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This story was originally published in 2014. It was updated in 2022.
Domestic violence often follows a script that survivors know very well. Many advocates attest that abusers are not impulsive or out of control, but rather rigidly in control. They carefully plan and calculate their abuse, whether it’s subtle forms of control or threatening acts of violence.
In many domestic violence advocacy circles, these scripts are called the Cycle of Abuse, or Cycle of Violence. This cycle is a four-stage pattern that abusive behavior can take–sometimes hundreds of times over. An abuser might cycle through these four stages in anywhere from a few hours to a year or more.
Domestic abuse victims fall into a script of their own. They begin repeating the lines over and over to themselves, and to friends and family, until the familiar phrases begin to sound like a broken record.
It’ll never happen again.
She says she’s really sorry.
It’s my fault I made him angry—I should be a better partner.
She’s just stressed out right now.
He’s only controlling because he loves me.
Defining the Cycle of Abuse
The Cycle of Abuse was first introduced in 1979, but since then some advocates argue that the tool has become outdated, instead referring to a more updated visual aid called The Power and Control Wheel as a better depiction of abuse. Still, the cycle continues to resonate with many survivors and its overall message is clear—domestic violence is destructive, ongoing and relentless.
The cycle of abuse suggests that there are four phases of abusive behavior.
1. The First Phase: Tension Building
The cycle begins with tension building, creating fear in the victim. This tension might come from stress related to everyday events like work, family conflict or financial problems. It could also come from bigger events like illness and catastrophic events. It’s important to note that most people can cope with stressors like these without taking it out on others–the abuser is just using these events as an excuse to justify their actions.
Victims might try to placate the abuser and avoid the next phase of violence by becoming submissive or extra helpful. Other victims might try to provoke the abuser into the violence they both know is coming; this can be a survival strategy to lessen the impact of the abuse, have control of where and when it happens or just to “get it over with.”
2. The Second Phase: Incident
Next, there is an incident. This may be the abuser lashing out with physical, verbal, emotional or psychological abuse such as hitting, slapping, strangling, belittling, name-calling, screaming or yelling and threatening.
While the entire Cycle of Abuse is a method abusers use to exert power and control over their victim, the incident phase is often a particularly frightening and dangerous time of the abuser trying to dominate the victim.
3. The Third Phase: Reconciliation
The third phase of the Cycle of Abuse is the “reconciliation” phase, though it could also be called “the excuse stage.” During this phase, the abuser might apologize for their behavior, try to excuse it (“I’m just stressed because of work.”) or blame it on the victim and falsely put the impetus on the victim to avoid it happening again (“Don’t make me so angry.”)
Gaslighting is often common during this phase, as the abuser denies that anything happened or that the incident wasn’t abuse.
4. The Fourth Phase: Calm
Finally, the final stage–calm. The incident has been forgiven and, for a while, things seem back to normal or even better than before. Survivors sometimes refer to this as "the honeymoon stage." Sometimes abusers will use love-bombing to “make up for” the abuse, though this further manipulation is actually designed to keep the victim off-guard and remaining with the abuser.
However, the calmness of this phase doesn’t last. Eventually, tension begins to build again. The abuser’s apologies and promises become insincere or vanish entirely. Before long, another abusive incident occurs.
Escalation and the Cycle of Abuse
The length of the cycle usually diminishes over time, bringing abusive incidents closer and closer together. The “reconciliation” and “calm” stages can disappear completely, leaving only tension that builds quickly into violence.
Many survivors are either too ashamed or too fearful to leave their abuser, convinced that they've now let it go on too long, or that it was their fault the abuse started in the first place. This, of course, isn’t true–instead, victims are actually caught in a carefully designed and planned cycle made to trap them under the power and control of their abuser.
Other survivors may be convinced they are in love with their abuser. “Survivors feel like [the abuser] is a person they can change. This is not love—it’s traumatic bonding,” says Yvette Lozano, Chief Program and Operations Officer with the nonprofit Peace Over Violence.
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Sarah Buel lists "love" as one of the 50 barriers survivors can face when trying to leave an abuser. "Wanting the 'good times' to come back, a survivor may believe they need to try harder to please the abuser, or they may rationalize that the abuse is only one aspect of an otherwise good relationship," says Buel, a former professor at ASU's College of Law.
Lozano says the cycle of violence is something that can be passed down to children as well.
“Children witness this growing up and feel like this is normal and this is how relationships are supposed to be. That’s why we educate teens so they know what is a healthy relationship and what’s not.”
You Can Break the Cycle
The Cycle of Abuse isn’t inescapable, even though it might feel like it. When you’re ready to break out of the cycle, start with “I’m Ready to Leave, Now What?” to learn how to claim your safe life.
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