This cycle involves four stages:
- building tension
- an incident of abuse
The cycle of abuse, also known as the cycle of violence, is a tool for illustrating common patterns of abusive behavior in relationships.
It also contributes to a better understanding of why people who are abused often find it difficult to break free.
1. Tensions rise
Abusive partners frequently lash out in response to outside stressors. Tension can be fueled by a variety of factors, including family issues, workplace problems, physical illness, and fatigue.
Frustration and dissatisfaction grow stronger over time. Frequently leading to feelings of powerlessness, injustice, anger, and paranoia.
You may try to find ways to appease the abusive partner and prevent abuse if you sense the simmering tension.
You may feel anxious, on guard, and hyperaware of their possible needs. You could alternate between tiptoeing around them, trying not to irritate them, and going out of your way to provide physical and emotional support.
2. An instance of abuse or violence
The abuser eventually releases this tension onto others, attempting to regain power by establishing control.
Abuse might involve:
- insults or name-calling
- threats of harm or property
- attempts to control your behavior.
- sexual or physical violence
- emotional manipulation
- they might accuse you of making them mad or blame you for your “relationship problems.”
Remember that people choose to abuse others. Any stress they are under may help to explain the abuse, but it never excuses it.
The tension gradually begins to dissipate following the incident of abuse. The abuser frequently uses kindness, gifts, and loving gestures to usher in a “honeymoon” stage in an attempt to move past the abuse.
This devoted behavior can cause the release of dopamine and oxytocin. Making you feel even closer to your partner and leading you to believe you have reclaimed your “real” relationship.
To keep the peace and harmony, both parties must usually come up with an explanation or justification for the abuse.
The abusive partner might:
- apologize while blaming others
- they point to outside factors to justify their behavior
- they minimize the abuse or deny it happened
- they’ll accuse you of provoking them
They may express regret, assure you that it will not happen again, and appear more attentive to your needs than usual. You may begin to accept their explanations and even doubt your memory of the abuse. Maybe it was nothing, as they claimed.
This relieves physical and emotional tension and pain.
You may believe that whatever upset them and prompted the abuse has passed. It is hard to believe they would do something like that again.
Rinse and repeat
This cycle then repeats over time. This “cycle” happens over and over again within abusive relationships. The length of time between each repetition can vary. It frequently shortens over time as the abuse worsens.
As time goes on, the calm period may become brief or even disappear entirely from the cycle.
Although abuse frequently occurs in a cycle or within a larger pattern, it does not always occur in the same way, even within the same relationship.
Narratives that suggest otherwise may overlook important signs of abuse and deny survivors’ experiences.
If you don’t believe you can experience abuse due to your gender or the type of relationship you have, you might not notice or even look for the signs.
When seeking help, you may encounter skepticism, even dismissal, from professionals and loved ones who have a limited understanding of the complexities of abuse.
It can lead to victims -blaming. The idea that abuse always happens in the same cycle can make it easier for outsiders, abusers, and even survivors themselves to put the blame for the abuse where it doesn’t belong:
- “You had to know it was going to happen again.”
- “They wouldn’t have gotten so jealous and angry if I hadn’t gone out.”
- “You should have left as soon as they calmed down.”
In all cases, however, the abuser bears full responsibility for the abuse.
Abuse is never your fault, no matter what you did or did not do.
It is natural to want to believe someone you care about when they promise to change.
Even if you don’t fully believe them, you may worry that attempting to leave could provoke more serious abuse. You might also doubt whether you have the resources or ability to support yourself, idea abusers often reinforce.
Staying in the relationship and attempting to keep them calm becomes a survival strategy in and of itself.
The definition of abuse has changed and expanded over the years to include any tactic used to control or maintain power over others, such as:
- financial control
- threats of sexual violence
- verbal degradation
The four-part cycle recognizes that abuse can include verbal or emotional harm, but it still prioritizes physical violence.
Nonphysical abuse tactics, which may happen at all stages of the cycle, can still cause a great deal of harm.
Consider, for example, the tendency of abusers to brush off or deny the abuse. This manipulation is a form of abuse, even if it happens during the reconciliation or calm stages.
And this specific behavior can make leaving the relationship more difficult.
Abuse frequently occurs without warning and outside of any predictable cycle.
Sure, certain warning signs may indicate the possibility of abuse, but no one can predict whether or not it will occur and when.
Abuse frequently begins gradually and subtly, without physical violence. Even if they are familiar with these commonly accepted stages, many people are unaware of what is going on.
Consider that anyone can perpetuate or experience abuse.
Seeking signs of abuse only in people of a specific gender, community, or background can lead to a lack of awareness of other abusive situations.
Is there a more useful alternative?
Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs staff members created the Power and Control Wheel in the 1980s as a new way of looking at abuse. This wheel provides a concise diagram of some of the most common behaviors observed in people who are in abusive relationships.
The creators of the Power and Control Wheel also wanted to highlight the variety of behaviors used by manipulative and abusive partners.
Power and control are the center of the wheel, representing the goals of abuse: exerting power and dominance to maintain control in the relationship.
The various tactics used to achieve these goals and keep the person experiencing the abuse feeling powerless to intervene can be found within the spokes.
Physical manifestations of abuse, such as bodily harm or sexual assault, appear on the rim of the wheel. In a sense, this rim closes the wheel; abusers frequently use physical aggression to reinforce the pattern of intimidation that occurs on a daily basis.
This wheel breaks from the cycle of abuse by making it clear that, while acts of violence may not happen regularly, abuse usually happens on an ongoing basis.
This wheel makes it easier to identify abuse and get help by providing specific examples of emotional and verbal tactics.
While the Power and Control Wheel offers a more nuanced picture of the insidious and consistent nature of abuse, it isn’t perfect.
The wheel investigates abuse in the same heteronormative context as the four-part cycle. Though it effectively depicts the power dynamics and imbalances that characterize relationships in which men abuse women, it does not address the various dynamics that exist in other scenarios.
Removing the gendered pronouns from the wheel may assist in recognizing that people of any gender, in any type of relationship, can experience abuse.
However, abuse experienced by men and people in nonheterosexual relationships is frequently related to factors not accounted for by this wheel.
A better understanding of the factors that contribute to abuse in any type of relationship will go a long way toward assisting other survivors in opening up about abuse and receiving support.
Because abuse can occur in a variety of ways, people may not recognize it right away, even if they are directly affected by it.
Not all abusers use the same tactics.
They may never even threaten physical violence.
Nonetheless, a few key characteristics almost always indicate domestic abuse.
Abusive partners frequently attempt to retain power in the following ways:
- making all the decisions
- controlling your words and behavior
- preventing you from going to work, spending time with friends or loved ones, or visiting your doctor
- threatening pets and children
- destroying belongings
- blaming you for their behavior
- taking or controlling your money
- pressuring you to have sex
- going through your phone and computer
It’s best to talk to a therapist or advocate right away if your partner does any of these things, or you:
- feel generally uneasy and unsafe
- you find yourself changing your behavior to keep them happy because you fear they will hurt you if you do not do what they ask
The four-part abuse cycle is one approach to understanding certain types of relationship abuse. However, because these four stages are not set in stone, using them to predict abuse is not always useful.
Abuse is complicated, and it is often difficult to identify and escape. This crucial reminder can make a significant difference for advocates learning to identify key signs as well as survivors working toward recovery.