The cycle of abuse

Abuse in interpersonal relationships is something that happens in one third of all relationships. How is it that the abused person so often stays in the relationship, and doesn't leave, even when it is possible? It can seem incomprehensible to the outside viewer. There can be a variety of reasons for staying in the relationship, but one very compelling reason is because the abuse is NOT completely consistent. Abuse tends to happen in 'cycles'. And each time one experiences one of the 'pleasanter' aspects of the cycle, there is hope that things will get better.

This cycle of abuse was observed and documented by Lenore E. Walker in 1979 in her interviews with 1500 women who had been subjected to domestic violence. It doesn’t always involve physical violence and it is applicable to both men and women as the perpetrators (though women are victims far more frequently). It takes place not only in marriages, but in dating and homosexual relationships as well. 

The abusive relationship typically goes through four stages, repeating till the conflict is stopped - usually by the victim leaving the relationship. A cycle can typically last months but the length of the cycle usually reduces over time. After several cycles, the last two phases can even disappear, with the first two phases gaining in intensity.

  1. Increase of tension. Conflicts build up with the abuser feeling more irritated, threatened or wronged. The victim usually tries to reduce the tension by being more compliant and submissive.
  2. Violent outbursts. These can be either verbal or physical. It is characterized by the abuser demeaning the victim and dominating over the victim. The release of energy reduces the tension and abuser usually blames the victim for provoking or not meeting up to expectations.
  3. Reconciliation. The perpetrator may express remorse or guilt about the violent outburst. Usually the abuser will apologize, promise to change and guarantee that the abusive behaviour will not happen again, as long as the victim does not provocate the behaviour. The promises of change will be accompanied by what seems like sincere efforts to change for a brief period. The abuser may use threats of self harm to prevent the victim from leaving.
  4. Calm. This is followed by a period of calm which could seem like the ideal situation for the victim and gives victim the hope that this period can continue. It will also give credibility to the perpetrator’s claims of changing.

However this period of calm is not long lasting. Soon the tension can go up with the cycle repeating itself.

If you or someone you know is experiencing this cycle of abuse, do contact a counsellor.

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