How Do You Know If You’re In A Mutually Abusive Relationship?

How do you know if you’re in a mutually abusive relationship or reacting from trauma in attachment? Signs of mutual abuse includes frequent bickering, fighting, heated arguments or flare ups. Each partner ends up hurting each other when tension builds up.

Mutual abuse occurs when one partner’s reaction feeds off the other person’s reaction. One person’s reaction triggers the other partner to react, and vice versa. Each partner reacts in a way that ends up becoming mutually abusive to the other.

Lately we’ve all heard about the concept of mutual abuse in the media. However, I would like to reframe it as a co-joint reaction to trauma

When you react to protect yourself from getting hurt, it can evoke a defensive reaction in your partner. When you’re defending yourselves, you end up hurting each other to alleviate your feelings. When you are protecting yourself this way, you don’t realize you’re becoming abusive to your partner.

So how do you know if you’re in a mutually abusive relationship or responding from trauma?

It can be difficult to recognize if you’re in a mutually abusive relationship, when you think it’s your partner’s fault. It is often when couples blame each other and refuse to own their behavior.

Instead of using the term “mutual abuse,” the word “reactive abuse” has been used whereby one person reacts to the abuse of another. The abuse is predominately one way, rather than going backward and forwards. This is particularly the case if you’re in a relationship with a narcissist and reacting to abuse to as a coping mechanism.

What happens if you and your partner experienced abuse or a critical parent growing up, can the impact effect your relationship?

It was Freud who stated that whatever feelings remain buried and unexpressed will later come alive in uglier ways. It’s our relationship with our partner that stirs up our deepest wounds, and the feelings get displaced onto our partner when we see them as the person who caused the hurt.

Let’s explore these kinds of couples’ dynamics to understand the process of mutual abuse to see what we can take away from this, however, I prefer to call it reacting to trauma

How Do You know If You’re In A Mutually Abusive Relationship – The Tell Tale Signs

  • You play tit for tat.
  • You have frequent bickering, escalated conflict, heated arguments or flare ups with each other.
  • You judge each other and attack each other.
  • You try to get back at each other for the things that hurt you.
  • You both react instead of respond.
  • You get stuck in blaming each other.
  • You each can’t let things go and hold onto anger.
  • You want to punish each other, swipe at each other or have digs when you can.
  • You insult each other personally.
  • You bring up all the dirty laundry to let them have it.
  • You get stuck in bitter resentment, and can’t stand one another, but you can’t let go of each other.
  • You pick on each other to protect yourself from facing your pain.

If you’re in a relationship that is mutually abusive, you can react to each other when your core wounds get activated, so you can protect yourselves in ways that mutually hurt each other.

When couples get triggered by each other they can react from trauma through engaging in mutually abusively behavior. 

When a partner insults you personally, it can trigger the feelings of your parent criticizing you all over again, and all the pain from your past torments gets stirred up. It feels extremely scary to be engaged in a conflict with your spouse when all the old feelings come back to you. All of a sudden you can feel helpless like a scared little child. It can feel extremely frightening to relive the experience every time you get triggered and feel flooded with intense feelings that overwhelm your nervous system.

As a child, when you feel helpless and cannot express your anger because you are dependent upon your parent for survival, the anger gets repressed and can be acted out in later relationships when you feel triggered or abused.

James Masterson calls this talionic impulse, when you take out your past hurts upon others, thereby inflicting the pain on others that was done to you.

When you had to suppress your pain in order to survive, all the underlying pain gets taken out on your partner as an attempt to alleviate the pain, in this way you end up acting abusively towards each other, so you don’t have to feel helpless again.  You don’t feel like you’re abusive, when you feel like you’re protecting yourselves.

You can relive the feeling of being abused and take out all your past hurts on your partner when you see them as hurting you, so you defend yourself by reacting in ways that are mutually hurtful to each other.

When both partners are triggered, you can relive the pain of the past and end up acting out in ways to alleviate the pain, often repeating the abuse. Freud calls it repetitive compulsion when you repeat the pain if you haven’t healed the trauma.

Couples get stuck in the mutually abusive behaviors in order to protect themselves, and lose sight of each other. Instead of understanding each other’s underlying fears and vulnerabilities, you see the other person as the source of the 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, but the feelings come out as a negative reaction. The relationship feels very toxic.

So how do couples end up becoming mutually aggressive towards each other by replaying their attachment patterns?

It may be difficult to tell if you’re in a mutually abusive relationship or caught in a traumatic attachment response..

What to do if you’re in a mutually abusive relationship? 

Couples who become mutually reactive usually have trauma histories and keep repeating the pattern until they work through their feelings.

If each person could slow down and, instead of react, see how they are being triggered by each other, they would be able to deal with their wounds instead of projecting them onto each other and blaming one another for their hurt.

This requires each person to perform the inner work in therapy in order to heal the feelings that have been disowned. This would allow each of them to release the feelings, so they do not get stirred up in the relationship.

Perhaps your relationship has escalated and you keep reacting in the heat of the moment when you’re both triggered. by each others reactions.

If you recognize that you’re in a relationship that has mutual abuse, you can get help to deal with the underlying feelings that underpin the behavior and calm the nervous system threat center in order to de-escalates from bickering and fights, and transform them into intimate conversations.

Nancy Carbone is a relationship therapist with a M.soc.Sc (Couns) who works with traumatic relationships. You can stay tuned for her upcoming book by signing up on her newsletter.

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