Instances of verbal, emotional, or physical abuse are extremely stressful and traumatic for victims.
During an act of abusive violence, it is common for an abused person to lash out toward their abuser. They may scream, cry, use insults, or even physically defend themselves against the attack. In turn, an assailant may retaliate against them by claiming that the victim is in fact the abuser.
This is called reactive abuse, informally referred to as “gaslighting.” Reactive abuse is extremely dangerous for a victim of sexual assault, as it allows abusers to hold something against the them. However, reactive abuse can also occur in situations of verbal abuse, psychological abuse, or physical abuse.
*Content warning: this article contains information related to sexual and domestic violence.
Why Do Assailants Utilize Reactive Abuse?
Abusers rely on reactive abuse because it gives them “proof” that the victim is unstable, mentally ill, or delusional. Abusers may hold these reactions against an abused person indefinitely, possibly bringing up specific instances of self defense years after the event occurred.
A reaction to abuse might even be used by an assailant to go to police and file their own protective orders against a victim.It is a method of manipulation that attempts to make an abused person feel responsible for acts of violence. The longer this shifting of blame occurs, the longer a victim may experience feelings of shame, guilt, or blame for reactive outbursts to continued abuse. Also, this tactic forces a victim of violence to focus on their own response to the event rather than the event itself. This can give an oppressor the ability to continue their abuse without repercussion.
What Causes an Abused Person to Have Reactive Outbursts?
Having a physical, verbal, or expressive outburst during an abusive event is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a natural defense mechanism that the body deploys against danger.When confronted with danger, the body innately releases a number of stress hormones to enhance its ability to react to a threatening situation. This is called the stress response, also known as the fight or flight response.
In circumstances where safety is threatened, the body prepares itself to flee the given situation or fight back against the stressor. This can result in screaming, punching, or kicking an individual who is being abusive.These actions are often automatic, so it can be hard to gain control of responses to abusive situations. Regardless, abusers may utilize these unconscious behaviors to gain power over an abused person.
What Causes an Assailant to Reactively Abuse?
Not everyone will experience a reactive outburst when confronted with abusive violence. Some individuals may experience shock, causing them to have seemingly no reaction during instances of abuse. Others may become extremely upset, but do not lash out against the assailant.
Abuse is abuse no matter what. In some circumstances, the tendency for an abuser to shift blame towards the victim might be a byproduct of a mental disorder.
Preventing Reactive Abuse
If you see yourself reacting to abusive scenarios with verbal outbursts or physical defenses, this may allow room for an abuser to manipulate the situation against you. Before this happens, there are a few things you can try instead.
Firstly, if you start to notice that a given individual makes you react in these expressive manners, this is a red flag that something is wrong with the relationship. If you safely can do so, try to physically and emotionally remove yourself from the abusive person.
Abusers rely on negative reactions from others in order to gain an upper hand. But when you start thinking about how you respond back, you can reclaim power. This can be challenging, as it will require careful consideration of thoughts and behaviors. As hard as it may be, try to keep a calm and collected presence so that the abuser will have difficulty manipulating the situation.
If an abuser does try to use reactive outbursts against you, recognize that you are not at fault. Proving that you see right through an abuser’s manipulative tactics can make them realize they have little control over your feelings.
If continual or isolated instances of abuse are causing you to fear for your physical or emotional wellbeing, contact a domestic violence hotline to safely seek assistance on how to exit your given situation. Ensure that you are in a safe place to talk. You can also use these hotlines if you have concerns about a loved one who may be stuck in an abusive relationship.
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If you are in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.