Therapists and other experts often talk about abuse as something that happens within a clearly defined cycle. But what is that cycle, exactly?
For decades, many experts relied on the cycle set forth in the 1970s by psychologist Lenore Walker in her book “The Battered Woman.” It was based on anecdotal evidence from interviews with heterosexual women who had experienced abuse.
This cycle involves
- building tension
- an incident of abuse
Walker’s cycle does offer useful insight into the signs and stages of abuse, and many advocates and treatment professionals use it today.
Still, critics have noted a few important limitations with this model. And if you’ve experienced abuse, you might find that it doesn’t feel totally accurate.
Read on to learn more about the elements of the cycle, why it might not be as helpful as experts once thought, and other ways of thinking about patterns of abuse.
The cycle of abuse, also sometimes called the cycle of violence, helps illustrate common patterns of abusive behavior in relationships.
It also helps provide clues toward a deeper understanding of why people experiencing abuse often find it difficult to break free.
1. Tensions build
Abusive partners often lash out in response to external stressors. Anything can fuel tension: family issues, trouble at work, physical illness, fatigue.
Sensing the simmering tension, you might try to find ways to placate the abusive partner and prevent abuse from happening.
You may feel anxious, on your guard, and hyperalert to their potential needs. You might alternate between tiptoeing around them, trying not to set them off, and making an extra effort to provide physical and emotional support.
2. Incident of abuse or violence
The abuser eventually releases this tension on others, attempting to regain power by establishing control.
Abuse might involve:
- insults or name-calling
- threats of harm or property destruction
- attempts to control your behavior
- sexual or physical violence
- emotional manipulation
They might accuse you of making them mad or blame you for your “relationship problems.”
Keep in mind that people choose to abuse others. Any tension they experience may help explain the abuse, but it never excuses it.
After the incident of abuse, tension gradually begins to fade. In an attempt to move past the abuse, the abuser often uses kindness, gifts, and loving gestures to usher in a “honeymoon” stage.
To maintain peace and harmony, both parties generally have to come up with some sort of explanation or justification for the abuse.
The abusive partner might:
- apologize while blaming others
- point to outside factors to justify their behavior
- minimize the abuse or deny it happened
- accuse you of provoking them
They might show plenty of remorse, assure you it won’t happen again, and seem more attuned to your needs than usual. You might begin to accept their excuses, even doubt your memory of the abuse. Maybe it really was nothing, like they said.
This reprieve offers relief from the physical and emotional tension and pain.
You might feel certain that whatever upset them and triggered the abuse has passed. You can’t believe they’d do anything like that again.
Rinse and repeat
This cycle then repeats over time.
This “cycle” happens over and over within abusive relationships, though. The length of time between each repetition can vary. It often shortens over time as the abuse escalates.
As time goes on, the calm period may become very short or even disappear from the cycle entirely.
Although abuse often does happen in a cycle or within a larger pattern, it doesn’t happen in the same way all the time, even in the same relationship.
Narratives that suggest otherwise can overlook important signs of abuse and deny the experiences of survivors.
While acknowledging the uses of Walker’s four-part cycle, experts have simultaneously raised concerns around a few key ways it falls short.
It centers on women abused by men
Walker’s research focused on women who had experienced abuse from male partners. She used their stories to develop the cycle, introducing the terms “battered woman” and “battered woman syndrome” as ways of talking about domestic violence and abuse.
Male violence toward female partners does make up a significant component of intimate partner violence. Yet looking at abuse through this heteronormative lens makes it more difficult to recognize the experiences of people who don’t fit this model.
If you don’t believe you can experience abuse due to your gender or the type of relationship you have, you might not notice or even look for the signs.
When reaching out for support, you might encounter doubt, even dismissal, from professionals and loved ones who have a limited understanding of the complex nature of abuse.
It can lead to victim-blaming
The idea that abuse always happens in the same cycle can make it easier for outsiders, abusers, and even survivors themselves to put blame for the abuse where it doesn’t belong:
- “You had to have known it would happen again.”
- “They wouldn’t have gotten so jealous and angry if I hadn’t gone out.”
- “You should have left as soon as they calmed down.”
In all cases, though, the responsibility for abuse lies with the abuser. No matter what you did or didn’t do, abuse is never your fault.
It’s normal to want to have faith in someone you love when they promise to change. Even when you don’t fully believe them, you may worry attempting to leave could provoke more serious abuse.
You might also doubt you have the resources or ability to support yourself, an idea abusers often reinforce. Remaining in the relationship and attempting to keep them calm, then, often becomes a survival strategy in itself.
It’s somewhat out of date
The definition of abuse has changed and expanded over the years to include any tactics used to control or maintain power over others, such as:
- financial control
- threats of sexual violence
- verbal degradation
The four-part cycle acknowledges that abuse can involve verbal or emotional harm, but it still focuses primarily on physical violence. Nonphysical abuse tactics, which may happen through all stages of the cycle, can still cause a great deal of harm.
Consider, for example, the tendency of abusers to brush off or deny abuse. This manipulation is a form of abuse, even if it happens during the reconciliation or calm stages. And this specific behavior can make it harder to leave the relationship.
It suggests abuse can be predicted
Abuse often happens without warning, outside of any set cycle.
Sure, certain warning signs may suggest the possibility of abuse, but no one can predict with certainty whether it will happen, and when.
Abuse often begins slowly and subtly, without physical violence. Many people don’t realize what’s happening even if they have some familiarity with these traditionally accepted stages.
Also consider that anyone can perpetuate or experience abuse. Seeking signs of abuse only in people of a specific gender, community, or background can limit awareness of other abusive situations.
In the 1980s, Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs staff members developed a new approach to looking at abuse: the Power and Control Wheel. This wheel offers a concise diagram of some of the most common behaviors experienced by people in abusive relationships.
Detailed experiences of survivors informed the development of this wheel, just as Walker used accounts from battered women to create her four-part cycle.
But the Power and Control Wheel creators also wanted to emphasize the range of behaviors used by manipulative and abusive partners.
You can view the wheel here and find tips for reading it below:
- Power and control are the center of the wheel, representing the goals of abuse: exerting power and dominance to maintain control in the relationship.
- Within the spokes, you’ll find the various tactics used to achieve these goals and keep the person experiencing the abuse feeling powerless to take action.
- On the outside of the wheel appear physical expressions of abuse: bodily harm or sexual assault. This rim closes the wheel, in a manner of speaking; abusers often use physical aggression to reinforce the pattern of intimidation playing out on a more everyday basis.
This wheel breaks from the cycle of abuse by making it clear that, while acts of violence may not happen regularly, abuse usually happens on an ongoing basis.
By giving specific examples of emotional and verbal tactics, this wheel also makes it easier to identify abuse and get support.
Limitations of the Power and Control Wheel
While the Power and Control Wheel offers a more nuanced picture of the insidious and consistent nature of abuse, it isn’t perfect.
The wheel explores abuse occurring in the same heteronormative context as the four-part cycle. Though it effectively illustrates the power dynamics and imbalances characterizing relationships where men abuse women, it doesn’t address the various dynamics present in other scenarios.
Removing the gendered pronouns from the wheel may help acknowledge that people of any gender, in any type of relationship, can experience abuse.
Yet abuse experienced by men and people in nonheterosexual relationships often relates to factors this wheel doesn’t account for.
A more comprehensive understanding of the factors driving abuse in any type of relationship will go a long way toward helping other survivors open up about abuse and get support.
Since abuse can happen in any number of ways, people may not recognize it immediately, even when they experience it directly.
Not all abusers use the same tactics. They may never even threaten physical violence. Still, several key characteristics nearly always indicate domestic abuse.
Abusive partners often try to maintain power in the following ways:
- making all the decisions
- controlling your words and behavior
- keeping you from going to work, spending time with friends or loved ones, or seeing your healthcare provider
- threatening pets and children
- destroying belongings
- blaming you for their behavior
- taking or controlling your money
- pressuring you to have sex
- going through your phone and computer
It’s best to talk to a therapist or advocate right away if your partner does any of these things, or you:
- feel generally uneasy and unsafe
- find yourself altering your behavior to keep them happy
- believe they might hurt you if you don’t do what they ask
The four-part cycle of abuse offers one method of understanding certain types of relationship abuse. Yet these four stages aren’t set in stone, so using them to make predictions about abuse isn’t always helpful.
Abuse is complicated and often difficult to recognize and escape. This essential reminder can make a big difference, both for advocates learning to identify key signs and survivors working toward recovery.
Not sure whether you’re experiencing abuse? Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233, or visit their website for free, confidential support.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.