Controlling abuse verses reactive abuse

Morning friends,

I’ve been writing all weekend for my new book on Emotionally Destructive Marriages and because of that, I did not write a new blog for this week. But I want to share a blog I wrote for American Association of Biblical Counselors, and much of the content will be included in my new book. I would love your comments and feedback. Can you relate?

Counseling Marital Abuse: A Critical Distinction

Leslie Vernick LCSW

     Whenever we diagnose abuse in marriage, we don’t look at one single episode of sinful behavior which we’re all capable of. Instead, we must take a careful history of the marriage to see the big picture. We’re looking for examples of abusive behavior and attitudes as well as seeing if there is an overall imbalance of power and control within the relationship. I’ve said in earlier blogs, diagnosis determines treatment plan. How we describe the problem determines what approach we will take in order to resolve and hopefully heal the marriage. But I’d like to describe two very different types of abusive behavior that we see in individuals that often get confused by biblical and pastoral counselors and seen as one in the same.

Reactive abuse

     Most marriages have experienced at least a few episodes of reactive abuse. John Gottman, psychologist and one of the leading researchers on marriage describes four negative reactions that are guaranteed to ruin your marriage if you regularly indulge them. They are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Gottman called them the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.[1] Let’s see their effects.

     Donna felt crabby. The kids were screaming and there were dirty diapers and dishes all over the counter tops. Overwhelmed, she started picking on her husband who was relaxing after work, watching the news.

     “You’re so lame. Can’t you see I’m struggling? What’s wrong with you? Look at this mess. Why can’t you ever lift a finger to help around here?”

     Jack rolled his eyes. “Shut up. Stop nagging me already. I work hard. What do you do all day besides sit around on the computer?”

     Donna flung a dirty diaper hitting Jack square in the back of his head. “You have no idea how hard I work taking care of these kids and this house. Why do you have to talk to me that way? You’re such a loser.”

     “Me!” Jumping up from the couch, whipping the diaper right back at Donna. “What about you? I was just relaxing here minding my own business when you started it.”

     Furious and hurt, Donna and Jack spent the rest of the evening in stony silence, neither one willing to wave the white flag or apologize. The apostle Paul warns us, “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galatians 5:15). Disappointment and frustration occur every day and in every relationship. When we don’t know how to tolerate our own negative emotions or communicate them maturely, we will react sinfully, sometimes abusively.[2]

     The Bible warns us, “In your anger, do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26). People do anger us. We curse, yell, threaten, shut down, withdraw and worse. Later on, when confronted with our abusive actions and attitudes we point the finger.

     Donna said, “If Jack would have helped me clean up, I wouldn’t have reacted that way.

     Jack said, “Donna started the whole thing. If she would have just asked me nicely, everything would have turned out differently”.

     We all do this. We’re held captive by our own storyline that says we had no choice but to respond the way we did. In addition, we tell ourselves that the only reason we reacted that way is because of what the other person did first. Therefore, it stands to reason, had they not done that thing, we wouldn’t have reacted that way. The deceptive thing about this kind of thinking is that there is a grain of truth in it. Imagine what a wonderful person you could be if you were never provoked or disappointed or frustrated in any way. The problem is that it’s pure fantasy. People do provoke us, we do get disappointed and frustrated and others don’t always love us like we’d like or do what we want. Our sinful and abusive reactions to life’s hurts and disappointments only make things worse.

     Because we can so relate to these experiences, it’s hard for us to call them abusive. But when an individual or couple regularly engages in this kind of warfare, their marriage is destructive, not only to them, but their children who become the causalities of the war at home. In addition, it can be difficult for people helpers and even trained counselors identify and validate other kinds of destructive and abusive patterns that need to be addressed. They see the both of them behaving sinfully and so they see the abuse as mutual and reciprocal. Tit for tat. Sometimes that’s true, but often it is much more. And that leads me to the second kind of abuse I want to briefly describe.

Controlling abuse

     Teresa knew Tom’s rules. One of them was she was not allowed to talk on the phone when he was home. He reasoned that she had all day long to talk to her family and friends if she wanted to. Shortly after dinner Teresa’s sister called. She needed some advice on a problem with her computer and wanted Teresa’s help. Teresa felt torn. She wanted to help her sister, but she knew if she talked with her right now, she’d have a price to pay later.

     “Tom,” Teresa whispered, holding her hand over the phone. Denise needs my help with something on her computer. I’ll just be a few minutes.”

     Tom cocked his brow glaring at Teresa.

     When she got off the phone, Tom was furious. “Once again I see I come last in your life,” he said.

     “That’s not true.” Teresa protested. “But I wanted to help Denise. She had an important work project and needed to use her computer tonight.”

     “What about my needs? Give me your cell phone.”


“I said, give me your phone.”


Tom grabbed Teresa’s wrist and squeezed it so hard her hand released the phone. Tom hurled it in the sink, full of soapy water. “Now I guess you won’t be able to talk on the phone when I’m home.”

Controlling abuse may look similar to reactive abuse, but the roots are very different. If confronted with his behavior, Tom may use the excuse, “If Teresa hadn’t talked on the phone, I wouldn’t have gotten so mad.” Or, “If she had just submitted to my leadership, this wouldn’t have happened.” Tom may even agree that grabbing Teresa’s wrist and forcing her to give up her phone was wrong and he shouldn’t have done it. But he thinks the core problem is Teresa’s lack of submission or love.

This is where the counseling gets tricky. Hopefully we see Tom’s behaviors as abusive and talk with him about it but what often happens is in addition we turn to Teresa and encourage her to work harder to not “provoke” Tom.

“Try not to push his buttons,” we say.

This is always a grave counseling error but especially troublesome in cases of controlling abuse. This approach makes Teresa responsible to anticipate and manage Tom’s emotions. It also feeds his idolatry of control and endorses his misbelief that he gets to make the rules for Teresa to live by. As her husband he believes he’s entitled to shape her into the person he wants her to become and you (as the biblical counselor) are going to help him.

Therefore the counseling approach for controlling abuse accompanied by this gross imbalance of power and control must be directed at Tom and his idolatry of control, his unbiblical thinking, and lack of love for his wife as a separate person. Teresa may be guilty of reactive abuse in her frantic attempts to survive the onslaught of Tom’s control over her but to see that as mutual abuse is short-sighted. To confront her in Tom’s presence would continue to fuel Tom’s idolatry. Teresa needs separate counsel, to learn how to respond to Tom’s excessive control with truth and grace. She also needs help to understand that pleasing God doesn’t mean she must bow to her husband as her god.

It’s crucial that we do not confuse controlling abuse with reactive or mutual abuse nor endorse blatant selfishness under the guise of biblical headship.


[1]Gotttman, John. 1994. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail
[2]For more help in learning how to respond biblically to provocative marital situations, read my book, How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong. (WaterBrook, 2001)

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  1. Anonymous on July 22, 2012 at 6:26 pm

    I find it alarming that the leaders of our churches have to be told the difference between reactive abuse and controlling abuse. That’s only the beginning, further along it gets more complicated. My goodness, it surely explains why so many of us have been barking up the wrong tree. They just don’t get it.

    I believe one of the purposes of the church in God’s plans was to provide a safe place to teach and learn how to deal with the troubles and burdens of the family. Yes, it should be safe, but if our teachers do not get it, then how can they teach the lessons?

    American culture is in a crisis. Religion is mocked. The traditional marriage and family are being threatened, Christians are not welcomed. And no one wants to do anything about it because it is not fashionable.

    The lack of common decency, the inability to see others, the lack of empathy, it’s the scourge that plagues the earth.

    The all-about-me attitude has engulfed our society and now many of us find it at our very own kitchen tables. The love of self and greed is showing its ugly head in varying degrees and in all sorts of deplorable behaviors. There simply is not enough services or money to meet the needs of all the people all of the time that seek help. So that leaves us with only a few options. We must learn how to protect ourselves and learn as much as we can as fast as we can.

    Toxic people can manipulate us with a few of our fears and our decency, they know who we are as a person. Hang on long enough and they will know us better than we know our self. Christian beliefs of compassion, forgiveness and decency place a powerful weapon into the hands of a toxic person.

    People do not socialize and connect the same way they use to which greatly hampers our need for person-to-person, eye-to-eye support. Many of us will have to travel the journey alone. There is a urgent need to reach the many who are fearful and hiding in closets. So many have in the past and will in the future go to their graves never knowing the truth. It takes two to make a good marriage and one to ruin it.

    We cannot change other people. God’s ways are not collective, we each get there on our own.

    Leslie you said: Monday, July 9, 2012

    “Thank you for your continued prayers for my new book on destructive marriages. I feel God’s hand giving me wisdom and courage, and I’m bolder than I ever have been in the past. The editors may change some things around, but I don’t want to tip toe around the issue. Please continue to pray for me. It’s a long process.”

    I am praying with all my strength for the truth to be brought out into the light. Yes, it really is going to take giant steps of courage and boldness that many Christian leaders have notoriously shied away from. “Tip toe around” is a good phrase to describe it. Spreading roses and wine does not always work, actually it very often backfires and works in just the opposite way. Tip toeing around has actually enabled the dysfunctional behaviors and set the marriage and the entire family unit up for destruction. You know that old saying: “We are only as sick as our secrets”.

    Many, Many Prayers.

  2. […] there’s this tricky little phenomenon called reactive abuse, where the victim – not to justify – responds to her abuser in kind with harsh words and […]

  3. […] there’s this tricky little phenomenon called reactive abuse, where the victim – not to justify – responds to her abuser in kind with harsh words and […]

    • Leslie Vernick on June 19, 2014 at 4:16 pm

      I agree – therefore all the more reason to develop CORE strength, get the support that you need not to repay evil for evil which is our natural inclination and not give him more ammunition to stay blind to his own sin and accuse you of being abusive.

  4. Evelyn on December 10, 2021 at 5:44 pm

    Hi Leslie,

    Thank you for your boldness in calling out the reality of abuse in Christian marriages. That in and of itself is an undertaking.

    Identifying abuse is an important, and often difficult, task, and although I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, this article paints a dangerously inaccurate picture of “reactive abuse.”

    Reactive abuse is NOT simply abuse delivered in an explosive, angry manner, as described in this article. Reactive abuse is an unfortunately poorly-chosen term for the anger or lashing out a victim may express when abused by her partner.

    Often, victims who are “reactively abusive” are accused by their partner of being abusive themselves, or of being “mutually abusive” (an impossibility, since each partner cannot simultaneously have more power than the other). What is actually occurring in “reactive abuse” is the victim lashing out in response to the crazy-making of emotional abuse or even the threat or presence of physical abuse.

    I urge and beg you to update this post with correct information about reactive abuse. Accurate information and terminology can make all the difference for victims ability to wake up to the reality of and find safety from abuse.

    Thank you so much for your time and consideration.

    • Leslie Vernick on December 11, 2021 at 8:31 pm

      Thanks Evelyn, the term I use when describing a woman resisting her husband’s abuse is not reactive abuse. She’s resisting her husbands abuse towards her. She may do this in good ways or dangerous ways but she is not guilty of abuse, but of self-protection and self-stewardship albeit sometimes in ways that cost her. For example, If a person is trying to strangle me or even grab me and I push them to get them away from me and in that process I scratch their face, I am not reactively abusive, I am resisting abuse – albeit in a way that may also make me look aggressive or abusive myself (to others – police, church etc) I define reactive abuse when you or anyone is not managing her or his emotions in a healthy way and you lash out at someone physically or verbally to harm them. This is not to get away from aggressive action towards you but reacting to what you don’t like in an abusive way. Reactive abuse is different than Controlling abuse, which is often done by someone who has a lot of emotional control, but still threatens, coerces and gaslights in order to gain control OVER while looking very “normal” or “Sane” on the surface. Hope that helps. An abuser may use both tactics – reactive abuse, and controlling abuse. But sometimes, but we can use our words as weapons when we are upset. Just look at social media. No one is vying for control OVER, but reacting to someone they do not like in a abusive manner.

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