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“Am I the abuser?”

It’s a question I get a lot. In this article, I’ll share what reactive abuse is and how you can be pushed to the limit and act in a way that others may define as abusive.

I want to make sure you don’t get fooled into thinking you are an abusive person if you were pushed to that limit by an actual abusive person.

Everyone, even the calmest, most passive person, has a limit. And almost everyone will break when pushed over the edge.

I’ll start with an email that I received that touches on a recurring question: “Am I the emotional abuser?”

This is a profound and sometimes complex question that many grapple with, and it’s one I’ve explored in a previous episode called Am I The Emotionally Abusive One? What are the signs of an emotionally abusive person?

It’s essential to not only understand what emotional abuse entails but also to recognize the intentions behind our actions. I’ll dive into this shortly, but first, I’ll read the email that sparked this article.

This person writes, “Paul, I’ve been following your work for a few years and appreciate the calm, kind way you share your advice. In essence, my question is: Could I be the abuser?

My husband claims I’m projecting and labels me as the abusive one. We seem to argue incessantly, often about trivial matters, and somehow, it’s always deemed my fault. Whether I’m adjusting the volume or asking him to open the blinds, it triggers his displeasure.

Conversely, he’ll openly criticize my ideas or question my choices in public, leading to further conflict. It feels like no matter what I do or how I respond, I’m to blame. After every argument, he concludes that his anger and unhappiness are because of me, suggesting we’re better off apart—a sentiment I’ve heard repeatedly over the last two years.

Despite my objections, he’s confiding in someone unsupportive of our marriage, who reinforces his belief that I’m the abusive one. I confess, in these moments, I raise my voice in retaliation. His silent treatment has taught me that silence is more peaceful, yet he frames his quiet as a defense against my supposed aggression.

I’m at my wits’ end, constantly being told I’m the root of his discontent. I remind him he’s in charge of his emotions, but he insists I push him too far, interpreting even the smallest actions as attacks. His response? He ‘comes out punching’ verbally, which justifies his cruel remarks.

He never apologizes, continuing his behavior as I make excuses for him. But I’ve reached my limit. How can I discern if I am indeed the abuser, as he claims? Is it really me? Please help. Call me Ronnie.

Ronnie, first and foremost, I’m sorry you’re experiencing this; it’s far from an easy situation. What jumps out from your message is your husband’s pattern of aggressive behavior and his insistence on his longstanding unhappiness, yet he remains passive about changing his circumstances.

When someone is discontent but doesn’t address the underlying issues, it often manifests as aggression toward others. It seems he’s found individuals who support his viewpoint, creating an ‘us versus you’ dynamic, which is not the foundation of a supportive, equal partnership.

In a healthy relationship, you wouldn’t feel isolated; you’d have a partner who stands with you, ready to tackle issues together. However, your husband’s choice to seek validation from someone else suggests a lack of interest in mending your relationship or considering your happiness.

While I can only make an assumption based on your email, it appears he’s not transparent about his desires and is hiding behind a facade of hostility. This situation often arises when one partner is unwilling to communicate their true feelings, whether it’s a loss of attraction or interest or something else entirely.

It’s a painful reality when someone shifts blame entirely onto their partner, refusing to acknowledge their responsibility or areas for personal growth. Ronnie, your story is a stark reminder for others of the importance of mutual respect and accountability in any relationship.

In childhood, I learned that when someone admits their faults, there’s room for dialogue. However, when it’s all cast onto you, when you’re blamed for everything, and they can do no wrong, you’re trapped in a one-sided relationship that’s unwinnable.

It’s not a contest, but the outcome is predetermined: you will never be right. Your logic, your truth, even undeniable evidence won’t matter; they will twist it to make you the one who is mistaken.

From your description, it seems clear that he wants to express something, to take some action. But for whatever reason—lack of commitment, courage, or something else—he remains silent.

I know you asked the question, “Am I the abuser?” so I want to address that shortly. However, my focus is on his behavior since it prompts a reaction from you, leaving you feeling as if you’re losing your mind with no recourse.

When faced with what I would call a “double bind” (where every choice leads to a loss), it’s no wonder you feel overwhelmed and frustrated. At the end of every episode of Love and Abuse, I remind you that you’re not going crazy and you deserve kindness and respect. But this situation is the antithesis of that. His failure to communicate honestly is driving you beyond your threshold.

Here’s a man probably frustrated with remaining in a relationship that no longer brings him joy or whatever he thinks is missing, who, I’m almost certain, wants to say or do something to you but refrains. So he gets angry and blames you unfairly for something he is unable to share with you!

If I were in your shoes, I would sidestep the defensive stance he’s pushing you into and instead focus on his lack of action and expression. He’s already indicated a desire for separation, saying, “We’re better off apart,” and “I’ve been unhappy for years.”

This suggests he wants you to be the antagonist, so when the story of your relationship’s end is told, fingers point at you as the one who left, leaving him the victim. He’s likely hoping you’ll take the responsible step of ending the relationship, absolving him of the decision.

It’s a pattern I’ve noticed, where someone will berate you, blame you, make you feel so inadequate that you leave, and they can then play the victim to their friends.

“Look what I had to endure, and she abandoned me,” they’ll say.

He’s demonstrated an unwillingness to take responsibility, so by voicing his unhappiness without taking action, he’s shifting that responsibility onto you.

These behaviors are typical of non-committal individuals. I’ve observed it more in men, but anyone can exhibit this reluctance to be the one to end things. When someone consistently expresses their misery yet does nothing to change their situation, they’re waiting for you to make the move.

Everything you’ve described points to him driving a wedge between the both of you, seemingly with the intention of pushing you away. If he angers you enough, perhaps you’ll leave, and he can move on to the next phase of his life. This is just a theory, but it’s a scenario I’ve seen unfold before.

This isn’t about an emotional abuse victim who feels trapped and unable to leave due to various constraints. This is about someone who is perpetually angry, always pointing his finger at you, and refusing to acknowledge his role in the relationship’s problems. He sounds like the non-committal type who doesn’t want to be seen as the bad guy who makes the tough decisions. After all, tough decisions lead to tough consequences.

When you’re with someone who says they’re unhappy and suggests splitting up but takes no action, they’re waiting for you to do it for them.

The behaviors you’re experiencing seem designed to drive you away. He appears to be setting you up as the problem so that when you do leave, he can proceed with his life without being the one to blame.

I could be wrong, but this pattern is familiar. It’s how some people manipulate situations so that when you finally exit, they can point at you and say, “I’m not to blame. You left me!” And they can tell their friends that you were the “bad guy.”

I acknowledge that the picture I’m painting is quite bleak, but it’s a scenario I’ve encountered before. While it may not exactly match your situation, from your account, it seems to fit because this behavior from him seems to have emerged only in the past couple of years. It’s as if he’s wrestling with a thought or a desire to take some action or to say something to you, yet he never follows through. So, I’m drawn back to a fundamental question:

What is the real issue at hand?

You could tell him, “You express your unhappiness. You suggest that we shouldn’t be together. But you never act on it. What is truly making you unhappy?”

He might respond with, “Well, you always do this, and it’s always your fault, and you never want me to be happy…” or whatever. He could say many things.

Then you could reply, “Okay, let’s assume everything you’re saying about me is true. Why are you still here?”

It’s as if you were talking to a good friend, asking the question: “Why are you still with that person if they treat you so badly? I want you to be happy! If you’re not happy, then why are you still there?”

This approach may or may not work. You might talk to him like this, and he could come back with, “I can’t leave because I can’t afford it.”

If that’s the case, and he’s making excuses for not leaving, then you could ask, “Well, can you manage until you can afford it?”

It might be worthwhile to have a conversation that strips everything down to the basics. For example, “Can you manage until you can afford it?” is the same as asking, “Can you be okay until you get enough money to leave?” Of course, that kind of question would require him to take personal responsibility for his decisions in life. Instead of waiting for you to make the next move for him, he would be put in the spotlight and asked when he was going to make his next move.

Or maybe he’ll say, “I don’t want to leave.”

If that’s his response, then you could suggest, “Let’s get help then. Let’s see a therapist. Let’s work things out,” if that’s something you’re willing to do.

What I’m suggesting here is to get him to confront the real issue because, as you mentioned, a lot of this stuff is benign and not worth the argument. It’s crucial to engage in deeper conversations that drill into the real issues at hand.

Another way to get there is to ask, “When did you first become unhappy? Let’s pinpoint when it started. You say everything is my fault. Okay, let’s say that’s true. When did you start believing that everything is my fault? Did something specific happen?”

It’s like you’re coaching him, asking questions. But in order to do this effectively, you have to detach from your own emotions. That’s a big challenge! When you probe someone who harbors so much inner turmoil, anger, or aggression, you may get that aggression directed back at you.

Try to maintain the mindset of, “Okay, let’s assume everything you said about me and us is true. Then why are you still here? When did all of this begin? What’s really happening? Because if you were truly this unhappy, you probably would have left by now. You’ve said you’ve been unhappy for years, so there’s been plenty of time to save up and leave if it’s a matter of finances. Maybe we can figure out what’s really going on together.”

That’s the direction I’m heading with this. His behavior is indicative of underlying issues that aren’t being voiced, so it manifests in other destructive ways, much like when you repress anger toward a parent as a child.

Suppose a parent mistreated, neglected, or even harmed you when you were young. But as a child, you didn’t retaliate with anger. Instead, you internalized it, not knowing how to cope with the upset, the feeling of not being loved, or the sense of unworthiness.

You then carry all of those thoughts and feelings into adulthood and into your romantic relationships – all those repressed emotions and negative self-perceptions.

Because these issues haven’t been addressed, they end up surfacing in your behaviors, affecting not only yourself but also those around you.

Holding onto emotions, thoughts, and feelings about ourselves that are unhealthy or stem from toxic or abusive situations, if left unaddressed, almost always show up in your relationships.

As I said, it’s entirely possible that he’s grappling with unresolved issues. However, I’m inclined to believe there’s something on his mind right now that he’s not sharing.

You might find yourself in a position where you need to confront him directly and demand to know what’s truly going on. He’s been blaming you for everything, but when you’re in a relationship, you’re supposed to communicate and solve problems together.

Instead, it seems he’s been trying to push you away, isolating you, and making you feel alone. He’s turning others against you. He’s stopped talking to you. That’s why I believe there’s an underlying issue.

You might need to press him a bit. Is he simply scared to make a decision? Is he afraid to honor his own boundaries and values?

If he genuinely feels so negatively about you, then I reiterate: Why is he still with you?

I mean, what’s the point of staying with someone you can’t stand? At least, that’s what I’d ask him if he were in front of me right now.

You might not want to voice any of what I’m suggesting here. It could be painful, and you may not feel comfortable saying these things. But I’m not insisting you must. Rather, I’m suggesting that you adopt a different mindset so you’re not constantly on the defensive, thinking you’re always in the wrong or that you’re being abusive.

Your supposed abusive behavior is more likely a reaction, as you suggested. This is often referred to as reactive abuse. I’m not sure if what you’re doing or saying qualifies as abuse. You’re reacting like anyone would when they feel driven to madness, when they’re left with no options, or when they’re backed into a corner and made to believe that no answer they give is right.

When people reach that overwhelming point, that breaking point, it’s natural to lash out or defend oneself aggressively or assertively. From what you’ve described, it seems you have to be pushed to this point to exhibit this behavior. And it appears he knows exactly how to provoke you to that point to make you appear abusive.

This brings me to my final comment. When someone pushes you to the brink where they can then point a finger at you and label you the abuser, it’s crucial to recognize what they’re doing. You need to understand the tactic they’re using, which causes you to act in a way that they can then blame you for, portraying you as someone you’re not.

He knows how to push you to your limit so he can put your behavior, behavior that he instigated, in the spotlight. Yes, you play a role in this, too. Yes, you’re responsible for your actions. But everyone has a breaking point. And when they reach it, the instinct to come out swinging can be overwhelming.

It sounds like you’re nearing your breaking point. If he’s intentionally employing this tactic to push you to that edge, you will always be cast in the role of the antagonist because that’s precisely where he wants you.

Therefore, it’s vital to realize how and why he’s pushing you to this point so that you don’t reach it anymore. On my podcast, The Overwhelmed Brain, I talked about when someone is trying to provoke a reaction from you, wanting you to get angry (which I believe is the case here), a simple yet powerful response is:

You may be right.

By saying, “You may be right,” you’re not affirming their claim, nor are you denying it. You’re simply neutralizing the energy. Their energy comes at you with force, and that force is amplified when it meets your resistance—your defense mechanism.

For instance, if you react by saying, “What? That’s not what I did. That’s not what I said! That’s not what I meant!” you’re basically erecting a wall for him to run into.

Counterintuitively, this wall doesn’t diminish his power; it amplifies it. Your defensive stance actually enhances the impact of emotional abuse. So, when you become defensive, you’re falling right into the trap of an emotional abuse tactic designed to keep you focused on defending yourself.

He very likely does this to divert your attention away from him, allowing him to continue his behavior unchecked. As long as he can keep you in that defensive space, you won’t be able to confront him effectively. As long as he holds this power over you, you’ll remain stuck in this cycle.

I definitely don’t want that for you.

Stay strong, and don’t let anyone take your power. Share this with others who might benefit.

Share this with someone who might benefit.

Paul Colaianni

Host of Love and Abuse and The Overwhelmed Brain

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