Mutual Abuse: It’s Not Real

Here at The Hotline, we talk with a lot of people who recognize that their relationship is unhealthy or even abusive. However, they often believe that mutual abuse is occurring and the abuse is coming from both partners.

Where does “mutual abuse” come from?

Many times, we speak with survivors of abuse who want to address concerns they have about their own behaviors. They often express that their relationship is mutually abusive, which means both partners are abusive towards one another. As more people learn about relationship abuse and what it is, certain terms and phrases become part of popular culture. Some people, especially partners who are abusive, use this language to manipulate or gaslight their partner into thinking the abuse is happening on both ends. They may say:

mutual abuse
mutual abuse

What does “mutual abuse” sound like?

“What you said made me act that way.”

“You hit/shoved/pushed me, too.”

“You started this.”

“You’re abusing me, too.”

“That’s not true; you’re just trying to gaslight me now.”

But "mutual abuse" doesn't exist.

Abuse is about an imbalance of power and control. In an unhealthy or abusive relationship, there may be unhealthy behaviors from both/all partners in response to the abuse, but in an abusive relationship, one person tends to have more control than the other.

So why doesn't mutual abuse exist?


If you’ve ever yelled at your partner, participated in an intense argument or used physical force, there are certain instances where this would not be considered abusive.

Enduring abuse over time can lead to broken down self-esteem, feelings of low self-worth and intense emotional stress or even PTSD. While it’s never healthy to yell back at a partner or be violent with them, if you are experiencing abuse you might have used one of these strategies when you felt your safety was at risk or you were trying to re-establish your independence in the relationship. Self-defense is not abuse, and identifying it as such can increase any fear you already feel in the situation. Everyone has the right to defend their safety, both emotionally and physically.

Blame Shifting

The excuse of “mutual abuse” also allows the abusive partner to shift blame.  We know that abusive partners rarely take responsibility for their actions and that blame shifting is a common tactic. If your abusive partner is claiming that you’re equally or more responsible for an incident, or that you too were abusive, they are trying to manipulate you. They want you to believe that you did something to deserve this treatment. Believing you’re at fault helps the abusive partner continue to have control and often leaves you feeling as if you’re the one who needs to make changes.

For example, an argument occurs in which your partner tries to keep you from leaving the room. They may physically block the doorway and as you try to leave, you shove your partner out of the way. Your partner chooses to violently lash out at you for this. Afterwards, they claim that you were abusive too because you shoved them. Your partner’s attempt to keep you from leaving already exhibits efforts to gain power and control. Their extreme reaction to the shove does as well. They felt threatened by your choice to leave. They then blame you for their  violent actions in a final pursuit of control. You shoving your partner to get away from them does not constitute abuse. Abuse is a pattern of behavior intended to have power over someone else, usually a partner.

Difference Between Survivor and Abuser

In assessing your behaviors and your partner’s, you might notice certain things that correlate with red flags of abuse. That, along with an abusive partner’s constant manipulation and blame shifting, can make it hard to accept that you are in fact the survivor and NOT the abuser. One way to recognize the difference between an abuser and the person they’re hurting is the willingness to seek change. Admitting to unhealthy or abusive behavior, committing to stop, reaching out for help and asking about the process of change are things that abusive people rarely do.

If you’re reading this post because you’re thinking about how you can change your own behaviors and create a healthier relationship, ask yourself: Is this something you could see your partner doing?

If you have concerns about your relationship, Hotline advocates are available 24/7/365.

This article was written by Jessica R., a Hotline Advocate.


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