“You are totally over sensitive.”
“This is totally not my fault and you know it.”
“You always embarrass yourself. Everyone says so.”
Saying things like this to put the blame on a partner, working hard to show that there’s nothing worth reacting over, minimizing the damage — all of those are tactics of “reactive abuse.” When abusers, physical or emotional, work to put the victim in a spot where she feels like she was the one to blame in the first place, it’s a double-damage tactic. And it works.
This technique is well-used, since it often gets the victim to yell, lash out, get really angry at the person who’s been tormenting them in the first place. A common phrase my ex used to use was, “I don’t get why you even care what my sisters think about you.” This was one he would trot out after he had tossed me to the wolves in some petty conversation where he would stir up a controversy, saying something he knew they would love and I would disagree with — and then side with them. He’d question my judgment as a mother in front of them or contradict a statement he had made privately to me, claiming he’d never say such a thing. They naturally believed their brother.
When he could see that my feelings were hurt and I wanted his support — nope! He could begin the emotional torture by telling me I was crazy, too sensitive, being ridiculous. And when I got mad? You guessed it — another onslaught of insults about my temper, my thin skin, my inability to take a joke.
In this way, reactive abusers can turn the tables and claim to be victims.
“Why do you resort to yelling?” “Why do you have to swear at me?”
There’s room for victimhood if they can put guilt and shame on the person they were just conditioning to feel bad. An otherwise kind, caring person is turned by words into a foul, angry menace. It’s intentional, and cruel. But the reactive abuser is looking for that. A reactive abuser wants his victim to question herself, her integrity, her value.
Here’s the thing — these kinds of abusers rely on us to have a bad reaction. In the instance I gave, where my ex would embarrass me in front of his sisters, he was banking that I would get bent out of shape. Had I known better at the time, I would have known to respond and not react. To react is an automatic thing, but to respond requires thoughtfulness. A considered response, one where I showed that I was more calm and less reactive, would have lessened his power. I eventually got a divorce, moved out on my own, and learned mindful responding in the process. He still tries to get me to react, baiting the hook with things like poor timing (he called on our son’s graduation day to announce that he had a new girlfriend), but I’ve learned not to have that knee-jerk reaction I once did, not to let my annoyance be his joy.
When we learn to allow the space to reply calmly and intently in the moment, our self grows stronger from the abuser, not weaker. If there is no negative reaction in the moment, there is only room for positivity, and that makes an abuser powerless.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org