Can a Retaliatory Response to Verbal Abuse Make You Abusive?

July 15, 2012 Kellie Jo Holly

An abusive response to verbal abuse does not help stop abuse. Find out why retaliating against domestic abuse causes more problems than it's worth. Read this.


Your response to verbal abuse can, technically, make you abusive -- at least in that moment. And I'm willing to bet that most anyone who has been on the receiving end of long-term verbal abuse tries to fight fire with fire at some point. It's almost impossible to not retaliate against verbal abuse with more abuse initially, in the time before you understand that you're in an abusive relationship and before you learn better ways to respond to verbal abuse. In my case, my abusive response to verbal abuse turned me into someone I didn't like at all.

In reality, responding to verbal abuse with more verbal abuse creates only escalation of the situation in the short-term, a shorter cycle of abuse in the long-term, and the horrific feeling that you may be an abuser too. Or worse, realizing that you are abusive in other relationships, too. The brief feeling of victory that comes from seeing your words wound your abuser isn't worth becoming a monster that you aren't.

Why an Abusive Response to Verbal Abuse Does Not Stop It

I've discussed the abusive person's desire to win at all costs before, so I'll simply remind you of it today (here and here are two examples). "The Win" your abuser seeks takes precedence over your feelings, any kind of logic, how stupid the abuser's argument actually is, or what means the abuser may need to take to get that win. You won't talk them out of it no matter how ridiculous or hypocritical their actions and words are.

The abuser sees your retaliation against the abuse as an attack against him- or herself. Retaliating escalates the event for the abuser. The abuser isn't about to let you win.

Once the abuser invests themselves in winning, you may as well walk away. Or better yet, walk to town and do something enjoyable because you're not going to find joy at your place.

Overt Retaliation Against Domestic Abuse

Retaliation from a domestic abuse victim can take the form of physical violence, manipulation, lying, or any other type of abuse - verbal, mental, or emotional.

Woah! Isn't that flat out abuse? Are you saying that abuse victims are abusers?

No, not exactly. Self-defense is never the same as initiating abuse. The motives behind self-defense of this type originate from a feeling that we must somehow protect ourselves. And since nastiness seems to be the only form of communication an abuser understands, we sometimes resort to the same type of nastiness in the hope of getting the abuser to retreat.

But retaliating against abuse in these ways winds up hurting the victim more. Retaliating with abuse, fighting fire with fire, is why victims

  • continue their responsibility in the abusive cycle and
  • contribute to their own abuse and
  • end up feeling so much guilt over abusing their abuser that they end up denying that they are abused and
  • make up excuses for their abuser's behavior to friends and family and
  • cannot find the strength to leave because strength is squashed under all the shame over their own behavior and
  • why there are a hundred other complicated reasons that help to explain "Why do they stay?!"

It's important to note that these reasons do not erase the others (abject fear, morals, religious beliefs, finances, etc.)! But these reasons may contribute to the unwillingness to leave the relationship.

Covert Retaliatory Response Verbal Abuse

Secretly retaliating against verbal abuse may have helped me feel better in the moment, but resulted in either (you guessed it) more abuse or feelings of inadequacy that contributed to my belief I couldn't make it alone if I were to leave.

Covert retaliation is different for every victim, and how we do it depends on what beliefs our abuser wants to impose upon us. For example, my covert retaliation included

  • not cleaning the house,
  • spending money without telling him,
  • talking to myself about what an ass he was and how dumb I was for not being able to make him see the light,
  • drooling into his Jack and Coke,
  • not being at home to greet him after work,
  • not fixing his lunch,
  • bleaching his toothbrush without rinsing it after,
  • talking badly about him when our kids could have heard while on the phone with my sister,
  • taking advantage of the fact that he constantly eavesdropped on my conversations by saying things that I knew would irritate him, and
  • this is only a partial list.

When I look over that list, I see how I hurt myself too. I lived in a messy house, didn't have financial peace, filled my head with self-minimizing thoughts, hurt my children, added to my guilt over having such a horrid relationship because I knew I was acting ugly too, lost my peace of mind and . . .. It wasn't worth it.

Well, if I had another chance to drool in his liquor, I'd probably do that.

The point is retaliation doesn't work as a response to verbal abuse. Retaliation hurts the victim more than it ever hurts the abuser because in the end the abuser will make sure they WIN.

APA Reference
Jo, K. (2012, July 15). Can a Retaliatory Response to Verbal Abuse Make You Abusive?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 21 from

Author: Kellie Jo Holly

September, 17 2018 at 4:09 am

Why abuse and retaliation is being mixed up, it's not healthy (so literally any being on this planet is an abuser). It is time to differentiate abuse from retaliation! If you feel the need to insult/or to be politically incorrect or shout at someone who has/is abusing you (treating you bad) is right, not wrong, shifting blame or blowing something out of proportion to validate giving abuse it's abuse itself. Now, there are also couples who abuse each other, maybe one is more guilty than the other one.

July, 12 2018 at 3:22 pm

I fear I am in a long term abusive relationship. But, I think I make it worse by trying to stand up for myself bc it just escalates things. I always think about leaving but I am terrified of not always having my son. I stay so I can be with my son all the time. But lately he has heard these fights. It’s hurting him. I worry I’m hurting him more staying. But I’m also fearful of loosing him or letting him be with my SO alone. I don’t know what to do.

May, 13 2022 at 5:03 am

If you haven't left him yet, than do it now. Also studies show that even if the baby is asleep and can't hear the arguments; it'll still feel them and make their cortisol and stress go way up. Plus you both deserve better.

May, 22 2018 at 4:44 pm

I was in a long-term relationship years ago that I've never really been able to let go of due to the circumstances and I sometimes am hard on and blame myself a bit to this day. Basically I was told I was abusive because I did not support her hobbies. I never told her she couldn't perform her hobbies but I did ask if she could scale them back a bit since the relationship suffered because so much time was dedicated to said hobbies for which I did not want to participate in (No interest in the slightest). I think it is healthy in a relationship to have your own independent hobbies without having to involve the other (We have friends we meet that do that hobby with us for this). Anyways she would lie about and hide things from me to get her way and claim my lack of support was the reason she hid them from me. I would actually call the hobby more of an unhealthy obsession at times than a hobby ultimately.... Anyways early in the relationship I recognized it but was foolish to not walk away when I realized priorities were hobbies first and relationship last. My mother also concluded she was selfish in nature by how she prioritized her needs over everyone elses (Not just my needs) and she did not really care for her much going as far as to label her a sociopath; another warning sign I ignored (Listen to your family!). Anyways, after enduring over nine years (She never wanted to get married since it was just a piece of paper to her so she claimed) and trying to make things work I eventually discovered that she had been interacting with another man whom she had never mentioned to me (I told her early in the relationship it was ok to have guys that were friends but to keep me in the loop since I can be a jealous person by nature and that I would not accept cheating for any reason ever... having been the victim to it in the past). I would never tell someone I was dating that they couldn't have guy friends or anything like that... but when I confronted her about it (Surprise!) she mentioned she didn't know she could "feel" (Whatever that means desire maybe? Attraction? Not sure) the way she did around this guy. Then later she amended it to him being "just a friend" and denying any alternative type of connection. I asked we go to counceling and she refused. She basically just told me she didn't love me anymore. She became cold and ignored me after these confrontations. I became quite angry when she wasn't even willing to make an effort to save our friendship or relationship (Of 9+ years) and I guess I said some abusive things that (I sort of regret but mostly not now...). I feel like the abuse was directed at me first by engaging in this "hidden friendship" and making zero effort to fix either the friendship nor the relationship or accept an outsider (councelors advice). The relationship was over when I found out about her "friend" ultimately since that will always be a huge deal breaker for me..... but I gave her chance after chance to fix it and she made zero effort. She flipped my confronting her on the situation as abuse towards her. Which seemed a convenient scapegoat to justifying her behavior (or complete lack of effort) to herself.
In the end I decided the best option was to keep her away from me forever and I said some pretty bad things on purpose to fulfill that objective. It worked thankfully. It has been years now. It hurts to this day and it even effects me still to the point I can't trust others, especially women (Although I did meet someone new who is far better a person but these prior experiences effect my ability to trust anyone fully again)... but I know to this day that the person I loved then is not actually the person she was. It was the person I thought she was. Sometimes we get caught up in an "idea" of a relationship or friendship and build expectations of the person we are with to be just as loyal or morally strong as ourselves and it just isn't a possible outcome. I'm very picky with who my friends are and I certainly have high expectations at times. I realize not everyone can meet those but after 9 years it was simply not acceptable. A friend of mine once told me that you should marry the person that loves and cares about you more than you think you love them yourself. It sounded a little crazy to me at the time and messed up, but I think I have now met that person and it actually makes sense. If someone loves you and cares about you they will treat you with respect. They will make the efforts to keep you in their life. This doesn't mean trying to control them or alter their well being... but it does mean making the compromises needed to be considerate of the other persons needs. Even though this doesn't change the damage that was already done from the past or how it effects my trust in others.... I want to claim some regrets.... she was important to me.... but at the end of the day I ultimately don't regret ending things harshly and completely isolating myself from her. They say burning bridges is a bad idea but sometimes I feel like it is something you have to do in order to protect yourself from those that are detrimental to your mental health and well being. I like to think I know what to look for now and that I might walk away from a bad situation like this again. In the end; I was mentally abused, I returned the favor and in my case I wouldn't have done it any differently even if I could.

April, 8 2018 at 11:35 pm

Kelly this is the second article you’ve helped me with tonight. Your story is so needed. Thank you so much. Thank you!!!

Taryn Thompson
January, 22 2018 at 1:49 pm

I have suffered emotional, physical and mental abuse from my family to severe extremes. However, I find my peace in Jesus' name. I know that their attitude has earned them a place in hell and that in heaven, I will be finally free of their abuse. And I look forward to judgement day, everyday. The abuser is the ultimate victim, unable to save their pathetic coul from hell, unable to live without hurting others, unable to function in the world as a human being, they are to be pitied as much as they are to be hated

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

January, 25 2018 at 9:36 pm

Taryn, I'm so sorry for your situation. I hope you're able to find comfort and hope in some of the articles we have to offer here on HealthyPlace. Thanks for reaching out Taryn, take care. -Emily

Nancy Howard
September, 20 2017 at 11:31 am

I was physically, sexually and emotionally abused by my now ex husband. He alienated me from my family and friends and at first, I couldn't work. Then I could only work where he knew the manager and he would keep an eye on me. I got away from him one weekend when he was arrested for a DUI. While he was in jail, I left. Best thing I could've ever done.

December, 6 2015 at 4:12 pm

I ve suffered from past physical and threatening abuse by my brother. till today, due to my revengeful attitude to relatiate, it never does help me. i really do believe the only way to stop that cycle of karmic reinforcement (as like flashes or voices reapprearing or replay in my mind again and again), ive to forgive and be kinder with that abuse. Like it said, fire can never kill a fire, only love (water) can clear a fire. I do believe in my spiritual comprehension, that abuse not just a test by a way my karma or sin is cleared. So, by accepting it, and be kinder by forgiving that abuser or that action, then that karmic cycle will end and peace shall prevail.

September, 6 2015 at 10:29 am

my ex followed me for 3 weeks before asking me out and i felt so intimidated by his behaviour that i said yes and during the relationship he kept callin me a freak and that i was living in a fantasy world for wanting to invite my friends and family to his flat he told me i werent allowed to speak in public and used to drag my harm with some force ive been left with some continuous pain. i asked him to take me off his claim and he refused so i passed my phone to him and he now is getting me done for assault. Am i the abuser or the abused?

September, 11 2014 at 12:19 pm

Previously I was in an 11 year abusive relationship and myself and children fled finally to a shelter for 3 and a half months for the abused...I have been out of that relationship for 4 years...However, I ended up in another unhealthy situation ( mind you I did not this young man had a bad temper at times until he began staying with me more often) He destroyed his mothers house when he was angered ( she was abusive to him as a child and teen)He was actually charged at one point for head butting her because she yelled at him for some time,while as he was waking up....Most of the time I have known him he is pretty easy going, however, he has in recent months broke my nose, shoved me name calls, fractured my elbow, tried to strangle me and turns around and blames me for these fights because I started to fight back, due to him not leaving my home when asked...I dont know very lost....

abused wife and mother of two
July, 26 2014 at 11:55 am

Hi! I've been married 4 and half years and have two beautiful children. My husband is verbally very abusive. It started with small things but its getting worse and worse. I want to get out but the only thing holding me back are my children. For the first few years of marriage I tried to 'make things work' by accepting all his demands and orders. But recently, things got completely out of hand and I finally realised that I am in an abusive relationship. Here are a few things I learnt along the way:
1. Never give him control over your life. You have the right to live and be happy, do the activities that you enjoy, and socialise with other people.
2. Never let him isolate you from your loved ones - your family and friends
3. Do not loose your confidence and self-esteem
4. Most importantly, do not try to justify his/her behaviour by blaming yourself. My husband keeps insisting that the abusive is my fault because for example - once upon a time 4 years ago I asked him to do the dishes!!
5. Do not try to change him/her by being nice - it just does not work. He/she will only take it as a signal of weakness or that the abuse is acceptable.
Recently, I have started retaliating, I guess because the love and respect for each other is completely gone. He has always had an 'I don't give a damn' attitude and now I feel the same way too. I can't say that this has improved anything, but it certainly has given him the message that his behaviour has a negative impact (even on him!).

July, 15 2014 at 7:01 am

read the article not all the comments:
retaliation, as i have read in some articles. tends to end up being used against the abusee, as the abuser uses that as evidence that the roles are reversed. and depending on the genders and the structure, may make it harder to prove abuse because of stigmas and sterotypes.
i read somewhere taht its possible that many abusive relations have abuse running in both directions. and that much is required to heal and restructe the actions of both, though usually only one side is willing to make the effort to improve relations and or patterened behavior.
its an interesting thing the study of relationship then add the abuse complex to it and it become "intriguing" the interplay and how roles are formed and behaviour occurs. the psycholigy and strucutre that happens.
both parties and sort of entered in to an aggrement to play the roles. and either could change or "leave" the roles but continue for whatever reason to stay and play their part for what ever reason; fear, lack of knowledge, refusal to chagne, et. al>
the best as always is willingness to change , and outside party to give professional advice and refelextion.

Richard Sontchi
April, 11 2014 at 12:38 pm

I have been in an emotionally abusive relationship for 8 years. Started out great. She was just what I thought I needed. She was a sexual dynamo. The red flags started quickly. She would call me incessintly when ever I was out. Demanding that I return to her work to bring her food. She would lie about anything. She bacame pregnant and then it escilated when ever we would have arguments and I would try to walk out just to bring the emotion down, she would back me into closets, through my car keys in the trash, or would just start crying and screaming at me that I didnt love her and was abandoning her. I wouldnt leave. This escilated and she would hit me or stop me from leaving a room saying that she could hit me because I was much stronger than her. This continued for a long time until I retaliated and now I cannot see my children she is being heralded as a victim and noone is seeing her pathology. I really hope those that are being emotionally abused out there especially men get out of thier relationships before they get victimized one more time. Do not continue to be victimized. Now my children are being kept from me, I may loose my career, and she will go on abusing my children and ruin them too. I am powerless. this is the worst feeling in the world. If I werent soo weak then this would have never happened.

March, 8 2014 at 11:36 am

The best thing you can do is go seek help and not blame yourself I am getting out of a relationship that was physically verbally and emotional abusive I tried the treat others as you wanted to be treated and it didn't work the person made me feel like I was the crazy one gaslighting at its finest

Sherry D
March, 7 2014 at 5:55 am

Help! We have longtime friends who have separated and I have been supporting the wife, my husband the husband. I have up to a point backed her because he got so angry he backed her to a wall with a fist and slammed a fridge door on her. BUT, she is a control freak and emotionally abusive. She yells at him and controls the finances, he is never good enough! I tried to encourage her to see things one day and she said, "He knew I was strong-willed when he married me!" He has loved her so much for 10 years, but now I'm wondering if we should even encourage reconciliation if she refuses to see her part that led up to his finally "acting out". PLEASE ADVISE or tell us where to get advice. Thank you!

February, 3 2014 at 10:18 pm

I was in a mentally abusive relationship and was "so in love" that I convinced myself that he would change. I wanted him to want me enough to fight for me but instead I just got more and more hurt. So hurt that I snapped and retaliated ... I was secretly nasty and unkind to him by exposing his harmful ways to his family. It ended up backfiring though because I feel so guilty and ashamed and miserable that I let my wounds turn me into someone I am not. Plus, he found out what I did and immediately severed all ties with me calling me a sick and cruel person but never once acknowledging or apologizing for how he abused and treated me. He made me feel like it is all my fault that our relationship is over and so I am suffering over that now. Does anyone have any suggestions on how I can move forward and start to feel better?

January, 10 2014 at 5:35 am

Living with an abuser for 14 years, didn't know what it was until few years back. Now, when I start to defend myself, the abuser turns the plate over to me and says he has been abused. He started to bang this on me until the exhausted me has to accept it. I had to shut up to SHUT him up. Manipulations, lies, denial, abuse and harassment - what not !I am tired, angry, suppressed and want to leave. He does not want me to leave or wants to tag along as if I am his tail or something. God! Help me!

May, 27 2013 at 3:15 pm

I am also in a verbally abusive relationship.... Nothing I do is right I'm too heavy because I'm too lazy...I'm upset all the time...

Confused Woman
May, 3 2013 at 6:11 pm

I never thought I was in an abusive relationship until I got out of it my abuser is in jail currently. His hearing is Tuesday and I am a nervous wreck and I don't know what to do. I told the state attorney that I would do a plea bargain being nice I said two years probation and anger management and no contact ever is all I want. But now that I think about it what's going to happen after he gets out I know he's going to want retaliation because I ruined his life. I didn't have the heart to tell the attorney that I want him in jail because I'm not even sure if I do I just want him to leave me alone and move on. Is just not in my heart to wish bad on anyone regardless of their mistakes

April, 30 2013 at 11:26 am

hello kellie,
im 18 now but I also have been abused, after being hit and put at gunpoint I didn't and still don't trust anyone. ive never told my parents nor my sister. only a few friends. it all happened my freshman year of high school. once I got out of the relationship things got better but im still just scared when people even pretend to play around with me.. you know? it just brings back old memories. anyways im doing a college paper on is it should be okay for woman or men to retaliate from being abused. im on the fence about it though. in one way I wanted to hit him back or say the things that he said to me but in another way I knew if I did it might hurt me even more. maybe im just looking for someone elses opinion.. well you have given one but maybe your opinion on my story?

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Kellie Holly
May, 7 2013 at 5:29 am

Any person who is being physically hurt by another person has the right to protect themselves. Each incidence of physical assault is different, so your reaction to the assault will vary. Sometimes it is better to come out swinging and sometimes it's better to play dead - only you will know what to do at the time. In my opinion, it is never okay to exact physical revenge for a physical assault - "revenge" occurs after the incident is over and the victim feels angry and hurt and wants to make the attacker feel their pain. Self-defense is needed and good; revenge is not good and can result in criminal charges.
You made the decision you needed to make when the assault occurred. You are here, you are alive, so your decision was the best one possible in the circumstances.

February, 27 2013 at 2:21 am

This is true. I read amn article just before this actually, and it recommended mirroring your abusers behaviour! Initially it seemed ok, but it went on to advise that if he starts yelling and threatening, and even being physical then do the same as him, until he backs down!
It made me think that this woman had never been in an abusive relationship before because not onlt does it make you feel worse (as you pointed out) but it's downright dangerous when you're dealing with someone who wants that control...and won't stop until he gets it...even if you end up physically injured or...dead.
My counsellor advised me to never arc up against him because even though I have the right to be heard, it's just not safe. It also in some cases makes the abuser be more easily able to 'justify' hurting you.
In the media with the Chris Brown and Rhianna thing, I have heard so many people say 'but she hit him also...there were nail marks on his skin'...

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

May, 31 2018 at 6:07 pm

You dont know what happened with rihanna.. She could have been the abusive one and finally pushed him so far he couldnt take it. Thats how my situation went.

linda brock
November, 28 2012 at 2:52 pm

i feel now that this marriage is so hopless it makes me sad and i know it not right to get even or get down to that level to abuse back i think i would if i knew how i know i would all along i thought he didnt know what he is doing ive read this all night they really are doing this to hurt me are u sure they just arent crazy why would any one purposely hurt me ive had such a hard way to go not fair now id love to hurt back but i know i wont sometimes im such a coward

another wife who was abused
July, 22 2012 at 10:00 pm

thanks kellie. i just want ' a wife who was abused to know' that this situation is very familiar and i feel we are running parallel lives right now. its tough to let go of that dream- because we marry with hope and a sense of looking forward to life . emotional abuse plays tricks with your mind and taking action can sometimes take longer than we are aware of. after months of being away from my abusive husband , i was finally able to tell him that our journey was over. i knew inside it had to be over but it took me longer to be able to tell him so. acceptance comes in stages. i know i have tried. love isn't in your spirit being controlled.

another wife who was abused
July, 22 2012 at 10:31 am

hi 'wife who is abused'. i know that deciding divorce is probably the toughest thing decision. seems so much bigger than the decision to get married. do you think you can put up with that attitude of his for the rest of your life? this conservative indian society is changing. both roads are not easy- to be with him or to be alone. its up to you to decide which kind of life will be more worth living . to be on your own feet sail your own boat or to stay in an abusive marriage.

A wife who is abused
July, 22 2012 at 8:11 am

Hi Kelly,
I live in India and had married another Indian guy in US. I stayed with him for 6 months and have come back to India on the pretext of a family wedding six months ago. His attitude has worsened after I got back. I am not able to take the decision of divorce as yet. My family insisted he come down to India for a discussion, before I go back. He hasn't been ready for any of that. I am someone who just cant decide to divorce. (Its a taboo in the conservative Indian society I stay). I am willing to patch up, but there are no steps from his end. I thought of showing up at his place, but there are risks here. Not only about the abuse from him but I also fear retaliation from my end. Please guide as to how can I try to make this work.
Thanks so much

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Kellie Holly
July, 22 2012 at 6:10 pm

The only way to make the marriage work is to accept that he is abusive and protect yourself against emotional (and future physical harm) as best you can. He's not going to take any steps toward you, and if he does they will be temporary. I like what "another wife who was abused" said to you - "It's up to you to decide which kind of life will be more worth living." I really can't add anything to that.
There are some things you can do to protect your spirit while with him, but it is almost impossible to be completely well and free when you live with an abusive person.

Kellie Holly
July, 21 2012 at 8:06 pm

Fred, if your counselor does some role playing with you, that will be great practice. Perhaps part of your counseling is learning to recognize your emotions when they bubble up inside.
If role playing isn't your thing, then you can imagine a scene in your mind between you and your wife. When you imagine the scene with your wife, you don't have to get the words or situation perfect - call up those emotions, feel them, then see yourself responding to her with a boundary, and you'll do fine when you actually put your skills to the test.

July, 20 2012 at 7:31 pm

I did start counseling and have been twice so far. We are working on boundaries and standing up to her. I'm also reading "You Can't Say That to Me" by Suzette Haden Elgin. My counselor also recommended "Your Perfect Right" by Alberti and Emmons which I'm going to read next.
I haven't really had the chance to try some of this stuff out yet :). I must admit I am a little nervous about it, but we'll see what happens.
Thanks for the support Kellie.

Kellie Holly
July, 20 2012 at 4:46 am

Fred - This is excellent. You set a boundary. Did you know that? Now all you must do is enforce it. If (dare I say "when") the insults begin again, go to counseling.
No more threats to do it, just do it. Actually, since she's still abusing you but pretending its a joke, you COULD (dare I suggest "should") begin counseling now.
That step hurts no one and helps you.
After you're in counseling, you will learn how to cope with the abuse better AND you'll have a neutral source to talk to should you decide to reconsider leaving.
Good for you, Fred. Keep up the great work! You feel good, don't you?

July, 19 2012 at 6:58 pm

I know this won't work for everyone, but about a month ago I retaliated by telling my wife that I was at my wits end. I couldn't handle the name calling/insults/jokes/bossing around/greeting me not nicely etc. I told her I had 3 options. 1. We work together which I knew was out because she has refused to go to counseling at least a half a dozen times. 2. I go to counseling and figure out how to cope. 3. I got to counseling and then leave.
She got very upset and cried etc. Since then the name calling and insults have almost gone away completely. She gets a jab in with a joke or something occasionally.
So far it seems to be working. But I'm not letting my guard down. And hopefully if it does start back up I can handle it. Option 3 is still on the table.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

October, 20 2018 at 12:04 am

I think that's great. You basically said, "I no longer wish to be in an abusive relationship."

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