The cycle of abuse often goes through four main stages: tension, incident, reconciliation, and calm. Abusive behaviors may escalate from cycle to cycle, although this isn’t always the case.
Even though it doesn’t happen in all cases of abuse, abusive behaviors in relationships may go through cycles, which can make them additionally painful and confusing.
Abuse doesn’t look the same for everyone or in every situation. Even in the same relationship, abusive behaviors can change from time to time and, in some cases, they may appear to cease before they show up again. This is often referred to as the cycle of abuse.
It can be possible to end this cycle of abuse. You’re not alone and support is available.
Definition of abuse
Abuse is any and every action that has the intention to exert control or hurt another being.
Abuse is often about establishing and demonstrating power and control over someone else.
Abuse can be physical, sexual, verbal, financial, or psychological.
The cycle of abuse or cycle of violence is a concept that was first documented in the 1970s by psychologist Lenore E. Walker.
Through extensive observation and interview processes with women who’d experienced abuse and domestic violence, Walker identified a few stages that tend to repeat in an abusive relationship.
The stages of the cycle of abuse are:
- stage 1: tension building
- stage 2: incident of violence
- stage 3: reconciliation
- stage 4: calm
This model of a cycle of abuse has served as a reference for mental health professionals, but it isn’t meant to be comprehensive of all experiences related to abuse.
The stages of abuse don’t necessarily look the same for everyone and they don’t imply abusive behaviors take a “break” every now and then. Instead, this model may help to illustrate how abusive behaviors in relationships can change and repeat over time.
The stages of the cycle of abuse may not always happen in the same order, or some of them may not happen in some cases. Abuse can be — and is for many people — without respite.
It’s also possible that the cycle involves transitioning between different types of abuse. For example, emotional abuse could dominate the building tension, reconciliation, and calm stages, while sexual or physical abuse may increase during the incident stage.
During the tension stage, the abusive partner may begin to display signs of abuse and behaviors that slowly increase in intensity and frequency.
This is may be related to external stressors like financial difficulties, interpersonal challenges at work or other environments, or health challenges.
The increasingly tense behaviors can include:
- emotional outbursts
- shortness of temper
As the outside world starts to feel more out of control, the abusive person may start to turn to the relationship as a way of feeling in control again.
As the tension starts to become evident, the non-abusive partner may also feel increasingly anxious. This may lead them to act in specific ways — such as “walking on eggshells” — to ease and appease the abusive partner’s tension and prevent an abusive incident.
At some point, the tension from the first stage in the cycle of abuse starts to break. This may culminate in one or more abusive incidents.
This stage is the abusive partner’s attempt to overtly regain a sense of power and control.
An abusive incident may look different every time or from relationship to relationship. It could include:
- threats of violence
- breaking of things in the home
- insults, name-calling, and other verbal violence
- physical violence
- sexual violence
- shaming and blaming
- manipulation tactics like the silent treatment or gaslighting
- social isolation
- financial abuse
- emotional abandonment
It’s possible that the incident stage escalates with every cycle. For example, intimidation and insults may be present in the first few cycles, transitioning to physical violence later on in the relationship.
After the incident of abuse, the abusive partner may feel like the tension starts to dissipate. This can be quite the opposite experience for the person who’s on the receiving end of that abuse.
Once that tension has abated, they may feel inclined to make amends for their behavior. They may apologize, shower you with affection, or promise they’ll never do it again.
During this phase, the abusive partner may seem genuinely ashamed of their behavior and committed to reform. Because you care about them, you may feel inclined to believe what they’re saying and give them another chance.
It’s possible that the abusive partner starts doing things that may seem romantic, supportive, and loving during the reconciliation stage.
During the calm phase, your partner may continue to be attentive; however, you might notice a shift from them being apologetic to now excusing their actions.
During the calm stage, abusive behaviors may be minimized. You may notice your partner:
- shifts responsibility for the abuse (“I’m sorry but it’s all because of so-and-so.”)
- justifies their behavior (“If the garbage man didn’t do that, I wouldn’t get so angry.”)
- gaslights you (“It really wasn’t that big of a deal.”)
This stage can feel confusing. Your partner seemed to want to make things right, but there’s now an underlying tone of dismissal you just can’t put your finger on.
After a while, you may start experiencing tension again, as the cycle of abuse starts once more.
Types of abuse
Abuse can be both subtle and evident. Bruises, for example, from a physical abuse altercation are obvious.
Emotional signs may be far more challenging to spot, and may go undetected until years down the road.
These are some of the most common types of abuse:
- Physical: Hitting, kicking, biting, burning, or any other physical source of harm.
- Emotional. Using manipulation tactics like blaming and fear to control and cause distress.
- Sexual. Imposing unwanted sexual activities or experiences.
- Verbal. Insults, criticism, hurtful sarcasm, or other verbal attacks.
- Neglect. Not attending to basic human needs for physical and emotional well-being.
- Technological. Using technology, like computer use monitoring, to control a partner.
- Financial. Using financial control to keep a partner unable to act independently.
- Immigration. Using immigration status to leverage a partner.
- Stalking. Constantly monitoring where someone is and what they are doing.
Stopping abuse isn’t as easy as “just leaving.” It’s natural if you feel afraid for your safety, the safety of your kids, or the welfare of your pets.
It’s also valid if you feel you don’t have the resources to exit the situation. These are all common situations that many abusive partners may take advantage of to keep you around.
In the case of emotional abuse, you may not yet realize you’re in an abusive cycle.
These other tips may help you work on how to end the cycle of abuse:
Confiding in someone
Speaking with a trusted friend or family member can help you see — and verify — patterns of behavior that may indicate abuse. It may also help you find a safe space where to go to when you’re in the tension and incident stages.
Seeking professional guidance
A professional in the mental health field can help you navigate relationship challenges and identify signs of abuse.
They can also support you in cultivating new thoughts and behavioral patterns that can lead to coping skills.
A mental health professional can also provide you with resources and safety plans for exiting an unsafe situation.
Rebuilding your confidence
You have every right to be in a safe and respectful relationship. You may not feel that way right now, or you may think you won’t “find anyone or anything better.” This is what an abusive and controlling partner may want you to believe, so they can exert power over you.
It’s natural if your self-confidence has been affected by your experiences.
- Try to go back to the things that give you joy and confidence.
- Consider connecting with loved ones you haven’t seen in a while.
- Investing in education, even if informal, make help you feel empowered.
- If you’re living with anxiety or depression, getting support may be essential.
- Try to spend some time engaging in relaxation techniques that may protect your mental well-being.
Seeking outside intervention
Not everyone’s abusive situation is the same. You may not feel safe ending the cycle of abuse on your own, and that’s OK. You’re not alone and help is available.
Not all abusive relationships are the same. In some cases, though, abuse may go through a cycle of four stages: tension, incident, reconciliation, and calm.
Abuse may be evident or subtle, but its effects are real. It’s OK if you haven’t found the ways to exit the situation, but ending the cycle of abuse is possible.
Seeking the support of a mental health professional is highly advisable, as well as finding a safe space where you can get the help you may need.