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The Myth of Mutual Domestic Violence

TFC’s own Jaime Gabrielli discusses scenarios where violence is often misunderstood as mutual, and highlights how the power imbalance at the core of abusive relationships renders mutual violence not just unlikely, but impossible.


The truth about domestic violence is often hidden beneath distorted perceptions that assign responsibility for the abuse to the victim. This is especially true when survivors actively resist or fight back. The term mutual abuse is sometimes used when both people appear to simultaneously be abusers and victims. In truth, domestic abuse is never present between equals because it stems from one partner’s need to own and control the other by any means necessary. The ingrained pattern of dominance and inherent imbalance of power makes mutual abuse virtually impossible.

Sadly, mutual abuse is sometimes depicted as reality in the media and within the court system, causing more fallout and confusion for victims. At times, the perception of co-abuse impacts the way cases are handled at the investigative level, prevents prosecution, and clouds civil proceedings. While experts in the field of domestic violence agree there is no such thing as mutual abuse, it’s woven into many of the stories we hear. Below are a few examples of scenarios that are often and easily miscast—sometimes even by survivors themselves—as mutual abuse.

Reactive Defense

When victims fight back, they are not instigating abuse. While some of their behaviors might seem aggressive, they are frantic attempts to defend themselves and gain personal freedom. The person trying to resist abuse is not acquiring power or control over their partner, but attempting to diffuse, escape, and survive. The correct term for victims’ innate response to being harmed is reactive defense or self-defense. It’s important to understand that many responses to trauma are automatic. Self-protection is a hard-wired reaction to the overwhelming terror and brutality of being threatened and attacked. A survival response is not a choice and does not put the victim on par with their abuser or make them the abusive partner.

Control Over Reality

Advocates often speak with survivors who fear they are also abusive. Victims are conditioned to see themselves as the problem because of persistent blame-shifting and minimization by their partners. Abusers manipulate and gaslight their partner into thinking they are equally to blame for the violence. These strategies are effective as victims commonly blame themselves and take responsibility for the way they have been mistreated. Abusive people are relentless in their efforts to push others to their breaking point, hoping they will react intensely or forcefully. When they do, abusers use their reaction to gain the upper hand and avoid accountability. This exploitation of reality helps ensure the survivor will be too afraid to reach out for help because they fear they might be arrested or disbelieved.

Manipulating the System

During an abusive relationship and when survivors try to leave, their abusive partner will predictably use past reactive behavior against them to reestablish dominance and control. In child custody court battles, for example, abusers highlight these incidents to make a judge question the victim’s stability as a parent or claim they are abusive. This tactic is used by perpetrators to defend themselves against valid claims of domestic violence, possibly even defeating criminal charges and requests for protective orders. Accepting their justifications only strengthens the abuser’s power, and ensures victims remain disempowered and invalidated, even after the relationship ends.

Confusion for Responders

The covert nature of domestic violence can lead responders to mistakenly believe there is mutual abuse, or the victim is the abusive party. Fully understanding the experiences and stories of two people in conflict can be tricky and confusing, especially when relevant information is obscured. This is especially true when there is a long history of abuse, and the victim’s internal defense mechanisms and trauma responses are triggered. Living with constant abuse over time can lead to shattered self-esteem, low self-worth, acute distress, and PTSD. Trauma victims often experience emotional dysregulation, wavering between angry outbursts, crying, placating, frustration, confusion, and complete disconnection. In contrast, abusers remain in control of their emotions, making them appear cool and calm compared to their partner’s frantic and confused state. Responders, and even family and friends, are sometimes more inclined to believe the victim is “out of control” and trust the perpetrator’s account based on their contrasting presentations after a violent incident.

Identifying the Predominant Aggressor

In Montana, law enforcement officials are educated about the dynamics of domestic violence and trained to identify the predominant aggressor in related crimes. If it appears the parties were involved in mutual violence, officers use a primary aggressor assessment to avoid arresting the wrong person and dual arrests. This investigative process allows police to gain a more accurate picture by shifting their focus to power dynamics, behavioral indications of trauma, and attempts at manipulation by the perpetrator.

Correctly identifying the perpetrator in domestic violence crimes involves but is not limited to the following considerations, regardless of who was the first aggressor:

  • Prior history of violence

  • Relative severity of the injuries

  • Whether an act of violence occurred in self-defense

  • Relative size and apparent strength of each person

  • Apparent lack of fear between partners or family members

  • Statements made by witnesses

Self-defense and Situational Violence Are Not Domestic Abuse

Everyone has the right to defend their emotional and physical safety. Buying into claims of mutual abuse places unwarranted blame on survivors and excuses perpetrators. Misidentifying domestic violence as mutual abuse increases the self-blame, fear, confusion, and isolation victims are already experiencing. It’s also important to keep in mind that people in any relationship can exhibit unhealthy behaviors. Individuals sometimes engage in situational violence, which is fundamentally different than intimate partner violence. Unlike domestic violence, situational violence does not correspond to a rooted imbalance of power or ongoing pattern of coercive behavior.


If you or someone you love is experiencing domestic violence, sexual assault, and/or stalking, The Friendship Center has advocates available 24/7 to assist you. Visit our services page to explore resources for victims and advocates, learn more about our services, and get connected with one of our advocates.


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