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Is there such a thing as mutual abuse?

Domestic violence is distressingly common. It can affect people of all genders, races, ages, nationalities and ethnicities. Often, the abuser is an intimate partner but there have also been instances of siblings, parents and grown children becoming abusers.

While it can be easy to determine whether the relationship is unhealthy, it can be more challenging to determine who is the abuser. This may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes either or both parties make a claim of mutual abuse. However, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, mutual abuse does not and cannot exist.

How can mutual abuse not exist if both parties are violent?

In a relationship that is unhealthy, both parties may engage in violent behavior. However mutual violence is not the same thing as mutual abuse. There are circumstances in which the law justifies violence, such as when an individual engages in self-defense.

Abuse occurs when one party in the relationship exerts control and power over another so that an imbalance exists. Therefore, mutual abuse cannot occur unless the balance of power in a relationship is constantly shifting from one party to another, which rarely, if ever, happens.

Why does the myth of mutual abuse persist?

A claim of mutual abuse may be a tool that an abuser uses to continue to exert control over the other party. The abuser maintains power by shifting at least some of the blame to the victim, who comes to believe that he or she deserved the treatment received at the hands of the abuser.

Unfortunately, there is often a gendered component to domestic violence claims. Despite all evidence to the contrary, conventional wisdom still holds that men are always abusers and women always on the receiving end of domestic violence. A claim of mutual abuse may be a way to excuse a woman’s behavior while holding a man responsible even if the facts of the case do not bear out that narrative.

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