While abuse is different for every abuser and victim and can change over time, there are three or four distinct phases that frequently manifest and repeat. This is commonly known as the Cycle of Violence or Cycle of Abuse. The cycle was introduced by psychologist Lenore Walker in her 1979 book, “The Battered Woman” and focuses on physical abuse. Domestic violence advocates have studied and adapted her original cycle over the years, noting its accuracies and flaws. Individual abusive relationships do not always follow all stages and how the stages combine can be unique to each individual or each cycle. Some argue that the cycle is outdated and does not apply to all types of abuse. Let’s examine the Cycle of Abuse as a useful tool and explore the ways it may not be the best model of domestic violence patterns.
Stages of the Cycle
Walker’s original cycle of violence had three stages. Some still use a three-stage cycle, however, it is now more common to see four stages described. The phases are often depicted in a circle or wheel where each follows the other, and the first phase again follows the last phase in another repetition of the cycle. The entire cycle can rotate through in minutes to years.
This stage is a period of non-abuse, typified by peaceful and loving behavior from the abuser. They may be overly romantic, buying the victim flowers and gifts, professing love and contrition. This “love-bombing” may seem like a genuine expression of feeling, but it is characteristically designed to keep the victim off-kilter and manipulate them into staying with the abuser despite the bad times. The phase helps the abuser show the victim how good the relationship can be, to draw them back in and give them hope. It may even seem as though things are better than they’ve ever been before. The honeymoon stage can last from minutes to months. With each turn of the cycle, however, it typically shortens, and commonly disappears altogether.
During this stage, little occurrences begin to irritate the abuser and strain begins to build in the relationship. Everyday stressors such as work, family, and finances, that most people can cope with, become excuses for the abuser to justify their controlling and abusive behavior. Communication breaks down and the abuser angers quickly. They may set rules or expectations, change them without warning, and become upset if they are not followed or completed to their satisfaction. The abuser may become jealous and distrusting and look to the victim to make them feel better. The victim often feels pressure to calm the abuser and not do anything that could possibly irritate them. It may feel like they are walking on eggshells, that they can’t do anything right or good enough, and as though they are powerless to de-escalate the tension and prevent an incident.
This stage is characterized by a significant abusive incident or intense period of abuse. All the tension that had been building is released in an extreme manifestation of their particular form of abuse. It often leads to acute physical harm. The abuser may hit, punch, kick, beat, strangle, throw things at, or use a weapon on the victim. Sexual abuse can be a particularly traumatizing method of domination abusers utilize. It is a time when the abuser’s control is particularly forceful. Insults, belittling, and other verbal abuse may be frequent. It may be a particularly manipulative time, when the abuser uses psychological tactics such as gaslighting to emotionally abuse the victim. The abuser seeks to prove their power over their victim. This can be deeply terrifying for the victim, who may also feel hurt, shocked, ashamed, humiliated, degraded, and as though the abuse is their fault. This stage can last anywhere from a few minutes to several days and often becomes more intense as the cycle repeats, with less and less time between explosions/incidents.
This is the stage that was not in Walker’s original Cycle of Violence. It is sometimes combined with the Honeymoon stage as a part of the renewed loving relationship but is often separated out as its own stage. After an explosion/incident, abusers may minimize it and blame it on the victim or others, drugs, alcohol, or circumstances, such as a stressful time at work. They may make victims feel that they caused the incident by saying the wrong thing and angering the abuser. These are excuses the abuser uses to justify their choice to abuse. Abusers may even completely deny that the explosion occurred at all. With this denial, victims may fear that no one will believe them. They may accept the displaced blame and be eager to help their abuser avoid this perceived cause in the future or become confused by the gaslighting and wonder if they are misremembering the incident. On the other hand, abusers may apologize and express shame or guilt. They may promise it will never happen again, and now that they once more feel in control, possibly consider this to be true themselves. Victims often want to believe abusers and hope this contrition and loving behavior marks a decisive change, that the abuse will not recur.
Escalation/Change Over Time
Just as the Cycle of Abuse is unique to each abusive relationship, it is also likely to escalate and change over time. The stages themselves may shorten or lengthen. It is common for the Honeymoon and Denial/Reconciliation stages to decrease and even disappear completely. The Explosion stage often begins to increase in length and intensity. This combination creates less and less time between incidents, leaving only tension building quickly to an explosion. By the time they reach this point, many victims feel too afraid or ashamed to leave their abuser. They may be convinced it is their fault or embarrassed that they let it get so bad. They are trapped in the cycle skillfully laid out by their abuser.
Using Cycle Dynamics/Triggering Abuse
Repeating the Cycle of Abuse gives abusers a highly effective pattern to maintain control over their victims. Both partners come to expect the next phase. Though it may not always be the same, victims can often get a sense of their abuser’s particular pattern and things that are likely to trigger a change to the next stage in their cycle of abuse. Upon recognizing signs of a coming explosion, victims may become extra submissive and helpful in an attempt to hold off the intense incident they know is coming. Sometimes, however, victims will use this knowledge to intentionally provoke the explosion. They may wish to “get it over with” before the tension gets too high, hoping to lessen the impact of the abuse. Or, they may seek to avoid the explosion happening at/around a particularly stressful event, such as a holiday celebration, work gathering, or family vacation, and so “trigger” it beforehand. This gives the victim a small amount of control within the cycle.
Limitations of the Cycle Model
As previously noted, the Cycle of Abuse is not absolute. It does not apply to all abusive relationships. Some survivors feel it describes their relationship well, others partially, and others do not relate to it at all. It promotes an expectation of a circular, recurring pattern, which is not always the case. The stages are not universal, either. Some may never experience the Honeymoon phase, for example. In certain cases, the actual intense abuse may never repeat – a single incident being so devastating that the mere reminder of it is enough for the abuser to control their victim afterward. Certain types of abuse, such as financial and technological, typically do not have an Explosion/Incident stage, but rather are ongoing continuously. Those advocates who don’t use the Cycle of Abuse argue that it is an oversimplified depiction of a complex issue. Some feel the original study upon which it was based had patent shortcomings. Walker based her Cycle of Violence concept on a study of 1500 married women who were abused by their husbands. While this is the most common dynamic of abusive relationships, it is a rather specific demographic. Her subjects did not include same-sex couples, those in dating relationships, those where the abuser was a woman and/or the victim was a man, or elder abuse, for example.
Power and Control Wheel
Some domestic violence advocates promote the Power and Control Wheel as an alternative depiction to the Cycle of Abuse. The Power and Control Wheel was developed in 1984 by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project (DAIP). Through focus groups of survivors, DAIP identified eight of the most common tactics of abusers and arranged them in the wedges of a circle, with “power and control” in the center. The idea was to show how any of these tactics, in any combination, and without a particular order, can be used to enforce the central tenets of domestic violence: power and control. As with the development of the Cycle of Violence, DAIP focused on interviewing female survivors of male abusers (Domestic Shelters). Both DAIP and Walker explained this focus with the fact that the vast majority of abusive relationships fall into that demographic. In the case of the Power and Control Wheel, however, many variations have also been developed to depict more specific populations and circumstances, such as an LGBTQ+ Wheel and an Abuser Later in Life Wheel. These wheels are often thought of as a more detailed and inclusive way to describe the dynamics of domestic violence than the Cycle of Abuse.
So, is the Cycle of Abuse model still a useful tool or is the Power and Control Wheel the better representation? When the limitations are understood and the model is taken as a general concept, the Cycle of Abuse is a simple, easy to understand, easy to teach pattern that captures the essence of abuse. While it does not resonate with all survivors, it does resonate with many. It is a clear representation of the ongoing relentlessness of abuse, how victims can get drawn in by an abuser, and how difficult it is to break the cycle. The Power and Control Wheel is a more detailed, complex model that can be modified to better fit the specifics of any abusive relationship. It illustrates specific abuse tactics that may be used as part of the Cycle of Abuse. It is a different kind of representation that resonates with many survivors but may be too elaborate for some to easily identify with at a glance. Both models can be helpful in their own ways and are often used together. They each show different aspects of domestic violence in general terms: the relentless control and the specific tactics. Both can be used to help victims recognize what is happening to them, what changes they could make to better their situation, and where they may wish to seek assistance. Both tools are useful to help educate Advocates to better understand and support victims.
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