Why We Victims Say and Do Things That Cause Abuse

June 8, 2012 Kellie Jo Holly

Sometimes, victims say and do things to cause abuse--on purpose. Why in the world would we do that? Read this to learn why and a better way to respond to abuse.

Victims of abuse sometimes say and do things to cause abuse. The abuse isn't our fault -- abuse is always the abuser's fault. But since that's the world we victims live in, sometimes we say and do things to cause the abuse, to purposefully cause our abuser to abuse. And yes, victims of abuse often feel they have this sort of control over the abuser. We come by that feeling honestly. After all, we've spent much time studying our abuser's every move and manner of speech, and we can practically predict when abuse will happen. Victims say and do things to cause abuse because we're going to be abused sooner or later, but timing the honeymoon period to specific events just makes life easier.

We victims try to control when and where we're abused, how we react when we're abused (meek vs. defiant reactions result in different outcomes - sometimes), and for what reasons we're abused. Ironically, our "control" over the abuser does not extend to making them be nice people. Our control is limited to causing them to abuse us on our terms, not ever to love us. The cycle of violence can be manipulated in but one direction. You can hasten abuse, but you can't stop it.

We Cause Abuse By Pushing the Abuser's Buttons on Purpose

Some of us victims actually push the abuser's buttons when the cycle of abuse isn't moving fast enough. For example, perhaps you want your spouse to behave at next week's family reunion. Maybe you want him sober or maybe you just want her to be nice to you in front of your family. For whatever reason, you need the honeymoon period to fall at a certain time.

But there's one problem. Your abuser is not at the point of blowing up yet, which means the tension between the two of you will be cotton ball thick by the time the reunion rolls around. That tension is going to ruin the impression you want to give your family. You want them to think everything is great in your marriage - it feels shameful to admit the abuse that goes on at home.

So you begin doing and saying things that you know will bother your spouse. Maybe you cook the wrong foods or go out with colleagues after work. Then you watch for the abuser's reaction and respond to him or her in a way that hastens the upcoming explosion.

You probably want to drop some reminders about the reunion during this process. You wouldn't want to attend the function with a shiner. Most likely your abuser will work with you on this. Abusers don't like to leave marks where anyone can see them if they can help it.

Have You Ever Caused Abuse to Happen to You on Purpose?

Have you ever purposely behaved this way? Looking back, does hindsight tell you that you brought onto yourself some sort of abuse for a reason? If so, don't admit this to your abuser (they'll use it against you for sure)! But if you recognize yourself in the situation above in any small way, it's time to admit that you attempt to control when the abuse happens, if only to yourself.

I will never judge you for admitting to it. I understand that when we're abused, crushed, and weakened, any hint of personal power feels better than complete subjugation. Abuse causes us to do things against our character. Forgive yourself. I did.

Three Reactions to Verbal Abuse That Encourages Abuse

Suzette Haden Elgin, author of You Can’t Say That to Me and master of "the gentle art of verbal self-defense" says there are three natural reactions to verbal assaults, and none of them work. You may naturally

  • plead for the abuse to stop (encourages the abuser to give more of the same because it's working),
  • try to logically debate with the abuser (despite the appearance of logic, the abuser argues on emotion or personal belief presented as logic),
  • or be abusive in return (i.e. poking the beast).

Ms. Elgin says that the reason these three responses to verbal abuse do not work is because the abuser gets what s/he's after: your attention. I think the abuser wants more than that. I think the abuser wants to win.

Your abusive spouse "wins" when they leave you in emotional turmoil, decimated and wondering "What just happened?" and "How did I miss the signs for that?!" They've won because you are weakened, enabling them to feel strong. As others have said, they seek power over you so you are easier to control.

Verbal Self-Defense In Abusive Relationships

I admire Ms. Elgin's conception of our natural but ineffective reactions to verbal abuse. However, verbally abusive partners are not the pansy-at-heart type of abuser who merely acts out through verbal abuse and can be tamed by receiving positive attention. By the time someone is old enough to be anyone's partner, what may have begun as attention-seeking behavior has evolved into outright controlling behavior.

People who are old enough to have a partner cannot be "loved" into good behavior.

So, the goal of verbal self-defense with an abusive partner becomes one of self-empowerment, not change in the abusive partner's behavior.

Empower Yourself Instead of Trying to Cause Abuse

Try these tips to empower yourself:

  1. Decide what methods of defense make you feel most powerful.
  2. Practice using those methods of defense in your mind first. Run through a typical argument with your abuser in your imagination and see yourself reacting in your most powerful way.
  3. Use your methods the next time you pick up on a sign that your abuser is about to start some crap. Let's use our hard-won knowledge for good instead of evil!
  4. Adjust your method if it doesn't work as you envisioned. It is okay to fail at this before you find your sweet spot, but you won't succeed if you give up.

If this sounds a lot like setting personal boundaries, then you've been paying attention. You must protect yourself, no one else can do it for you. Click to read "Self Reliance – How to Stop Verbal Abuse (Part 4)" next.

I value your insights, so please leave your comments!

*Both women and men could be abusers or victims, so do not take my pronoun choices as an implication that one gender abuses and the other is victimized.

Tags: cause abuse

APA Reference
Jo, K. (2012, June 8). Why We Victims Say and Do Things That Cause Abuse, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 16 from

Author: Kellie Jo Holly

April, 4 2022 at 7:56 am

If you leave you cause the abuse because you let him know that he won and have the power to make you leave. If you stay you cause the abuse because you let him know that whatever he does you'll take it. If you talk back you cause the abuse because you give him a reaction. If you don't talk back you cause the abuse because you don't react when you're abused. If you defend yourself you cause the abuse because you are as abusive as your abuser. If you don't defend yourself you cause the abuse because you're a mop.
So whatever you do your abuser was right : it's all your fault. You call it on yourself. You ask for it. Maybe you're abusive yourself.
Or else... Maybe you can't cause anybody to abuse you, there's no right reaction to abuse, everything your abuser does is designed to make you powerless, every strategy is valid and all that matters is that you can make yourself safe.
Maybe this kind of discourse is just yet further abuse of the victim. Don't take it.

April, 27 2019 at 4:39 pm

You're [moderated] and absolutely wrong.

August, 18 2018 at 11:28 am

Just FYI there are more than two genders. Thank you for this lovely article

July, 31 2018 at 2:18 am

. . . disgusting writing a lot of what you wrote here. I can tell that you definitely have never been in an abusive romantic relationship. And you clearly do not possess the credentials or education which would deem you knowledgeable enough on the subject to make self experience with it necessary to know what . . . you're talking about. You contradict yourself so many times. You should be ashamed and take this down. This article . . . makes me sick. . . . You're lucky ANYONE can publish . . . on the internet, even if it's totally incorrect and can potentially hurt so many people . . . These gross beliefs of yours are probably engrained in your mind because of some unrelated factor that would turn everything in this article into a joke because that factor . . .
Moderator: this comment was edited for abusive language

July, 10 2014 at 3:26 pm

I have been in a relationship for a little over two years, I use the term relationship loosely. I have loved him from the beginning and I have only ever wanted to be with him. He has left me, my fault of course. My opinions are always wrong. I am wrong if I do what I want, if I ask to spend time with him, if I try to make a joke he doesn't like, if he wants sex and I say no I get convinced to anyway or hell just use my body while he touches himself because he "has to"... it took two years to see how he turned me into a scared quiet mouse. I was also self assures, I didn't take shit from anyone! Suddenly I realize (after we broke up for around the 15th time and when he wanted me back I said no for the first time he threatened suicide) I'm not the woman I used to be. I swear no more. Of course it came back... he finally told me how he loved me and wanted me for real for the long term. He never wanted that before. I found out all the lies and shit from the two years before. He wanted to go therapy so we could work well together. But I have been so afraid to have my own voice that now when I'm asked what I want, I don't have an answer... I am standing up for myself now, which h hates. And when he makes sure I know what part of the argument was my fault and I don't immediately agree and beg forgiveness he flips out. Last night we had another stupid fight. I wouldn't "admit" fault, because it wasn't mine. So he walks out the door, again. I followed him. I screamed. He got on his motorcycle and made the face I know means war and turned the bike at me. I shoved with both hands and knocked he and the bike over. Still screaming, crying, begging... today he tells me he has finally seen the truth. That he has been in an emotionally abusive relationship for two years and I'm the abuser. I feel sick. He tells me my anger is the problem, the physical violence has only ever been me (in the last month I have been forced to physically defend myself, not going to deny that) and that he's willing to give me a chance to admit I'm wrong and need to change because I've given him so many chances. But he's making so much improvement and I need to start on checking myself. I got online and looked around... I found this. I had no idea how bad its been... this is the story of us. I'm constantly blamed, he really believes I'm the one hurting him! How can he not realize what he does to me!? I don't even know where to go from here, but I have never told anyone but our therapist these things and I thought ranting an old post would help... worst thing? I hope he doesn't find this. He would still think I'm the one who is wrong...

November, 17 2012 at 5:36 pm

“Kellie, what were your motives when you did that?” Thank you for sharing this. It's something I need to keep asking myself a lot lately. Every now and then I find myself thinking I was the abusive one. There were times I would over dramatisize something or even fake being sick, just to get some sort of affection other than be given a hard time. It never worked of course. Even when the real situations of pain and sickness came, he would blame me for not doing something or think I was overacting.

October, 4 2012 at 9:43 am

I have often wondered how I can let someone so unnerve me that I can yell and cry in the same conversation. In any attempt at conversation with him deeper than vehicle recalls or movie releases, he'll talk over me, interrupt, insult me (“Come on, I’m just kidding, you have no sense of humor”) or tell me that I need to learn my place, then I'll either lower my eyes and cower, or just recently, push back. I may end up covering all of these 3 reactions during a single conversation.
I have wondered if I'm bringing this on myself, because when I've tried to get him to go with me to counseling or even talk to me, he'll yell "So it's all me, I need to change? Why don't you admit that you have problems." When I calmly (and in my opinion logically) reply that I know I have can be guarded and I'm trying to be less "filtered" with him and say what I think, and dress and look more like he wants me to (both recent specific request of his) he says, well yeah, those aren’t your only faults. I ask him what he thinks I need to work on (the pleading), and he’ll hedge. So I’ll push, then I’ll end up getting angry and say that I want a take-away so I know what I can do to help make this better. I caught myself just last night saying that I need to find a way to help him to see where I’m coming from. That was when I realized that only you are responsible for your own happiness, and that you can change, and change and bend until you’re ready to break, but if there’s no bending on the other side it won’t work.
I finally got him to go with me to marriage counseling after his porn addiction reared its head again (a problem he had before and throughout our 11 year marriage, despite my efforts to have sex at least 2 times a week to keep his needs satisfied), but I’m not sure if it will really help. At least I can say I tried everything to make this work. I really don’t want to divorce him, it would be hard on the kids and he’d probably end up telling them I was going to go to hell because of it. BUT, we have a 5 year old daughter and a 4 year old son. He yells at her, spanks her and calls her a brat if she doesn't listen to him, and tells our son he needs to stop acting like a baby if he cries because his sister took something. I don't know how to get through to him to see that he is hurting all of us. And honestly, I am scared to leave. I just can't think about what would happen. I know that financially, I'd be ok because I've always made way more than him, but I worry about how the kids would handle it and what he'd be like with them without me there to buffer.

June, 23 2012 at 5:27 pm

Yep, my husband loves to pull this one on me. How mistreated HE is. He even had me convinced for a while, that it WAS me, because I'd gotten enough, and decided I was the only one who would stand up for me. so when I set my boundaries and wouldn't let him cross them anymore, he suddenly started explaining to me that I've turned into a cold heartless bitch. and how could I treat HIM this way??? I am making headway though. I DID however figure out his relationship with his mother had almost everything to do with it. He had 11, yes I said 11, step-fathers. He watched his mother be abused, how she "played" all her husbands, and how my husband was always "her little prince". I even tried to make her an ally once....once. MISTAKE! she just told him everything I said. She underhandedly encouraged him to treat me like this every time I didn't mind HER!!! She made his life, his marriage and his children all about HER! He didn't understand it, until she passed away. Since then, his anger issues resolved and have almost NO problems anymore. Almost.

June, 9 2012 at 11:01 am

It does make sense, but now it just makes it easier for me to say 'see it was my fault'. If I didn't poke the beast, it may never have happened.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Kellie Holly
June, 9 2012 at 3:34 pm

When I was learning about the cycle of abuse, participating in my own abuse, etc., I got really down on myself. I started thinking that I was no better than my abuser because, on some level, I did the same things he did. My therapist asked me a question that sticks with me. "Kellie, what were your motives when you did that?" I started thinking about how I wanted to make things easier for him (by providing an anger release) or for my family (because there was an event coming up) and for myself (because the tension was so unbearable!). I sacrificed MYSELF each time. Every time I poked the beast, I sacrificed myself. No one else. Just me.
Taya, you know darn well that your partner has and will continue to explode whether or not you poke at him. If you do it or if you don't, he is going to abuse you. HE is going to abuse you. HE is responsible for the abuse.
If you anger a vicious snake on purpose, it will strike at you. If you frighten a vicious snake by accident, it will strike at you. The snake is just doing what a snake does, and an abuser is going to do what an abuser does. You can no better control the nature of a vicious snake than you can the character of your abuser.
You cannot take responsibility for your abusers actions. You aren't powerful enough to control another person. Your abuser isn't powerful enough to do that either (otherwise you wouldn't have read or had access to this post). The reason he abuses is because you are showing signs of being YOU. He wants to scare the YOU out of you because the more you are like him, the more secure he will feel. Unless you stop being YOU, he will continue to abuse.
I really don't know what else to say.

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