• Xenia Schembri

Red Flags - Reactive Abuse

As we know, most abusers use tactics to confuse their victim, I have spoken about that many times in my other blogs. What I want to address in this one, is how abusers use reactive abuse tactics to shift the blame for the abuse on the other person. Reactive abuse is one of the favourite moves of the narcissist. They use this tactic to try and make the victim believe that they are the actual abuser because the victim reacted to the abuse that they have had to endure. The victim may have reacted by; shouting, screaming, snapping, throwing insults, or physically fighting back or lashing out. The abuser will try to convince the victim that they are overreacting because 'there is nothing' worth reacting about.


The truth is, the abuser would have pushed and pushed until the victim snapped. The victim would have had to endure and put up with, and copped more abuse, their emotions and feelings belittled over a long period of time and then… boom! The reaction happened… it may have been a slow reaction or, may have come on suddenly and unexpectedly.


But, it was likely that, for a long time, the victim would have been too scared to talk about their feelings, the hurt, confusion and could not have acknowledged that they were being abused. So, it is not surprising that this reaction happened. It would have been a build-up of many incidents until they could not contain it anymore. So they snapped, screamed at the abuser, called them names or even may have thrown a punch (although this is uncommon in victims of abuse because they know where it will end and it would not be pretty, the abuser may immediately fight back)


Perpetrators rely on this tactic, so, they can use it against the victim as ‘proof’ that the victim is the one who is the problem, mentally unstable or ill. They will jump on these actions and hold these reactions against the victim indefinitely and will use it against them whenever they think they can. They may come out with… ‘Back in 2003, (or whatever year it was) you did/said this and acted crazy…. You are the crazy one, you need help’. They may use this reaction against the victim if they go to the police or, they may even use it to try and file a protective order against the victim. They will never want to listen to why the outburst happened, they are more interested in that it did happen and that they can use it against the victim.


All manipulation is to unfairly and skilfully influence a situation and/or feeling to suit a particular purpose or advantage. This method of manipulation is particularly cruel, because it confuses not just the victim but also friends and family by claiming that they are the ones being abused. It also conditions the victims to accept the blame and the longer this blame-shifting goes on the longer, the victim will believe that they are to blame, and the abuse continues, victims believe that they are the violent and unstable ones. They become ashamed of themselves and ignore the abuse that is happening to them. Reactive abuse often has a knock-on effect on the victim’s mental health and physical health. The victim knows that they are good, kind, capable and loving but that has no bearing when they experience the guilt and shame that the abusers continue to condition them to feel. The abuser will get them to focus on their reactions to the abuse rather than the abuse itself.


If they eventually break up with the abuser, the victim stands no chance against the smear campaign that the perpetrator launches. It will lead people to say that there is mutual abuse within the relationship. In other words, both parties within the relationship are equally abusing each other. The fact is; the power and control involved in domestic violence would make it impossible for both partners to be abusive. If one person is controlling then the other person will be submissive, so mutual abuse is rare, but, it is a term well used as a way for people outside the relationship to understand the dynamics within the couple. It is hard, for an outsider to see the truth of who is the abuser and who is the victim.


If you are in this situation:


Do you see yourself reacting? Are you shocked at yourself as this is not normal for you? Are you behaving out of character? If so, then it is time to realise that there is something not right with your relationship. When you are evaluating your behaviour and you realise that the behaviour is unusual, ask yourself what is actually going on here.


The only part of your relationship that you have any kind of control over is the way you react. The abuser wants their victim to question their integrity and character and be out of control of their responses. Because it means that abusers have all the power, they have taken power from you. But, when you begin to respond rather than react, they begin to take back their power.


Responding and reacting are very different; reacting is automatic, almost out of your control. But responding takes a thought process and that requires consideration of actions which helps you to remain calm. The balance of power changes and you begin to take back control over your life.


Don’t forget that victim-blaming is so common for the abuser and because of that, friends and family find it hard to distinguish between the abuser and the victim.


Remember this is all part of the “game” for the abuser – getting you to question your sanity by gaslighting (click here to understand gaslighting) and wearing away at your self-worth and your self-esteem has crashed, you feel trapped into the abuse cycle.


Saying all this, I am not saying the reaction was ok, it is never ok to treat another person with any kind of violence even if it was provoked, but it is understandable. (no one would probably ever blame you for doing it) It is very important to differentiate this kind of reaction with the ongoing abuse that caused it. When we think of abuse, we think of the long-term impacts that it has on another person. In the case of reactive abuse, the abuse generally does not have an impact on the abuser, as it is actually what they wanted to happen all along. In this way, they can use it against the victim and it fuels the abuser’s power over them.


A victim will almost always be able to admit their own faults. They will know what they did wrong and how they reacted. Whereas abusers will seldom admit that they have ever done anything wrong at all. Or, that they are selective in what they do admit, being clever to fake being able to admit some mistakes and not others. This is probably one of the best ways to determine who the abuser is.


If you feel that you are in a domestic violent relationship and in fear of leaving, please feel free to contact me or find someone you trust to help you. Some organisations will support you, so google organisations near you.


Read my 'Great Safe Escape blog for more information on leaving an abusive relationship safely.

If you have found this helpful to understand Reactive Abuse, then please share and link this blog. If you would like to know more about my personal story, you can buy my book 'Broken To Be Beautiful' here. If you’re outside of Australia my book can be purchased through Amazon in your country.


Author information: Xenia Schembri


Along with her husband, Simon, are the founders of the charity At the Ark based on the Gold Coast Queensland Australia. Since 2010 At The Ark have supported families whose children have been abused and families impacted by domestic violence.

Previously, Xenia was in a 15-year domestic violent marriage. Xenia has become a voice for the voiceless and has a passion to prove that the past does not have to negatively impact the future, but positively propel anyone to change to their outcome.


Xenia was Woman of the Year 2020 on the Gold Coast Australia and one of the Westfield's Local Heroes in 2020. She is an international speaker and author of 4 published books. The Brave Little Bear series that equips families with self-protective behaviours and her own story Broken To Be Beautiful.

Here are links to some of her other blogs that you may find interesting.

8 Reasons Why We Don't Leave Abusive Relationships

The Great Safe Escape

Red Flags

How do you break the cycle from going from one abusive relationship to another?

Red Flags Gaslighting

Red Flags- Trauma Bonding and how to break it


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