- Isabelle Morley, PsyD
The Cycle of Abuse: How People Get Stuck in Abusive Relationships
The cycle of abuse is composed of patterns of behaviors, which explains the seemingly chaotic nature of abusive relationships. If you want to understand more about how people get stuck in abusive relationships, keep reading.
Abuse seems obvious to define but in reality it can be very hard to detect, especially at first. It is slow to build, happens in the same cycle that progressively gets worse over time, and is very hard to escape from.
This post will focus on the progressive nature of abuse and how people can get stuck in domestic violence. There are certainly other kinds of abuse, types that are easier to change and address especially in couples therapy, but those are for another post.
If you are in an abusive relationship and need help- call the National Domestic Violence Hotline for support at 1-800-799-7233 or visit their website.
The Cycle of Abuse
There are 4 stages in the cycle of abuse:
1. Building tension
2. Abuse incident
At first, tension builds in the relationship. This can happen for days or weeks, even months at the beginning. The abusive partner is easily irritated, they get upset over small things, and their partner can't predict what will set them off. Their partner walks on eggshells around them, trying to do everything "right" so that the abusive partner won't get angry.
Eventually, they does something that the abusive partner perceives to be "wrong" and they act out (this is the abuse incident). The abuse can be verbal, psychological, or physical. It usually escalates over time, getting worse and more dangerous each time a couple goes through this cycle.
After this occurs, the abusive partner quickly tries to reconcile. They know they behaved badly (even if they don't admit it) and don't want their partner to leave, so they go overboard with repair attempts. They may engage in "love bombing," where they overwhelm their partner with affection, gifts, and compliments, and expressions about their relationship's amazing future. Don't be fooled, this is all a form of control and coercion to keep their partner from leaving.
When their partner acquiesces, there is a period of calm in the relationship. Their partner often feels a sense of relief, and knowing that their abusive partner is desperate to stay with them after the transgression gives the survivor a moment of power. This doesn't last, however, and soon the tension will begin to build again.
The Insidious Nature of Abuse
Abuse begins with minor transgressions. The abuser might get upset about what their partner is wearing to go meet up with friends, for example, and starts controlling their partner in subtle ways all masked by their "love" for them. The abuser may frame their controlling behaviors as "just wanting to help" or that it's "in the best interest" of their partner. It starts with small unimportant things, but these early incidents are setting up a pattern where the abuser exerts power of their partner.
Slowly, the abuse worsens. Maybe the partner folds laundry "wrong" and the abuser yells at them, calling them "stupid" and "worthless" when they realize their partner didn't do it just the way they like. Then the abuser apologizes, acknowledges that they overreacted and love bombs their partner in order to make them feel better.
It starts with small unimportant things, but these early incidents are setting up a pattern where the abuser exerts power of their partner.
Love bombing is almost like suffocating someone with affection. It can be in the for of physical affection, gifts, or verbal adoration. It consumes the other person and makes them feel loved and cared for, even if the love bombing is actually just a strategy for shutting them up about the abuse.
Things are calm for awhile. The partner is probably feeling a little more empowered in the relationship after the abuser's verbal transgression. Then, again, very slowly, the tension builds up. The partner notices the abusers frustrated sighs or slight comments about what they're doing or how they act, and the partner begins to fall into line again. They're careful to fold the laundry just right so that the abuser doesn't yell at them.
...abusers are easily wounded and angered, so there is no amount of walking on eggshells that will prevent another explosion.
But, eventually, the emotionally fragile abuser finds some reason to be offended. It can be anything, really. Coming home 30 minutes later than you said, sleeping in past 9am, texting with your friend that they don't like - abusers are easily wounded and angered, so there is no amount of walking on eggshells that will prevent another explosion.
Why Leaving is Hard
There are many reasons why it's difficult for people to leave abusive relationships. For one, abusers often socially and emotionally isolate their partners. They tend to cut off their partners other relationships with friends and family, making it so that their partner only has them. And some social supports might be "fed up" with the partner anyway, upset that they haven't already left and done with hearing them talk about how bad things are in the relationship.
Another big reason people stay is because there are kids or pets involved. Abusers are dangerous any living creature in the home, especially physically abusive people, and partners want to protect those creatures. They would rather take the brunt of the screaming or violence than let their child or dog be the victim of it.
...And, we can't discount how hard it is to start over. Yes, starting a new life where you aren't scared every day is great, but it's incredibly hard to leave everything you know.
Abusers can be financially controlling too, which means the partner may not have any monetary resources to leave. It's hard to find an apartment, pay utilities, get your own car, or buy food if you have no access to money. Partners then need to consider living with someone else, if they still have people in their lives, or going to a shelter.
And, we can't discount how hard it is to start over. Yes, starting a new life where you aren't scared every day is great, but it's incredibly hard to leave everything you know. This is especially true if you've lost your friends, given up your job, and have little means to support yourself after the years of the abuser slowly taking away all of your independence.
We Are Quick to Judge Survivors
Many people are quick to judge those who are in abusive relationships, particularly if it is physical abuse. There are lots of opinions and sweeping statements about what the survivor "should" do, or what it means about them that they haven't left the situation.
I can't tell you how many times I've heard:
Why don't they just leave?
I'd never let someone treat me like that.
The second they laid a finger on me, I'd be out.
Don't they have any self-respect?
And these sentiments may all be true, but people incorrectly imagine how abuse happens. In their minds, it would be that their spouse, out of nowhere, punches them in the gut, and obviously they would leave. But this isn't how abuse typically starts.
How to Support Survivors
What survivors needs is support and empathy, and perhaps above all, patience. Many survivors lose friends and family as supports because those people get "tired" of hearing about the abuse when the survivor won't take their advice and "just leave." But survivors need listening ears as they go through the process of realizing the truth of the abuse and getting up the courage to leave. For most people, this doesn't happen overnight, especially since the abuser is so talented at convincing them that they will change and things will get better.
You can't rush a person to leave the relationship, no matter how abusive, because it is a decision that they need to make. When they're ready, that's when you can help. See if they need anything like a ride, help with packing, or someone to go with them to the police. Prioritize their (and your) safety, making sure you take any necessary precautions.
What survivors needs is support and empathy, and perhaps above all, patience.
What To Do If You're the Survivor
If you're in an abusive relationship, now is the time to get help. Start with the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 1-800-799-7233 or visiting their website. They have the best knowledge and resources to help.
Talk to family and friends, whoever you feel you can trust. Get their feedback and see how they can be supports when you decide to leave. Consider if you need police involvement in order to protect yourself or your dependents.
If you can, find an individual therapist who can help support you as you navigate how to keep yourself safe and eventually get yourself out of this situation.
You're not alone, even if it feels like you are. There are people who want to help and there is a better life on the other side of this relationship. And you deserve it.