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The cycle of abuse

Updated: May 5, 2021

This concept is widely used in domestic violence programs, particularly in the United States. This is a social cycle theory developed by Lenore E. Walker to explain patterns of behavior in an abusive relationship. 1,500 women were interviewed who had been subject to domestic violence and found that there was a similar pattern of abuse.

The cycle usually goes in the following order and will repeat until the conflict is stopped, usually by the survivor entirely abandoning the relationship or some form of intervention.

The phases

Tension building

During this period, the abuser feels ignored, threatened, annoyed or wronged. The feeling lasts on average several minutes to hours, although it may last as long as several months. Stress can build from the pressures of daily life, conflict over children, marital issues, misunderstandings, illness, legal or financial problems, unemployment, or catastrophic events, like floods, rape or war.

To prevent violence, the victim may try to reduce the tension by becoming compliant and nurturing. Alternatively, the victim may provoke the abuser to get the abuse over with, prepare for the violence or lessen the degree of injury. However, the abuser is never justified in engaging in violent or abusive behavior.

Acute violence

During this stage the abuser attempts to dominate their victim. Outbursts of violence and abuse occur which may include verbal abuse and psychological abuse. This may also include physical and sexual violence.

The release of energy reduces the tension, and the abuser may feel or express that the victim "had it coming" to them.

Reconciliation/ Honeymoon

In this phase, the abuser starts to feel guilt, remorse, regret and/or fear that the victim might leave them or communicate with the police. The victim feels pain, fear, humiliation, disrespect, confusion, and may mistakenly feel responsible.

The confusion makes the victim vulnerable and in most cases the abuser utilizes it. Abusers are frequently so convincing, and survivors so eager for the relationship to improve, that survivors who are often worn down and confused by longstanding abuse continue to stay in the relationship.

The abuser may try to make things right by affection, apology, or, alternatively, ignoring the incident, or give assurances that it will never happen again, or that the abuser will do their best to change. The abuser may use self-harm or threats of suicide to gain sympathy and/or prevent the survivor from leaving the relationship.


During this phase, the relationship is relatively calm and peaceful. The abuser may agree to engage in counseling, ask for forgiveness, and create a normal atmosphere.

In intimate partner relationships, the perpetrator may buy presents or the couple may engage in passionate sex. Over time, the abuser's apologies and requests for forgiveness become less sincere and are generally stated to prevent separation or intervention.

The cycle can occur hundreds of times in an abusive relationship, the total cycle taking anywhere from a few hours to a year or more to complete. However, the length of the cycle usually diminishes over time and the calm period becomes shorter. Violence becomes more intense and the cycles become frequent.

The effect of the continual cycle may include loss of love, contempt, distress, and/or physical disability. Intimate partners may separate, divorce or, at the extreme, someone may be killed.

If you are in an abusive relationship and in fear. Reach Out. Help is there and trained professionals dealing with domestic abuse and violence are available in most countries.

pc: Unsplash


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