The tactic of turning the tables can be devastating in the hands of an experienced abuser. But what is turning the tables? How can we protect ourselves against it? Check out our 3-minute guide, below.
The Collins Dictionary gives us a few definitions of turning the tables, including:
to cause a reversal of an existing situation, esp. with regard to gaining the upper hand over a competitor, rival, antagonist, etc.
Turning the tables is about flipping things around – the abuser worming themselves out of the “hot seat” and putting the focus on the victim.
What is turning the tables? It’s misdirection.
Imagine a scenario where a victim of abuse has reacted angrily to their mistreatment.
Sincere, good-hearted people really care about their behaviour. They want to know if they’ve done something wrong and feel guilty if they have. However many people can find it very easy to tip over into false guilt:
- Feeling a burden of guilt that is out of proportion with what you’ve done wrong
- Feeling guilty for something that’s not actually wrong, or that’s not your fault
- Continuing to carry a burden of guilt for something that has been forgiven and resolved
- Continuing to harbour guilt even though you have done everything reasonable to repair harm and apologise
An abusive person can tap into those guilty feelings with a strong or well-timed accusation. If they know their victim well, such as in a domestic situation, they might know just the right buttons to press to maximise and take advantage of those feelings. (As well as to provoke their victim in the first place!)
When they do, what happens for the victim? If the abusive person’s tactics have been effective, their victim will now be looking inward, focussing on their own behaviour, and perhaps lost in strong feelings of guilt or shame. “Discombobulated” might be an apt description of that state: “characterised by confusion and disorder”.1
He was discombobulated, utterly confused as to what had happened.2
The abuser has directed attention away from their behaviour.
Turning the tables is a powerful tool
Let’s not forget that a practised abuser may have spent decades honing their skills. So even in a scenario where the abuser is obviously and habitually angry, they might easily be able to misdirect the focus onto their victim’s reactions.
Of course, abusers can turn the tables regarding any type of behaviour. Their goal is to keep attention away from their bad behaviour by turning things around.
Putting the victim on the defensive
A common use of turning the tables is to accuse the victim of abuse to be the real perpetrator. An abuser might accuse their victim directly, or use this tactic with third parties. They can create havoc by playing this game with the legal system or with other power structures. Victims of domestic violence might suddenly find they have no contact with their children because the abuser has turned the tables on them in court. They might lose friends, or have to defend themselves to family members. False accusations can be used to devastating effect.
A victim of abuse might already be exhausted and overwhelmed dealing with the trauma they have suffered. Having the tables turned in this way can mean they have even less capacity to deal with the abuser’s behaviour. Meanwhile, everyone might be looking at the victim with accusing eyes, while the abuser might find support and encouragement.
So what can you do about it?
Keeping in mind that turning the tables is about misdirection, here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Ask, “Is the other person taking responsibility for their behaviour?”
- Get some space from the conversation, if possible
- Talk to trusted friends about what happened.
When abusers turn the tables in a legal setting – that’s a tough one, and it’s best to get legal advice. In Australia, you can check out this list of Legal Aid services in each state and territory.
How can I help others?
We have a longer guide here that offers a range of ways you can help friends in need. But a person who has had the tables turned on them might benefit from a calm, listening ear, and reassuring feedback like,
“You realise he has a shocking temper”
“I trust you”
“I never feel safe around her”
Your friend might be in turmoil if they’ve had the tables turned on them. You can make a huge difference just by offering a safe space, peace, and accurate data.