcissistic Whirl Response to Gray Rock
- What to Do When Gray Rock Doesn’t Work
- Video Playlist on Gray Rock (Grey Rock)
You’ll want to be careful to avoid reacting and try to focus on staying calm and being almost boring. Try to avoid name-calling or physical violence, if you can.
If you are fortunate enough to have a friend to whom you can send a code that tells them that you need help, that is a great tactic. That also means you have to be honest about what you are facing if domestic violence is involved. You should never suffer in silence.
Resources for Narcissistic Abuse & Narcissistic Abuse Recovery
- QueenBeeing’s PLAN to Leave a Narcissist
- QueenBeeing’s Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Resource Center
- Are you dealing with narcissistic abuse? Find out by taking our self-assessment.
- The QueenBeeing SPANily, Official – We consider this to be the best narcissistic abuse recovery support group on the web. Offers several subgroups and features a vigilant, compassionate admin team full of trained coaches and survivors, supporting more than 12k members. SPAN is an acronym created by Angie Atkinson that stands for Support for People Affected by Narcissistic abuse in toxic relationships.
- Other Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support Groups – We also have separate groups for each stage in your narcissistic abuse recovery, as well as some for those who have moved past recovery and are evolving into the next stage of their own life. Survivors have unique and individual needs, even when they’ve moved on – so we’re still here for you.
- One-on-One Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Coaching – If you prefer to get more personalized support in your recovery, you might like to schedule a session with one of our coaches to plan and execute your own narcissistic abuse recovery plan.
- Find a Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Therapist – If you’re looking for a therapist for narcissistic abuse recovery, either because you cannot afford coaching and want to use your health insurance or because you have additional issues you need to address that do not fall within the realm of coaching, you will want to find the right therapist for you – and as far as we’re concerned, that therapist must understand what you’ve been through. This page offers assistance to help you do exactly that.
- Where Are You in Recovery? You might not be sure exactly where you fit in and what level of recovery you’ve achieved. If that’s the case, you’ll want to check out this self-assessment to help you determine exactly where you fall in the stages of recovery from narcissistic abuse. Once you finish and submit the assessment, you will be given resources for your own situation, along with recommendations of which groups to join.
- Which Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Program is Right for You? If you aren’t sure which program you want to utilize to facilitate your recovery from narcissistic abuse, this self-assessment will help you decide.
Angela Atkinson is a certified trauma counselor and the author of more than 20 books on narcissism, narcissistic abuse recovery, and related topics. A recognized expert on narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder who has studied and written extensively on narcissistic personality disorder and narcissistic abuse in toxic relationships since 2006, she has a popular narcissistic abuse recovery YouTube channel. Atkinson was inspired to begin her work as a result of having survived toxic relationships of her own.
Atkinson offers trauma-informed narcissistic abuse recovery coaching and has certifications in trauma counseling, life coaching, level 2 therapeutic model, CBT coaching, integrative wellness coaching, and NLP. She is a certified trauma support coach and certified family trauma professional. She also has a professional PTSD counseling certification. Her mission is to help those who have experienced the emotional and mental devastation that comes with narcissistic abuse in these incredibly toxic relationships to (re)discover their true selves, stop the gaslighting and manipulation, and move forward into their genuine desires – into a life that is exactly what they choose for themselves.
Along with her solution-focused life coaching experience, Atkinson’s previous career in journalism and research helps her to offer both accurate and understandable information for survivors of abuse in a simple-to-understand way that helps to increase awareness in the narcissistic abuse recovery community. Atkinson founded QueenBeeing.com Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support, the SPANily Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support Groups and the Life Makeover Academy.
She offers individual and group coaching for victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse here at QueenBeeing.com and at NarcissisticAbuseRecovery.Online.