Is Acting Like the Abuser a Side-Effect of the Abuse?

February 20, 2011 Kellie Jo Holly

Where do we draw the line between defending ourselves and acting like the abuser? The cycle of abuse takes two participants. When will you stop participating?

I watched The Burning Bed this week. Farrah Fawcett plays abused wife Francine Hughes who murdered her husband after suffering years of abuse. In court, Sarah Hughes was found innocent by reason of temporary insanity (Battered Woman Syndrome).

After watching the movie, I wanted to find out more about the case and ran across an interview in which a man from the Hughes' town said that Francine beat her husband, too. He saw her beating him right there on the sidewalk outside his door and the police were called to separate them.

My stomach felt sick. His viewpoint of the Hughes' fight reflected the views of many people looking into an abusive relationship - the victim dished it out as good as she got. They're both at fault (What Are Victims Responsible for in an Abusive Relationship?).

Victims Often Act Like Abusers

Where do we draw the line between defending ourselves and becoming an abuser? The cycle of abuse takes two participants. When will you stop participating?I've wrestled with this demon before; I've wondered if my reaction to his abuses meant that I was an abuser. He said, "You abused me too!" with either a smile of triumph or a pained little boy expression ... and I believed him.

I threw keys at him once, I called him bad names more than once, and I tried to use my anger to overcome his rampaging often. One time when he accused me of being a great actress to get my way, and I told him "You believed my performance last night!" to imply I faked orgasm. He ran into the bathroom and cried.

All of those reactions were abusive. I was abusive.

When I think about my abusive actions toward him, I cannot think of one time in which I initiated the abusive episode. Not one. I reacted like a cornered animal. I was outside of myself, watching myself act like an ass. Am I an abuser?

Can Acting Like The Abuser Stop the Abuse?

From the books about abuse that I've read, abusers feel triggered in some way before an attack (attacks are verbal, mental, emotional, physical). I thought that something about me triggered his attacks. It didn't even occur to me that something or someone besides me could have made him act that way toward me.

I spent the majority of my time trying to figure out what I did to make him angry so I would know what not to do in the future. I was a poor mind-reader; the attacks occurred repeatedly despite my efforts.

Likewise, his abuse of me triggered something inside of me to fight fire with fire. A piece of me came to believe that the only way to counteract his behavior was to behave the same way. I erroneously thought that he would hear me, understand my point of view, if I elevated my voice or stung him with my words. I believed that the only way to "make him stop" was to BE like HIM, so I became abusive in reaction to his behaviors.

Victims Fight Fire With Fire

When I think about the perception some people have of abusive relationships, that it’s a two-way street, that the “victim” is no victim, that she gave as good as she got, I feel chilled to my core. The stigma is common--but wrong (Abusive Relationships and Why Victims Stay).

The victims of domestic violence never get the upper hand no matter what tactic they use. If you see a victim “fighting fire with fire," you’ve seen a snapshot into that relationship and nothing more. Most likely, you’ve also seen the snapshot the abuser wanted you to see. After all, abusers are often considered good people by the community, well-liked, respected. It’s his or her crazy partner who is to blame.

Victims Who Act Like Abusers Are Culpable for Their Actions

But what about Francine Hughes and her ultimate reaction to her husband's abuse? Where do we victims of abuse draw the line, accept responsibility for our part of the cycle of abuse, and walk away? As wrong as it is, the beaten down victims of abuse must find the resolve to end the cycle of abuse by taking responsibility for our part of the insanity (How Do I Stop The Verbal Abuse?).

We can find the strength within ourselves to stand up and fight for who we want to be in this life. Do we want to become more like the abuser? Do we want to ride the road to insanity until someone dies? At what point is it our responsibility to react differently to abuse? At what point are we culpable for the abuse that we, in reaction to others abuses, dish out?

I believe Francine Hughes was temporarily insane when she killed her husband. I believe that she didn't intend for it to end that way. I believe she was a victim of domestic violence who came to believe that the only way to escape her abuser was through his death. The thought is "insane" because it isn't true - she could have done other things to escape his abuse, but at that moment, the only answer in her mind was to kill him.

Was I on my way to becoming Francine Hughes? Are you?

You can also find Kellie on her website at Verbal Abuse Journals , and on social media at Google+, Facebook and Twitter. Buy her books from Amazon.

*Both women and men could be abusers or victims, so do not take my pronoun choices as an implication that one gender abuses and the other is victimized.

APA Reference
Jo, K. (2011, February 20). Is Acting Like the Abuser a Side-Effect of the Abuse?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 22 from

Author: Kellie Jo Holly

February, 23 2011 at 4:22 pm

What an interesting story It's very scary that a lot of women are so caught up in an abusive relationship that the only way out for them is by killing their partner. I was in an abusive relationship for two years and thank god I never thought about killing my partner it was actually the other way around he said he would kill me if I would leave him. The last 3 months of the relationship I tried to little by little get away from the relationship and end things easily so he would stop thinking about killing me if i would break up with him. I knew I was better off finding a way to break up before things would get out of hand such as the abuse becoming worse. After my experienced I created healingabusedwomen .com to help women prevent abuse in their relationship and help heal the women who have been in an abusive relationship in the past. We need to end abuse for women

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Kellie Holly
February, 24 2011 at 1:03 am

Yes, the threats of death (implied or overt) from abuser to victim are common components of abusive relationships. I don't think the woman depicted in the movie planned to kill her abusive husband; I think she was "temporarily insane". If anyone consciously PLOTS the demise of their abuser, and then follows through with the plan on a subsequent date, that would be murder with NO qualifying statements. It certainly would not be "temporary insanity" if the thought of killing the abuser leads to a plan to kill the abuser which leads to the murder of the abuser!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

May, 28 2018 at 1:48 am

We need to end abuse for women and men. This happens to men as well and it's woefully under reported. Reading the testimonial was exactly what I experienced.
Regardless of co dependence , it's difficult to admit blame / responsibility for being abused and for a man it's feels almost impossible to find understanding. A large part of staying in the relationship is the abuser successfully convinces you that it's your fault and then when survival mode kicks in and your leave ( realizing it's absolutely not your fault ) a person exits the relationship damaged , confused , angry , rageful , disassociated , and just all around emotionally sick and you can end up looking like a nutcase.
These situations can cause serious PTSD like symptoms and ruin years of a persons life. And that's with no physical or sexual abuse. I couldn't t fathom what all three could do to the human psyche.

March, 18 2011 at 11:10 am

Having been with an abusive husband in the past, (please note I did not refer to "abusive relationship"), these are the conclusions I came to: Nobody gives a flying f*** about me but me, therefore: I need to deal on the level I'm dealing with, which resulted in me telling him: If you ever touch me again I will get you in your sleep. Did I mean it? Hell yes!!!! Did he know I meant it!!! Double hell yes!!! Did he ever hit me again??? NOPE. Would I have done it? What do YOU think? Did I eventually get away? Yup, at great expense: He cost me my house, my community, my job, my children, and my sanity. BUT HE NEVER HIT ME AGAIN. Where is he now? Across the country from me. Where am I now? With a loving man in a beautiful country home. Moral of the story? Proper usage of psycho-babble BS gets one nowhere. Saying what you mean, and meaning what you say gets you what you mean.

March, 22 2011 at 11:34 pm

I absolutely identify with this fear of also being an abuser. After trying to soothe him, comfort him and understand him (which made no difference) I also thought I had to respond to the abuser with abuse and my own anger to make the abuse stop. It was the only thing I could think of that might work after all else failed. I found myself saying and doing things that I would never have dreamed I would say or do - I was so dismayed at where I was heading in my behaviour and worried about it endlessly after each episode. Did he worry? Nope. As far as he was concerned, it was all over. He couldn't understand why I couldn't let it all just go like a mature adult! I spent an incredible amount of energy avoiding what triggered the abuser's behaviour. I placed so many restrictions on what to talk about and how to behave that I felt I was choking the life and spontaneity out of myself - I was horrified at what was happening to my spirit. Not only was my abuser taking my spirit bit by bit, but in a way, I was helping him. As you say, Kelly, you can find it in your own mind to create some sanity out of this horrible, humiliating mess which is what I did. I knew that when I began to respond to abuse with abuse that I hadn't had never firstly been abusive towards him. I knew that responding to his abuse came out of desperation and confusion about why he was abusing me. I now firmly believe that I am not an abusive person. He is the only person that I have reacted this way towards and that is evidence enough for me. That is the reality. The other reality I now know is that of all the abusive behaviours, hitting, rape etc, the one that caused the most damage to my spirit, the hardest one to get through emotionally and psychologically was the verbal abuse.

April, 7 2011 at 2:35 am

Thanks for this post. I was with him for five years on and off (wasn't strong enough to actually leave first time). That was five years ago. I also went through wondering whether I was or was becoming an abuser. The info I've gleaned all says that abusers blame others for their actions/emotions, sometimes feel they're the victim and I've definately called him names and shouted at him. Was I in denial about both of us being as bad as each other? There are several reasons why I don't think this is the case:
1) I too tried fruitlessly again and again to understand why events happened, to try a million communication styles to understand (being too naive at that point to realise I was being blocked continually), thought he must be really hurt as a result of something I'd done to act the way he did etc and compassionately try to find out what. I EVENTUALLY became abusive back in total frustration and an effort to push him away and simply couldn't take any more hurt.
2) I have not been like that with anyone else ever.
3) Weapons he used were things I saw as "positive" - trust, respect, compassion, generosity
4) The name calling from me (spineless, cowardly, scum) was an eventual response. I didn't just come out and say those things. He would instigate the abuse, or, there would be an incident and my "abuse" would be asking why he had done x,y,z. I understand why I said those things - he was spineless for not ever apologising and his behaviour was, well scum!
5) Some of the things he said to me were purely designed to hurt, abuse etc. I haven't had many sexual partners and he used this as a weapon (until he realised it was my choice) at which point it became "just used you for sex".
6) He was always suspicious of me and couldn't seem to grasp concept of not needing to let "arguments" escalate/feeling concern for your partner/wanting resolution etc. I BECAME suspicious of him after numerous incidents and after he'd continually abused my trust.
7) I felt like I was losing "me" and turning into him. My natural responses of empathy, trust, compassion, respect, giving benefit of the doubt etc which initially happened with the abusive incidents didn't work. If I thought I'd hurt him, I started feeling resentful for trying to understand, showing remorse, support, trying to cheer him up etc as these were never extended to me - I felt torn into two.
8) A major reason I stayed with him was because I didn't want to believe it was abuse - even though I felt powerless over everything and every fight. I bent over backwards trying to see what it was I was doing to trigger such a hurtful response in someone, so that I could "fix" it. Abusers don't tend to look at themselves that way. The main reason I finally left was because I'd said something really despicable to him and didn't feel bad over it. That frightened me.
So, have I been abusive? Yep. Is it justified? Probably not, I could have just walked instead. However, rightly or wrongly, I genuinely believe it ws understandable. Can I live with myself for the abuse I gave him? Definately. Am I an abuser? Nope.
I recently got an apology from him. I'd love to believe it. He told me none of the incidents had anything to do with me, he was just an angry man at the time. He told me I was "the one that got away". My trust is so messed up with him that I don't know whether it's real or an attempt at getting contact and control. I do know I'd have given anything for even a hint of an apology back then. He also told me that anything I'd done had been reactive. I was amazed. I told him I believed he had abused me for years - he didn't accept it. He said it was an abusive relationship 50:50. I think if someone had said that to me, I'd have at least looked into it. Some of the major incidents he says he doesn't remember - maybe that's true, maybe it's denial. I agreed to arms length contact and within hardly any time got some despicable texts from him. He apologised straight away (something he'd never have done before). I accepted the apology and said I'd prefer no contact again as I didn't want to be placed in the position where I had to ask for basic respect and believed incidents would recur. We had a circular text discussion where he apologised again, then told me he wasn't making excuses but i'd led him on (my original text had been pretty mundane such as what a gorgeous day), he then repeated the comments he'd apologised for, called me psycho, schizo (after the apology, he apparently had no idea what he'd done wrong), then asked what he'd done wrong. I felt like I was going mad. A week later he contacted me again with another inappropriate message. I told him that I hated ignoring people as it's petty and pathetic, but that I would ignore him if he continued. He apologised for his comment. I told him I didn't need anymore apologies as they were meaningless if he just repeats the behaviour. He claims not to remember anything from the text discussion (there must have been about forty texts) a couple of weeks ago. I think maybe he does feel some remorse for what happened, or maybe he's just swapped one set of abusive tactics for another. I do know that this type of thing doesn't happen between me and anyone else!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Kellie Holly
April, 7 2011 at 10:22 am

sj, you said, "I told him I believed he had abused me for years - he didn’t accept it. He said it was an abusive relationship 50:50. I think if someone had said that to me, I’d have at least looked into it. "
Yes, yes, yes. It wasn't until I started calling the abuse "ABUSE!" that he began telling me that I too was abusive. Like you, at that point so late in the game, I had said some things that I'd wished to take back. I looked into it, and eventually, came to the same conclusion that you did.
If someone were to edit my marital "film", scene one being him yelling and abusing, scene two (with no recognition of passing years, repeated abuses, etc.) being me yelling like a sicko banshee, then the audience would leave describing the most horrible specimens of humanity they had ever watched.
However, if someone were to edit our marital film from beginning to end, showing my initial reactions to the abuse in sequence with his abusive behaviors, then by golly, by the time I started fighting his fire with like fire, the audience would be on their feet applauding.
Also like you, I'm not saying that I was right in what I did. I do feel that I will forgive myself for it and not make the same mistakes again.
Thank you for sharing your story, sj.

April, 7 2011 at 11:22 am

I would definately be on my feet applauding you! Great post. I wish you all the best going forward. x

April, 7 2011 at 11:51 am

The actual response was "I make no excuses for my behaviour. But 'abuser'. F*** off. you're taking advantage. If you want to accuse me of such things then f*** off. I'm guessing you've now got the response you went out of your way to provoke. Silly little girl. Sleep well. i'll not bother you again." He later said "I remember arguing. I remember you giving it both barrels a lot, sometimes fair but most often needlessly. You gave as good as you got. Sometimes I was wrong, but sometimes YOU were wrong too. 50:50 as far as I remember."
This was all after the earlier apologies where he'd apologised and I'd said I was sorry for the things I'd said too and he'd volunteered that the things I'd said were all in eventual retalliation. Of course I was wrong at times and who was more wrong wouldn't matter to me with anyone else. However, with him I feel like I'm trivialising the abuse if he doesn't acknowledge what it really was and he's done more than enough trivialising over the years without me adding to it.

June, 10 2012 at 6:22 am

Islamic Hadith (Prophet's advice) "The woman (wife) is a reflection of the man (husband)" i.e. treat her right = good wife, Abuse wife = getting back what you give to wife. More detail on another comment.
hence "treat others how you wish to be treated" is a fact of life.
My Religion: Islam and being a Muslim - Knowing that Allah (God) would never allow any human being to abuse another and has therefore allowed the option of divorce in the Quran is what kept me strong knowing an abusive marriage is not a blessing or to be tolerated in society.

June, 10 2012 at 6:26 am

Read Book "The Problem with Women.....Is Men" by Charles J. Orlando
also on Facebook, Twitter etc

December, 27 2012 at 1:13 pm

I'm a survivor of over 12 years. Looking bad, I know that at times, I too was abusive. I did talk about this in counseling and the counselor explained that our fight or flight response system kicks in and sometimes our brains choose fight. I didn't like how I felt afterward though so I turned inward.

November, 13 2017 at 6:50 am

Oh my goodness! I am in this position. I have only found a couple of articles about this online. I am in the same desperate place- and I don't like it. I have even told him that I don't like that I am acting like him. But unless his life flashes before, I doubt he will change. I don't want that to happen by any means. I guess what is so hard to understand is why a person would want to destroy another person. And continually destroy themself. He did the same thing in his marriage. But continually blames the other person/people and refuses to get help. He has used ever form of manipulation including suicide ("I will end it all right here") to control situations. He was abused by his father and mother's ex boyfriends and husband. He knows and has said he has problems, but will not do ANYTHING to change it. He went to therapy, but didn't do anything the therapist suggested. IT is crazy- I do not understand why a person wants to destroy another person. Or even how they can do it without even blinking an eye.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

November, 14 2017 at 8:47 pm

Andrea, I'm really sorry for all of your troubles in your relationship! I think it's easy for someone in an unhealthy and toxic relationship to develop unhealthy and toxic behaviors in response to their environment and stimuli. I remember in my past relationship, that the name calling could get really bad because he'd call me a name, then I'd respond by trying to call him a worse name, and then he'd respond with something even more hurtful, then I'd go for something definitely straight for the jugular... and that's how it would go, round and round, each time getting worse. Once that relationship was over and I had the space to reflect on what had happened I realized how easy it was to push that line I wouldn't cross just a little farther each time. The next relationship I was in, I said no name calling from day one and I think once I had that awareness of how bad things can get, I was able to really set a boundary, not just for the other person but for myself! I do hope you're able to improve your situation! Your life does not have to be this way. Please continue to reach out to us here on HealthyPlace. Take care, Emily

Karen Jones
April, 28 2018 at 4:47 pm

It is strange that you wrote this because once again, the abuser is trying to make you successfully feel like the guilty party and had won.
Reacting to abuse isn’t abusive it is triggering from the psychological damage.
In other first world countries reacting to the abuser isn’t met with prosecution. But of course in countries like England, it is much easier to prosecute mental/emotional abuse and more frequent. Try obtaining a restraining order in the United States for that. I despise the term, reactive abuse. They should simply call it for what it is. Reacting like an abused victim for self-preservation.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

October, 26 2019 at 11:57 pm

Aamen! ?

October, 27 2019 at 12:07 am

Reactive abuse is an incorrect term and wrongly blames victims.
If a person beat and starved an animal and backed it into a corner, and then that animal bit the person - would we say the animal was reacting abusively? No, because that would be insane.
Here's another example, If someone broke into your house and tried to kill your family and you defended yourself and shot the person and they died as a result... would anyone say you MURDERED the intruder? No. Because your actions are not the definition of murder.
Yes, the intruder tried to murder you and the intruder died from the shot after you defended yourselves, but your actions and the intruders actions would not be viewed as the exact same thing because the reasons behind yours and the intruders intent are 100% different.

February, 22 2020 at 5:25 pm

I don't agree with some of your article. The main bone of contention is your suggestion that I am an abusive person because I reacted to my ex abusing me. It is not abuse to protect yourself or stand up for yourself. It is a fundamental human right for me to feel safe. Another issue I had with what you wrote was the notion that an abuser is reacting to something within the environment and takes that trigger feeling out on someone. A person always has the option of choosing not to abuse. Abuse is a choice. I have PTSD from the abuse I went through and I am triggered often. I am able to make the choice not to do what my ex did to me. I am concerned with your message because it seems to give the abusers an excuse.

March, 12 2020 at 9:51 pm

Thanks for talking about this subject. I've been googling like crazy to find information about this without any good results until this.
I suffer from complex PTSD and I have been sexually physically emotionally abused all my life since childhood until two years ago where I last was abused by my ex boyfriend.
I'm now with a new boyfriend and we're dealing with the consequences of my fucked up life experiences and most of all the abuse from my ex.
The biggest problem is when I get triggers I can suddenly act like my abuser, how he moves how he talks and how he hurts, and do like he did to me to my precious boyfriend and this is killing me inside. My too amazing boyfriend don't take it personal he notice it as a ptsd reaction but I feel awful and I hate myself more then ever when it has happened. I also don't completely remember what I do it's sometimes blurry or I loose memory parts of the event , it's as if I become my abuser, behave like him, come back to myself and is left confused and extremely ashamed and afraid and all kinds of things and I don't know what to do with myself. If anyone knows anything about this I would really appreciate to gather knowledge, I wanna help myself and my relationship, I really love my boyfriend he shouldn't ever have to be hurt. I'm right now not in therapy yet cause of long waiting lists. Please be sensitive in your comments it took a lot of courage to mention this for the first time ever and I know I need help.

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