I was on a tour bus in Mexico when out of the corner of my eye, I noticed them arguing quietly.
It escalated quickly. I’m not sure whose phone it was, but he wrestled it from her hands as she cried out in pain. It took him all of three seconds to do.
He remained calm and collected.
She lost it.
As the tears streamed down her face, she asked him why he was so cruel. Fine, he could have his divorce. She couldn’t take it anymore. How come he was just sitting there saying nothing when he had been putting her down that whole week? He had said he didn’t want her, he didn’t want to be there, and that he would rather be anywhere than with her.
And now that they were in public, he was just sitting there?? All she wanted was for him to spend ONE week with her, to love her.
The more she spoke, the louder and more *unstable* she appeared. And the more he didn’t respond, the *steadier* he seemed to appear.
But here’s the thing: her pain was real. And it didn’t come from nowhere.
As I watched this scene play out, my body froze and my gut sounded all the alarms at once.
I know this. I recognize this. I’ve done this.
LET’S TALK ABOUT REACTIVE ABUSE.
I’m not fond of the term itself. It can imply mutual responsibility/mutual abuse when that’s not actually the case.
Imagine that someone you love cuts you on your arm. And every time the cut scabs up, they rip it off, or even dig their fingers into the cut again. Sometimes they give the wound time to heal, but before you know it, *RRRRIIIP!* and you’re bleeding again.
The cut slowly turns into a gouge that keeps getting bigger and bloodier, sore and raw. Sometimes they simply walk by and subtly scrape at it as they pass.
And one day, when they go to poke it, you scream bloody murder and fight and claw. Survival kicks in, and you do everything in your power to keep them away from that arm.
The one who has been poking and cutting you points out their own arm, which has a fresh scratch on it.
Look what you did!
You’re so abusive.
Your partner says you’re crazy, says there’s something wrong with you. You need help. They didn’t even touch you and you went WAY over the top. Why are you always overreacting? Why do you want to hurt them?
You think about it, and maybe they’re right. Maybe you just hurt each other. Why can’t you guys just have a healthy relationship?
Can you really get upset with them for cutting you when you JUST did the same thing to them?
What’s WRONG with you??
From an outside perspective, the one who reacts to the abuser often looks out-of-control or crazy. One reason is because abusers are very much IN control of their abuse. They know when to poke and how to do it in only a way that you will see and feel it.
Its purpose is to control, to assert power OVER.
Not so with reactive abuse. Its purpose is survival-based and raw, and doesn’t have an agenda other than get-me-out-of-this!
So it often looks messier and ends up playing into the abuser’s narrative, which is “I’m the *real* victim here; they are CRAZY.”
Years later, I still think about that woman on the tour bus. I remember her moving to the seat behind him, quietly crying as she curled up in shame. I watched as he ignored her pain and her personhood but also discreetly watched her with his phone every now and then.
I watched as the church leaders who were on the bus ignored them both (it was a Christian tour, steeped in patriarchal beliefs).
I watched as he pretended she wasn’t there after they got off the bus.
And I watched as an older couple went to talk with her, nodding at the man but otherwise not talking with him about his actions. No one approached the man at all. I don’t think I want to know what they said to her.
I slipped that woman a note on the bus when she wasn’t looking, saying I saw and I knew. What he did to her wasn’t ok; it was abuse.
I was too afraid at the time to do anything else, to speak up.
Next time, I will speak ALL-THE-WAY-UP. And my hope is that if someone reads this and recognizes something similar, that you’ll know and you’ll speak up all the way too.