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A cycle of abuse is a four-part pattern that helps identify a pattern of abuse in relationships. The cycle continues because there is a power imbalance in a relationship, meaning that one person has a hold on the other.
The concept of abuse cycles began in the 1970s when psychologist Lenore Walker wrote “The Battered Woman.” The book itself detailed women who had experienced abuse and how it continued to occur. While the cycle of abuse is a good way to identify abuse in a relationship, it isn’t so cut-and-dry for everyone experiencing abuse.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men have experienced domestic violence from their partners at some point in their life. Roughly 43 million women and 38 million men have also experienced psychological aggression in intimate relationships.
Read on to find out more about the four stages of the cycle of abuse, what types of abuse there are, and what you can do to end the cycle.
The Four Stages
The cycle of abuse is split up into four stages to help people understand the common patterns of abuse that occur in relationships and why it can be so difficult for the person experiencing the abuse to leave their situation. The four stages of the cycle of abuse are:
During the tension stage, external stressors may begin to build within the abuser. External stressors could include financial problems, a bad day at work, or simply being tired. When an abusive partner feels tense because of outside factors, their frustration builds over time. They continue to grow angrier because they feel a loss of control.
The person who is the target of abuse tends to try and find ways to ease the tension to prevent an abusive episode from occurring. During this time, it is typical for the person at risk of being abused to feel anxious. They may also be overly alert or “walk on eggshells” around their partner in the hopes that they don't do anything to "set their partner off."
Eventually, the built up tension has to be released by the abuser to help them feel as though they have power and control again. They will then begin to engage in abusive behaviors such as:
- Hurling insults or calling their partner names
- Threatening to hurt their partner
- Trying to control how their partner acts, dresses, cooks, etc.
- Commits physical or sexual acts of violence against their partner
- Manipulating their partner emotionally, which can take on the form of targeting their insecurities or lying and denying any wrongdoing
The abuser may also shift the blame for their behavior onto their partner. For example, if your partner becomes physically violent, they may say that it was your fault because you made them mad.
The reconciliation period occurs when some time has passed after the incident and the tension begins to decrease. In many cases, the person who committed the abuse will try to make things right by offering gifts and being overly kind and loving. The reconciliation period is often referred to as a "honeymoon stage" because it mimics the beginning of a relationship when people are on their best behavior.
When the person who experienced the abuse is in this phase, the extra love and kindness from their partner triggers a reaction in their brain that releases feel-good and love hormones known as dopamine and oxytocin. This release of hormones makes them feel closer to their partner and as if things are back to normal.
During the calm stage, justifications or explanations are made to help both partners excuse the abuse. For example, an abusive partner might say they’re sorry but blame the abuse on outside factors such as their boss or work life to justify what they did.
The abuser may also deny that the abuse occurred or that it was as bad as it was. In some cases, the abuser may throw some accusations towards the person that was abused to try to convince them that it was their fault. However, in most cases, the abuser will show remorse and promise that the abuse won’t happen again by being more loving and understanding of your needs.
Because of their convincing nature, you may believe that the incident wasn’t as bad as you thought it was, which helps to further relieve the tension surrounding the incident. Ultimately, the abuser will convince you that the abusive behavior is a thing of the past even though it’s not.
Not All Abuse Happens In Cycles
While the model of the cycle of abuse has its merit, it isn’t the same for everyone. Experience with domestic abuse can vary from relationship to relationship. The cycle of abuse was formed to help explain battered woman syndrome, which is a term used to describe women who have been repeatedly abused by their partners. The cycle of abuse does not always take into account the way that people experience abuse from their partners.
Types of Abuse
Abuse can come in many forms in a relationship. Not all abusive partners will engage in all forms of abusive behavior, but each category counts as a type and form of abuse.
Emotional abuse, also known as mental mistreatment, is a form of abuse that abusers use to make their partners feel mentally or emotionally hurt or damaged. The intent of this abuse is to gain power and control by forcibly changing someone's emotional state.
Some common examples of emotional abuse include:
- Intimidation is an abuse tactic designed to make you fear your partner. Intimidation can come in the form of actions, gestures, or looks that evoke feelings of being scared of what your partner might do if you don't abide. They could also break things or take your stuff away from you.
- Coercion is a tactic used to take your power away to convince you to act in a way that best suits the abuser.
- Ridiculing or making fun of you
- Treating you like a child
- Isolating you from your friends or family
- Giving you the silent treatment
- Yelling or swearing at you
Physical violence occurs when your partner physically injures you in some way. Some examples of physical abuse include:
- Pushing or shoving
- Slapping or punching
- Physically restraining you
Is Sexual Abuse Physical Abuse?
Sexual abuse is another form of abuse that could fall into the physical category. It involves being forced into touching or having sexual intercourse with your partner when you don’t want to. It can also include being forced to take your clothes off or be photographed or videotaped without any clothes on.
Verbal abuse isn’t as straightforward as other forms of abuse but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. While verbal abuse can be hard to identify, there are various types to be aware of:
- Being blamed for your partners abusive behavior
- Being subject to mean or hurtful remarks that are meant to make you feel bad about yourself
- Gaslighting is an abuse tactic used to make you question your judgment or reality. An example of gaslight would be your partner telling you that they didn't do something that you know they did to the point where you begin to question whether or not your memory of the event is true.
- Being judged or looked down on for not meeting your partner’s unrealistic expectations
- Being called names that damage your self-esteem
- Being refused affection or attention
Verbal and emotional abuse often overlap.
Signs of Abuse
It can be difficult to determine if someone is being abused in their relationship unless you see it first-hand. However, there are some subtle signs that can indicate abuse is occurring that you may not have noticed unless you were aware of them. They can include:
- Visible injuries such as black eyes, bruises, rope marks, or welts
- Broken bones
- Untreated injuries that are healing at different stages
- Physical signs of restraint such as marks on the neck or wrists
- Sudden changes in behavior
- The abuser refusing to allow anyone to see their partner
- Emotional upset or agitation
- Feeling withdrawn from family or friends and avoiding conversations surrounding their emotional state
Are You Being Abused? Signs You May Not Notice
In some cases, people who are experiencing abuse, specifically emotional, aren’t aware that it’s happening. Some signs that you may be emotionally abused by your partner include:
- They gave you a mean or derogatory nickname and passed it off as endearing.
- Your partner uses accusatory and finite statements such as, "you never do this for me," or "you’re always late for everything."
- They call you names and try to act as if they’re joking.
- Your partner patronizes you by saying things such as, “aww, you tried, but you’re just not capable of this.”
- They are dismissive of your feelings or other important things. Body language can typically give this away, such as rolling their eyes at you or shaking their head.
- Your partner uses sarcasm to disguise insults.
- They often say things like, “you take everything so seriously,” to help square away their abuse as light teasing.
- Your partner makes subtle but rude comments about the way you look.
- They take credit for your accomplishments.
- Your partner puts you down for the things you like or your hobbies.
Ending the Cycle
It can be difficult to end the cycle of abuse, especially if your partner has convinced you that it is somehow your fault. That being said, overcoming the cycle can be done.
The first step in breaking the cycle is acknowledging that there is one. Oftentimes, you will see your partner’s abusive behaviors as one-offs instead of character faults. You will also know the honeymoon periods and conclude that they are their most authentic self during the good parts of the relationship.
While it can be difficult to change this thinking pattern, you have to recognize that those honeymoon periods are just an act to help the abuser gain control.
After that, you can seek help from a professional counselor or friends and family. They will help you see the cycle of abuse you are trapped in further. During this time, you may experience several more cycles of abuse with your partner. It’s important to remember that it is not your fault.
The cycle of abuse is a four-stage cycle used to describe the way abuse sometimes occurs in relationships. The stages—tension, incident, reconciliation, and calm—repeat themselves over and over again if the abuse follows this pattern. While it can be a good indicator of abuse in many relationships, it does not take into account the way all people experience abuse from their partners.
The best way to recover from the cycle of abuse is to know the warning signs. Sometimes it can be difficult to see that you’re being abused from the inside of the relationship. Seeking help can ensure that you identify the cycle and make the necessary steps to break it.
A Word From Verywell
Millions of men and women have been abused by their partners in their lifetimes, and abusers can be hard to spot before it's too late. If you are stuck in a cycle of abuse, the best thing you can do is seek out help.
There are many resources available on The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s website for both men and women to seek help. You don’t have to suffer in silence.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is it possible to break the cycle of abuse?
While it is difficult to break the cycle of abuse, it is entirely possible. You first have to recognize that the abuse is occurring and take stock of the fact that the moments of relief during the relationship are just that—moments. The entire picture of the relationship has to include the abusive incidents. Seeking out professional help can assist you in identifying and breaking the cycle.
- What is trauma bonding?
Trauma bonding is the term used to describe a special bond or connection made between an abuser and the person they abuse. They are common in relationships where cycles of abuse occur because the emotional attachment continues to be strengthened during every reconciliation period.
- What are common signs of abuse?
The most common warning signs of abuse are controlling behavior, isolating partners away from their friends or family, and being cruel to animals or children. Identifying abuse in others can be done by paying attention to their physical and emotional state. Some signs that indicate someone is being abused include:
- Bruises, black eyes, or red or purple marks on their neck
- Apprehension, anxiety, or agitation
- Not getting enough sleep or sleeping too much
- Participating in activities, they wouldn’t usually, such as drug use
- A meek or apologetic demeanor
- Low self-worth or self-esteem