The cycle of abuse is a four-part cycle that helps identify a pattern of abuse in relationships. The cycle continues because there is a power imbalance in a relationship, meaning that one person has a hold on the other. For decades, many experts relied on the cycle outlined in the 1970s by psychologist Lenore Walker in her book “The Battered Woman.” It was based on anecdotal evidence from interviews with heterosexual women who had experienced abuse. While the cycle of abuse is a good way to identify abuse in a relationship, it isn’t so cut-and-dry for everyone experiencing abuse.
The cycle of abuse, also sometimes called the wheel of violence, helps illustrate common patterns of abusive behavior in relationships. It also helps provide clues toward a deeper understanding of why people experiencing abuse often find it difficult to break free.
This cycle involves four stages:
Stage 1: Tension
Stage 2: An incident of abuse
Stage 3: Reconciliation
Stage 4: Calm
During the tension stage, external stressors may begin to build within the abuser. External stressors could include financial problems, a bad day at work, or simply being tired. When an abusive partner feels tense because of outside factors, their frustration builds over time. They continue to grow angrier because they feel a loss of control.
The person who is the target of abuse tends to find ways to ease the tension to prevent an abusive episode from occurring, Sensing the simmering tension, they might try to find ways to placate the abusive partner and prevent abuse from happening.
An incident of abuse or violence
Eventually, the built-up tension has to be released by the abuser to help them feel as though they have power and control again. They will then begin to engage in abusive behaviors such as:
- Insulting or calling their partner derogative names
- Threatening to hurt their partner
- Trying to control how their partner acts, dresses, cooks, etc.
- Committing physical or sexual acts of violence against their partner
- Manipulating their partner emotionally, which can take on the form of targeting their insecurities or lying and denying any wrongdoing
The abuser may also shift the blame for their behavior onto their partner.
The reconciliation period occurs when some time has passed after the incident and the tension begins to decrease. In many cases, the person who committed the abuse will try to make things right by offering gifts and being overly kind and loving. The reconciliation period is often referred to as a “honeymoon stage” because it mimics the beginning of a relationship when people are on their best behavior.
When the person who experienced the abuse is in this phase, the extra love and kindness from their partner trigger a reaction in their brain that releases feel-good and love hormones known as dopamine and oxytocin. This release of hormones makes them feel closer to their partner and as if things are back to normal.
During the calm stage, justifications or explanations are made to help both partners excuse the abuse.
The abuser may also deny that the abuse occurred or that it was as bad as it was. In some cases, the abuser may throw some accusations towards the person that was abused to try to convince them that it was their fault. However, in most cases, the abuser will show remorse and promise that the abuse won’t happen again by being more loving and understanding of your needs.
While the model of the cycle of abuse has its merit, it isn’t the same for everyone. Experience with domestic abuse can vary from relationship to relationship. The cycle of abuse was formed to help explain battered woman syndrome, which is a term used to describe women who have been repeatedly abused by their partners. The cycle of abuse does not always take into account the way that people experience abuse from their partners.
Types of Abuse
Abuse can come in many forms in a relationship. Not all abusive partners will engage in all forms of abusive behavior, but each category counts as a type and form of abuse.
Emotional abuse, also known as mental mistreatment, is a form of abuse that abusers use to make their partners feel mentally or emotionally hurt or damaged. This abuse intends to gain power and control by forcibly changing someone’s emotional state.
Some common examples of emotional abuse include:
- Intimidation: This is an abuse tactic designed to make you fear your partner. Intimidation can come in the form of actions, gestures, or looks that evoke feelings of being scared of what your partner might do if you don’t abide. They could also break things or take your stuff away from you.
- Coercion: This is a tactic used to take your power away to convince you to act in a way that best suits the abuser.
- Ridiculing or making fun of you
- Treating you like a child
- Isolating you from your friends or family
- Giving you the silent treatment
- Yelling or swearing at you
- Physical violence occurs when your partner physically injures you in some way.
Verbal abuse isn’t as straightforward as other forms of abuse but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. While verbal abuse can be hard to identify, there are various types to be aware of:
Being blamed for your partner’s abusive behavior
Being subject to mean or hurtful remarks that are meant to make you feel bad about yourself
Gaslighting is an abuse tactic used to make you question your judgment or reality.
Being judged or looked down on for not meeting your partner’s unrealistic expectations
Being called names that damage your self-esteem
Being refused affection or attention
Verbal and emotional abuse often overlap.
Signs of Abuse
It can be difficult to determine if someone is being abused in their relationship unless you see it first-hand. However, some subtle signs can indicate abuse is occurring that you may not have noticed unless you were aware of them. They can include:
- Visible injuries such as black eyes, bruises, rope marks, or welts
- Broken bones
- Untreated injuries that are healing at different stages
- Physical signs of restraint such as marks on the neck or wrists
- Sudden changes in behavior
- The abuser refusing to allow anyone to see their partner
- Emotional upset or agitation
- Feeling withdrawn from family or friends and avoiding conversations surrounding their emotional state