Mutual abuse is not always physical, it can be verbal abuse, mental or emotional abuse that slowly degrades each partner until it destroys the relationship.
In the case of mutual abuse, each partner ends up hurting the other when tension builds up. While some may say it is rare, or use this term to deflect responsibility from the abusive partner, it is a situation that is entirely possible.
In this article, I will help you recognize signs of mutual abuse in your relationship — and share what you can do about it.
Mutual abuse is a vicious cycle.
Mutual abuse occurs when one partner’s behavior feeds off of the other person’s reaction. This cycle of action and reaction causes each partner to act in a way that is mutually abusive.
You might react to protect yourself from getting hurt, and in doing so, evoke a defensive reaction in your partner. This goes both ways, when either partner is defending themself, they might end up hurting each other and perpetuating the abuse.
The way that partners protect themselves can result in them hurting each other. Because of this, each partner might not realize that their behavior is abusive to one another.
Recognizing the signs of mutual abuse in your relationship
It can be difficult to recognize if you’re in a mutually abusive relationship when you believe that it’s one-sided. Partners often blame each other and both refuse to recognize the effects of their own behavior.
Another word that is sometimes used in place of “mutual abuse,” is the term “reactive abuse.” In the case of reactive abuse, one person reacts to the abuse of another. The abuse, in this case, is predominately one way, rather than going back and forth.
Tell-tale signs of mutual abuse in your relationship
You play tit for tat.
You frequently bicker, escalate conflicts, or argue with each other.
You judge and attack each other.
You try to "get back" at each other.
You both react instead of responding.
You put blame on each other.
You each can't let things go and hold onto anger.
You want to punish each other, swipe at each other, or make digs.
You insult each other personally.
You bring up all the dirty laundry just to use in an attack.
You get stuck in bitter resentment, and can't stand one another.
You pick on each other to protect yourselves.
If you recognize these signs of mutual abuse in your relationship, then you might be reacting to protect yourselves in ways that mutually hurt each other.
When couples get set off by each other, they can react to trauma by engaging in mutually abusive behavior.
Couples get stuck in the behaviors that protected themselves and lose sight of their effects on each other. Instead of understanding each other's underlying fears and vulnerabilities, you see the other person as a threat.
In this way, anger blocks your underlying pain and hurt. Couples get stuck in a cycle of hurting each other when they cannot get in touch with how they feel and those feelings instead come out as abuse.
When you suppress how you feel, hurt turns into resistance and anger.
When you betray your needs, you might see each other as the villain who must pay. The relationship becomes toxic when you take out your anger on each other and when each partner wants the other to hurt.
Abuse begets more abuse, taking out anger onto each other, just causes them to treat you the same way, and vice versa. In order to break out of the cycle, the relationship needs to end or both partners need to understand and change their behaviors.
What can you do if you're in a mutually abusive relationship?
Couples who become mutually abusive usually have histories of trauma and are stuck repeating the behavioral response patterns that came from that trauma.
Learn your own triggers
Rach person should do work on themselves in order to heal without hurting anyone else. Each partner needs to release their negative feelings, so they do not come out in the relationship.
Slow down when you are upset
If each person could slow down and, instead of reacting, learn how they are being triggered by each other, they would be able to deal with their feelings instead of blaming one another and lashing out.
If you recognize that you're in a relationship that has mutual abuse, you can get help to deal with the feelings that underpin the behavior and calm your threat response in order to de-escalate from explosive fights, and transform them into productive conversations.
Nancy Carbone is a relationship therapist with a M.soc.Sc (Couns) and an author who works on breaking the barriers to get the love you want.
Editor's note: If you believe you are in an abusive relationship, reach out for help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 at 800-799-7233, and more resources can be found online here. If you are in immediate danger, please call 911 or emergency services in your area.