What Is Reactive Abuse? How To Recognize and Respond To It

Most people have a clear-cut idea of what abuse looks like. It’s taunting, physical assault, emotional manipulation, and overt aggression, right? Well, yes. It usually is that way. We’re often taught that abuse is a black-and-white, clear-as-day matter.

However, there is another little-known form of abuse that people don’t discuss too much. People often see it as a “grey area” of abuse. It’s called reactive abuse, and you may have been a victim without even realizing it. Here’s what you should know…

What Is Reactive Abuse?

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Most people had a person who would poke, prod, and wheedle them until they’d snap. In most cases, it’s an innocuous behavior that isn’t meant to hurt you. (Some people are just annoying, right?)

With reactive abuse, the abuser keeps trying to push your buttons to make you snap, yell, or blow up at them. Then, the abuser starts to paint you as the bad guy. They may even record you yelling at them to discredit you when you discuss their abuse.


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Abusers use reactive abuse as a way of discrediting their victims or as a way to justify the abuse they unleash on them. A typical abuser realizes that their victims can make them look bad if there’s no reciprocation for that abuse.

Reactive abuse is often used as a way to control victims via blackmail or social framing. It’s an abuser’s way of saying, “You’re no angel. You deserve the hurt I give you. You wouldn’t want others to see how you yelled at me, do you?”

Gaslighting Too

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Particularly sadistic abusers might get joy out of seeing you upset. However, the main reason many abusers might turn to reactive abuse deals with gaslighting. Reactive abuse makes it easy for them to turn the tables on you.

A very convincing abuser might make you think that you’re the abuser, even when you clearly are the one getting the bulk of the hurt. If the abuser can push the blame onto you, they view that as a win. It’s a way to control you.

Signs Of Reactive Abuse

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The most obvious sign of reactive abuse is the way your partner treats you. Do they seem to try to pick fights with you just to get under your skin? Do you tell them, calmly, to stop something, only for them to pick up that habit even more?

If it seems like your partner is trying to trigger you, then you probably are dealing with reactive abuse. If they berate you, intimidate you, and push you until you fight back only to recoil and wail about you being abusive, then you are absolutely dealing with reactive abuse.

Caught In A Bad Moment

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Another major sign of reactive abuse deals with phones and recordings. Does your partner keep pushing you to anger until you snap, only to whip out their phone? If they are recording you when you break down, chances are they’re using reactive abuse to sabotage your reputation.

Reactive abuse is particularly common in divorces that have high stakes or particularly bitter endings. If you believe this to be fodder for a divorce case, contact a lawyer immediately.

Sudden Isolation

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Some abusers will also use reactive abuse as a way to isolate you from others. They do this by triggering you to react, then telling your friends or family members what you did. When your friends hear about you shouting or even hitting your partner, they might gossip and even stop talking to you.

If your friends suddenly cooled off from you after hanging out with your partner, ask them what happened. They may tell you what’s going on, if they truly care about you.

“Not Like Me!”

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The key to figuring out whether you’re acting out of reactive abuse deals with your personality. Do you have a pattern of hurting others around you? Do you have a track record of hitting or screaming at your partners, or is this a brand new behavior?

If it’s not characteristic of you, that’s your sign. You’re dealing with reactive abuse.

How Common?

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If you believe that you’re a victim of reactive abuse, you’re not alone. This type of abuse is surprisingly common despite it being rarely-discussed. In fact, it tends to be seen in almost all long-term abusive relationships to some extent.

Contrary to what people might say, it’s unfair to ask whether reactive abuse is justified. Reactive abuse happens when one party reaches their breaking point.

The Key To Dealing With It

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Reactive abuse is all about control and trying to hurt you to keep you in your place. So the best thing to do is to break up with your partner. If your partner is triggering you in order for you to lash out at them, your relationship is unsalvageable.

A person who triggers you purposefully doesn’t care about you. They care about controlling you and hurting you.

Keep Distance

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The best way to break up with an abuser is by putting as much space between the two of you as possible. Ghosting your abuser, giving police a heads up about protective orders, and warning others to keep your now-ex away from you are important moves.

If you live with your partner, call a friend or family member. Pack up your stuff and leave while your partner is at work or otherwise out of the house. Don’t bother telling them until you are gone.

Keep Calm, Carry On

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Do your best to keep calm while your partner tries to get under your skin. Remember that the reason they are doing this is to rile you up. If you cannot get away from them, hide a camera, record them, and repeatedly ask them to stop.

If you’re in the midst of a divorce, tell your soon-to-be-ex that any interaction you have must be through a lawyer. Oh, and tell the lawyer about what they are doing, too. The less access your abuser has to you, the better off you are going to be.

Focus On Healing

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Once you break up with your partner, you can focus on you. Remember, reactive abuse is not entirely your fault. In fact, it wouldn’t have happened in most other situations. Going to therapy, learning to forgive yourself, and giving yourself time to recover is vital to your journey.

In time, you can overcome what happened and how you lashed out. With enough work, you’ll also be able to learn how to avoid a partner like that in the future.

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