The Cycle of Abuse

For those who have a friend they know experiencing some sort of abuse, whether it be physical, emotional, verbal, or something else, chances are they’ve been told the same thing over and over: “Just leave them already!” Unfortunately, one of the the most dangerous moments in an abusive relationship is when the victim tries to leave. If you’re currently in this boat, disregard the rest of this post and come here.

Over the years, experts and those who’ve experienced any level of abuse, have channeled their post traumatic growth in educating others. Chances are, you may have heard of the phrase “The Cycle of Abuse” before. But, I wanted to provide a simple breakdown of each stage of the cycle to continue the flow of education.

1. Tension Building

This area of the cycle is exactly what it states. When couples are together for some time, tension naturally gathers because of individual differences. In other words, it’s normal to have minimal tension in the early stages of a relationship.

But, the tension building we’re talking about here is much, much different. Going a step further, tension building in the context of an abusive relationship looks very unhealthy.

When one person begins to show more power, chances are the other person may subdue themselves so the boat isn’t rocked too much. When there’s too much power shown on one side of the relationship, it’s very easy to become silenced on the other side.

So, when there’s enough tension during day-to-day routine, it’s understandable that normal communication becomes interrupted. Now, it feels easier and safer to just let them have their way—perhaps out of fear.

2. Incident

Regardless if we try to escape the pitfalls of tension building or not, it’s still present. Picture taking a stick from a tree and bending it a little each day. There’s going to be a point where there’s enough tension in the weakest part of the stick—and it breaks.

This is called the incident, or the first experience of unhealthy interaction—taken to a whole new level. As a reminder, it’s completely healthy to argue in a relationship, it’s completely healthy to have anger in a relationship, but it’s what you do with that information is what could get unhealthy.

Imagine that awkward, discomforting tension building up to the point where someone in the relationship snaps, for lack of a better term, and does something relatively new—such as name calling or getting physically aggressive. Now what?

What’s tough is that things may not seem so bad at first because attachment comes into play. In other words, just because things got rocky once, it wasn’t enough to just end the relationship on the spot. However, the cycle of abuse may have already begun, and now there’s a dominant figure in the relationship.

With that in mind, the person hearing the name calling might just take it for now and think that’s as bad as it’s going to get. And that might be true. But in other cases there could be dozens of these incidents happening without proper reconciliation.

3. Reconciliation

A clear cut definition of reconciliation means to restore. However, the restore we’re talking about here isn’t so friendly. Often, the abuser may apologize after the incident occurs, or continue to put the blame on you. They may give excuses for their actions and rationalize that what they did made sense. They may not even apologize at all and consider the incident another normal moment within the relationship.

Now, imagine if all these scenarios happened, but after every-single-incident. I think it’s easy for the victim to begin thinking that it’s their fault the abuse happened in the first place, or think there’s no way out now. This can be very confusing territory because we may hear an apology—which sounds nice—but the abuse seemingly continues.

It’s not uncommon to think that “things will get better” after each reconciliation happens. Unfortunately, it’s that optimistic thinking that could get a person stuck in this cycle of abuse—and for good reason. Chances are you may like what reconciliation feels like because you’d rather experience that more than the incident itself—though both could be considered forms of abuse.

4. Calm

Ever heard of the calm before the storm or the honeymoon phase? Toward the end of the cycle of abuse is the experience of silence. Though the word calm in it self sounds soothing, if the experience that led up to this point was built upon abuse, then this piece of the cycle is anything but calm.

This stage is much different than all the previous ones. It can involve the abuser forgetting what led up to this point. It may involve what many therapists call gas-lighting. Because this is the ending portion of the cycle of abuse, it can feel peaceful because no explicit abuse is taking place. However, there is implicit abuse.

When I say implicit abuse, what I mean is that the victim is essentially waiting in fear for the next tension building experience. The abuser may act as if all what happened before this stage is completely forgotten, while the incident is all the victim is thinking about. Plus, he or she may be in preparation for the next incident. The calm before the storm.

There is hope

If you’ve made it this far in the article, I commend you. Not only are you more aware that intimate partner violence does happen, but chances are, you might be curious as to how survivors get out. Earlier, I pointed out that leaving a violent relationship is one of the most dangerous moments because of unpredictability of the perpetrator. With that in mind, here are a few websites that have good information regarding safety:

“How to get out of an abusive relationship”

“Four factors that help women leave an abusive relationship”

“More information about abuse”

Lastly, if you’re wondering what healthy relationships look like, here’s a little something that could help:

“8 signs you’re in a mentally healthy relationship”

CommunicationJacob Kountz