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What is reactive abuse and why do family lawyers need to know about it?


Reactive abuse is a form of manipulation used by abusers to shift blame onto their victims when they defend themselves or fight back. In family law files, it is essential to understand the concept of reactive abuse and its impact on parenting disputes.

The Nuanced and Twisted Nature of Abuse

Abuse can be an incredibly nuanced issue with varying severity and complexity. It is often difficult to produce evidence for and prove, especially if the abuse is non-physical. A victim's actions can and are distorted and used against them. As noted by, when an individual is attacked by a stranger on the street and fights back in self-defence it is commonly viewed as justified. However, when the same scenario occurs in the family home with an abusive spouse or intimate partner, the survivor is at risk that the abuser will “turn the tables”.

What is Reactive Abuse?

Reactive abuse occurs when the victim of abuse reacts strongly to the mistreatment, which may involve arguing back or using physical self-defence. The abuser then uses this reaction as evidence that they are the ones being victimized, placing the blame on the victim.

Reactive abuse is usually a result of provocation from the abuser, while the victim tries to endure the situation without reacting. Eventually, they will reach their breaking point and retaliate, often with verbal or physical aggression. It is often a classic, “straw that broke the camel’s back” situation.

Manipulative Tactics: Abuser's Response to Victim's Reaction

The abuser will often pretend to be shocked or hurt by the victim's reaction, or even use it as further evidence to justify their abusive behavior. They may even file a complaint with the police, accusing the victim of being the real perpetrator.

Reactive abuse tends to be used by abusers to create the illusion that the abuse is mutual. Abusers deliberately provoke their victims until they react in a way that can be interpreted as abusive. Later, when confronted about their unacceptable actions, the abuser deflects blame by saying, "you hit me too, so we're both at fault."

Why is Reactive Abuse Important for Family Lawyers?

In cases of reactive abuse, the survivor may find themselves not only dealing with the physical and emotional trauma of the abuse but also with the added complexity of navigating the legal system. Family law proceedings can be especially challenging for victims of domestic violence.

This tactic is often used by abusers to convince their victims that they are the problem or that they are mentally unstable. It can be successful in isolating the victim from support and convincing them that no one will believe them if they speak out about their situation.

Additionally, police and courts often fail to view domestic violence as a pattern of controlling and coercive behavior, leading to survivors being arrested or facing legal consequences when they defend themselves against their abuser.

In “Help Police Determine Who Is the Primary Aggressor,” Lisa Fontes writes, “If the police misidentify the victim as an aggressor, the victim can face harmful legal consequences including domestic violence prosecution, and loss of child custody, housing and immigration rights."

Unfortunately, there is still much training needed for family law and allied professionals in identifying and understanding domestic abuse and its impact on children, survivors, and co-parenting. Manufactured attacks on a victims mental health or impulse control can have implications for parenting. Decision makers, parenting coordinators, and assessors may mistake self-defence for "mutual abuse," which can result in unfavorable outcomes for the victim.


Reactive abuse is a manipulative tactic used by abusers to shift blame onto their victims when they defend themselves or fight back. Survivors of abuse often struggle to navigate the legal system, especially in family law cases, where reactive abuse can be used to create the illusion of mutual abuse.

Family law professionals need to recognize patterns and tactics such as reactive abuse to ensure that survivors and their children are not further victimized by the legal system.

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