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Is Mutual Abuse Real?

It’s a term often used as a manipulation tactic—true mutual abuse is rare

  • June 15, 2015
  • By domesticshelters.org
Is Mutual Abuse Real?

The definition of “mutual abuse” is exactly what you think it is—when two partners are mutually abusive toward each other. Survivors who have ever acted in self-defense may have wondered if they are in a mutually abusive relationship, or they may have been made to feel that way by their partner, family and friends, or law enforcement. But the truth is, true mutual abuse is extremely rare—many experts don’t even believe it exists. And perpetuating the myth of mutual abuse is at best irresponsible and at worst dangerous.

To say partners are mutually abusive or equal in abuse puts undue blame on the survivor. When a survivor hears that he or she is mutually abusive, what’s heard is that he or she is to blame, and that reinforces what the batterer has been saying all along—that the abuse is the survivor’s fault. The myth of mutual abuse also reinforces the behavior of the batterer—that his or her actions were justified.

Acting in self-defense is sometimes mistaken for mutual abuse by outsiders, including law enforcement who have to act on limited information and are under mandatory arrest laws.

“It can be hard for [law enforcement] to sort out the chain of events,” says Sherry Hamby, Ph.D., editor of Psychology of Violence, the scientific journal of the American Psychological Association. “What sometimes ends up happening is that they might arrest both parties even though one party was acting entirely in self-defense. This unfortunately makes some victims hesitant to call the police.”

As awareness of domestic violence continues to grow, the myth of mutual abuse hopefully will be perpetuated less and less.

“As it stands now, if someone reports ‘I hit my partner 20 times’ and the other said ‘I hit him once,’ it is likely to get reported as mutual violence even though it’s still very one-sided,” Hamby says. But in true domestic violence situations, there is always a primary aggressor—someone who controls the relationship, makes the most serious threats and causes the most injury.

“Fortunately, there are some new measures of domestic violence that are coming out that will better reflect actual violence rates,” she says. New measures are being designed that apply weight to each act of violence. In other words, the number of instances of violence and the severity of acts will be weighted so it will be easier to determine who the aggressor is in a relationship.