Robert asked the question on the first night of our groupIs there such a thing as mutual abuse? He acknowledged that he’d acted badly—even abusively—at times in his marriage. In reviewing the definitions of abuse, however, he believed he’d also been the recipient of abuse.

What was confusing to Robert—and many others in similar situations—is the mountain of sources insisting that mutual abuse does not exist. He was ready to accept that his slaps and derogatory statements had to stop, but only if those same rules applied to his wife. Otherwise, these “rules” seemed hypocritical at best and left him vulnerable and defenseless at worst. 

Recognizing mutual abuse 

A mutually abusive relationship is one in which both partners are behaving in ways that harm the other, with roughly equal frequency and severity. Sometimes, both are committing acts of violence, such as punching, kicking, or slapping. Other times, both are using emotional abuse tactics like name-calling, put-downs, or threats. In other mutually abusive relationships, one person might be emotionally abusive while the other is physically abusive. 

Though they may be abusive in different ways, each partner is still causing (more or less) equal amounts of harm. Both may feel they are simply getting back at their partner for hurting them physically or emotionally. However, they’re both likely experiencing deep emotional wounds because of this lose-lose dynamic.

Is there really such a thing as mutual abuse?

Robert’s, and others’, confusion comes in because so many articles, websites, and domestic violence organizations insist that mutual abuse does not exist. This is largely due to the dominant socio-political theories about power, control, and gender dynamics in abusive relationships. However, these theories are not borne out by the findings of the research community. 

The facts, supported by fifty well-designed studies, show 40-60% of domestic violence and abuse happens in mutually abusive relationships. While I won’t go into reasons why the evidence-denying, ideological perspectives dominate the discussion on domestic violence, suffice it to say it’s not helpful. It makes sense to start with the truth about mutual abuse if we are going to stop the damage for the massive numbers who experience it.

Are you in a mutually abusive relationship?

First, let me say this post is not intended for the many who are in relationships where the abuse is one-sided. If roughly half of abusive relationships are mutually abusive, then about half of them are not. Review the definitions of abuse and honestly evaluate your own behavior. If you can confidently say you rarely do those things, you’re not part of a mutually abusive relationship but rather a victim.

This commentary is also not for those who are causing most of the harm in their relationship. I know it’s unlikely that you set out to hurt your partner. The Ananias Foundation resources are here to help you change, and your loved ones and you will benefit greatly when you do. I also know your partner is not perfect because they are human. However, their occasional display of some action on the abuse list does not make them abusive or you a victim. 

On the other hand, if your relationship resembles what’s discussed in the “Recognizing mutual abuse” section above, let’s talk. By definition, mutual abuse means you are supplying some of that bad behavior. We’ll start by addressing your part, then turn our attention to your partner.

What to do about mutual abuse

The first thing you can do about mutual abuse is to stop contributing your part. That may sound blunt, but it’s also tremendously empowering. Since the only person you can change is you, focusing on yourself gives you the greatest control over the outcome.

Here’s how it works: the changes you make to your actions may positively affect how your partner acts. Violence and abuse often happen as the result of escalating tension between two people. Stepping out of your part in the conflict can be what breaks the cycle.

In some way, this is like defensive driving. If you and your partner are crashing into each other in an intersection, you can prevent this by stopping. It may be annoying or even deeply hurtful that your partner is still running the stop sign. And, it may be something the two of you need to discuss at a later point. But in the meantime, you’ve avoided a disastrous wreck.

Finding a better response

Any action that could hurt your loved one, even if they’ve hurt you, is never a good response. It accomplishes nothing. It’s fine to defend yourself, but not to retaliate or escalate the conflict. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

There are always better, more productive come-backs than getting even. Those responses require good emotional control so we don’t just react, but rather stop and think through the best way forward. Do the work necessary to heal what’s causing your part. In other words, clean up your side of the street. A sure sign of good emotional health is when we can respond to even hurtful situations constructively and without adding our own destructive actions.

Subtle pressure on your partner

You may be thinking, “But wait! My partner shouldn’t be saying or doing these hurtful things to me.” Of course this is true. However, the danger in dwelling on your partner’s role in the abuse is that it’s easy to lose focus on your own part. Again, by keeping your attention on yourself, you’re concentrating on the one and only part of the relationship you can control. 

This accomplishes two things, although both are subtle. First, it takes the focus off your bad behavior. If only one of you is yelling, hitting, or otherwise acting abusively, it’s obvious who ran the proverbial stop sign—and it wasn’t you! Your partner may or may not admit it, but they’ll know it and eventually feel the weight of their own guilt.

Second, by setting an example and working on your own emotional control, you may inspire your partner to do the same. It’s important to let them decide that for themselves, however. Don’t push them into it. Trying to control others is never okay, and it doesn’t work.

Mutual abuse end game

If your partner is unwilling or unable to see their part in the abuse, then you have a difficult decision to make. Seriously consider removing yourself, at least temporarily, if you are in physical danger. Even if the abuse is emotional, the damage is real, nobody has a right to do it, and nobody should have to endure it. Get help from a domestic violence hotline if you’re concerned about making a safe exit.

You may determine that your relationship is never going to be free of destructive conflict or unacceptable control. It’s your choice to stay or go, and you should exercise that choice with your best judgement. You may still want a relationship, but hopefully you realize you don’t need a relationship or want one that harms you.

If you decide to break things off, don’t simply blame your partner and move on. Remember – it was mutual abuse. Assigning all the baggage to your ex may seem like the easy way out, especially if they were physically abusive and you were not. 

Without taking responsibility for your own role, however, you risk taking your abusive behavior into the next relationship. Acknowledge your role in the harm and ask yourself what you’ve done to ensure it won’t repeat. Make sure you’ve healed sufficiently so you can enjoy a safe, violence and abuse-free relationship in the future.