Mac was furious. He and his partner got into a tussle and he was arrested for domestic violence. However, he claimed it was self-defense because his partner started the fight.

Shelia, too, thought her arrest was totally unfair. She admitted striking her partner with a golf club. However, she maintained that it was an act of self-defense for all the abuse she suffered from him.

While I’m not a lawyer and this post is not legal advice, the notion of self-defense is worth discussing. This topic is especially relevant for those of us who are in a volatile relationship where physical violence or emotional abuse has occurred. When are we acting justly in self-defense, and when do we cross the line into retaliation?

What is self-defense?

In most places, the law allows a person to defend themselves or to protect others against attack. Those laws vary from place to place, and the rules are nuanced. Generally, self-defense is when you use a reasonable force to stop an ongoing attack.

Reasonable vs. excessive force

There are a couple of key words in this statement. Reasonable means using just enough force to stop the threat. Using more power than what’s necessary is considered excessive force.

That may mean using the same force the attacker is using on you, but it may not. If you can do much more harm to them than they can to you, your response needs to be toned down. Sometimes simply restraining the attacker is all that’s necessary to defend yourself.

Mac’s wife threw books at him. The first barely missed his head; the second hit him squarely in the chest. She had a third book in her hand and was ready to throw it when Mac landed a punch to the side of her head.

The problem with Mac’s self-defense assertion is that his actions were excessive. He could have deflected the books, subdued his wife with a bear hug, or left the room. Mac’s size was a factor, too, as he out-weighed his wife by 80 pounds. The power of his punch and the damage done far exceeded his potential injuries from a thrown book.

Stopping an ongoing threat vs. retaliation

The other important consideration in most legal jurisdictions is whether the threat of harm is ongoing. Yes, you may take measures to stop the attack. But once it stops, any physical violence you do later is no longer self-defense, it’s retaliation.

Sheila endured slaps, pushes, and punches from her boyfriend in the past. She was hurt and angry about his abuse. While her boyfriend slept, she hit him with a 4-iron.

Coming back later to even the score is not self-defense, it’s retaliation. After the threat has ended, the use of force is no longer appropriate. If your partner hits you in anger, but does not continue to assault you, simply leave.

Retaliation seems right but makes matters worse

Without excusing Mac’s wife for throwing books or Sheila’s boyfriend for his abuse, neither’s responses were justified. They were excessive (Mac) or delayed (Sheila) relative to the threat. Their partners were guilty of domestic violence, but so were Mac and Sheila. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

When somebody hurts us emotionally or physically, it’s our human nature to want to hurt them back. We misuse the concept of self-defense to justify responding out of anger and payback. Our thinking takes some form of, “I’m not going to let them get away with hurting or disrespecting me.” But reacting to violence with more violence simply escalates the situation.

Our thinking takes some form of, “I’m not going to let them get away with hurting or disrespecting me.”

Aggression is not going to fix the problem; it’s just going to make the wounds deeper. One person needs to make the brave move to step out of the conflict. It’s far better for us and our relationships when we do.

There are other benefits of de-escalating a quarrel. We are unlikely to get into trouble, either with the law or our partner, for a softened response. It’s easy to get caught up in tit-for-tat retaliation and fail to recognize that we’re actually escalating the violence. Our decreased intensity keeps the spotlight on our partner’s bad behavior, which is the best way to encourage them to change.

How to stop retaliating

I’ll be the first to admit that remaining calm in these circumstances is very difficult. A physical threat triggers our fight or flight response. It’s hard to think clearly, evaluate your options, and execute the best plan in the heat of battle.

One strategy I find useful is to have the plan prepared in advance. What will I do if my partner spews lies, insults, or degrading words at me? How can I evade, restrain, or protect myself from various versions of my partner’s violence without responding with my own?

She tries slapping me – what do I do? If he raises his hand to punch me, what’s my response? What’s my plan if my partner grabs a knife from the kitchen?

Think through your best response for as many scenarios as possible. Envision yourself reacting well and rehearse those actions in your mind frequently. You’ll be surprised at how much easier it is to maintain your composure if the situation arises.

The bigger question – why is self-defense needed?

I hope this discussion of self-defense vs. retaliation is helpful if you are in a relationship where physical violence or emotional abuse is happening. If that’s the case, however, there is another, bigger question you should ask yourself: why are you in this relationship?

Both Mac and Sheila’s relationships could be described as mutually abusive. A mutually abusive relationship could be when both parties are being violent with each other, as described here. It also could be one person using physical abuse in response to the other’s emotional abuse. Or it could be both partners emotionally abusing each other, but neither being physically violent.

If you’re in a mutually abusive relationship, by all means, clean up your part of the harm. If your partner’s abuse continues and you’re left needing to use some form of self-defense, your safety and sanity are in peril. Make a plan to separate yourself from your partner until they address their issues, or permanently if they do not.

Faith note

The hardest part of what I wrote above is letting go of my desire to payback someone who hurts me. It feels like I’m letting them off the hook. Does skipping retaliation just invite others to treat me poorly?

God has some guidance for us on this issue, and he says to leave vengeance to him. Why? Because we’re terrible at it.

We try to protect ourselves from perceived threats that aren’t really threats. In our efforts to get even, we end up escalating the conflict. When we strike back, we perpetuate an endless cycle of violence. We don’t make the world more peaceful, and we don’t feel more peace ourselves.

The alternative is to trust God handle it in his own way and in his own time. Sometimes we’ll see that justice happen, sometimes we won’t. Ultimately, we all are going to die and will need to answer for our deeds. There’s no need for you or me to try to right the wrongs done to us now.

Self-defense is not bad. God does not want you harmed—that’s not his design for relationships. Do what you need to do to be safe and stay safe. Anything beyond self-defense, however, is God’s job.