Mutual Abuse Vs. Reactive Abuse — What It Means When Victims Hit Back

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With the major news breaking about the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp defamation case on every channel, a term that has come to light is “mutual abuse.”

Another hot term is “reactive abuse.” 

Both of these phrases are being discussed because they pertain to a fact that many people tend to overlook in cases of abuse: Sometimes abused people hit back.

Usually, people assume that there is simply an abuser and abused person.

But are these terms designed simply to let abusers off the hook or excuse violence? Are they even real?

The answer is complicated. 

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What is the difference between a relationship with mutual abuse and one with reactive abuse?

Generally, abuse in a relationship can roughly be described in one of two ways.

Mutual abuse vs. reactive abuse

Mutual Abuse: When you look at the case of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, it’s clear that they were both terrible to one another. That suggests that they were both abusive, which is mutual abuse. 

These types of relationships are exceptionally poisonous because neither person wants to leave the other alone. These types of relationships are rare because abusers don’t want to be abused. They want a target.

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Reactive Abuse: Remember when you were at school, and there was that one bully who’d poke a kid over and over again? Finally, one day, that kid said enough was enough and clocked him upside the head. The bully screamed and wailed that he was being hit.

This is a textbook case of reactive abuse.

Reactive abuse occurs when one person keeps pushing the other until they retaliate. This is a reaction to being abused. On the surface, it looks almost identical to mutual abuse. 

However, there are key differences between mutual and reactive abuse.

In the case of mutual abuse, both parties will instigate it. One fight might be person A’s fault, but then the other fight will be person B’s fault. In the case of reactive abuse, most fights are a result of A’s aggression and abuse while person B is reacting to being hurt by person A after repeated attempts to de-escalate the situation.

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Mutual abuse is exceedingly rare.

Mutual abuse is something that is highly unusual, simply because it doesn’t really match typical abuse dynamics. Abusers abuse because they are insecure in their relationship and feel like “taking them down a peg” will increase control — and in many cases it does, because the other person becomes afraid.

It’s unlikely that abusers will tolerate their own behavior mirrored back at them. This is true even when they believe that they deserve to be abused and rejected.

Abusers view being abused by their victims as a form of rejection. The “rejection” they got is a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is why so many abusers say, “I told you wo/men don’t like me! I told you! They’re all terrible!”

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Who is the abuser?

This is often hard to figure out, and in all honesty, it’s rarely ever someone’s job to figure out. 

More often than not, the abused will show signs of trauma or might be afraid to admit that they were/are being abused. They may be far shakier, more afraid, or more withdrawn than the abuser. And many people who are abused will take sides with their abuser. Abuse is a vicious cycle. 

Generally speaking, the best thing that you can do for anyone accused of any kind of abuse is to get them away from the other person and offer them a way to get help. The Rape & Domestic Violence Information Center (RDVIC) is a good place for abused victims to get help. 

Need support now? Hotline.org offers free text, chat, and phone support. And with the right therapy, most people can break the cycle of abuse — even if they are the abuser.

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Dina Colada is an author, direct response copywriter, and love coach whose work has appeared on sites like Prevention, Psych Central, MSN, and Women's Health. She specializes in helping single women navigate the modern world and runs aa breakup support group for women. Visit her website or check out her support group for women on Facebook.