Many people wonder why so many women (and men) choose to stay in abusive relationships. If the victim’s partner is treating them so terribly, why would they choose to stay? The answer behind this is complicated. Most people don’t realize that the abuser’s goal is to control his or her partner. The abuser gains this control with abuse. Although the victim may want to leave the relationship, the abuser is controlling their every move. If the victim does not act the way the abuser wants, the abuser will gain control by abusing him or her until they comply.
The family, friends and even the victim may wonder how and why this happened. No matter how hard the victim and their loved ones try to stop the abusive behavior, no change occurs. It feels as if the victim is helpless, as if they are going in circles. This assumption isn’t far off. The abuse continues because the abuser doesn’t want to give up control. The abuser is putting the victim through the cycle of abuse.
The cycle of abuse is a social cycle theory developed by Lenore Walker in the 1970s. Walker developed this theory in order to explain the behavioral patterns of those in abusive relationships. It also helps illustrate how the abuser keeps the victim feeling physically and emotionally fearful and unbalanced at all times. There are four phases in the cycle of abuse: tension building, incident, reconciliation and calm.
Phase 1 Tension Building: During this phase, tension builds between the abuser and the victim partially due to a breakdown in communication. It is during this phase that the victim starts to fear their abuser and do what they can to keep him or her happy and calm.
Phase 2 Incident: This is the phase where the abuse takes place. Anger and the need to be in control will overcome the abuser. They may become argumentative. He or she will threaten, intimidate or even physically, emotionally, mentally or verbally abuse the victim. Once the abuser is done inflicting pain upon the victim, he or she will blame them.
Phase 3 Reconciliation: During the reconciliation phase, the abuser tries to smooth things over with the victim.The abuser doesn’t feel bad about hurting the victim. He or she is just worried about the consequences of getting caught. Often times the abuser will deny that any wrongdoing (the abuse) occurred. They will try to convince the victim that he or she is over exaggerating and the incident isn’t a big deal. The abuser will also apologize and make excuses for their behavior which often includes blaming the victim.
Phase 4 Calm: During this phase, there is no abuse and everything returns to “normal”. The incident is “forgotten” and the abuser shows no signs of anger or controlling tendencies towards the victim.
Here is an example of the cycle of abuse in action: Sally and Harry’s relationship has seemed to hit another snag. Harry seems angry and withdrawn all the time lately. Sally tries to talk to Harry about his behavior but he dismisses all her thoughts and feelings on the matter. He seems to get angry with her all time, but Sally does what she can to keep him happy. One evening, Sally comes home from work late and Harry is waiting for her. He’s angry at her for not being home on time. He berates her with insults and then smacks her across the face. Later that evening he apologizes to Sally for his behavior. He explains to Sally that he’s been under a lot of stress at work and wants to spend time with her. If Sally told him he wasn’t going to be late, he wouldn’t have gotten angry. Sally forgives Harry and everything goes back to normal. He’s affectionate and kind again and it seems like they have successfully overcome another “hurdle” in their relationship.
The cycle of abuse works so effectively in breaking down the victim that he or she rarely realizes what is happening until it’s too late. It may take weeks, months or even years, but eventually the victim will lose their self-identity and self-esteem. The cycle causes the victim to become isolated and withdrawn. He or she may feel depressed and worthless and choose to numb the pain with drugs and alcohol.
If you or someone you know is being abused, it is important to get help. Tell someone you trust about the abuse. If you feel they cannot help you or you need assistance call 1800-799-SAFE. Help is out there. You just have to be willing to break the cycle of abuse.