Am I the Abuser? Why It's Not "Reactive Abuse"

Sarah McDugal
Apr 8, 2021

A courageous member in one of of my private survivor support groups recently asked:

"I have an odd question I can't shake, and I'm hoping I'm not alone. Do any of you ever wonder if *you* are the abuser? My husband traumatized me in a big way, more than once, no question.

After that, I wasn't always a great person, I said some frustrated things, was tempted to be unfaithful (I'm not proud), and maybe I bullied him in some ways? As I read a book on healing, I cringe a little when I read about abuse and wonder if I did the same things to him when I reacted to what he did to me. Thoughts? Wisdom?"

The very fact that you're asking this question means probably the answer is no. Probing into your own actions because you’re worried you might have been abusive too, means most likely that you are NOT.

Let me clarify...

In every abusive relationship, there may be things a victim has said or done that are unhealthy. These may range from being angry at mistreatment to putting up with bad behavior far too long. Being scared to set boundaries can be just as unhealthy as losing your temper.

It is a deeply important part of healing to recognize and take responsibility for these things so you can grow past them and find healing for your own sake. This includes learning to see patterns of behavior instead of treating issues as one-time events. If you don't, you're almost guaranteed to carry these survival coping mechanisms into your future.

Don't overlook the flip side...

Every abuser will deflect responsibility for how they treat others, manipulate the situation to take credit for the good stuff, and isolate you from helpful resources and clarity. Blaming you for chaos while they act with emotional immaturity? Part of the playbook. Making it all about how hurt they are that you're holding them accountable for the ways they've hurt you? Standard operating procedure.

A crucial part of recovery includes developing a radically honest relationship with the truth. This means learning to reject your abuser's conditioning. Stop accepting that someone else's cruelty is your fault. Start basing your interactions on the premise that every person is fully responsible for their own choices and nobody else's.

Imagine an emotional suitcase...

Think of each person's feelings, words, choices, and actions as emotional luggage. Everyone has their own suitcases to carry. Your choices are yours to haul, my choices are mine.

When there's a conflict, ask yourself: “Which part of this conflict is mine to carry?” And then only carry the load that belongs to you.

If it’s not your luggage, don’t pick it up.

This is especially important in situations where abuse is entwined with addiction, adultery, and emotional abandonment. The temptation to take responsibility for your abuser when they are manipulating you to shoulder the blame for their sexual straying can be overwhelming.

"If I offered him more sex..." 
"If I had less attractive friends..."
"If I didn't get my feelings so hurt when he cheats..."
"If I wasn't so tired from taking care of the kids..."
"If I changed my hair or personality..."
"If I lost ten pounds..."

Trauma survivors are often quick to accept blame. Not once do you feel that you have permission to say "Your choice belongs to you, and no one else." 

Instead, often from very early stages of the relationship, you've been psychologically conditioned to place your abuser's preferences, needs, and desires higher than your own. Part of that conditioning includes gradually accepting more and more of the blame for other peoples' actions.

When someone says, "If you hadn't done ____, I would never have done what I did. Look what you made me do! Look how you made me hurt you! Look how you made me stray!" Do you believe them? God never operates on deflection of responsibility.

People sling around the term "reactive abuse" without thinking through the implications. If reactive abuse is really a thing, then every violent or coercive or deceptive abuser can claim that they are the ones acting in "reactive abuse" because you did something they didn't like. Or because they experienced childhood trauma and they're "reactive" now.

Abuse is not an isolate incident, it's a system of harm. An isolated incident may cause harm, or even be a criminal action, but if it does not occur within a larger system of exploitation and power exercised to the hurt of the victim - it isn't "abuse". It's just a single crime.

Abuse is the broader pattern of coercive, harmful behavior.

Blameshifting and compulsive entitled sexuality are linked.

Unfortunately, many professionals who treat abuse victims have been trained under a co-dependent/co-addict model borrowed from Al-Anon (intended for relatives of alcoholics). Without discussing whether this aspect of the Al-Anon treatment model is helpful in the arena of substance abuse (I'm not getting into that aspect in this article) -- telling a sex addict's spouse that they are co-dependent can cause profound and lasting double trauma.

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Quite often, the spouse of a deceptive and entitled partner had no idea the betrayal was taking place.

You married someone who presented themselves as charming, kind, intelligent, and capable -- there may have been few or no signs of addiction, abuse, abandonment, control, or mistreatment in the early phases.

After disclosure, you go to counseling and under the co-dependent model you're told, "This is partially your fault because you're addicted to your addict and you share the blame, because you just keep trying to control the addict in your life".

Is it possible to be co-dependent and be experiencing betrayal trauma? Possibly. But should this diagnosis be an automatic assumption? Definitely not. If your therapist or counselor is telling you that it is, please consider finding a new provider who is more trauma-informed and aware of the impact of sexual addiction.

The ground-breaking book "Your Sexually Addicted Spouse" (see book review video here) powerfully refutes this. Dr. Steffens and her co-author Marsha Means conducted 10,000 hours of research on how to treat abused spouses of sex addicts.

Steffens asserts that spouses of deceptive sexual partners are actually experiencing trauma, not acting as co-addicts. This means your safety-seeking behavior is not meant to control your betrayer so much as it is to try and get back in control of your own environment. Your coping actions are likely for the purpose of re-establishing a sense of safety after the trauma of betrayal.

Imagine that you experienced a car-jacking.

You'd probably compulsively check your backseat (and maybe even your trunk) before getting in the car and driving, as a result of the trauma. You might do that for months or even years before you felt reasonably safe again. None of that means you’re trying to control the carjacker who traumatized you. It just means you don't want to get carjacked again. It means you’re trying to make sure your own environment is safe.

It means you’re grasping for stability, 
for security, 
for a chance to relax and breathe, 
instead of constant awareness and hyper-vigilance.

It’s very similar with spouses after betrayal trauma...

Except when you're living in an abusive environment, you’re not just having flashbacks of that car-jacking last year — you’re living in a constant state of hyper-vigilance because your "car-jacker" sleeps next to you. Your abuser and might decide to act out at any moment. 

The acting out might be a verbal assault, the silent treatment, an unexpected financial expenditure that wrecks the monthly budget, or a new sexual exploit.

In an abusive marriage with deceptive sexual trauma present, there is often an ongoing trickle of disclosures, combined with the constant tension of not knowing how long the “good behavior” will last. It's enough to turn the most self-composed human into a person you yourself can’t even recognize.

Each woman may react differently to betrayal trauma, and yet case after case appears eerily similar. Some women get angry and push back, but just as often, women simply shut down -- especially as we lose hope for change. 

We go silent, we become smaller, we try to morph ourselves into whatever nebulous shape-shifting identity is dangled as the goal. We choose not to notice when the goal-posts are moved, over and over and over again.

Should we each take responsibility for our responses and our own behaviors? Yes of course.

Your choices are your responsibility...

But you must also remember that living with ongoing trauma can create patterns of coping responses which are not natural to your identity. The behaviors you needed in order to survive may not be healthy, but they may also not be your true character. 

Recovering from traumatic patterns brings healing as you find freedom. Recovery allows you to take responsibility for your survival patterns, so you can become a fully healthy version of yourself again.

This means, if your coping mechanism was to diminish your intelligence and avoid conflict in order to keep the peace -- God may call you to speak up and use your brain and your communication skills for His glory.

If your coping style was to take the blame and enable others, God may teach you how to set firm boundaries and reject responsibility for others' actions. Whatever you learned to do in order to stay sane while being abused, you may need to unlearn after you're free and safe again.

Rediscover your soul, survivor...

I was standing in my parents’ kitchen a few years ago, when my father spontaneously walked over and wrapped me in a giant hug. 

“Sweetheart, it’s so good to have you back again. For more than a decade, your body has been here, but your soul was just gone. It was like you were a hollow shell wearing your face. But finally, I have my daughter back.”

I burst into tears. My daddy was dead right. I'd been systematically disassembled for so many years, I'd become someone I didn't even know.

It was good to finally be back.

So... does your reaction to being abused mean you're abusive? Sure, you've done things you regret. And it's even possible that you're abusive. But it's also entirely possible that you are feeling tremendous guilt about coping mechanisms that aren't your true self, but were developed in order to survive while living in abuse.

The time has come to shed those coping mechanisms and become healthy you. Only you can decide that you are ready to heal. Only you can determine that you are no longer a victim.

Your choice to heal belongs to you alone.

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