A common tactic for narcissists, emotional abusers, and other toxic manipulators is to claim that their victim is “the abusive one”. You may be living the dynamic in which there is unhealthy behavior on both sides, but there is a pattern of provocation from your partner that causes you to react in unhealthy ways. It’s called reactive abuse.
In this dynamic, an emotionally abusive person may act with outright aggression or more covert passive aggression. You may tactfully confront them about their behavior, only to get your feelings invalidated or denied. They may say you’re overreacting, too sensitive, or just trying to start a fight. They may subject you to varying degrees of punishment for standing up for yourself. This could range from sulking and withholding affection to cruel, extended silent treatments and violent rages. Most people cannot endure this for sustained periods of time without eventually breaking.
You become so conditioned to expect a negative consequence that your default becomes living in constant fear of offending. You monitor your words carefully, placating, flattering and pleasing to avoid coping with painful consequences if you don’t. Life becomes an intolerable emotional minefield and it can become so severe that you grow numb to the point of dissociating, accept a disproportionate share of the blame or even denying the abuse in order to cope. Then enough becomes too much and you begin lashing out at your abuser in toxic ways.
Victim becomes abuser
This was my story. We had the classic trauma-bonded relationship between the codependent and narcissist. When it was good it was great, but when it wasn’t, it was hell. After the initial shock of his first tantrum, I settled into six-week cycles of what I called “narcisodes”. I loved him and didn’t plan on leaving him. My normal was to be the woman cowering in a corner crying and begging for compassion, as he stood over me screaming and calling me vile names and demanding that I admit responsibility for “my role in” whatever nasty thing he had done.
Eventually, something in me changed and I began ranting right back, debating him, deconstructing and reconstructing every word he twisted. I couldn’t resist his baiting. I did everything I could to prove to him and to myself that he was “the narc” and I wasn’t “the crazy one”.
My true rock bottom occurred when I resorted to physical violence. I can only say I snapped. I remember feeling intense fear, like a trapped animal. We had been fighting over I don’t even remember what. He had just thrown a glass of cold water in my face. He had me cornered with my back against the refrigerator. He was just inches from me, towering over me, so close I could feel his spit spraying my face. He was screaming: “YOU BITCH! YOU CUNT! FUCKFACE! I HATE YOU! I WANT A DIVORCE!” I couldn’t take anymore. Before cognition could overrule emotion, I slapped him in the face.
I was mortified, shocked at my behavior. I apologized profusely, feeling ashamed and guilty, so worried that I caused him pain. All that, what he had done was forgotten. As for him? He stepped back, clutching his face. I will never forget the look in his eyes. He looked happy! He had gone from the “narc death stare” to “narc smirk“, that look of smug, contemptuous satisfaction. And then the fight was over.
He had won. He wanted to control my emotions, to provoke a dramatic reaction from me and that’s exactly what he got. His reward, his gratification, his narcgasm.
And to his mind, balm to soothe his narcissistic wounds. He was no longer the abuser, the slate was wiped clean. He was now the victim of his crazy wife. (And he tearfully told the marriage counselor, “See? She has tantrums and is violent”, conveniently omitting the rest of the story).
While I regret my actions and don’t excuse any of them, also recognize that I was not the aggressor in this relationship. I was the reactor. But would, no, could they have happened unprovoked? Both roles contain elements of emotionally abusive behavior, but there is a huge difference in how they make a conflict play out.
What’s the difference?
The aggressor is the provoker, the one who reaps the reward of controlling the emotions of the reactor. That’s why it becomes a pattern. And when their victim finally snaps, the aggressor isn’t interested in gaining insight and improve their behavior. But they do gain intel on what buttons to push, plus a victim card to play in future arguments.
For the remainder of our relationship, our problems became about “how I was”, never about his abusive behavior. And for a time, I was a willing participant in this ruse. I quit obsessing about his narcissism and immersed myself in the world of codependence recovery to “work on me”. I thought I could save my marriage if I behaved better. I detached with love. I gray rocked. But in the end, it only served to escalate his attempts to provoke in order to regain control.
By contrast, the reactor usually wants insight. The reactor may be the avid consumer of self-help books and YouTube gurus and has become an amateur subject matter expert on narcissism. She or he is desperate for answers and is looking everywhere in attempts to fix, to cope, to help, and then eventually, if it gets intolerable, to creating an escape plan.
Two years in recovery and a good therapist helped me gain the knowledge and strength I needed to exit that relationship, but the takeaway is that while I was with him, I began to believe his version of me and lost my authentic self. The truth is that my codependence did not cause his narcissistic aggression. He was that guy long before I came into the picture.
Abusive behavior is not acceptable, period. But it is understandable under certain circumstances. When I awakened and began to accept my own reactivity and take responsibility for my unacceptable my behavior, it became the impetus for me to change myself and my life. One of the best changes is recognizing that it isn’t my responsibility or even within my control to fix someone who is abusing me and that has given me strong intuition for spotting abusers, and the self-esteem to walk away. I have zero tolerance for abusive behavior anymore.
If you are acting out against your abuser in ways you don’t like, I strongly recommend seeking help from a qualified therapist trained in Narcissistic Victim Syndrome and trauma recovery to help you clarify the issues and assist you on the path to recovery. If you can’t afford a therapist, I suggest seeking out a confidential on line support community and reach out to those who have been there. The worst thing you can do is isolate because it’s impossible to think objectively while being manipulated by a toxic person.
@Coach Amy @Narcstalgia
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