Subtle reactive abuse

They have friends over, he’s cleared away the meal and comes to sit next to her on the sofa. She inches away, very slightly so as to create a small gap between them. He reaches over to hold her hand but she quickly withdraws it, he looks hurt. The conversation changes to discussing the meal they’ve just eaten. Tim is complimented on his cooking, she rolls her eyes thinking she’s being subtle but it’s  noticed – if only they knew. He smiles, they all love him, the perfect host. He goes to get another bottle, “Don’t worry darling you stay there” he tells her while beaming. All eyes focus on her, she can’t pretend to be happy. Her whole body tense with resentment – she tries to mask it but she’s struggling. They notice her struggle and they love him even more. The unfairness enrages her but she can’t say anything, no one would believe her anyway.

We hear so much about reactive abuse – when the survivor is emotionally manipulated  by her abuser until she reacts in an angry outburst. She may become hysterical and shout at him, she may even lash out physically. This behaviour often reflects badly on her – those witnessing may be unaware of the abuse she is being subjected to. They’ve probably not heard the insult he whispered in her ear that triggered her explosive reaction. They’re not likely aware that behind closed doors, she has little autonomy, her life completely controlled by him.

What is less well understood is the subtle behaviour that survivors may display when they’re struggling to deal with abuse. Her resentment of him may leak out, especially in a public setting when her perpetrator is behaving in a charming and manipulative manner. When he presents himself as the adoring partner and great dad, she may feel enraged at the injustice but show her discontent in a subtle manner. She may react in a low key way when too scared to confront her abuser openly. If she challenged him, she may be met with further control and restrictions, if she shouted, he’d only shout louder. When she’s stuck, trapped and too scared to openly question him, she may try to keep a lid on her feelings, but they have a habit of seeping out, and they’re often noticed by others.

He may hope for her to behave in a passive aggressive manner in public. Her behaviour will fit perfectly with the narrative he has created – that she’s the abuser and he the victim. That he’s the adoring husband and devoted father who can’t do enough for her, but she’s unappreciative and controlling. The typical narcissist requires an audience before doing anything apparently selfless. When he has some onlookers he will perform quite convincingly, the audience unknowingly conspiring with him – and against her.

“Matt had little to do with our kids – that was my job. However exhausted I was from breast feeding and sleepless nights, he would do nothing to help. I’d stopped asking since he’d called me a lazy bitch for asking him to drop our eldest off at nursery when the baby was ill.  

“When our friends were around or we were out, he’d be changing nappies, playing with the kids and talking about doing the night feed to give me a break. It was fiction and lies but he was believed, his performance Oscar worthy. I couldn’t stand it and would quietly fester, every part of my body seething. I couldn’t tell anyone though, Matt scared me. But people seemed to pick up my mood and interpret it as lack of appreciation. If only they knew the truth.”

Sandra Reddish

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One in Four Women – understanding men’s domestic abuse and violence against women

Beyond the Break-up – understanding and surviving men’s domestic abuse and violence against women post-separation

Sandra Reddish

About the author

Sandra Reddish

Supporting and advocating for domestic abuse survivors is my life’s purpose. I am endlessly inspired by the strength, perseverance and hope so many women show in the face of often terrible circumstances. I will continue to use my expertise to do everything I can to empower women to survive and thrive following domestic abuse.