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 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:
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.
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.
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:
Physical violence occurs when your partner physically injures you in some way. Some examples of physical abuse include:
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:
Verbal and emotional abuse often overlap.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: