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Cycle Of Abuse

 

The cycle of abuse theory was developed in 1979 by Lenore E. Walker, a licensed psychologist who interviewed 1,500 women involved in domestic violence and noticed that their stories followed a similar pattern. She described it as a controlling patriarchal behavior of men who felt entitled to batter their wives. In reality, both men and women perpetrate domestic abuse on their partners, and the pattern is similar regardless of gender. It doesn't apply to every abusive relationship, but many survivors find it relevant.

The cycle consists of four main phases that repeat over and over, alternating abuse with reconciliations. It makes you unsure if you're being abused or making a big deal out of nothing, since the relationship includes both the good and the bad times. Also, reconciliation phase often involves mutual apologies and promises (e.g. "I won't punch you again if you don't provoke me"), which makes the situation appear normal; all couples fight and reconcile, so you lose perspective on the difference between a healthy relationship and a violent one. This on-and-off nature of violence allows it to gradually intensify over the time without you noticing it, like a frog in a pot of boiling water. Each incident isn't drastically worse than the previous one, so you don't know where to draw the line, and end up tolerating things you wouldn't dream of tolerating when the relationship just started. Recognizing the pattern might help break free from it.

Tension building

No relationship is free of daily hassles and frustrations: financial problems, parenting disagreements, housekeeping grudges, etc. All couples experience conflicts and feel angry or annoyed with each other occasionally. The difference between abusive and healthy relationships is that in a healthy relationship we resolve our conflicts, while in an abusive relationship we pretend it's not there, which allows the tension to escalate under the surface. You feel it building up: your partner seems annoyed, moody, nitpicks on you, does silent treatments, sarcasm, put downs, withdraws affection, mocks or ridicules you, criticizes you but won't say what specifically is wrong. You know from experience that attempting a dialogue would only result in a violent outburst, so you try to reduce tension by walking on eggshells, playing it low key, trying to appease your partner and accommodate their moods, to maintain the illusion that everything is fine. Or, to get the abuse over with, you may provoke them, consciously or not, by responding to their treatment in the same manner: sarcasm, withdrawal, silent treatment, annoyance.

Violence

Sooner or later the tension blows up and results in an outburst: yelling, damaging property, beating, hitting, punching, choking, raping, stabbing, even shooting. For some couples it's mutual: both are yelling and punching each other, to the point that it's impossible to sort through who started it or who caused more damage. For other couples there's a clear distinction between the perpetrator and the victim: the victim doesn't reciprocate violence and tries to de escalate or avoid it. Some try to reason with their partner (e.g. "I couldn't be home earlier, we had a meeting at work."), hoping for a rational conversation - which of course can't happen till everyone is calm. Others plead, beg them to stop, try to negotiate a compromise (e.g. "please not on the face, I have to work tomorrow"), or use children as a human shield. Yet others try to leave the house, knock on neighbors' doors, and call the police. Leaving the house is the best option: you never know how far the violence might escalate; many homicides start as verbal altercations. Besides, arguing, pleading, or engaging in violence gives your partner the impression that their behavior is somehow justified or even acceptable (e.g. "she called me a jerk so it's not my fault I broke her jaw"). The police is a great option if you're ready to leave for good - but aren't of much use otherwise; they can't stay in your house 24/7, or keep your partner locked up indefinitely. Sooner or later they leave, and you're back to square one.

Reconciliation

The violence released the pressure valve on all that tension that was building up, and now both of you calm down and start picking up the pieces. The fear and humiliation you felt during the violence stage wears off, and you decide to stay in this relationship. At first it's out of love: your partner says they love you, promises the abuse will never happen again, expresses remorse, guilt, shame, fear of losing you, etc. Some even call themselves monsters undeserving of life and threaten suicide or engage in self-injury. You love this person, so you feel bad, comfort them in their apparent distress, and withdraw your police report (if you made one). The first time it happens is the turning point in the relationship: you're agreeing to sweep the issue under the rug, which gives a clear message to your partner that they can get away with violence.

After a few repeats of the cycle, your partner's apologies shift more towards excuses: they didn't mean to hurt you but are under enormous stress at work, or only did it because they were drunk, or they wouldn't have done it if you hadn't provoked them, etc. It might sound like attempts at problem-solving (e.g. "my boyfriend promised to quit drinking, so abuse is in the past for us"), but in reality all it does is shift responsibility from your partner and place it on external factors and then on you. You still stay: perhaps your church frowns at divorce, or you can't leave the kids, or have no means of supporting yourself, or your family and friends (if you're still in touch) encourage you to try to repair this relationship. So you get busy researching rehabs, anger management programs, marriage counseling, googling "will my abusive partner change," etc - looking to fix your partner rather than re-evaluating your own choices.

Over the time your partner drops the apologies, excuses, and promises, limiting their comments to "you know you had it coming." Knowing that your partner is often violent and sensing the tension building up doesn't make it your fault of course, but you still stay in the relationship. The latest episode was no different from dozens of previous ones, and you don't feel it would be justified to "suddenly" leave now, after having tolerated the exact same behavior for years. By now you probably lost touch with your friends or family, can't imagine living independently, and might have adopted your partner's perspective, i.e. that you deserve to be beaten.

Honeymoon

Talking of problems is unpleasant, so once the violence and the reconciliation are over, and both of you agreed to sweep the issue under the rug and move on - there's a sense of relief, even euphoria. You're glad that your partner promised to never hit you again, and your partner is glad that you're staying with them, so you exchange love and affection. For romantic couples it can be flowers, chocolates, candlelight dinners, passionate sex, breakfast in bed, etc. For non-romantic partners (e.g. adult children and their elderly parents) it can be gifts and extra attention: your partner might do more household chores, rent the movies you like, cook your favorite foods, etc. In early stages of the cycle there can also be increased hopes and planning for the long-term future: marriage proposals, purchasing real estate, getting pregnant, alimony agreements, signing your house over to your adult child, etc. You feel like abuse is in the past, the relationship is perfect, and you'll never have conflicts again. However, conflicts are a part of life. The quality of a relationship is measured not by lack or presence of conflicts, but by your ability to resolve them. Avoiding them or pretending they don't exist inevitably results in tension starting to build up again, and the cycle repeating over and over.


Some people describe this pattern as a spiral, because over the time abuse intensifies and cycles through the phases faster and faster; the acute violence phase gets longer and more intense, while the honeymoon phase shortens to barely noticeable signs (a smile, a pat on the back, eye contact, or even just lack of violence). You lose perspective on what the norm (or even the baseline) is, because the violence increases gradually rather than all at once. Many survivors say that they were waiting and even hoping for their partner to "cross the line" somehow, to do something outrageous, that would be "bad enough" for them to say "no", leave, press charges, etc. They were compulsively googling definitions of abuse, trying to figure out where the lines are, at what point things start counting as "bad enough," etc. In reality, the lines are where you draw them. If you don't draw them, there are no lines to cross, and the cycle continues indefinitely because nothing your partner does will be "bad enough."

If you relate to what's described on this page, you're probably involved in domestic violence. The cycle can end in two ways - either you break up, or one of you kills the other (accidentally, deliberately, or in self-defense); it does not stop or get better on its own. However, you're not at the mercy of your partner. You have the right to walk away from any relationship you're unhappy with, there's no justification necessary, a simple "I don't feel like staying" is all that's required. If you want to press charges, you can; if you only want to get out of this trap, go your own way - you can do it too, and there's help available. Please read about safety planning. Violence is not OK. You don't have to live with it.


We usually lose today, because there has been a yesterday, and tomorrow is coming.
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
This page was last updated on September 27th, 2017
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