The cycle of abuse is a very common phenomenon, especially in intimate relationships and family structures. It is associated with an abusive pattern where one of the partners is consistently causing harm to the other partner. When we talk about abuse, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to only the physical form. There are various types of abuse that can be very dangerous to an individual, including sexual abuse, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, financial abuse, etc. The harmful behavior might be caused by both men and women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men have experienced abuse or 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. Therefor it is very important to talk about abuse dynamics, discuss the reasons for its occurrence and be able to recognize it and escape from it.
The cycle of abuse is discovered by Leonore Walker in the 1970’s. Leonore Walker is an American clinical psychologist who was working closely with abuse victims. After observing and analyzing various case studies of abuse victims, Walker noticed that in almost every case of relationship abuse a 4-step cycle can be identified. Тhe stages are as follows :
Tension -> Incident -> Reconciliation -> Honeymoon Stage.
The cycle begins with the tension stage. It occurs when external stressors start bothering the abuser. Those could include financial difficulties, work-related problems, overall fatigue and so on. The abuser feels a loss of control that grows stronger over time, as the frustration from the external problems escalates. The abusive partner starts showing obvious signs of aggression in their behavior. Meanwhile the other partner feels the tension building and starts feeling anxious. They start walking on eggshells, trying to please their partner any way they can in order to avoid a potential incident.
Despite all of the victims’ efforts, they can’t stop the abuser from releasing their built up anger. The abusive partner has the need to regain their sense of power and control again and so this leads to the second stage of the cycle – the incident stage. This stage doesn’t limit itself to one simple incident – it might include various incidents over a period of time. Also, the type of abuse behind the incident might vary: It might be a physical or a sexual type of incident, including physical damage, throwing or breaking things around the house, making threats about causing harm, engaging into unwanted or abusive sexual activities. The abuse might also be verbal – the violent partner might start calling names, offending their partner, constantly making rude or inappropriate remarks, making hurtful jokes or comments, aimed at lowering their partner’s self-esteem. Emotional manipulation is also a very common tool used for gaining sense of power and control. During the incident stage, a lot of emotional tactics might be used, including “the silent treatment”, guilt-tripping, gaslighting, lying, using isolation, etc. The abuser would usually shift the blame to the victim, claiming the incident happened because they made them upset or were “asking for it”.
After some time from the occurrence of the incident passes and the tension begins to decrease, the reconciliation phase takes place. In many cases, the person who committed the abuse will try to make things right by being overly kind and loving. It mimics the beginning of a relationship when people are on their best behavior. They might show strong affection, be overly loving and caring, come up as supportive and understanding of their partner’s needs.
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 hormones known as dopamine and oxytocin. Because of the release of happy hormones, some victims might claim they feel even more connected to their partner after the incident, portraying the abuse as an obstacle they overcame together as a couple.
The honeymoon stage, also known as the calm stage is the last one of the cycle. It is characterized by justifications and explanations made from both partners. Those explanations usually serve as an excuse for the incident. The abusive partner will most likely excuse their behavior and blame it on the initial external factors that made him feel out of control. They will show strong affection and promise such accidents won’t happen again. Because of their convincing nature, the victim may believe that the incident wasn’t as bad as it seemed, which helps to further relieve the tension. Ultimately, the abuser will convince the victim that the abusive behavior is a thing of the past even though it’s not. When the relationship is lasting longer and the cycle keeps repeating itself, often times the honeymoon phase lasts very shortly or disappears from the cycle completely and the reconciliation stage is directly followed by another tension stage.
Because of the frequent manipulation tactics used by abusers, the cycle is sometimes very difficult to be recognized and admitted to. Here are some signs that indicate you might be a victim in such a cycle:
- Your partner is overly involved in your affairs and trying to turn you against or isolate you from your friends and family. They try to control the way you dress, the places you go to, they try to access your phone or invade your personal space
- Your partner is showing signs of aggression in a physical, verbal or emotional way towards you
- They are taking no responsibility or feedback on their actions
- They are being cruel to any type of vulnerability you are showing
- Your partner is threatening you in a physical verbal or an emotional way
If you find yourself in such an abusive cycle, you have to immediately take steps in order to break out of it and prevent it from happening in the future. Here are some important steps you have to take:
- Acknowledge the abuse for what it is
- Get some support
- Rebuild your confidence
- Change your response