Abusive relationships are extremely dysregulating, and it can be really difficult to find solid ground in a relationship when you’re constantly anticipating the different stages of the cycle of abuse. Most people in abusive relationships are too close to recognize the patterns, but believe it or not, the cycle of abuse follows four distinct stages.
These stages repeat over and over, softening the harshest edges with each iteration. Turmoil becomes the norm, and even the most extreme moments feel manageable because they are always followed by reconciliation and a short-lived period of calm.
Before we get into the different kinds of abuse, the stages of the cycle of abuse, and how the abuse cycle works, first, we want to mention an emergency resource:
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is entirely confidential and can give you the guidance and support you need to leave a relationship safely. You can call the hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE, text “SAFE” to 88788, or visit www.thehotline.org to get help.
Abusive relationships can quickly escalate, especially if your partner has already committed physical violence. Please keep this resource in mind if you need emergency support.
The cycle of abuse can prevent people from recognizing problems in their relationships because the abuse becomes normalized over time. Recognizing the cycle of abuse can help people identify whether their relationships fit the abusive pattern and seek support when they need it most.
Different Kinds of Abuse
Abuse can take many forms. Too often, people think that abuse is only direct violent acts, but several other types of abuse are equally damaging.
The most obvious form of abuse is physical abuse:
- Hitting or kicking
- Grabbing the abused partner’s wrists
- Pushing or shoving
- Throwing objects
- Physically restraining the abused partner
No form of physical violence is acceptable in a relationship. If your partner engages in physical abuse, your life may be in danger. This danger increases for pregnant people; researchers have documented a rapid escalation in intimate partner violence, which is now the leading cause of death for pregnant people in the United States. If your partner is abusive, it’s time to look for an exit.
Sexual abuse is any sexual act that you are forced or manipulated into against your will. Being in a relationship doesn’t mean your partner has your unconditional consent. Sexual abuse could include your partner:
- Forcing you to have sex
- Touching or groping despite a lack of consent
- Forcing you to take your clothes off
- Filming or photographing you without consent
You can revoke your consent at any time, even if you once consented in the past.
Verbal abuse describes any hurtful remark that your partner makes to you, including:
- Harsh criticism or judgment
Verbal abuse can also entail your partner blaming you for their behavior or emotionally manipulating you, which leads to the next category of abuse.
Emotional abuse is when your partner seeks to hurt you emotionally, makes you feel as though you have no control, or manipulates your feelings for their benefit. Common examples include:
- Intimidation or bullying
- Gaslighting – causing you to doubt your feelings, judgments, or perceptions
- Unprompted criticism
- Isolating you from family or friends
Emotional abuse is a tactic that abusers use to gain control, not a reflection of your inherent worth. All types of abuse work to make you feel worthless so that you will be more dependent on your abuser.
Financial abuse occurs when the abusive partner attempts to limit the other’s access to monetary resources.
If your partner is the primary financial provider in the household, they may conceal how much they make, hide money from you, or limit your ability to make financial decisions.
If you are the primary financial provider, they may attempt to take control of your finances or demand that you hand your money over to them.
Financial abuse is often the main reason people stay with an abusive partner – limited access makes it more difficult for an abused partner to leave on their own.
The Four Stages of the Cycle of Abuse
Dr. Lenore E. Walker, the founder of the Domestic Violence Institute, first conceptualized the four stages of abuse in her book, The Battered Woman.
In this book, Dr. Walker delves into battered woman syndrome, a concept she developed in the late 1970s, to dispel the previous misguided notion that women stay in abusive relationships out of some masochistic tendency.
Instead, Walker argues that battered women stay in abusive relationships due to fear, manipulation, and the mistaken notion that somehow the abuse they experienced was justified or their fault.
While Walker’s work focused primarily on women, the cycle of abuse applies equally to all people who find themselves in similar situations, regardless of gender identity; many argue that a better term is “battered person syndrome.”
With that in mind, we’ll use gender-neutral terms to outline Walker’s information on the four stages of abuse, which happen in cycles throughout an abusive relationship.
The first stage in the abusive cycle is tension: having to walk on eggshells around your romantic partner, trying to avoid a blowup that seems just around the corner.
Tension often builds subconsciously and is not necessarily a result of the abused partner’s actions. Frustration, stress, and anger can build up on behalf of the abuser for a variety of reasons (or for seemingly no reason at all):
- Problems at work
- Escalating mental health symptoms
- Daily frustrations and hang-ups
- Not feeling respected or appreciated by others
- Outside events
- Financial problems
- Not getting enough sleep
Whatever the reason for the buildup of negative emotions, it puts the abuser in an agitated and often angry state. The abused person may feel anxious and try to soothe their partner to relieve the tension. But the truth is, there is very little an abused person can do to stop the coming storm.
After a building of tension, something ultimately sets the abuser off, leading to an explosive incident. They lash out and may engage in behaviors such as:
- Threatening to hurt their partner
- Insulting their partner or calling them names
- Attempting to exert control over their partner’s life
- Throwing objects or damaging furniture
- Committing violent physical or sexual acts against their partner
- Manipulating their partner emotionally
The incident stage is extremely volatile and the most dangerous for the abused partner. Often, the abuser will blame their romantic partner for causing the incident and try to shift responsibility for their actions onto their partner. They may say things like, “You made me do this,” or “I was only violent because you made me angry.”
These comments are part of the cycle of the abuse: they shift the blame onto the abused partner to try and justify their actions. But abuse is never justifiable.
After the incident starts to calm down, the reconciliation stage starts. This stage is sometimes referred to as the “honeymoon period” because the abuser often becomes very compassionate, loving, and kind. They may apologize profusely for their actions and try to make it up to their partner.
For example, the abuser may shower their partner with gifts, take them on extravagant dates, or show them more physical affection. They might also make promises that an incident will never happen again.
It’s easy for targets of abuse to feel that this time is different, even if they’ve been through this cycle hundreds of times before. During this stage, their abusive partner tells them exactly what they want to hear, and they can envision a happy future together. The possibility of a happy ending feels intoxicating compared to the violent outburst.
People often see their partner as what they believe is their “true self” in the reconciliation stage, with the incident and tension stages a distant memory. There may even be an increase in intimacy and vulnerability, along with a real sense of hope.
The next stage in the cycle is a period of calm. Things begin to settle down and feel more normal.
This stage typically doesn’t have the increased positive emotions and intimacy of the reconciliation stage. However, the absence of violent behavior can still feel reassuring and inspire confidence in the abused partner.
Unfortunately, after a period of calm, tensions begin to rise again, followed by an incident and reconciliation. This cycle can repeat indefinitely unless a person takes action to break the abusive cycle or remove themselves from the relationship.
Yet the very nature of the cycle of abuse can lead people to stay in abusive relationships despite the anxiety, fear, and manipulation they endure.
How Does the Cycle of Abuse Start?
It’s easy to be critical from the outside: many people may look at the cycle of abuse and wonder how someone could get trapped. But abusive relationships typically don’t start that way.
In fact, most abusive relationships start with love bombing, similar to the behaviors in the reconciliation stage; the abuser goes above and beyond to charm their partner and create control by appealing to their partner’s desires.
When the abuser revisits these tactics in the reconciliation phase, it reminds their partner of the fairy tale feelings they had at the beginning of the relationship. But rather than a loving, stable, comfortable relationship, they’re on a rollercoaster ride of intense highs followed by extreme lows – the key ingredients for a trauma bond.
The Cyclical Nature of Abuse
It’s all too easy to look back on the good times with rose-colored glasses and gloss over the difficult parts – during overwhelming, traumatic environments, our brains will do what they can to protect us and make us forget. Many abused partners believe they can somehow work to change their abusive partner and live happily ever after.
Unfortunately, once a cycle of abuse begins, it’s unlikely to stop on its own. Tension and incidents can get progressively worse over time and cause untold trauma. The best way to break the abusive cycle is to recognize it for what it is and find a way to leave the relationship or seek outside help.
How to Break the Cycle of Abuse
The best way to break the abusive cycle is to remove yourself from the relationship altogether. Many people want to stay and try to help their partner see the error of their ways or fix them. Sadly, staying perpetuates the problem. Even if your partner seeks help, there’s no guarantee they will change; a very low percentage of abusers achieve sustained change.
Leaving an abusive relationship can be frightening and potentially dangerous. Fortunately, resources are available (in addition to the National Domestic Violence Hotline).
Even after someone has left an abusive relationship, they may still carry emotional damage and mental scars – healing after an abusive relationship takes time. Seeking treatment for these issues can help them cope with these challenges and learn to heal dysfunctional attachment styles, and avoid unhealthy dynamics in future relationships.
You deserve to feel supported, loved, and safe in your relationship. If you’d like to learn more about how All Points North helps survivors build the skills for a healthier life, visit our contact page or call 855.235.9792 to speak to one of our mental health professionals.
- Alhusen, Jeanne L et al. “Intimate partner violence during pregnancy: maternal and neonatal outcomes.” Journal of women’s health (2002) vol. 24,1 (2015): 100-6. doi:10.1089/jwh.2014.4872
- “Is Change Possible In An Abuser?” The Hotline, National Domestic Violence Hotline, https://www.thehotline.org/resources/is-change-possible-in-an-abuser/.