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Who's the Real Abuser? - What Happens in a Toxic Relationship

Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels
Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels

I never wrote about this in detail on this blog, but I was in a very toxic relationship for four years prior to dating the wonderful person I'm with now. Truthfully, I'd been caught up in a pattern of less than healthy romantic entanglements for much of my youth and maybe this was, in part, due to the fact that I had no successful relationships to model mine after while growing up.

The reason I want to write about this now is because of the recent audio that has come to light regarding Johnny Depp and Amber Heard's two hour therapy session in which she admits not only to hitting Depp but also verbally lashing out and throwing things at him.

I want to talk about this because....well....

People who are abused can also exhibit abusive behaviors when provoked.

We like to portray victims of abuse as scared, sniveling, and passive participants in a toxic situation - cowering in a corner or acquiescing to avoid a worse outcome. But being abused can also make a person really angry and the abuser can know exactly what buttons to push to drive their victim to lash out. And once that line has been crossed, it's very easy for the abuser to turn around and claim to be the victim.

Not only does this keep others from believing the victim or taking them seriously (because they're not behaving the way an abuse victim "should") but it also makes the victim question their own complicity in the abuse.

The line between victim and abuser has become absurdly blurred in the age of social media, where the pendulum has swung from blaming the victim to glorifying the victim. Victimhood has become an identity - one that entitles a person to special treatment and the justifying of their own aggressive behavior.

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash
Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

When things were at their worst between me and my toxic partner, I really had to think long and hard about my own behavior in that relationship and which one of us was truly the abuser. He would make me so angry and sometimes, if alcohol had been introduced to the situation, I would lash out at him. I'd liken it to feeling like a cornered animal - chased from room to room - so eventually I would return fire just to get a little bit of peace or distance.

I distinctly remember one incident where we'd both been drinking and in the middle of an argument I threw my wine glass at him. It hit the coffee table and shattered all over the carpet. I immediately burst into tears because I had bought those glasses and I'd just wanted him to stop screaming at me and leave me alone. But I'd been so angry in that moment and I didn't know what else to do.

Walking away never worked - if I left the room he'd follow me and continue to argue. If I left the apartment, he'd either try to follow me, stalk the halls looking for me, or blow up my phone until I eventually caved in and told him where I was hiding. He was relentless and it was exhausting.

I'm not proud of literally kicking him out of bed late one night when he hovered over me, breath smelling of booze and weed, to remind me that I was a cunt and a horrible person for not agreeing that feminism is bad. I'm not proud of shoving him into the wall to get him physically away from me after he'd slammed me down onto the bed and wrapped his hands around my throat. I'm not proud of the things I screamed back at him after I'd locked myself in the bathroom and prayed he wouldn't actually break the door down. Goodbye security deposit, right?

It scared me because this wasn't who I was. I wasn't a violent person. I didn't like confrontation, and having to scream and yell at someone just to get them to back off didn't feel good. It wasn't empowering - it was exhausting and I was left agitated and sick afterwards.

According to "If you’ve ever yelled at your partner, participated in an intense argument or used physical force, there are certain instances where this would not be considered abusive." While it's not healthy to scream back or be violent with your partner, intense emotional stress or PTSD can force an explosive reaction. Abusers will also shift the blame onto their victim, by claiming that they're the one being abused when the victim fights back or chooses to defend themselves. This is a way of justifying the original abusive behavior, wherein they convince themselves that their victim was deserving of abuse.

This particular example given really hits home: argument occurs in which your partner tries to keep you from leaving the room. They may physically block the doorway, and in your attempt to rightfully leave you shove your partner out of the way. Your partner chooses to lash out at you for this with physical violence. Afterwards they claim that you were abusive too because you shoved them. Your partner’s attempt to keep you from leaving already exhibits efforts to gain power and control. Their extreme reaction to the shove does as well. They felt threatened by your choice to leave, whereas in a healthy relationship your partner would respect your right to walk away from an argument. When it’s over they blame you for their actions of violence in a final pursuit of control. You shoving your partner in order to get away from them does not constitute abuse. Abuse is a pattern of behavior intended to have power over someone else, usually a partner.

As I read through the allegations against Amber Heard and the social media response, what really strikes me is that we have no idea how to react to victims of abuse that retaliate against their abuser or develop preemptive tactics to minimize damage to themselves. We have no idea how to determine who's really telling the truth without being intimately acquainted with the situation and the problem with social media is that we're getting cherry-picked pieces of information and not the whole story. And we certainly can't know what was going through someone's mind in the heat of the moment.

I share this part of my story because I want people to really stop and think critically about how complicated and nuanced domestic violence really is. I want people to remember that how we act in toxic relationships isn't always rational or healthy - and that the best thing to do is get away from that person if possible. That isn't always easy and abuse survivors need a little grace, understanding, and support.

What we don't need to see are trending hashtags on Twitter demonizing a celebrity for the same behaviors we were once guilty of. Because that'll mean we've swung all the way back to victim-blaming. It's 2020 - we could use a more balanced and compassionate approach.


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. I might be back with another comment later.

  2. I actually have no words but thank you. Thank you for sharing something so personal and showing such strength in your post and I completely agree with your last point of showing more balanced and compassionate approach!

    Jessica & James |

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, I really appreciate it!


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