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Defending Yourself Is Not the Same as Being Abusive


I could swear I’ve blogged about victims of abuse thinking that defending themselves against mistreatment constitutes abuse. So here are my thoughts, perhaps again.

My client Judy’s wife, Dee, blows up at the least little thing. She has a whole litany of criticisms about Judy and demands she listen patiently to every last one of them. If Judy tries to leave in the midst of Dee’s tirade, she’s accused of being self-absorbed and ignoring Dee’s needs. Finally, one night when Dee started screaming at Judy the minute she came home from work, Judy yelled back, “Shut the f*** up.” 

In our next session, though, rather than be proud of speaking up, Judy felt awful, insisting, “I’m just like Dee. I can’t believe I cursed her out. Shame on me.” A generally soft-spoken person, it’s hard to even imagine Judy cursing, so she clearly had been pushed to the brink. Her retort might not have been the most appropriate response to years of emotional abuse, but it was far from abusive. 

Another example. My client Kristen and her beau were play wrestling when he put her body in such a tight scissors hold she thought her ribs would crack. In pain, she screamed and hit him to release her. Having been raped years before, she tried to explain how she feared for her life. But, rather than apologize, he blamed her for being violent towards him. That’s a bully. 

Abuse isn’t occasionally fighting back with words when hurtful ones are hurled at you repeatedly and you can’t stand it any longer, especially when someone keeps digging to get a rise out of you for their own smug satisfaction. In such a case, they’re being verbally abusive and you’re protecting or defending yourself. Not. The. Same. Thing.

If both partners are angry bullies there may be mutual abuse. More common is that when abuse victims start to stand up for themselves and answer back, they often over-react from their long pent up rage. Their reactions aren’t part of a pattern (on the contrary, they break their pattern of passivity) but a response to abuse.

Standing up for yourself, after letting yourself be a doormat, is not being abusive. Your anger is healthy and shows movement in the right direction which is toward eventually leaving the relationship. Abuse is offensive (pun intended), whereas protection is defensive. Sure, you might not be happy with yourself when you’re mean, but when you’re mean because you’re unhappy, that’s the start of getting healthy. 

Still, as long as it’s safe, the best thing will always be to walk away from an abuser.