The term “Mutual Abuse has been highlighted in the media recently with the Johhny Depp vs Amber Heard defamation trial following their couple’s counsellor’s testimony describing their relationship dynamic.  I tend to disagree with the use of the term “mutual abuse”, and it appears I am not the only couple therapist that does so.

There is strong evidence of many psychologists and couple therapist online who disagree with this term “Mutual Abuse” based on the understanding that when there is abuse there can only be one primary aggressor.  Ruth Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), affirms that self-defence against the aggressor can “look like abuse” but the difference is they are not exerting control.

When a victim is continuously being abused a lot of cortisol and adrenalin is produced in the body.  These stress hormones lead the victim into to a fight, flight or freeze response.  A fight response may lead the victim to react by yelling, name calling or physically lashing out. It then appears that victim is the unstable, aggressive and out of control one in the relationship when what they are doing is reacting to the abuse.  The term “Reactive abuse,” rather than “mutual abuse” is therefore the best term to describe what is happening in this dynamic.

Abusers use manipulative tactics to confuse their victims and one of them is to try to convince the victim that they are the actual abuser. They may abuse their victim and then minimise their behaviour by claiming their victim is overacting or too sensitive.  They may even gaslight their partner by denying their actions or words, a crazymaking tactic that often illicit a reactive response.

The victim will often sustain this kind of behaviour from their abuser until it gets to the point where they snap, and they do something that is completely out of character.  It may take years of trying to avoid the abuse by fleeing away or going into freeze mode until one day the build-up of incidents can’t be contained anymore. The abuser may continue to push all the victims’ buttons to the point whereby the victim feels complete overwhelm and explodes.  Once the abuser has got the reaction they wanted, they then proceed to call the victim the crazy and unstable one and label them as the abuser in the relationship.

Reactive abuse is a sign of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with symptoms that include intrusive thoughts, rumination yelling, anger, frustration, physically lashing out, fear, paranoia and sleep disturbances.  The best evidence-based treatment for PTSD is Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing.  You can contact me here if you would an appointment.