What You Need To Know About The Cycle Of Abuse

Photographed by Jens Ingvarsson
Often, when the conversation turns to domestic violence, you'll likely hear a reference to the "cycle of abuse" or "breaking the cycle of abuse." But what exactly does this mean? Is it important to know?

The answers to those questions can be complicated, so we decided to break it down in as simple of terms as possible.

Developed in 1979 by psychologist Lenore Walker, the cycle of abuse theory posits that violent relationships tend to follow a pattern. Walker believed that patterns of abuse follow three cycles:

1. The tension building phase, which is exactly what it sounds like. Tensions will build over domestic issues, which can be anything from money to household chores and children. During this phase, verbal arguments may begin and a survivor may try to control the situation by attempting to please or avoid the abuser.

2. The acute battering episode, which Walker defines as the incident of violence. As the tension peaks, it will result in an event of physical violence. It's usually triggered by some external factor or the abuser's emotional state, but not by anything the survivor has done — meaning, it's often unpredictable.

3. The honeymoon phase, during which the abuser may feel ashamed by his or her behavior and apologize. The abuser expresses remorse and may promise to never let it happen again. The abuser may also exhibit loving, kind behavior that strengthens the partners' bond and make it more difficult for the survivor to leave the relationship.

Walker theorized that this cycle happens repeatedly in an abusive relationship and could explain why those who suffer from an abusive relationship have a hard time leaving — the honeymoon phase often gives the survivor hope that the abuse will stop.

Tricia Bent-Goodley, PhD, director of the Howard University Social Work School and author of The Ultimate Betrayal: A Renewed Look at Intimate Partner Violence, tells Refinery29 that knowledge of the cycle of abuse can help survivors better understand the nature of abuse.

"I have used the cycle of abuse to help clients understand the nature of domestic violence," Dr. Bent-Goodley says. "I help them connect their lives to the cycle. Once they see this, I explain that this cycle has been developed based on the experiences of thousands of domestic violence survivors. Sometimes, this is the first time that the survivor recognizes the experience as domestic violence."

But on the other hand, the theory has also been criticized for being too simplistic — after all, not all violent relationships will operate the same way. As Cameka Crawford, chief communications officer at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, puts it, the cycle of abuse theory primarily focuses on physical aspects of abuse, as opposed to emotional aspects.

"Emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and financial abuse is just as devastating as physical abuse, and emotional scars may not always go away," Crawford tells Refinery29. Instead, Crawford recommends looking to the power and control wheel as a means of identifying abuse. The wheel is made up of a range of abusive tactics and takes into account psychological aspects of abuse, such as coercion, threats, and economic abuse.

Crawford also mentions that there are certain red flags to look for: "Is your partner putting you down? Controlling what you wear? Using social media to monitor your whereabouts and who you're with? Is your partner constantly checking you? And is there this threat that something’s gonna happen if you’re not immediately responsive?"

These are all questions that can indicate early signs of abusive behavior.

If you think you may be in an abusive relationship, Crawford recommends reading up on exactly what that means — on a safe, public computer that can't be monitored by your partner.

"If you’re not ready to reach out [to the National Domestic Violence Hotline] or leave just yet, we have articles on how you can start to plan for your safety," she says.

Dr. Bent-Goodley adds that leaving the relationship can be dangerous for many survivors. "The most dangerous time for a woman is when she separates from the perpetrator and leaves the relationship," she says. "Please reach out and do not go it alone."

And if you're concerned that a loved one is in an abusive relationship, the best way to help is to listen without judgement, Crawford says. Of course, no one wants to see someone they love suffer, so it's natural to want to step in and take action.

However, Crawford says, "You should be patient. On average, it takes someone seven times before they finally leave an abusive relationship. So they might not be making decisions in a way that you think they should be making decisions, but try to be patient and supportive, because there are a lot of factors happening in a relationship that you might not be aware of."

The bottom line is, while the cycle of abuse could be a useful tool in helping to identify an abusive relationship, it can be limited by its focus on the physical aspects of abuse. Remember that emotional abuse is still abuse. If you think you might be in an abusive relationship, try to reach out for help in the safest way you can.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 for confidential support.
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