Reactive Abuse: What It Is and What It Isn’t

The issue of reactive abuse is one that is wrought with controversy, and rightfully so. Psychologists and activists debate both the term and the legitimacy of the phenomenon itself. Some believe the notion of reactive abuse doesn’t exist at all, while some selfishly exploit the concept to justify truly horrendous, abusive behavior.

People’s definitions surrounding this term may vary. I personally understand reactive abuse as the following: when a victim, in their desperation of being severely provoked by their abuser, finally lashes out verbally or physically in a way akin to their abuser.

In my definition, reactive abuse is not a habitual pattern of behavior, but rather just one or a few select instances where a victim is pushed over the edge emotionally and reacts after suffering months if not years in silence.

Is this the best course of action? No, of course not. The best response is to walk away, but as fellow humans, we can sympathize, especially for a victim that is either physically restrained from leaving or emotionally blackmailed via threats of suicide, financial pressure, and other forms of indirect coercion.

The real abuser in this type of relationship is not frightened by their victim’s eventual outburst, quite the contrary. They are usually waiting for such a reaction and relish it when it occurs. Abusers will cling to these few reactions and used them again and again as inescapable proof that their victim is the true abuser in the relationship. They will use this reversal of roles to either continue controlling their victim or, if the relationship ends, use these few outbursts to convince onlookers how they were the victim all along to a deranged savage for whom that they had to walk on eggshells, conveniently leaving out their own role in deliberately “poking the bear.”

I believe that reactive abuse does exist as a concept, but I disagree with the term. The word “abuse” itself implies an unjustifiable act of cruelty, and by placing “reactive” we are almost creating an oxymoron where abuse can be contextualized and therefore sanctioned. In that sense I agree with this quote by Yasi from

“I don’t think it’s fair to call Reactive Abuse “abuse” because the word implies a severe violence that causes detriment to the mental and physical well being of the victim. “Reactive Abuse” almost never actually harms the true abuser it was aimed at – in fact it is often exactly what they wanted, and only bolsters their sense of self-righteousness and fuels their power over the victim.”

I think another term should be used to describe this phenomenon, something like “imprisoned self-defense,” because victims find themselves lashing out because they are operating like cornered animals with limited options due to the physical and/or emotional barriers placed on them by their abusers.

There is no doubt in my mind that Amin’s ex-girlfriend launched her online smear campaign believing that she could justify her cyberbullying against him as falling within the parameters of “reactive abuse.” She believed that by claiming that Amin had put her through so much during their relationship, people within our social circle would either endorse her or at least tolerate her assassination of his character. Some did, others did not, and some were simply too scared to get involved after seeing how she socially attacked those who dared to support Amin or even just question her false narrative.

What she did was most certainly not reactive abuse because her smear campaign was not a desperate act committed in physical/emotional self-defense during a heated argument, nor was it a temporary lapse in good judgement. It was a cold, calculated vendetta that has persisted for years. I wrote in a previous article that “she is operating under the false belief that if she can just portray my fiancé as evil enough, then her own poor behavior throughout this entire affair will be excused.” I wasn’t thinking about reactive abuse directly when I wrote that. But it does follow the same train of thought that she wanted to claim the protection of reactive abuse to negate the typical condemnation that would come with her social, legal, and cyber abuse of Amin.

She abused the sentiments surrounding reactive abuse, as well as the subtexts of both gender and race. She once told Amin near the end of their relationship “I am a woman! You are a man! People will believe me!” No doubt she also hoped that by her being white and him being brown would mean no one would question her story, given the misogynist stereotypes that exists around Middle Eastern men in American culture. She is the perfect example of the abuser who shamelessly exploits reactive abuse.

When I think about all the ways in which she tried to defame/bully Amin, both physically and online after their breakup and piece all of them together into the entire cluster fuck that it has now become…there is not term or ideology on this earth that can condone such obsessive and malicious behavior, least of all reactive abuse. That’s just abuse, plain and simple.


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