Understanding the Cycle of Abuse

Published on: 11 Feb 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Rachel O'Neill, Ph.D., LPCC-S

No matter a person’s age, sexual orientation, race, gender, or religion — anyone can be a victim, or a perpetrator, of abuse. Domestic violence, also referred to as intimate partner violence, domestic abuse, or relationship abuse, does not discriminate and impacts people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels. It occurs when a partner uses a pattern of behavior to maintain power and control over another partner in a relationship. And while there are many signs to help a person identify if they are experiencing abuse, it is important to determine whether the issue is a part of a larger cycle of abusive behavior.

What is The Cycle of Abuse?

The cycle of abuse is defined by the ways in which an abusive partner keeps a target in a relationship, spanning subtle behaviors as well as physical, visible violence. There is a simple tool that describes what occurs in an abusive relationship — it is known as the Power and Control Wheel, and breaks down this abusive pattern into four phases:

  1. Tension building
  2. Incident
  3. Reconciliation
  4. Calm

According to Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, the four phases entail:

1. Tension Building

This phase can last anywhere from minutes to weeks. In it, stress builds, and abusers may begin to feel wronged, ignored, or neglected. They may accuse, yell, demand and/or have unrealistic expectations, while the target feels they have to walk on eggshells, are afraid, and become anxious. Targets are likely already familiar with the cycle and believe making a small mistake will make the partner angry, so instead they opt to stay quiet or not do something. No matter what is said or done, however, it seems like the target is never right, and a small incident can create a difficult situation in seconds.

2. Incident

At this stage, the target says or does something the abuser feels upset about or threatened by, and the abuser attempts to dominate the target through verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. Targets may keep the incident a secret and not share what happened with others. In some cases, a target of abuse can end up in the hospital and may even lie to the medical personnel about the cause of their injuries.

3. Reconciliation

At this point, the abuser might feel remorse or fear and try to initiate a reconciliation — this can entail them buying flowers, gifts, taking the target out for dinner or suggesting a nice vacation. They often promise it will be the last time the abuse happens. The target experiences pain, humiliation, disrespect, and fear, and may be staying for financial reasons or because children are involved. The perpetrator stresses that they did not want to do what they did, but the target made them because of their lack of understanding, wrong behavior, or because “they do not listen.”

4. Calm

Also known as the honeymoon stage, an abuser is kind, calm, and interested and may engage in counseling, as well as asking for forgiveness. The target may believe the abuser has changed and accept the apology. A perpetrator then starts to find little flaws or behaviors that they criticize in a passive aggressive way and apologies become less sincere over time. Little by little the same behaviors begins to reappear and the cycle again returns to the tension building phase.

How to End The Cycle of Abuse

It is not always easy for a person to know they are in an abusive relationship, as an abuser may disguise their behavior or character the early stages of a relationship. Often, controlling and possessive behaviors do not rear their ugly heads until the bonds of a relationship grow tight.

While every relationship is different, most abusive relationships have one aspect in common: an abusive partner takes action to have more power and control over their partner.

Understanding the Power and Control Wheel, however, and how a cycle of abuse works, can help a person determine if they are caught in an abusive relationship. Additionally, learning about community resources and seeking guidance and assistance from a mental health professional can also make it easier to leave a relationship when an abused person is ready to do so.

“The best way to end the cycle of abuse is through psychoeducation and with the help of a mental health professional,” Catchings said. “It takes an individual up to 12 times to leave for good. It is also known that the first times a target leaves is mostly to test the waters and see if they can survive. Learning about what it is like to escape and plan to survive alone is what might create the constant in-and-out in an abusive relationship as well.”

How Therapy Helps Address a Cycle of Abuse

Therapy provides a victim with a place to vent, receive support, heal and forgive — all necessary aspects to end the cycle of abuse. Therapy can help educate a target about the patterns of abusive behavior, as well as explore possible early trauma that may contribute to the unhealthy relationship expectations.
If you believe something is not right in your relationship, and may not be able to to confront the situation on your own, therapy can help. While a partner’s control may prevent one from seeking in-person care, online therapy can be a great option for privacy and safety. For immediate support, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline, — and if you are in an emergency situation, please call 911.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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