Five False Types of “Mutual Abuse” [Trigger warning for detailed descriptions of abuse, gaslighting]
A lot of talk about “mutual abuse” has been flying around my dash recently to describe relationships where “both parties fucked up.” And I’m uncomfortable with it.
You guys, I have seen first-hand a good number of relationships described as “mutually abusive” by victims, bystanders, and (most especially) perpetrators. But I have never seen first-hand a relationship that could actually, fairly be described as “mutually abusive.”
If mutually abusive relationships do exist, it’s clear to me that they are a small minority of the abusive relationships that get classed initially as “mutual.” Overwhelmingly, accusations of “mutual abuse” are leveraged by abusers against survivors as a way of obfuscating power dynamics, psychologically harming the survivor and controlling their sense of reality (gaslighting), and chocking the survivor off from community support and safety. Less commonplace—but still frequent—declarations of “mutual abuse” come from enablers who further the abuser’s pattern of psychological/emotional violence, bystanders who are profoundly confused, and survivors/victims who have internalized their abuser’s justifications, deflections, and need to establish dominance.
It’s been my observation that perpetrators and their sympathizers all make variations on just a few, tired arguments about how the abuse was “mutual.” As you read them, keep in mind how all of these tactics uphold a truly abusive and unsafe paradigm that gives the abuser power, minimizes the bigger picture, and robs the victim/survivor of agency.
1. “But he had the nerve to *defend* himself!”
This is also known as the “but they hit me too!” argument, and it’s ridiculous. Consider a case study I had to read for job training once: person A complains that her husband hit her and pushed her to the ground in an argument. Her husband, B, doesn’t deny this but instead responds angrily: “but while you were on the ground, you shoved meoff of you! You had no right! That’s violence too! It was mutual abuse!”
Of course, A is responsible for her own decision to shove her husband off of her. But…that decision was entirely fair. In context, it’s clear that her actions were about protecting herself—not controlling her partner. In fact, her husband clearly had all of the power. There is absolutely nothing wrong or abusive about self-defense.
2. “But she made one or two small mistakes during our relationship!”
This tactic within radical circles has been written about before: “Perpetrators, or their apologists, all too commonly respond to being called out by making defensive ‘callouts’ of their own. As discussed earlier, they will accuse the survivor of any wrongdoing they can think of, or else make some up when actual misdeeds are not forthcoming.”
The basic idea is two-fold: first, the perpetrator cuts the survivor off from sympathy, self-assurance and support by harping on a few mistakes (that may or may not have actually happened) and second, the perpetrator successfully minimizes their own actions by suggesting that the violence they perpetrate is even remotely on the same level as the mistakes the survivor made.
3. “But hir actions look so weird out of context!”
As Connie Burk has said: “A person who is battering can report actions taken by their partners that are mean, cruel, scary, or confusing. Out of context, they could be seen as abusive. In context, they can be understood as resisting power and control.” Survivors often do things that are confusing and unkind…until you consider that they’re happening in the context of being abused. For example, survivors will often cut off relations with their abuser sharply and [to the abuser’s mind] suddenly, keep their defenses up, and act overly paranoid. I live with abusive parents, and I’m put on guard by their presence so much that I’m often sharp and cold to them in situations where I would otherwise want be warm and understanding to someone else. But this coldness isn’t “mutual abuse;” it’s just a complex post-traumatic stress reaction.
4. “But I am *entitled* to abuse them, and they tried to deny me that right!”
This one happens when the abuser’s violence is considered to be “normal” by them and often by their victims and community. Abusers might say “she was always criticizing me” when what they really mean is “she would sometimes tell me when I had crossed a line and I don’t like that.” Or they might say, “ey would never admit that ey was partially to blame for our arguments too” when they mean “it’s eir own fault for not magically knowing how to keep me from blowing up! Ey pushes my buttons!” These tropes are victim-blaming and abuse-apologistic in the extreme.
5. “JUST IGNORE THE POWER DYNAMIC, OKAY? IGNORE IT!”
Abuse is sustained by actions (like hitting, yelling, threats), but abuse is fundamentally identified by its power dynamic. It’s when one person is controlling and harming another, not when one person does X, Y, or Z physical acts (like shoving, slapping, or stomping) or says A, B, or C words (like “bitch,” “loser” or “stupid”).
I used to know someone who would blame hirself for being “mutually abusive” to a partner because ze would start fights with him over nothing. On the surface, this sounds like massively abusive behavior. But the deeper explanation was that ze was angry at him for being physical, emotionally, financially, and sexually abusive. And ze couldn’t even mention the violence itself, because the abuser would escalate the violence whenever he was called on his shit. So after years of abuse, the survivor started to find ways to express hir frustration in small, passive-aggressive ways that ultimately did nothing to challenge hir marriage’s power imbalance.
You can get pretty far by just looking at individual actions. One person is more likely to be more violent, more likely to instigate, and more prone to any “red flag” behaviors—and that person is probably the abuser. However, this is because the perpetrator has set up a harmful power dynamic where they are in the position to enact violence more often and to greater effect.
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